I came across this Washington Post article at the end of March 2020, roughly two weeks into the last-minute distance-learning attempt that schools threw together to finish out the academic year. In it, the author conflates legitimate homeschooling with this slap-dash school-at-home debacle (which I and many others now refer to as crisis-schooling) and paints a grim picture of the effect it will have on this generation’s education from here on out.
Whether the author is anti-homeschool or not is unknown to me, but it would seem he does not understand what actual homeschooling looks like. And this concerns me, because by invoking the homeschool philosophy in connection with crisis-schooling he perpetuates the idea that homeschooling is equally as slap-dash and ineffective.
Some may think I’m splitting hairs by taking issue with this. “He’s just calling it homeschooling because the schooling is being done at home,” they may argue. “It’s not some plot to try to paint all homeschooling in a negative light.” While it is possible that ignorance is the reason in this case, it cannot be forgotten that anti-homeschool voices are an ever-present force actively working to undermine homeschooling. We constantly have to defend ourselves in the face of their exaggerated and illogical arguments – not only because they are untrue and unfair, but because it causes confusion for the general public who don’t know any better and potentially dissuades families from even considering homeschool as an option even though it may be exactly what their child needs. The widespread mischaracterization of homeschooling on social media during this time is an example of this.
I don’t typically devote much time or effort (or blog space) to homeschooling-related current events. However, I felt the need to make an exception this time around. The COVID-19 crisis has the potential of being one of the biggest catalysts for homeschool growth since the modern homeschool movement began. Parents everywhere are getting a taste of the beauty of more time spent with their children, are discovering the ocean of resources available to homeschoolers, are identifying the homeschool communities in their areas and learning that there are a lot more of us out there than they realized. And they’re hearing from those communities what homeschooling – true homeschooling, not this forced public-school-at-home crisis-schooling that they’re struggling to do – is actually like: Parents being the authority for their child’s education, not the school district or government. Fields trips. Learning through life. Co-ops and extracurriculars with fellow homeschoolers. Hardly ever being home.
But in the face of this potential mass exodus from public schools, homeschool nay-sayers are crawling out of the woodwork to decry how the blunders of crisis-schooling – tech issues, lack of access for low-income families, parents with no time to help their children with the work since they’re trying to figure out how to work from home – are going to set this entire generation of students back in a way they may never recover from over the course of their educational journey. And when they do so, they subtly (as with this article) denounce homeschooling at the same time.
The issues listed above are legitimate. These children’s education will likely be significantly impacted because of events of this spring. The major problem with their arguments, however, is that they insist on referring to this educational experiment as homeschooling. It most definitely is not. And it’s extremely important we make this clear. Why? Because homeschooling is attacked on the regular, with control-minded politicians attempting to tighten regulations on homeschooling with new legislation nearly every election.
In fact, at the writing of this article, a summit is scheduled at Harvard in June 2020 to discuss the “controversial practice” of homeschooling. With a title like, “The Homeschool Summit: Problems, Politics, and Prospects for Reform” you can guess what they think of homeschooling and what kinds of “reform” they will discuss. The fact that the panel includes a doctor who was suspended from practicing because she fabricated abuse claims against parents and a law professor who refers to the homeschool community as “the homeschool regime” should be plenty of evidence that this panel is less concerned about whether homeschooling works and more concerned with denouncing homeschooling and tearing down parental rights.
Words have power. Semantics matter. And it’s for this reason that I’ve chosen to analyze this Washington Post article and push back against the subtle (and not-so-subtle) misuse of the term “homeschooling” and the picture painted about homeschooling in general. So let’s dissect the claims the author makes and set the record straight about true homeschooling versus the crisis-schooling disaster.
Let’s start with a definition. What exactly is homeschooling? It is “an extension of parenting that puts hands and feet to the parent’s educational philosophy and provides instruction in a way that is mindful of the child’s needs.” The key here is that the driving force behind the education is the parent’s educational philosophy. The parent is the authority. This is in contrast to the conventional approach in which the school (and in the case of public school, the government) is the educational authority. There are countless ways that homeschooling can be done, but in the end they all come down to this core concept of the parent taking the reins and responsibility for their child’s education, as opposed to giving that control over to someone else.
