By Jessica Smock
When I started my blog about the new research on parenting and education, one of the first topics that I wrote about was home schooling. I came across new findings about the explosion in parents opting out of both private and public education, the ways that parents are using new technology and virtual learning to teach their own children, and about other trends in home schooling, such as un-schooling.
I read this research with the perspective of a doctoral candidate in education policy and a former teacher and curriculum coordinator for more than a decade. I had lots of preconceptions about home schooling, and new research challenged some of them, particularly that home schoolers are mostly religious fanatics or part of a fringe group rejecting modern cultural trends.
After I wrote my post, my new blog received an explosion of comments, as well as responses from Twitter and Facebook. After reading through hundreds of stories from parents who chose to home school their children and took the time to write about their perspectives, I have concluded that this is a group of parents whose voices should be heard, both by educators and by academics. Although home schoolers only comprise a tiny fraction of the student population, their numbers are growing and they increasingly reflect several other intersecting trends in education, such parents who organize to “opt out” of standardized testing and the increasing numbers of children diagnosed with learning disabilities, food sensitivities, and autism.
These parents are educated, articulate, passionate about their children’s individualized learning needs, and often educators themselves. One of the greatest surprises from reading the responses to my blog was the number of former teachers who were now home schooling. According to these former educators, they understand all too well the pressures felt by both teachers and students from the requirements of standardized testing and new evaluation systems. And they do not want this for their children. They also know about the latest developments in educational technology and have witnessed the power of this technology to engage learners.
Most of all, the main source of tension that I recognize between the impassioned voices of parents who opt out of public education and the current educational reform movement (or, at least, parents’ perceptions of it) is the desire to customize and individualize instruction. Technological innovations and cultural changes in parenting have caused many parents, often middle class and well-educated ones, to challenge the traditional model of learning in American schools. They are frustrated by their perceptions of public education’s lack of response to new understandings about learning styles, dietary considerations, social and emotional learning, and gifted education.
Based on these responses from parents, I am concerned that the gap between what these parents expect and what the schools are able to do — because of their need to respond to new educational goals and reform efforts and because, ultimately, schools are not designed to individualize every aspect of children’s academic and social instruction — will grow too large. Already, prominent leaders of the home schooling movement call for more parents of the most successful in our schools to exit the system entirely.
How parents choose to educate their child is a highly individual decision. And for many parents the right decision, based on health or emotional considerations, parent work schedules, and other learning needs, may be home schooling. However, we — as researchers, writers, observers, and reformers of education — cannot ignore the implications of their basic message that schools must respond to their children’s individual needs. In the minds of thousands of the most impassioned, capable, and knowledgeable parents about education — those who could have the most impact as partners in the educational systems as parents — the educational system is no longer acceptable for their child, and they are choosing to leave. Those voices are worth paying attention to.
Jessica Smock is a doctoral candidate in education policy at Boston University. Her research is about resilience, and the experiences of high-achieving urban students from public schools who attend independent schools for high school. Her blog is called School of Smock (www.jessicasmock.com).