homeschooling, both religious and secular, and the need for accountability

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In most settings I interact with people there is a presumption that a person will keep quiet about his or her religion, and not assume to know what religion the other person is. In homeschooling settings the rules are often different. Homeschoolers are often quite vocal about their religious beliefs.

Of course there are many secular homeschoolers. Some of the secular homeschoolers are atheist, some are religious, but choose to homeschool in a relatively secular manner. There are regular news articles about “the new homeschoolers” and how “homeschooling isn’t just for religious people.” Yet still the abundance of secular homeschoolers don’t quiet the religious talk. After all, many religious homeschoolers are homeschooling because they want to be incredibly open about their religious beliefs. Why should they quiet it down in support of others? This is true particularly for those that feel that sharing their religious beliefs is sharing the best part of themselves with others.

Yet the abundance of religious material in homeschool circles can also make some people uncomfortable. To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable. Trying to stay active in the “homeschool blogging community” I wade through the religious posts all the time. Sometimes I can appreciate the underlying ideas, the curriculum reviews and craft ideas while ignoring the religious tones. Other times I just click elsewhere, hurriedly, while shaking my head in disbelief. I see blog posts about teaching kids about mythology without wanting to introduce much mythology because talk of “other gods” might confuse the kids. Or there is a book – supposedly about the history, culture, etc of Asia – being marked to homeschoolers with tweets about how it will teach children how to pray for those in Asia, as though that were the primary goal of learning about another continent.

Staying silent when uncomfortable might be respectful of religious beliefs, and in most cases that’s what I do. But then there’s those times when I think: “wait a second, sometimes the religious beliefs are dangerous and sometimes not speaking up feels wrong.” Sometimes it also feels lonely, and isolating, since secular homeschoolers tend not to speak up tons about being secular.

There’s a Facebook group for buying and selling used curriculum. Someone posted a link to an article about the Romeike family, from one of those incredibly biased media places that wanted to imply that Obama is out personally to spite homeschooling Christians. Someone else tried to point out that political and religious debates were against the group rules, and the person posting argued that they weren’t posting a “debate.” And they weren’t. But if anyone attempted to say, “wait a second, the article you linked to misrepresents the facts” then it would have entered the realm of debate. Interpreted according to the original poster’s (unspoken) interpretations the rules are that no one can question what is posted, but posts can be as religious/political as they want. Debate is to question other people’s posts. As it was, the moderator deleted the post, then the original poster complained that the group was anti-Christian and the person who had pointed out the post was against group decisions ended up leaving the group upset. Is something debate when you post something controversial, or just when someone voices their disagreement? I wonder what would have happened if someone posted the counter argument about the Romeiki family (such as that they don’t really count as refugees) as a separate thread. Would it still be considered debate then? (Besides of which, I cannot fathom how someone can view a Facebook page where the majority of the curriculum exchanged is religiously based as being anti-Christian.) But my point is, that in certain circles stating anything Christian is considered normal and stating anything that might be critical of Christianity is considered debate or hostile.

There are homeschoolers who don’t like the stereotype that all homeschoolers are religious, and I know that not all homeschoolers are religious. Yet so much of the homeschool infrastructure – curriculums, online discussion groups, conferences, even legal insurance – is religiously-based. It doesn’t make sense to talk as if homeschoolers are all a diverse group and there just happens to be lots of conservative Christians. Instead we should acknowledge that there are at least two large groups of homeschoolers: religious fundamentalists and what for lack of a better world I will call secular homeschoolers but includes many religious non-fundamentalists.

Homeschoolers – both religious and secular – tend to be against regulation of homeschooling though often the arguments they use are different. Both might argue about distrust of the government, but secular homeschoolers are more likely to also point out the inadequacy of standardize testing given that many homeschoolers are homeschooling because their children are exceptional in some ways: gifted, and/or with learning disabilities. Some will also talk about wanting to follow their children’s interests rather than worry about what science topics will be on the exam. From religious homeschoolers, the argument is most likely a parents rights-type argument.

While I don’t totally discount the parent’s rights argument, I’m a little bit hesitant about it too. Taken too far the belief in parents rights justifies incredible belief, and there is reason to believe that much of the fundamentalist religious homeschooling infostructure is taking this belief too far. The HSLDA wants to end child protection services altogether and promotes books like To Train Up A Child, which encourage hitting your child with a plumber’s tube until the child submits.

Rachel Coleman, one of the founders of homeschooling’s invisible children, wrote:

There is an entire subculture of the Christian homeschooling world that is built on fear. Fear of children being corrupted, fear of children leaving the faith, fear of children adopting different values. In some sense, this also goes hand in hand with a powerful religious hope: hope that if parents get it right, their children will grow up to become the “Joshua Generation” that will restore a Christian America. For these homeschool parents, Kevin Swanson among them, homeschooling is not simply an educational option. It is a movement, a tenet, a faith. And we are the apostates.

