I recently read this article on Salon.com called Home-schooled and Illiterate. My first thought as I read this very long and very disorganized article is that it was an editorial by a lay person. There is really no journalism in the article at all. She uses a very small sample of anecdotal stories and didn’t seem to spend any time researching the facts. It is written by Kristin Rawls who, according to Alternet, is a freelance writer. I’ve never read anything else by her so I can’t comment but based on this piece I would say she isn’t very diligent in her writing.
So I debated just ignoring the piece all together. However, I do think there are some issues that she brings up that are important if we could sift through all the misinformation she has them padded in. So I’d like to dissect the real issue of her article and then break down her other arguments with some actual fact.
The Real Issue
This article isn’t about homeschooling as much as it is about a specific cult of conservative Christians that can border on or dive right into the educational neglect pool. She calls them Quiverfull (a sect of Christianity that believes in letting God decide any family planning) but I know Quiverfull families that do not neglect their kids (so do you, the Duggars on TV are Quiverfull but their children are certainly not illiterate). So right away she conflates several issues: educational neglect, cultism, illiteracy, and religious freedom.
Do we, as American’s have the right to exempt our children from learning things that we don’t agree with? For example, opting out of sex-ed, evolution, or any other topic that disagrees with the parents’ worldview? Whether in public school or not our country has long established that YES a parent can opt their child out of learning certain things.
Where does religious freedom end and child abuse begin? This is obviously a tricky area in the US considering how many Christian authors advocate spanking. I don’t think I can support calling learning creationism “abuse” when we live in a society where we discuss how long the welts last in determining physical abuse. I would think that even if you do not believe in evolution you would want your kids to know of it so they could argue against it intelligently. However, I do support the right of a parent to opt out of teaching things they don’t agree with.
Because there is no societal obligation to know evolution. Most people I talk to about why I believe creation and evolution work fine together don’t know the first thing about evolutionary theory. That being said, someone being completely ignorant of this important scientific theory does not impact our society. There are plenty of people who don’t understand the Theory of Relativity, arguably the greatest scientific theory of the 20th century, but we don’t call them illiterate.
Ms. Rawls details some of the oppressive aspects of extreme Quiverfull families that in fact have nothing to do with religious freedom or education.
A cult is a religious group that deviates far from the mainstream. The lifestyle that Ms. Rawls explains has several features of a cult – isolationism, demonization of society, limited access to information, and sexism. For example,
“The family’s isolationism created an environment in which everyone was so terrified of the outside they saw no choice but to submit to her father’s abusive rule for many years.”
“The girls weren’t allowed to get a GED because we were told we wouldn’t need it. It would open up opportunities that were forbidden to us. We would work in the family business until we got married, and then become homemakers.”
Girls’ education should prioritize “learning how to be mothers, learning in the kitchen, helping their mothers – not merely as chores that are a part of growing up. Rather, the point was that this should be a key part of their education because this was going to be their chief role.
Is this abuse? Part of me says yes, however this type of upbringing is hardly limited to Quiverfull. Orthodox Jews, Amish, Mormons, and some Muslim families all have sects that severely limit outside contact and practice sexism (and religions aren’t the only victims – see white supremists). Is that illegal? The Amish, at least, have been granted the right to conduct their own insular education and to stop after the 8th grade. They say that additional education does not fit into their lifestyle where community identity is greater than individualism (which is frowned upon). So, whether you agree with allowing fundamentalist upbringings or not it is currently legal in most cases (unless other laws are being broken – incest, child marriage, etc. – being sexist is not against the law).
The current state of affairs in the US is that the line between religious freedom and cult is the breaking of laws. Being ignorant, racist, sexist, or an asshole is not illegal. So this picture that Ms. Rawls is drawing, while relevant socially and requiring discourse, has nothing to do with home schooling but with cult culture and raising kids in such. (And don’t assume that public schooling is a panacea for stupidity and hate like I discussed here.)
Illiteracy means not knowing how to read however, it is often used in other areas like “math illiteracy” and this is how Ms. Rawls is using it in her article. However, she conflates religious freedom “gaps” in education with illiteracy.
A child that hasn’t learned about evolution[1. If you read my blog then you already know this but just my usual caveat that inspite being a Christian I do believe in Evolution.] is not illiterate. Ms. Rawls gets this right when she says,
I don’t merely mean that they had received what I now view as an overly politicized education with huge gaps, for example, in American history, evolution or sexuality. Rather, what disturbed me were the many stories about home-schoolers who were barely literate when they graduated, or whose math and science education had never extended much past middle school.
