Written by Suzanne Berman, MD, FAAP
My dear friends Matt and Jill are homeschooling their four children, and they’re doing an awesome job of it. Matt, no stranger to education (he has two master’s degrees) is a great communicator and very involved in his kids’ lives.
Jill is smart, sweet, and a model of organization; the “master whiteboard” in her kitchen reflects an orderliness worthy of a military quartermaster. Their kids are well-behaved, smart, curious, and articulate, just like their mom and dad. And the more time they spend with their parents, the more their parents’ character, values, and personality will be instilled in their kids. What’s not to like about homeschooling?
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, homeschooling pioneers fought for the right to direct their children’s educations. And they got good results, too. The original predictions of warped, antisocial children didn’t seem to pan out, and the early generations of homeschooled kids turned out as well-educated (if not better) than the average public schoolchild.
But I’m starting to see some disturbing trends in homeschooling: less Matt and Jill, and more child neglect and perjury.
Not too long ago, an 11-year-old boy came to my office for a well-child check, accompanied by his mom. “How’s school going?” I asked, as I a do always do. “Oh, I’m homeschooled,” he replied. “Tell me about that,” I continued, “what you like to learn about most?”
“Well,” he said, thoughtfully, “we usually do it on the computer. But we haven’t really done any school for a long time, so mostly I watch TV with my dad.” The boy and his two school-aged siblings had been pulled out of school one year prior because dad disagreed with the school’s assessment that the son was not performing at grade level.
The boy reported watching six hours of TV per day most days, with another two-to-three hours of computer game time per day. He might get in thirty minutes of the school program per day. Mom (and later Dad) separately reported that the boy’s self-assessment of school hours was correct.
“We’ve just been so busy with life,” they admitted, “we just haven’t gotten around to doing much school this year.” However, I didn’t see many hopeful indicators that things would change soon; mom works long hours at her job; dad is too disabled to work. When I checked in with them later, the boy couldn’t remember doing any appreciable school work in over six months.
Another mother came in with her 17-year-old daughter, 12 year old daughter, and 7 year old son. Mom reported that her three children are homeschooled; however, she is a single parent and is working 2 jobs to make ends meet.
Mother reports that her kids enjoy staying home. “We have it worked out,” mother explained, “so that while I’m at work, the oldest does her work on the computer. Then she can help the other two with their assignments.”
I gently asked the mother if being responsible for their schooling wasn’t overwhelming, given her work hours as a single parent. “No,” she said, “I don’t have to get them off on the school bus in the morning, so that saves me a lot of time.”
Similarly, a twelve-year-old told me this week that her “homeschooling” for the past three months has consisted of reading a novel — plus cleaning the house and keeping an eye on her fellow foster sibs so her foster parents can work. Other subjects? “No,” she said thoughtfully, “I really haven’t done any math or social studies or anything like that.”
Another mother came in with her twin 7-year-old daughters. The girls had matted hair and body odor. Mother, who had trouble keeping her eyes open during the visit, had lost custody of the twins when they were three years old for about a year; details were sketchy, but the Department of Children’s Services had been involved for a time.
“We’re doing great now, and I’m homeschooling them,” mother stated proudly, if sleepily. “They know all their shapes and letters, and we’re working on their colors and numbers.”
Families don’t have to be accountable to me for their school choice, but they need to be accountable to someone.
The homeschool umbrella (either a private school or local school district) at least nominally asks for attendance records and progress reports.
Even informal homeschool co-ops, which exist in many communities, help parents share best practices with each other. But the families that give me the most concern seem to have a lot of self-imposed isolation: the children don’t participate in music groups or sports teams, and the family doesn’t participate in community activities or attend worship services.
In extreme (and fortunately rare) cases, this can have heartbreaking consequences society expressed its disgust in the failure of child protective services workers to identify this perilous situation, but if someone from outside his family read Christian’s anguished “school essays,” might the outcome have been different?
There’s plenty not to like about public schools and private schools, and families in America certainly have the right to opt to home educate their children.
But public and private schools at least have requirements for transparency and accountability – in fact, that’s usually how we know which schools are winners and which aren’t.
Families like Matt and Jill, who still make up many of the homeschooling families I see professionally, occasionally express annoyance at required record keeping; they’re motivated to do it right even without oversight.
But when homeschooling families don’t appear to take their education responsibility seriously, and there are no consequences from their umbrella, who will hold them accountable?
Suzanne Berman is a practicing general pediatrician in rural Tennessee. Her study of Medicaid access was supported by a grant from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Community Access to Child Health (CATCH) program.