If homeschoolers want to break the stereotype that all homeschoolers are incredibly religious patriarchal families, they need to be willing to speak out. Break the stereotype by refusing to be a shield for abusive situations – refuse to join the fear-based tactics of the HSLDA which says all parents everywhere need to live in fear. Refuse to allow your desire for educational freedom to provide complete isolation for abusive homeschoolers. Instead work towards sensible, just legislation.

One example of good legislation is, I think, what Alberta was doing when I was a teenager. Homeschooling in Alberta I had to be registered with a school board but my parents could choose which school board to register me with. My local school board required all homeschoolers to use correspondence courses. At first that was what my parents wanted, but after a few years they decided I could drop the correspondence courses. So we signed up with a different school board – one that had staff hired just to help homeschoolers. By allowing homeschoolers to choose which school board to be monitored by, the monitoring of homeschoolers in Alberta is not done by people who disapprove of homeschooling, but rather by those who approve of it and want to work with the families!

I can hear in my mind all the objections, the main one being that abusive families will still abuse and monitoring won’t work. I agree that it won’t eliminate all the abuse. At the same time I see it as an important step in tearing away the wall of support for abuse. It is challenging the notion that parents have sole authority and can do anything they want. Sane legislation helps challenge the notion that in order to protect our right to educate our children we have to go so far as to provide total protection for those who would use homeschooling as a cover for their abuse.

The other argument I’ve heard is that child protective services or children’s aid society are inherently corrupt and nothing should be done to give them more power. Having homeschooling oversight come from school boards would probably make more sense than coming from social workers, and then if social workers were involved for other reasons they wouldn’t be able to just use “oh no, the family is homeschooling” as a cause for alarm. Homeschooling would be an acceptable option. Furthermore, if there are problems with whatever agencies are overseeing children, those also need to be dealt with rather than just used as an excuse to abandon other children. In Ontario there is a push right now for Ombudsman oversight so that the children’s aid society can be held accountable for what they do.

Again, I write this as a homeschooler. I love homeschooling. I believe in homeschooling. I believe that the majority of homeschoolers are great people. But I also know that homeschooling is hard, that homeschooling can be isolating, and that there are plenty of homeschooling resources out there suggesting to homeschooling parents that the solution to their problems is strict (abusive) discipline. (Or for that matter, complete abandonment of their children’s education in the name of unschooling, but that is a topic for a different post I don’t currently have the energy to write.)

Finally, I want to end this with a paragraph from the blog of Libby Anne. She wrote:

One common response to the idea that there should be some oversight of homeschooling is that parents can be trusted to educate their own children and want the best for them. The problem with this is that accountability isn’t something only bad people need. It’s something good people often need too. Can you imagine going to work without having anything at all to ensure that you actually do what’s in the job description? Sure, in those circumstances there are some people who would still do everything they were supposed to, but there are lots of people who would slack off. Accountability isn’t a bad thing and it’s not something to be afraid of.

Accountability isn’t something to be afraid of. Accountability is something we should be okay with. I like the comparison of holding homeschoolers accountable with employed people being held accountable. There’s a weird contradiction between the image that any bureaucracy charged with overseeing homeschoolers would be impossible to hold accountable but that homeschooling parents are inherently trustworthy enough they don’t need to be held accountable – or maybe it is that the homeschooling parents could only mess up their children’s lives, whereas beaurocracy could mess up ours?

I’ve linked to a few sources. But some good places to explore the darkside of homeschooling are:

I also want to include a link to a post I did earlier about the book Armagedon Factor The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada and a link to an article about Homeschoolers as Republican Foot Soldiers.

What do you think? I know I’ve touched on a number of different topics, but I’d welcome comments on any of them. Can you think of examples of places that have reasonable homeschool legislation? What are your arguments for or against it? What do you think of the religious aspect of the homeschooling infrastructure? When does something become debate? What defines when something is “anti-Christian”? One model of tolerance is for certain topics to remain off the table, untalked about, but is there another model that would allow both religious and those who disagree to express themselves?

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9 thoughts on “homeschooling, both religious and secular, and the need for accountability

  1. So much great stuff in this post. I’d be interested to see your blog post re: some of these ideas plus unschooling, and how that would connect and play out. I have a most beloved friend who is a radical unschooler, and I think she would be horrified to have to align with a school board (even one that was supportive of homeschoolers) in order to be able to continue homeschooling. She isn’t educationally neglectful, is a wonderful parent, and yet – she would have to REALLY do something against her own beliefs in order to continue homeschooling. So would too many people have to pay the price for a few bad apples? I’m not proposing an answer to that, because for me also the idea of unschooling (and the neglect that THAT particular subgroup is also capable of) is also wrought with factors. And it’s a topic I, too, really would have to sit and think long and hard before I threw my two cents into the pot lol.

