How Michael Farris Cons Christian Families into Homeschooling

How Michael Farris Cons Christian Families into Homeschooling September 8, 2016

Have you seen this piece by Michael Farris? Let me touch on a few points and then get down to what I see as the meat of his piece—the repeating of a lie my parents bought, and a lie so many other parents are currently buying. The lie that, by homeschooling, you can determine your children’s outcome, beliefs, and values.

But first, Farris’ view of public schools:

The conflict over transgendered bathrooms is a symptom of a far greater conflict over values. At its core, the public schools are controlled by a worldview that rejects the idea that God created men and women as distinct and fixed genders. And, of course, the idea that God created anything at all is a values proposition that is systematically undermined by public schools’ controlling philosophy.

This sort of universalism makes no sense given the extent to which schools often reflect the makeup of their local school board or administration. There are plenty of public schools that are currently making life extremely difficult for transgender students, and many more that really don’t care and are just doing the bare minimum so as to avoid a lawsuit. Listening to Farris, you’d think public schools are all pink leftwing indoctrination centers. They’re not. In fact, there are some secular parents who homeschool because their local public schools are so Christian.

Let’s not get off track, though. For the moment, let’s just keep in mind Farris’ clear belief that public schools are inappropriate places to send Christian children. Note that he goes so far as to suggest that public schooling will actively undermine the values Christian parents seek to teach their children:

We shouldn’t wonder why so many professing Christian young people have radically different views about homosexuality than their parents. This shift in values from one generation to the next, on this and many other issues, is largely due to the fact that young people as a whole are reflecting the views of their teachers—with a generous boost from media and entertainment.

Leaving aside the fact that ensuring that your children grow up believing that homosexuality is a perversion is a terrible goal, I don’t think Farris quite has it right here. Students don’t typically know their teachers’ positions on homosexuality. It’s not like it usually comes up in class. I think what’s more likely at play here is that children who attend public school are exposed to a wider range of people, and often end up with friends who are gay or lesbian (or bisexual), or simply friends who are allies.

It’s true that homeschooling allows parents to limit their children’s contact to only approved individuals. However, this contact cannot be so limited forever, and even homeschooled children eventually leave home. In fact, the HARO survey of homeschool alumni from Christian homes found that respondents views on LGBT identities changed dramatically from childhood to adulthood—while only 5.5% had positive views of LGBT individuals as children, 42.5% had positive views toward these individuals as adults. Interesting how that works.

Again, the takeaway here is that Farris has extremely an negative view of public schools.  It’s not just that he believes they aren’t ideal—that children should be receiving a religious education—but in fact that he believes public schools are actively antagonistic toward Christian beliefs, taking in Christian children and churning out children who reject their parents’ values.

And now let’s get down to the meat of our piece.

While the number of children in our family is a bit unusual [they have ten kids], the results we attained from homeschooling are really fairly typical. It can be summarized as the “great kid, average parent” syndrome. Many parents considering homeschooling look at children who are being home educated and say, “Boy, those are great kids. I would like my kids to turn out like that.” And then they look at their parents and say, “Well, they are just average parents. If they can be successful, I think we can do it too.”

We don’t have the studies we would need to be able to say for certain what “result” is “typical.” Homeschooling is actually very understudied. In fact, the only study we have that looks at a random sample of homeschoolers suggests that homeschooled students from religious homes are less academically prepared for college, attain less higher education, and are more likely to struggle with feelings of helplessness and lack of clarity about their life goals than traditionally schooled students from religious homes. Farris does not mention this.

Also? Children who are home educated learn quickly that they’re going to be watched closely by relatives and others and learn to put on a good show. I can say this because I was one. I successfully made everyone I encountered believe I was extremely well educated, and while (as I have written) I was receiving a decent education overall, I was not nearly as well prepared for college (especially in areas like math or writing) as I (and others) thought. Looking back, I can see places where there were holes in my education. In other words, the hype is not all there is.

But let’s go on:

But these are the career and academic reports. We have been talking about values. All ten of our children are walking with God. They don’t agree with us on every specific issue, but that’s okay because they believe that God’s Truth is the truth and they embrace that with enthusiasm. One specific fact demonstrates something very important about shared values and the child’s perspective on homeschooling. Every single one of our nineteen grandchildren is being or was homeschooled; the babies will be homeschooled, our kids tell us.

No one is living in our basement. No one is borrowing money from us. Our grandchildren are being homeschooled. Everyone is walking with God.

I think you too will find homeschooling to be a great way to raise good kids who turn into good adults who share your values.

Oh. Boy.

Farris makes it sound like he never helped any of his children out. That is not true. A number of his children, including both sons and sons-in-law, have worked for Farris at HSLDA. In fact, he made his son Michael, Jr., HSLDA’s Director of Media Relations right out of college. That’s the kind of job you would have expected to go to someone with a bit more experience, as was typical of HSLDA’s previous media directors.