True illiteracy actually has an impact on all of us. Indiana has actually estimated their need for prison space based on 4th grade reading levels. “Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. The fourth grade is the watershed year (source).” We want citizens to be able to read.
There are also other skills that are needed to make a citizen – like arithmetic, communication skills, etc. Being illiterate in these basics can be educational neglect.
The only legal definition of educational neglect is truancy. According to the law these are the same. There is no law that says if an 11 year old can’t read this is educational neglect [2. And, many studies and educational theories actually support the idea of delayed learning especially in reading. So, it is not “child abuse” as some of the articles comments claim]. The performance of a student is only assessed because of an absenteeism complaint. As a matter of fact, public schools are exempt from being held accountable for outcomes such as this (it is called educational malpractice and you can read more about it here).
Homeschoolers are exempted from compulsory attendance laws in various ways. Some states have no reporting (and thus, how are they ensuring there is not educational neglect?) while most have varying levels of reporting and testing.
In Ohio, children 6-18 years must attend a school or be homeschooled. You have to notify the superintendent of the school that you intend to homeschool and students must be assessed annually to be sure they are keeping up with grade level. Additionally, there are remediation rules in place if needed.
Ms. Rawls overstates the lack of oversight. In most states, there is plenty of oversight. The problems she is describing is about parents that are NOT complying with the laws. They are already doing something illegal and these kids would not fall through the cracks if truancy were monitored more closely. Once again the problem is not homeschooling (or lack of homeschooling regulation) but specific cult groups practicing isolationism.
I agree with Ms. Rawls that better statistics would be great. The fact that each state is different is annoying to me but I generally don’t believe in states rights. This is not a homeschooling issue though. I also have no problem with better enforcement of existing laws. No child should be completely off the records. I would also be in favor of states having notification laws and assessment laws. This would ensure,
- Notification – kids of compulsary age are being accounted for (i.e. not truant)
- Assessment – kids are meeting minimum educational requirements (i.e. not being educationally neglected)
- Cult-educated children would at least be getting a minimum equivilant education (and girls and boys would be getting the same basics). This minimizes some of the legal but “bad” impacts of growing up in a cult. So they would be able to read and do math even if they don’t know what sex is or think that man rode dinosaurs.
The reason that most homeschoolers get their hackles up when people talk about “regulation” is that they often have comments like Ms. Rawls,
“greater restrictions on home schooling are needed”
“But she understand the limits of her own skill, which is why she placed her special-needs son in public school. “While I can teach my children reading, writing and arithmetic, I am not trained in special education,” she says. “I want my child to have the best education he can get, which at this time is public school.”
“Of course there are parents who are qualified to teach their children at home, and who do an excellent job of it.”
I have highlighted my problems with these statements (I don’t have a problem with choosing public school if you think it is better). Talk of homeschool regulation – e.g. identifying and tracking homeschooled kids – often devolves into talk of homeschool qualifications. The idea that a parent needs to be “qualified” to teach their own or that a parent doesn’t have the skill to teach is erroneous.
If you want to read more of this read the comments on the article with are rife with “how can a high school graduate teach their kids physics”? This worry is created by the current transfer pedagogy of education. As I discussed here “transfer” teaching is about an “expert” called the teacher imparting her knowledge to the student. In public schools to teach physics you have to have an expertise in physics. Ergo, some believe, that a “lay person” like a mom can’t possible teach their own child.
We know however that subject expertise is not a requisite for teaching anyone. Encouragement (provocateur) and resource finding is all that is needed to be an excellent “teacher”.
Requiring parents to have teaching credentials, having to approve their curriculum, or home visits are overly restrictive and unnecessary to homeschooling success. Six states currently have overly restrictive rules such as these (ND, VT, NY, RI, MA). This is what homeschoolers fear. Intrusion on their right to educate their children based on faulty logic that follows from the schooling paradigm.
In summary, Ms. Rawls wrote an article with a provocative title, little to no research, and in desperate need of a copy editor. What she should have said is;
[box]Homeschooling is overall a very productive form of education (and she should have cited sources like these) but there are some kids in fundamentalist cults (including quiverfull and other fringe religions) where students are falling through the cracks. Improvements in enforcement of existing laws would ensure these kids are getting the education they deserve which benefits us all because illiteracy leads to bad outcomes. This could be one arm of an overall look at cult-parenting in the US and what we can do about it.[/box]