    This is a great post, though. Lots to chew on. And I followed that whole debacle on the swap board too, that was strange.

    • In my deam of an ideal world, the radical unschooling parent would be allowed to create a portfolio explaining what her children having been learning over the last six months and showing samples of how they are progressing, and show that to the schoolboard. So the children could still do what they want, design what they want, but the parent would have to show some awareness of what his or her children are learning.

      I’m less concerned about the radical unschoolers who know what they are getting into and are still interested in what their kids are learning, than I am with the mythology of unschooling that floats around promising amazing results with no effort. It is a story that helps justify neglect, even on the part of parents who would be completely willing to put more effort into things if only they weren’t told their kids are better off without their help. Or the misguided notions that our children’s love of learning is this incrediblely delicate thing that we could forever squash by looking at our children’s hobbies wrong or by trying to insist they learn to read. But those are misguided notions that need to be challenged in discussion, not legislation.

      Though again, in my ideal image where someone from the schoolboard, favorable of homeschooling in general has to do a home visit, the person from the schoolboard would be able to talk to the parent a little about those ideas, not obligating the parent to do anything, but perhaps able to point out if a child is 3 years or more behind school peers in math and language arts, so that the parent is aware of that. The person could perhaps point out that while many children do learn to read on their own, not all do, and that some unschooled children simply assume that they are dumb and therefore can’t learn because the assistance that would allow them to learn isn’t forthcoming. The person could offer some suggestions, make sure the family has a budget for books (and help supply some money for books from the money that the schoolboard should receive for the government for overseeing homeschoolers) and perhaps recommend some resources which the parent would be free to reject.

      Thanks for commenting! And now that you’ve commented once, your comments should go through without waiting for me to approve the comment.

  2. We are atheist homeschoolers. Faith-based motivations are the number one reason for homeschooling in our area, and there is no way to politely ignore that. I’ve never considered my atheism something to hide, just as Christians don’t consider their faith something to hide. Yes, it can be lonely, isolating and frustrating. On the other hand, if I share 96% of my genes with chimps… I figure I can find some common ground with the human sitting next to me, no matter who they are. If they are willing to meet me in that place, we have a great start.

    I fully support homeshooling accountability. We unschool language arts and science. Documenting skills and progress in those areas has never been a problem. Annual criminal record checks are required to do any work with children in our area, and I think they would be a reasonable screening tool for homeschoolers. I feel that the government should err on the side of protecting children’s human rights, including their right to an education. As adults, we are capable of protecting our rights ourselves.

    Everything is a debatable. The most enlightening debates take place in an atmosphere of acceptance. I can accept the individual, while still debating the choices they make (or the science they teach). Trying to turn a debate argument into a judgement… is an avoidance measure. Debate away, and thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks for the comment! It is good to hear at least one other person who believes it would be possible to document progress even while unschooling!

      In theory I agree with the idea of accepting the individual while debating the choices but my sense is that people tend not to feel accepted when their choices are being questioned. Most of us identify with our choices.

  3. Very interesting article. Thankyou for writing about the darker side of homeschooling. This is not really a problem in Australia – we have a very robust child protective services. Not perfect, but from my extended family’s experience as foster carers, it’s pretty good. There doesn’t seem to be a big religious component in Australian HS – but that is probably due to the parallel education system we have here ( 1/3+ of all school students go to religious schools, usually Catholic). On the registration question – the state of Victoria has the least amount of regulation – only a signature required. While the more populous state of NSW has quite draconian requirements – requiring multiple inspection a year, curriculum outlines, and specific permission to allow HS students to learn above or below-grade material. Victoria has more registered HS than NSW – But NSW has quite a lot of off-the-radar homeschoolers. I personally think that a roobust and effective child protection service is probably all that is necessary. Finding the balance between enough regulation to make sure the kids are oing OK, and not so much that HS feel they have no choice but to go off radar can be tricky. And it’s quite the political minefield.

    • NSW requiring permission to allow HS students to learn above or below grade level sounds insane. I am definately not advocating for that type of legislation, because as you point out, it will push people off the radar. That just sounds crazy.