Notice what Farris is promising here. I’ve said this over and over and over again—Farris and other big names in the Christian homeschooling world tell parents that if they homeschool, their children will grow up to share their values. This is highly deceptive and simply not true. You cannot determine your children’s outcome. Life doesn’t work like that, and promising parents that it does is dangerous to the extreme.

My own parents had several more children than Farris did, and though not all are grown yet, their track record of keeping their children on the straight and narrow, so far, is not good. My parents spent years trying to get my cousins’ parents to homeschool. They didn’t. They each sent their children to public school, while attending evangelical churches similar to the one in which I grew up. And you know what? Their collective children are all still in the fold! Some have gone to Christian colleges and others are planning mission work, but all share their parents’ values.

This admittedly anecdotal evidence—which I might note relies on three times as much data as Farris’—suggests that if you want to get your children to share your values as adults, you should send them to public school so that they can receive data and information contrary to your worldview slowly over time, while they are still in your home and accessible for conversations about these issues, rather than all at once upon reaching adulthood.

Check out this study of homeschool values transmission:

Hoelzle reveals at the outset that he himself is an evangelical Christian who is hoping to use homeschooling as a way to transmit his values to his own children. . . . He mentions Brian Ray’s oft-cited but methodologically weak 2004 survey of young adults who had been homeschooled, finding its generalizations too generic. He wants to know in a deeper, richer way just what homeschooled children think about the religious convictions of their parents once they leave.

What did Hoelzle find?

Hoelzle puts it like this, “If you are running into home education and hoping that it will offer some sort of foolproof shield against the negative influences of the world, you might find yourself disappointed.” (p. 258) Based on his data he speculates that the more authoritarian the parenting style, the more likely a homeschooled child may be to go, in the words of one of his subjects, “a little more wild.” (p. 258)

Hmmm. It’s almost like you can’t determine your children’s outcome. It’s almost like the tighter you try to hold onto them, the more likely they are to leave in search of air to breathe. I don’t know why all of Farris’ children are (or at least appear to be) still in the fold. In my experience with homeschooling families, that is very rare. After all, we’re not robots who can be programmed. We’re people. Just about every homeschool family I know has a rebel, and many have more than one. Sometimes nearly every child in the family leaves. Farris’ claims here do not align at all with my experience.

Let me take a moment to explain why Farris’ promises are so dangerous. Put yourself in the shoes of an evangelical parent. Because you want to ensure that your child shares your values, you opt to homeschool. But you find that it’s not working for you. Homeschooling is ruining your relationships with your children, and your children aren’t learning like they should be. Worse, you’ve found that you hate teaching. What do you do? If you believe Farris, you keep going, because you have to homeschool if you want your children to grow up to share your values.

Telling parents that homeschooling will produce children who share their values (while other methods of education won’t) creates a situation where parents who know homeschooling isn’t working for their family may refuse to change gears and send their children to school. The result is that parents who believe Farris aren’t focused on doing what is best for their children’s education (which will, of course, vary). Instead, they’re doing what they (mistakenly) believe is best for their children’s spiritual wellbeing. And in the process, their children’s education may suffer.

Lest you think this is hyperbole, I want to point out several things. First, test scores suggest that children who are homeschooled may on average underscore their peers in key areas like math, and perhaps across the board (it’s hard to know because the data doesn’t always come with information on student demographics). Second, there is reason to believe that homeschool graduates may be substantially less likely to attend college than their traditionally schooled peers. (For more on all of this, see the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.) Homeschooling doesn’t work for every family, and is not a guarantee of success.

And now, let me give you one more statistic:

There is a large quit rate in homeschooling after the 1st year; only 63% of homeschooled students continue to the 2nd year. After that, annual survival rates are much higher, with point estimates ranging from 73% to 94% for Years 2 to 6. Religious homeschoolers quit at lower rates than secular homeschoolers. By the end of 6 years, 15% of secular homeschoolers are still homeschooling. Even among religious homeschoolers, attrition decreases their numbers significantly, so that only 48% are still homeschooling after 6 years (Isenberg, 2006).

After six years, only 15% of secular homeschoolers are still homeschooling while 48% of religious homeschoolers are still homeschooling. Why are religious parents so much more likely to continue homeschooling than secular parents? Partly it could be that religious homeschool communities are more robust. It’s possible, too, that homeschooling works better for religious families than for secular families, though I don’t see why that would be the case. Finally, it seems highly likely that at least some parents who would otherwise give up homeschooling instead continue, likely because of things like the promises made by religious leaders such as Farris.

There’s another point to be made too—a personal one. My mother’s belief that I should share her values and I should be homeschooling my children, as Farris promises here, has gotten in the way of our having a positive mother-daughter relationship. I have taken something from her that she by rights should have had. She spent years homeschooling me. As compensation, she’s supposed to have an ideological clone. She was promised an ideological clone. In turning out to be anything but, I have robbed her of her just reward. I cheated her.

Farris’ promises are not without their consequences.

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