Response to Harvard Magazine’s Risks of Homeschooling

I thought it was useful to share a response to Harvard Magazine’s Risks of Homeschooling article.

Response to Harvard Magazine's Risks of Homeschooling. 7SistersHomeschool explains the flaws in the article and how to address the situation.

Response to Harvard Magazine’s Risks of Homeschooling

I suspect someone slipped the article “Risks of Homeschooling” by Erin O’Donnell into the May/June 2020 online edition of Harvard Magazine without the editors noticing. Why else would an institution that holds rigorous standards for research and information allow such blatant yellow journalism?

One of our 7th Sisters suggested that perhaps they needed some click-bait to get their numbers up. Well, it worked. When I read the article, it appeared that the comments were already turned off. (Too many? Too many people speaking up for homeschooling?)

What does the article, “Risks of Homeschooling” say?

The May/June 2020 online edition of Harvard Magazine includes and article by Erin O’Donnell based on the work of Elizabeth Bartholet, Wasserstein Public Interest Professor of Law at Harvard and Faculty Director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Program. Bartholet sees homeschooling as a problem. She:

“…sees risk for children- and society- in homeschooling, and recommends a presumptive ban on the practice.”

Why is homeschooling a risk to children and society, according to Bartholet?

“Homeschooling, she says, not only violates children’s rights to a ‘meaningful education’ and their right to be protected from potential child abuse, but may be keeping them from contributing positively to a democratic society.”

Bartholet’s first complaint about homeschooling is that it has few regulations in each state:

“…if you look at the legal regime regulating homeschooling, there are very few requirements that parents do anything.”

She complains that “only about a dozen states have rules about the levels of education needed by parents”.  She complains that, “This means, effectively, that people can homeschool who’ve never gone to school themselves, who don’t read or write themselves.”

Bartholet also worries about child abuse. She suggests that teachers are mandated reporters who “constitute the largest percentage of people who report to Child Protective Services”. She follows this comment with the story of Tara Westover in the book Educated (the story of a young woman who escapes an isolationist, abusive, “homeschooling” family- where little education took place), implying that homeschooling families are all potential Westovers.

While Bartholet admits that people homeschool for a variety of reasons, she says that “up to 90% … are driven by conservative Christian beliefs, and seek to remove their children from mainstream culture.” Furthermore some parents are “‘extreme religious ideologues’ who question science and promote female subservience and white supremacy”.

That’s a lot of inflammatory language and ideas, and I would like to share a gracious but thoughtful response.

What was wrong with the Risks of Homeschooling article?

Allow me to approach this in several different ways:

  • Homeschoolers at Harvard
  • Poor scholarship of the article
  • Problem of intolerance

Homeschoolers at Harvard

We might wonder how this article made Harvard’s own students feel. At the very least, it is sending mixed messages by accepting and promoting homeschoolers on the one hand, while presenting homeschooling as ineffective and dangerous on the other.

We are all homeschoolers now

We might also wonder how this article make American families in general feel. What does it say to every parent who is now being required by the state to homeschool their children because of the pandemic. Wouldn’t it have been more productive to help American parents by pointing them to the many resources homeschoolers have developed over the decades for effective education at home?

The poor scholarship of the article

The article, “Risks of Homeschooling” is based on a paper by Bartholet published in Arizona Law Review (copyright 2019). The article and the paper published in the Law Review both show poor scholarship.

I would have thought that Harvard publications would present information that was based on good research practices. It has been a long time since I was in grad school but I remember several important research principles.

(BTW-For those of you who are not used to reading Law Review articles, it would be a good academic exercise to read through this with your homeschool high schoolers. Then, after you discuss it, read Forbes’ article in response to “Risks of Homeschooling” which accurately points out the lack of scholarship: Harvard’s Lazy Attack on Homeschooling.)

One research principle is to never generalize information based on an outlier (such as the Westover family) to an entire population.

  • It is fair, in my opinion, to say that any educational format (homeschooling or traditional schooling) can have outliers who have bad intent.
    • The Westover family was certainly one shameful example. However, it is not the norm.
    • I cannot find any research that shows that there is a danger to the children of America by homeschooling. (And in 18 years as a homeschool advisor and 25 years as a mental health professional, I can say that caring, safe families are the norm in the populations I work with.)
  • If Bartholet were to apply the logic of one outlier defining the population, we would need to also look at the outliers in the public education system.

Another good research principle is to be accurate about your demographics. Bartholet did poor work on demographics. For instance:

  • She implies without explaining where she got her information, that homeschoolers are almost totally Christian. There is good research that says otherwise.
  • She implies that homeschooling parents are racist, white nationalist ideologues who were seeking to indoctrinate their children in their ideologies. Let’s address this:
    • The US governments own National Center for Educational Statistics found in 2016 that the number 1 reason Americans were homeschooling was to provide a safe environment for their children. Here is their data:
      • Concern about school environment such as safety, drugs or negative peer pressure 33.8%
      • Dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools 17%
      • Desire to provide religious instruction 15.9%
      • Child has special needs other than physical or mental health 5.8%
      • Desire to provide a non-traditional approach to child’s education 5.6%
      • Child has a physical or mental health problem 5.5%
      • Desire to provide moral instruction 4.7%
    • This does not look like the kinds of parents who are racist, white nationalist ideologues.
  • Demographic diversity is measured in research presented at National Home Education Research Institute which found that 32% of homeschoolers in the United States were non-white: black, Hispanic, Asian and other.