      Sensible regulation would have to recognize that homeschoolers are going to learn different things in different ways. In Ontario, where the schoolboards can only look into educational plans of homeschoolers in certian circumstances (for example, if a student was truant a lot before withdrawing from school or there have been reports of neglect) the schoolboards are specifically cautioned:

      “Whether meeting with the family or reviewing information submitted in writing, board officials should recognize that the methodology, materials, schedules, and assessment techniques used by parents who provide homeschooling may differ from those used by educators in the school system. For example, the parent may not be following the Ontario curriculum, using standard classroom practices in the home, or teaching within the standard school day or school year”

      There needs to be that recognition that homeschoolers can do things at different grade levels.

  4. Hi, nice post.
    I am in Tasmania, Australia, and I believe that our state system for overseeing home educators is one of the best models around. We have an authority, called the Home Education Advisory Council, which oversees all registered home schoolers and reports directly to the state education minister, completely independently of the state school system. The council has members appointed by the government and members appointment to represent the home schooling community, so there are always people on the council who are/were experienced home educators. We are monitored every 1-2 years. The process includes me writing a brief report and then a home visit where the Monitoring Officer informally discusses how it’s all going. All methods of home schooling, including radical unschooling, are allowed, but you do have to demonstrate that your children are getting learning opportunities in certain key areas.

    • Yes! Thank you for sharing that! I want to hear about the different ways there can be moderate oversight of homeschoolers.

  5. Disclaimer : I have zero experience in formal homeschooling. I came across a link to this while beginning my search for secular material to start our homeschooling adventure after this summer. I DO agree with a lot of what you said about feeling lonely as a non-christian in any way connected to homeschooling. I already feel that way… and we haven’t even begun. I’m also getting a bit sick of seeing everyone screaming that any question of any sort (not even disagreement, just engaging at all in any way beyond “Amen!”, “Preach it, Sister!” or “I couldn’t agree more.”) being declared “Anti-christian”. I even see it amongst my very religious christian friends! They sometimes become wildly outraged with one another over a minor difference of interpretation of scripture or degree of belief in particular opinions. I saw one accuse another of heresy yesterday on Facebook. They are both pastors/preachers. One thing I do think we disagree strongly about is that the local public school system should regulate and monitor homeschooling. I agree that we need a way to ensure that children and their education are not being neglected, but I feel VERY strongly that the government or any extension of them (here in the U.S., not in Canada) should not be that agency. Many of those who work in the public education sector hate homeschool. I have been told this by those employees. I would have never thought they would care either way as long as children were receiving a well-rounded education. They told me that homeschooling is a direct threat to their livelihood. Less children in public school means less opportunity for employment for them. The administrators are also often appointed by the government, which is incredibly corrupt here at every level. Unions are also having a devastating effect on the quality of education our children are receiving in public schools. The unions and the government tend to take care of one another most of the time. Our children are the losers in that case. If we were to transition to a model where homeschooling families were enrolled in and worked with a local school board the ratio of required employees per student enrolled would decrease significantly. I understand the teacher’s concern that her job may disappear in that case. A cafeteria lady may also become unemployed; along with the janitor, a few teachers’ assistants, one of the grounds maintenance crew members and so on and so on. Government involvement in health care here is having that same impact on my career as a nurse so I truly do understand how that feels. The government is now holding our teachers hostage with an unreasonable level of micromanagement (often deemed necessary by people who have no degrees or certifications in education) and does not allow them to provide the depth of quality instruction they would like. Who is to say that the exact same thing wouldn’t happen if that same government was allowed to “regulate” my homeschooling? I have no religious beliefs or preference for a political party that come in to play here. I spent years in the military and working for government. Only after many years of that did I realize how absolutely incapable our government (states and federal), in its current state, is at properly and successfully running or regulating anything. I don’t know the magic answer to the question of how we protect those occasional children that need it. I just know that it’s not the government; not in the United States anyway. I can tell you that it seems that at one point the state I live in appears to have tried to address the issue of being able to find out if children are actually being educated. Part of the law regarding homeschooling here in North Carolina requires that every single child be tested at least once a year using an approved nationally standardized test to determine if they are on track with the academic skills of other children their age. At this very moment the records and results of that testing are required to be maintained by the homeschool teacher for at least one year and must presented to the authorities at their request with no advance notice to the teacher required. The current law attempts to force periodic evaluation that would indicate a child was not receiving instruction, but in theory could allow for a child to go for years without failing being noticed if the authorities were to not ask to see the results of testing. On the other hand, the current data mining practices taking place in standardized testing here may violate the privacy of the families who are homeschooling for that exact reason. It’s also notable that while NC requires annual testing of homeschoolers, it has ZERO policy on what should happen if children are to clearly demonstrate on those standardized tests that they are not actually learning anything at home. There is obviously no easy answer. I’m glad I found the secular homeschooling site and this link. I’m very excited about having even a single resource not primarily centered on any theist ideology. EVERYTHING I had found up to this point was heavily religious. I was starting to think I was the only one out there.

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