An interesting article popped up in the Washington Post this weekend – Josh Powell, one of 12 children all homeschooled by their deeply religious parents, realized he was sorely behind in academics and fought at the local and state level to get a bare minimum education in public schools, but was denied because of his home state (Virginia)’s religious exemption to education laws.
When I worked in the states I was an arts educator and administrator for seven years. I taught at some of the wealthiest schools in the nation, and some of the poorest. I taught in Homeschooling co-ops, as well as residential treatment centers. I have worked with kids in the most basic of ‘one room’ school houses, and helped open the arts program in one of the largest classical magnet schools in the east coast of the US. So I can speak with a little authority here on some of the issues I have with homeschooling.
It’s important to note that there are many different types of homeschoolers – some are parents with gifted children who are frustrated with a lack of forward momentum concerning their children’s progress. Some are parents of special needs children who homeschool for a few years to help them ‘catch up’ and successfully integrate into mainstream education down the road. Some dislike the school district they live in, and create co-ops, hiring in teachers like me to teach specialized subjects. And yes, some are religious fundamentalists like the Powells who eschew modern knowledge for Bible-based learning. For my part, I worked with genuinely earnest parents who wanted their children to have the absolute best in education, and were willing to pay top dollar for the opportunity. But I am sad to say I saw plenty of children who did believe that the Earth was created in 6 days (for your own sanity, don’t ever Google how they teach the formation of the Grand Canyon- you will weep for humanity), and who follow exceedingly traditional roles (girls are taught basic sewing and child minding over rhetoric – boys are taught carpentry over geography). These kids are being locked into positions in life without so much as an understanding of what it will mean for them down the line, and that is criminal.
What’s interesting about the Josh Powell case is how little say a child has in the educational system. Here we have a 16 year old who is fighting to learn, and being told at every bend that his needs don’t matter. He saw the obvious deficiencies in his parents’ teaching, and was powerless to do anything. In the era of ‘No Child Left Behind’, he was continually set up to be left behind under separation of church and state. I am so happy that he was able to fight his way out, but what about not only the siblings he left behind, but the scores of others currently trapped in a homeschooling system where the checks and balances are paltry? I’m not asking that 10 year olds be able to quote Sartre, but for the love of reason, they should be held to consistent and measurable standards.
Modern schools aren’t perfect, far from it. Public, private, magnet, free, they all have their issues. But when Johnny fails a class, it’s recorded. When Susie doesn’t show up for days on end, authorities are alerted. When Max can’t count to 100 and he’s 11, someone is concerned. And when Josh Powell was 16 and didn’t know South Africa was a country, someone should have stood up for him. The US is continually outpaced in math, reading, and overall education, and at some point it should have occurred to someone that this kid’s right (as well as many others) to a proper education was being violated. When people scream that the traditional educational construct has failed, should they not also being looking at homeschooling with the same critical eye?
There is no easy answer, however. Not only do individual states determine standards of education, but also require different reasons for opting out of traditional school systems. Right now all we can hope for is when a child approaches the board of education and asks to be educated, they will find the courage to put the child’s need for learning above his or her’s family fear of the same.