Love in a Time of Homeschooling

Insights from my uncommon year educating my daughter at home.

Should Homeschooling Parents Have College Degrees? Round Two.

Homeschooling regulation makes tempers flare.

Last week I posted an article with a deliberately provocative title: Should Homeschooling Parents Have College Degrees? I didn’t offer my own answer; instead I invited readers to share their thoughts on what, if any, level of education might be required by each state—a bachelor’s degree, a high school diploma, a basic literacy test, no regulation whatsoever?  I did, however, state that the fact that parents with GEDs could, if they desired, conduct their children’s high school educations seemed to be “setting the bar very low.”

I expected heated replies, having seen the online outcries that tend to result whenever anyone raises the sore subject of homeschooling regulation. That’s why my article began by acknowledging that the topic of regulation can make tempers flare.

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When I finished writing the piece and pressed the “publish now” button, I thought:  Let the storm come. And it came promptly—in comments that ranged from thought-filled to angry to incongruous. Some readers felt that I was implying that homeschoolers are stupid, or people with GEDs are stupid,  despite my  assertion that most homeschoolers were "bright and well-qualified" and left me "greatly impressed." Other readers felt that I must be pretty stupid myself.

I didn’t mind the fuss, because I enjoy an impassioned round of comments. Then, over the weekend I discovered that the comments were closed—to me as well as to all readers.  Perhaps some Psychology Today webmaster felt that people weren’t “playing nice.” That there were too many insults and not enough substantive debate—which, sadly, is the case in much of today’s public discourse. So now I have sent an email to the PT powers that be, asking for the comments to be reopened, and in the meantime I’m going to stir up the pot even more by elaborating on my own opinions, and inviting readers to continue their comments below. Those readers who dismissed my last article in disgust probably won’t take the time to read this one, but if so, I welcome their reactions.

Because I’m an English professor, some readers assumed that I would endorse college as a prerequisite for homeschooling. In my book, I describe my initial surprise when I discovered that no bachelor’s degree or teaching certificate was required of homeschoolers.  I had naively thought that in order to homeschool  I might need to show that I had the same credentials as the elementary school teachers in my town.

But once I stopped to consider the subject, I thought: of course a college degree could not be required for homeschooling. First of all, there’s the matter of economic fairness. We don’t have an educational system in which college is open to all citizens. Even at public institutions offering substantial financial aid, a bachelor’s degree has been priced out of many Americans’ reach.

Secondly, we all know brilliant members of American society who never earned college degrees. Bill Gates is the example most often cited.  F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Frost are two illustrious college dropouts dear to my English-teacher heart. I always tell my students that self-education, through constant reading and engagement in the world,  is the most important part of their learning—classroom experience is a small piece of the puzzle.

 Although I loved my college years and firmly believe in the value of a liberal arts degree (and other courses of study), our society has taken a wrong step in making a BA or BS a prerequisite for so many jobs. College should be available for those students who are seeking “higher education”;  it should not be an obstacle placed in the path of young people who are looking for good entry-level employment. Like many Americans, I know what it’s like to graduate from an expensive college only to find that my first job (administrative assistant at a non-profit) could have been performed by any responsible person with an eighth-grade education. A college degree was listed as a prerequisite in the job description.

Too often, today’s colleges are treated like expensive overnight camps where adolescents gain maturity before they go on to get their master’s degrees.

But let me return to the subject of parental qualifications for homeschooling. I posed my title question in terms of college in order to prompt a more fundamental discussion: Should any qualifications be asked of homeschooling parents? Should all the states that require parents to have high school diplomas or GEDs, repeal those laws?

Many readers who commented on my previous article felt that there should be no state-mandated qualifications. The reasons they gave were legitimate, but raise complications. Some mentioned that private schools have no state-specified teacher qualifications.  However,  the role of accreditation agencies, and the scrutiny from administrators and parents , tends to ensure that most private school teachers have college degrees, or at least high school diplomas.

Other readers noted that homeschooling parents are very different from classroom teachers; their job is to facilitate learning by providing a stimulating environment and enlisting mentors, and no specific level of education is needed for that.  Still others added that if you purchase the right curriculum, Bob Jones was given as an example, the parent’s level of education doesn’t matter. The books will do most of the teaching for you. (This reliance on purchased materials makes me uncomfortable, since worksheets can only accomplish so much.) Regardless of one’s homeschooling style, parents must still have the ability to explore curricular options, oversee lessons, and help  a child who is having trouble. Teaching is an inevitable part of homeschooling.

But what does the parent’s education matter, so long as the children are making good progress?  That’s a good point. However, many states don’t require any monitoring of student progress, and even in the states that do, like my home state of Virginia, scoring above the lowest 25th percentile on a standardized test is all that’s asked. It’s sort of like those public schools that push failing students along to the next grade every year.

Parental qualifications get even stickier when you reach high school. My point about a GED being poor preparation for overseeing a high school student’s education, could easily have been applied to parents with college degrees. Many high school subjects require teachers to have highly specialized knowledge.  That’s why, in our town, lots of homeschoolers turn to public or private high schools once their kids reach the ninth grade. Others rely on community college classes and private tutors—but that takes money.  Those who don’t follow either route sometimes adopt a dismissive stance toward high school subjects. Who needs foreign languages? Who needs advanced chemistry? Who needs algebra II or calculus or  engineering or advanced electronics or all the varied subjects that high schools offer?

We all do. We all have a stake in our country’s children being challenged to the limit of their intellects, in a wide variety of subjects.

One reader made an interesting suggestion-- that state homeschooling organizations might offer their own online preparatory courses for parents.  What those courses might include would be up to each state. An overview of curricular options?  Suggestions for the best methods of teaching reading? Refresher lessons in math and grammar?  

Completion of that sort of course might be more valuable than a high school diploma or GED. It could provide parents with valuable information, while demonstrating their commitment to homeschooling and their mastery of basic skills. It sounds kind of like taking a driver's ed course before getting out on the road. At least it’s one creative suggestion. Many parents bristle at the idea of any regulation, but the stance of “No rules, period,” is liable to become more problematic as homeschooling continues to grow nationwide.

 

Laura Brodie, Ph.D., teaches English at Washington and Lee University.

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