Relaxed Educational Standards for Homeschooled Children in Pennsylvania and Beyond Should Frighten All of Us January 7, 2015

Relaxed Educational Standards for Homeschooled Children in Pennsylvania and Beyond Should Frighten All of Us

The New York Times published an article about recent changes to Pennsylvania’s laws governing homeschooling, and it highlights a number of concerning points — both in relation to Pennsylvania and homeschooling in general.

Full disclosure: I was homeschooled for my entire K-12 education and learned a lot of really silly religious stuff (like Creationism) in the process. My mom taught us what she and my father believed to be true; but, at the same time, she was a great teacher (when religion didn’t conflict with reality) who fostered a keen love of learning and the natural world. My problem with homeschooling, then, isn’t that I imagine a lack of sincerity on the part of the parents or that I think there are no potential benefits or scenarios where it could work well.

However, I have concerns when, unlike in a school setting, facts go through the filter of one or two individuals, for whom there is little or no oversight at all. In other words, a well-meaning but wrong individuals can teach their children something entirely, demonstrably false, with no one there to sound the alarm, simply because they believe it to be true. That isn’t education.

Which is pretty much what the NYT piece is about — states making it easier for parents to teach whatever they’d like, however they’d like to do it. The statistics are very worrying:

Eleven states do not require families to register with any school district or state agency that they are teaching their children at home, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a nonprofit group that is pushing for more accountability in home schooling. Fourteen states do not specify any subjects that families must teach, and only nine states require that parents have at least a high school diploma or equivalent in order to teach their children. In half the states, children who are taught at home never have to take a standardized test or be subject to any sort of formal outside assessment.

Pennsylvania is a state that, after years of pressure from the homeschooling movement, has taken steps to ease regulations. The recent changes

eliminated the [existing] requirement that families submit their children’s portfolios, as well as the results of standardized testing in third, fifth and eighth grade, to school district superintendents. The new law also allows parents to certify that their children have completed high school graduation requirements and to issue homegrown diplomas without any outside endorsement.

This is justified, we are told, because homeschooling parents are extra motivated — so, since they really want to do it, they just must be good at it.

We believe that because parents who make this commitment to teach their children at home are dedicated and self-motivated, there’s just not a real need for the state to be involved in overseeing education,” said Dewitt T. Black III, senior counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, which has close ties to local Christian home-school associations. Mr. Black wrote an early version of the bill that eventually passed here.

Which is utterly absurd. A highly motivated and dedicated person can be quite terrible at what they do. Motivation and dedication are only part of what you need to be a successful educator. That parents really want to teach their children in no way speaks to their qualifications to do so, anymore than my desire and repeated attempts to grow houseplants means that I can (alas).

We shouldn’t relax or eliminate teaching standards for parents who take on the role of educator for the same reason we shouldn’t eliminate all educational standards.

Education is supposed to provide a student with factual information and the tools to reason in order to prepare him or her for life. We have a system in place to guarantee students this basic opportunity. By eliminating standards and guidelines that protect students’ interests in certain cases, we’ve effectively declared that some students don’t deserve the same access to factual information; they can receive it only at the whim of their parents.

And still, those championing largely religious “alternatives” to public education are demanding to be held to fewer — or no — standards.

“Here we are loosening standards for a subset of students while at the same time giving them the same credential as all other students,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. He noted that the home-school law had been weakened at the same time that public school students were being held to more rigorous academic standards and teachers were being judged by the performance of their students.

But the Home School Legal Defense Association wants to go further. “What we would like is for there to be a total hands-off policy,” said Mr. Black. The association, which raised close to $9.6 million in the 12 months through March 2013, the most recent year for which tax filings are available, has also been involved in efforts to roll back home-school regulations in several other states.

Last year, Utah’s Legislature passed a bill that removed academic subject requirements for home-schoolers and eliminated the need for families to file annual affidavits with school districts, signaling their intention to teach their children at home.

This isn’t right — not for the children whose educations are at risk, not for the adults they’ll become who may well have to unlearn any number of false teachings, and not for the society that faces the prospect of potentially under-, poorly-, or un- educated citizens. It should hardly be a burden to meet reasonable educational standards. If the responsibility to demonstrate that you are fulfilling your self-appointed obligation to educate your child offends you, your priorities are misplaced. Education is, after all, about the child — not the beliefs or convenience of his parents.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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