Has COVID-19 Proven the Homeschoolers Right?
Opting out of the public school system is going to take more creative solutions than just homeschooling.
Since March, the Internet has been ablaze with articles and resources for parents forced into homeschooling their children because of the COVID-19 crisis. Some education experts—like Kevin Huffman in The Washington Post—are terrified of what long breaks and virtual learning will do to American children. Huffman claims that “homeschooling during the coronavirus will set back a generation of children.” Others, like actress, radio host, and homeschooling advocate Sam Sorbo, assert that the current crisis offers an unprecedented opportunity to refashion American education and overcome the brokenness of our public education system.
Is homeschooling—especially the kind that relies on distant learning—disastrous for young students? Or could it dramatically improve student learning and maturation? There’s been much agreement that American public education has serious problems, especially outside of the affluent “super-zips” in urban and suburban areas. As I noted in an article for The Federalist last year, national test scores consistently demonstrate the paucity of student knowledge, while a growing body of research shows that IQs and intellectual abilities have falling steadily among people born after 1975. Many public schools are overcrowded, understaffed, and literally falling apart.
The most frequently offered solution to the failures of public education has been to increase budgets. Yet the data demonstrating that more money can solve the problem is over 50 years old. Research by sociologist James Coleman in the 1960s found that more school funding and resources didn’t consistently correlate with improved academic performance. Moreover, data from the Department of Education analyzed by the libertarian Cato Institute proved that student performance has remained moribund despite significantly increased funding. To take one oft-citedexample of this disparity, Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia High School receives more than $14,000 per student, but only about 20 percent of seniors graduate on time.
The COVID-19 crisis, in turn, has focused the spotlight on the problems with public education. Stuck at home and forced to manage their children’s educational progress, parents are discovering the emptiness of their kids’ schooling. One of the best school systems in the country, Fairfax County Public Schools, of which I and many of my extended family are products, took weeks to get its virtual learning system up and running after it sent kids home. Some parents, alternatively, are learning the degree to which their children’s curriculum is dominated by leftist ideology. Others are finding they can get their children through an entire day of schoolwork in a few hours, leading them to wonder what their kids are doing for the rest of the day.
Enter the homeschooling advocates. In describing her own experience on a recent First Things podcast, Sorbo noted: “Public schools weren’t getting the job done. …Maybe I can do better than the school. …I could fail and probably do better than what [my son] is getting right now.” Sorbo added in a recent op-ed on Fox News’ website, “The advantages of homeschooling are for everybody, regardless of parental education level and socioeconomic status.”
I’m not as optimistic. This isn’t because I don’t support the homeschooling movement in America. I’ve known many homeschooling families over the years, and the quality of the education parents can provide their children, especially when connected through co-ops with other like-minded families, is remarkable. Moreover, as someone who previously taught high school history in two different Virginia public school systems, and taught tennis to kids from all kinds of educational backgrounds, I can attest to the superior formation homeschooled children can receive.
But I also know that homeschooling is not for the faint of heart. All the homeschooling families I’ve known fall squarely in the middle or upper-middle classes. The mothers, who typically bear the brunt of homeschooling responsibilities, are themselves intelligent, highly driven, and live in areas with pre-existing homeschooling communities. There’s a certain personality and socio-economic status that succeeds at homeschooling, which not everybody has. Indeed, one wonders how a lower-income family where both parents work, perhaps both even holding multiple jobs, would find the time and resources to homeschool their kids.
Moreover, there are many different kinds of temperaments and learning styles, and parents are often not well-trained or suited to understand them and modify their teaching accordingly. My wife and I considered homeschooling for our eldest daughter. Before her kindergarten year started, however, we observed how desperate she was to be with kids her own age and how resistant she was to learning from us. Now that she’s finishing her first-grade year, it’s pretty obvious that her private Catholic school is a better fit for her than homeschooling.
Finally, there’s the broader social dilemmas that come with homeschooling. These are met with strong resistance from homeschooling advocates. “I’m sorry, but socialization doesn’t figure into it. …I don’t believe in socialization,” declares Sorbo. “It’s a made up thing to offer a red herring to confuse the issue. …Socialization is a meaningless term.” I beg to differ, though not with the common trope that homeschooled kids are socially awkward. Indeed, when I taught tennis, I found the homeschoolers to be some of the more mature and sociable ones in my classes.
Rather, I would argue that a more traditional school setting—whether it be public or private—offers broader social and athletic opportunities that are difficult to replicate in homeschooling. Former professional quarterback Tim Tebow’s parents were able to persuade a local public school district to let him play football, but that’s often not an option. Multiple times I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade parents to stop homeschooling for high school so their kids could play competitive sports. I know those children got good educations at home. But don’t tell me they didn’t miss out on anything worthwhile by not attending a traditional school.
My argument here is not that homeschooling isn’t great, or shouldn’t be pursued by interested parents. I think it is great, and can be a great fit for many kids. But I’m not persuaded it’s the panacea that some homeschooling advocates make it out to be. Rather, I think America, and certainly its parents, need to think more creatively about how to overcome our nation’s education crisis.
One option is hybrid homeschooling, a model where children split time between both homeschool and more traditional schooling environments. Another is micro-schooling, where entrepreneurs and parents facilitate intimate, mixed-age learning spaces that blend homeschooling and private schooling, retaining curriculum freedom and schedule flexibility while relying on paid teachers. Both of these options, where parents pool resources, can end up looking a lot like traditional schools. School vouchers and charter schools, whatever their flaws, also at least move in the right direction by emphasizing parental control and autonomy over their kids’ education.
The other elephant in the room, resisted by many traditionalist educators, is that many Americans simply don’t need the kind of education offered by the K-12 system in order to thrive in our economy and be fully formed citizens. A 17-year-old who is likely to be a mechanic, plumber, or machinist needs to have a strong grasp of math, reading, writing, and civics, but not necessarily chemistry, pre-calc, or psychology. We need a broader cultural acceptance of an American working class that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree to be considered “successful.” Those who view the Rust Belt and Appalachian working classes as ignorant hillbillies are obviously working against this.
Homeschooling advocates are definitely right about one thing—parents need to be intimately involved in the education of their children, rather than abdicating that responsibility to well-meaning government employees (at best) or leftist ideologues (at worst). Unfortunately, America’s family crisis is even more severe than her education crisis, with less than 50 percent of our children reaching age 17 while still living with both of their biological parents. Millions of American children grow up in broken homes, and that, obviously, is going to have severe deleterious effects on their education and maturation. The most effective means of fixing our broken education system is thus to strengthen the family, both through personal choices and government initiatives that encourage marriage stability and children’s wellbeing. But in an age of absolute autonomy and excessive emotionalism, that’s an answer few Americans want to hear.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.