Another good research principle is to do a literature review.

A literature review discusses the current research that is available on the topic. In this case, the topic is homeschooling.

  • The article “The Risks of Homeschooling” cites no research. There is no true literature review in the Arizona Law Review paper, either, there are some sources cited, but some appear to me to be name dropped rather than being actually used in the paper, or they appear to be used out of context.
    • For instance in her paper, Bartholet seems to support her negative views on homeschooling by citing in her footnotes Milton Gaither’s book, Homeschool: An American History. However, this book appears to be balanced and even friendly to homeschooling. Check out Gaither’s description of the book.
  • The article included no information from the US Department of Education or National Center for Educational Statistics.
  • A number of studies (some can be found at the National Home Education Research Institute) have shown that the level of state regulation of homeschooling is not related to home education success.
    • And yes, this is an organization that specializes in research on homeschooling. Just like any juried, professional journal specializes in a topic. (Like the Arizona Law Review specializes in topics about the law.)

Another good research principle is to use research to draw conclusions

Bartholet was greatly concerned that poorly or even, uneducated, parents could be training their children.

  • Research has also long found that levels of homeschooling parents’ education is not related to homeschooling success.
  • For homeschooling success, levels of parent education is not the key. Rather success in homeschooling is related to the parents’ interest and involvement (and homeschool parents tend to be interested and involved).
    • I think one would find this is also true for students in traditional schools: that student success is often related to parents’ interest and involvement.

In addition to the article’s failure to follow good research practices, I would not be surprised if it were based on a lack of personal experience with homeschoolers.  For 18 years I advised hundreds of homeschool high schoolers who went on to college (including Harvard), into military service (including the academies), into trades and religious vocation, etc. They vote and work for positive social change. They serve and interact in their communities in healthy and caring ways.

The problem of intolerance

Bartholet feels that homeschooling should be banned, in part because:

“…it’s also important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.”

  • So, I just want to quote my old teacher from back in public school: When you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you.
  • I sent out a survey of sorts to homeschool graduates to ask them about whether they have been able to hold community values, social values, democratic values and ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints. This is certainly not a research study, but it gives some initial qualitative information:
    • Community values
      • The homeschoolers who responded are invested in their communities in things like:
        • Church
        • Civic and business organizations
        • Charitable organizations
        • Volunteer organization for animals, environmental issues, immigrant services, social justice issues
    • Social values
      • Homeschool graduates who responded tend to be engaged in:
        • Friendships
        • Longterm relationships, marriages, and/or family
        • Feel strongly about being people who do good to those around them
    • Democratic values
      • While the homeschool graduates who responded tend to be close to evenly distributed politically between Republican and Democratic parties, some also report to be registered to vote as Libertarian or Independent
      • They report that they vote.
        • Some even report being active in political campaigning.
    • Ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints
      • This cannot be answered accurately on an informal survey. From my personal experience, I know homeschoolers from a variety of political persuasions who have strong opinions (as I have mine) but have never seen them be discriminatory or intolerant.
    • For more on homeschool outcomes, check out our sweet montage of interviews with homeschool graduates on the Homeschool Highschool Podcast and NHERI’s research.

Several of random thoughts

What should we do about “The Risks of Homeschooling”?

There are several things we should do about Harvard Magazine’s article:

  1. No need to worry.
    1. We have been fighting this battle since the resurgence of homeschooling in the 1970s.
    2. Just for fun, go to HSLDA.org and read the story of 1996’s Congressional HR6. I was homeschooling at the time. It was a hoot!
  2. Speak the truth in love.
    1. Never stoop to an intolerant, discriminatory person’s behavior.
  3. Join HSLDA. Really.
    1. Thomas Jefferson said “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” That’s what HSLDA is about.
  4. Teach your homeschool high schoolers to think.
    1. I’m not going to do any shameless promotions here, except to say that 7Sisters has some excellent philosophy curriculum. That is a good way to get them started.

If you know anyone who is, like Bartholet, torqued about homeschooling, invite them to visit the many homeschool websites full of helpful information. 7SistersHomeschool.com is one. Have them start with our Authoritative Guide article series:

There are hundreds of homeschool organizations with lots of information on homeschooling successfully and happily. Here are just a few favorite posts from a few of our friends:

Response to Harvard Magazine’s Risks of Homeschooling

 

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Vicki Tillman

Blogger, curriculum developer at 7SistersHomeschool.com, counselor, life and career coach, SYMBIS guide, speaker, prayer person. 20+year veteran homeschool mom.

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