(Note that the regulations put on homeschooling by a given state or country does not change the definition of homeschooling itself. If the government imposes strict regulation on homeschoolers, that simply means that the way homeschooling is implemented in that region will have to be altered from what it would look like in its truest, freest form. The definition of homeschooling itself is not changed.)
Understanding this, we can see that the article’s title itself sets the disinformation tone for the entire piece: “Homeschooling through the coronavirus will set back a generation of children.” They erroneously refer to this crisis-schooling phenomenon as homeschooling, when it has literally nothing to do with homeschooling. Most parents have no choice in the matter – schools are sending work and expecting parents to make sure it gets done. Yet, by making this statement, the author immediately casts a negative light on all homeschooling in general and positions the reader to see all homeschooling as a threat to this generation’s education. Nothing could be further from the truth, as is evidenced by the ever-growing number of colleges who actively seek out homeschoolers and the studies that show homeschoolers outperform their publicly-school peers once they’re there.
The subtitle continues the problem: “Long breaks are damaging. Virtual learning is erratic. The stakes are high.” Since these broad-brush statements are discussed later in the article, I won’t counter them yet, but notice again how they are setting up assumptions about homeschooling by bundling them with the title and thus tying these problems to homeschooling in the reader’s mind.
A “pedagogical experiment”
Nowhere in the article does the author differentiate between true homeschooling and crisis schooling. So when he calls crisis-schooling a “month-long pedagogical experiment” that is likely to fail, uninformed readers may assume he’s making this statement about homeschooling as well, since the title of the piece groups both approaches under that term. Not only is it not true that homeschooling is an experiment that is likely to fail, but even his statement that what’s happening right now is an experiment is not true. An experiment is planned and organized to try to prove a hypothesis – this situation includes none of that. I don’t think there’s a single teacher or school administrator who would consider this a true experiment in the effectiveness of distance learning. He also ties the likelihood of this “experiment” failing to the “years of research” that apparently show online school is ineffective – though he includes no citations to back up this claim.
There are a whole host of other problems with this statement. First, since the author did not cite the research that concludes online education is substandard, I went searching for it myself and was only able to find studies done on online public school programs and online college programs. These programs cannot be compared to the programs used by homeschoolers. Homeschool programs allow flexibility in pacing, schedule, content, grade level access, etc. whereas the public school programs do not. So even if the online public school programs do not demonstrate success, this finding cannot be automatically applied to or assumed about the programs homeschoolers use.
It also suggests the (oddly common) assumption that homeschooling always happens online. While there are many online programs that homeschoolers can use, they are certainly not the only mode of homeschooling.
However, whether online school is effective or not is actually irrelevant to this entire conversation! Formal online schooling is not what is being used in the vast majority of schools during the COVID crisis. In most cases, teachers are putting together assignments, sometimes accompanied by online lectures they are creating on the fly. This is a far cry from the thoroughly-designed online programs available through a variety of companies and even public school districts. So again, by invoking “homeschool” in the title, the author is marrying these problems (ineffective teaching platform and last-minute-designed programs) to a philosophy (homeschooling) that has nothing to do with what he is criticizing. But, because of this careless connection, those who are not well-versed in what homeschool is will automatically assume that homeschool must also be ineffective and poorly-designed.
“Ad hoc” homeschool
The trouble continues when the author refers to the “ad hoc home-school universe” being “awash in ideas and resources.” This back-handed compliment further drives home not only his distrust of homeschooling but his complete ignorance of it. In the days after the first school district shutdowns but before schools started to provide materials, businesses, organizations, and homeschoolers themselves began to compile collections of resources to help those who suddenly found themselves with kids at home and no idea what to do with them. I assume it is these resources which the author is referencing since yes, many of those compilations were rather hastily made. But to refer to the entire “home-school universe” as being ad hoc is a complete mischaracterization of the extensive library of sophisticated programs, curricula, and materials homeschoolers have access to on a daily basis.
Funnily enough, whether he means to or not, the author then points out one of the many reasons why people start true homeschooling in the first place. He mentions how an online charter school is sharing its resources with the students in a Rhode Island school that was recently taken over by the state due to its poor performance. It’s failing schools like these that cause people to withdraw their children and start homeschooling – and yet he seems to want us to think that homeschooling is a bad idea. How would an education tailored to your child’s needs and delivered in a personalized way be worse than keeping your children in a failing school?
Apples and oranges
In the fourth paragraph the author finally cites some of the research regarding the shortcomings of distance learning. But again, this rabbit trail is pointless since there is virtually no comparison between fully-formed online schools and the current educational practices taking place across the country during the COVID-crisis. What’s more, people who use virtual charter schools and online public schools such as k12.com are not homeschoolers, because the parent does not have authority in that educational system. (In fact, the websites for many of these programs explicitly state that they are not homeschool programs.) So again, by including “homeschooling” in the title and never differentiating between crisis schooling and homeschooling, the author sets up readers to assume that a) homeschoolers use these programs and b) are therefore subjecting their children to a substandard education.
Now, it’s true that many homeschoolers do use online programs, but because they are programs for homeschoolers and not public school delivered online, they allow the parent to maintain authority over important facets like grading, testing, assignment requirements, and pacing. By not noting this distinction, the author fails to highlight an important difference between the kinds of online schools that have received poor marks from researchers (which, again, are public school driven – more evidence for why homeschoolers choose homeschooling over public-school programs) and the online curriculum that true homeschoolers use. By not doing so, he tacitly implies that homeschoolers are jeopardizing their children’s education by using programs that are subpar.
Then the author states that “it seems unlikely that parents and teachers Googling resources” will do a better job than these programs into which millions of dollars have been invested (and yet still allegedly do not yield decent results). But this is another jump in logic because no one has ever made the claim that they could or would! Nobody is under any assumptions about this crisis-schooling approach being anything other than a treading-water attempt to keep children’s educations from completely shutting down during the quarantine. Perhaps this is an allusion to (and snipe against) all the smug “How do you like me now?”-type memes homeschoolers began circulating when schools started shutting down and public school parents found themselves suddenly thrust into the world of schooling at home – but that just means he is completely clueless about the kinds of curriculum the majority of homeschoolers use, which we’ve already established.
Do you see how subtly misleading articles like this can be? All it takes is to cast out one term without a definition and suddenly millions are guilty by association. Yet another reason why it is so important to teach our children to think critically and communicate clearly!
Unfortunately it doesn’t end there.
The “Summer Slide”
The irony of the author’s next point is so blatant that it’s hard to believe he didn’t see it. He begins discussing the phenomenon known as “the summer slide” – the 20-50% loss of math and reading skills which occurs in publicly schooled children during long breaks from school. How does he not realize he is condemning the public school approach by underscoring the fact that most students don’t actually retain what they learn? How can he think anyone would consider a system that flawed to be more effective than homeschooling?
On the flip side, new homeschoolers are encouraged to take a long break from formal schooling when they first make the transition to homeschooling in order to deschool (detox) from the conventional education mindset. Across the board, veteran homeschoolers who started with a deschooling period will testify that students will make up for “lost time” over the course of the remaining years, because by working one-on-one with their child parents are able to maximize lessons to cover more ground each time.
The majority of homeschoolers also employ some kind of year-round schooling situation for skill-based subjects like math and reading in order to keep those skills fresh. While conventional educators are panicking about the potentially massive loss of skills between now and next fall, homeschoolers know that this loss has just as much to do with how schools in general are teaching and structure their year as it does with how children learn.
The learning challenges don’t end there for the crisis-schoolers, however. He then brings up the very real and concerning problem that many children in lower socio-economic areas likely don’t even have access to computers, printers, or internet in order to take advantage of the materials being sent from schools. But all he had to do was spend a little time on Facebook to see how parents across socio-economic levels are agonizing over crisis-schooling to realize that nobody is getting much done because everyone’s stress level is so high. And when you’re stressed, anxious, or scared, you can’t learn.
Kids and parents everywhere are dealing with these heightened emotions. Parents are trying to figure out how to do their jobs from home – or having to continue going to work despite the risk. Kids aren’t in their normal environment or schedule and are hearing scary things about the virus. All this has thrown off their emotional balance. So despite all the hard work teachers are putting into providing activities and lessons and all the research parents are doing to try to find activities to keep their children learning, in the end the majority of this activity is going to result in nothing more than boxes checked so adults can say, “Well, at least we tried.” The number of children who will have actually continued to advance their skills will most likely be the exception, not the rule.
Homeschoolers, on the other hand, have no problem taking a break from their curriculum in order to accommodate everyone’s fragile mental health. They know that curriculum is a tool, not the boss, and that children can often learn more effectively without it during times of stress. They’d also have no problem solving the “super summer slide” that will have happened for public school students during the COVID-19 shutdown. They’d tell public schools to simply set aside their usual first quarter lesson plans, focus exclusively on math and reading to get students up to speed, and then restructure the material from the other subjects so it could be covered over the remaining three quarters. What would be so detrimental about not covering one quarter worth of science and history over the entire course of a child’s education?
But the likelihood of the behemoth that is public school bureaucracy being willing and able to make that pivot are slim to none. Score another point for the flexibility and nimble responsiveness of a true homeschool education. If only the author had chosen to highlight these incredible homeschooling benefits instead of lumping homeschooling in with the crisis-schooling disaster. What a breath of fresh air that could have been for so many families!
Pointless data and simple solutions
To wrap up the article, the author points out that we have no data or past experiences to draw from in order to predict how this kind of break in education will affect this generation. But he then brings in data from completely unrelated studies on the effects of good and bad teachers to try to paint this break as a potentially life-altering experience. And while I would 100% agree that this will be a life-altering experience for children, I do not agree that it will be life-altering because of how it affects their education (except, of course, in the cases where parents decide to withdraw their children and homeschool).
Having a good or bad teacher is not the same as being home with your parents for three extra months. These kids aren’t viewing their parents as their teachers; the relationship is not at all the same. But, in the case of true homeschooling, children can have the benefit of an instructor who knows them inside and out, can tailor their instruction, and can leverage their interests to deepen and increase their knowledge and learning potential. If research suggests that having just one great teacher over the course of your educational “career” has the potential to influence your life far beyond your school years, then how much more substantial is the effect of a child learning at the feet of a devoted homeschool parent for years on end?
To homeschoolers, the solution is simple. Schools should assume that everyone is returning in the fall at the same level at which they left in the spring when schools closed. Everyone is in the same boat. This is not the fault of “homeschooling.” This is the fault of there simply not being a good way to transmit a quality education at the last minute during a crisis situation in which no one has their heads in a good place to learn anyway. Sometimes there isn’t anything you can do about the obstacles that are blocking learning. Sometimes the obstacles themselves need to be the lesson! The best approach is to just ride out the situation until it fizzles and pick up where you left off. This is most definitely not the end of the world. And the fact that the author seems to think it is shows just how disconnected public school has become from the educational goal of teaching our children to function in the real world.
The bottom line is that crisis schooling is not homeschooling. The author made a poor choice when he connected the educational disaster currently taking place and the educational approach which has proven time and again to be a highly-successful method. The article belies the mainstream media’s lack of respect for homeschoolers as well as their unwillingness to do the necessary research to ensure they’re being fair in their reporting. One can only hope that as the homeschooling population explodes, as it is likely to do in response to this crisis, the media will finally be unable to get away with their imbalanced reporting because our voice of correction and rebuke will be impossible to ignore.
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