Has homeschooling simply evolved or has it begun to devolve? This question is rolling around in my head, prompted by a discussion on the Well-Trained Mind Forums about the closing of homeschooling forums and the shift in homeschooling supports from at-home-education supports to outsourced supports. For many homeschoolers, the plethora of homeschooling outsourced options is seen as nothing but a boon. They see these changes in the homeschooling landscape as only positive because numerous options are always good. But, while the options have opened doors to widely varied educational supports and resources, have those very resources and supports opened into a circular perspective that leads back to traditional schooling and the arguments against parents-as-teachers?
When I first started homeschooling back in the early 1990s, the main argument against homeschooling was that only experts were qualified to teach students. Parents were not only unqualified to be their children’s educators, but students’ post-high school educations would also be limited by their poor quality homeschool educations. The idea that a parent could successfully teach high school chemistry without a chemistry background or teach precalculus without a math degree was dismissed outright. The perspective of the anti-homeschooling position was that it was not even debatable. They were emphatic that their position was the only truth. Parents without credentials could not be as successful in teaching students as professionals with teaching degrees.
Homeschooling parents fought the prejudice against the ideology that teaching well and at a high level necessitated having a teaching degree. Parents would sit side by side with their children both learning and teaching simultaneously. Those struggles and successes forged a path different from traditional brick and mortar classroom educations. Students in these parents-as-teachers homeschools were learning that answers could be sought and mastered without experts standing in front of them telling them exactly what they needed to know. These students learned not only course content but also perseverance and self-confidence in knowing how to learn foreign material.
I used to know numerous families who fell into the above category. We drove to Kinkos to make photocopies. We met for moms’ meetings to discuss different resources on how to teach various subjects. We had family day gatherings for our kids to play and hang out together. Though all of us were from different backgrounds, we shared the bond that we were our kids’ teachers, and we were responsible for what and how they were learning. We were focused on individualizing our kids’ educations to meet their specific learning needs and moving at whatever pace fit their learning abilities. We were education enablers—we believed (and knew!!) we could teach our kids, and we encouraged new homeschoolers that they could do it as well.
We witnessed the “mom-taught, learned-alongside mom” students go on to college and prove at the collegiate level that their unqualified parents had provided them with the foundation necessary to succeed at college. Colleges started to realize that those homeschooled students were positive contributors to their campuses. Restrictions on what colleges expected for homeschoolers to provide for “proof” of educational foundation started to decrease.
Fast forward to today. What are the dominant topics of conversation among homeschoolers?
- Who is the best provider for ______?
- What co-op do you belong to?
- Did you know that ______ offers classes in ______?
- Do you know any online program that teaches ________?
- Do you know of any program that elementary kids can use for school independently?
- Where are your high schoolers dual enrolling?
Today’s conversations no longer revolve around questions like how are you teaching _______, but instead what provider are you using for _______? Those who advocate that more options are always better fail to recognize the subtle shift toward undermining the foundation upon which the homeschool movement was built, that unqualified parent educators could prepare their students for academic success without expert teachers. The premise that an outsourced provider is the default answer is contrary to core values of the original movement. I am not referring to the odd outsourced class but that outsourcing has shifted from the exception to the norm.
The whys behind the new muddled face of the homeschooling movement are easy to identify–mass marketing materials and profit-oriented businesses built on stoking parental fears. The original homeschooling market materials were focused on enabling parents to be great teachers. Today’s homeschooling market materials are focused on being your homeschool’s teachers. Throw in the misleading and untrue mainstream mentality where homeschooling is seen as just another educational option, and you end up with families who have withdrawn their kids from school but don’t have the energy or the desire or the self-discipline to put in the immense effort absolutely required for teaching their children themselves. The idea of creating an individualized education that meets only the needs of one specific child, the one you are teaching, is far removed from their sphere of reference. These parents hand over the reins of curriculum selection, individual pace, input/output decisions to some other teaching source, just not a brick-and-mortar-building teacher.
The homeschool movement of today is more focused on not sending children to that traditional brick and mortar building for their educations than about parents being their children’s teachers. While those homeschoolers that embrace those goals see that as a distinction without a difference, one does exist that subtly erodes the “unqualified homeschooling parent-as-teacher.” I see it most distinctly at the high school level. In talking with homeschooling families with high schoolers, those stoked, parental fears are their greatest motivators. These parents are the ones repeating the original arguments that were used against homeschooling (often repeating what they have been told by the for-profit “homeschool” businesses). The parents believe that students will not be prepared for college without taking courses from a qualified outside provider, that their students will not be accepted to college without providing outside validation of what was done at home, and that transcripts with only the parents-as-teachers will be viewed as untrustworthy. They believe that students need AP scores, dual enrollment credits, co-op teachers, and online teachers in order not only to be educated but also to be accepted into college.
Thus, the homeschool mindset has gone full circle. It started off as a movement away from the idea that only qualified teachers could provide solid educational outcomes. It was fueled by parents who believed they could be their kids’ primary teachers and that the outcomes would be equal or even superior to what was being provided through the traditional educational system. The movement peaked when those unqualified parents succeeded in providing their kids educations that surpassed critics’ expectations. Eventually, those originally outside of homeschooling circles started to see it as a more normalized path. The more normalized view of homeschooling encouraged more families to pursue it as an option but without holding the same core “education at home with parents-as-teacher” focus. As the movement has grown, the homeschooling profit-oriented market has equally morphed to feed on those views and the accompanying parental insecurities by encouraging dependence on what they have to offer because it is better (often accredited), easier, and necessary. Those inside of homeschooling circles are now the ones who routinely say they need outsourced providers. Homeschoolers are the ones who say that they can’t do it on their own, that they don’t want to do it on their own, and that professional teachers provide better educations and more accountability for their children.
Evolution or devolution? I don’t really know. But whatever it is, the difference is palpable to someone who has lived through almost 25 years of homeschooling and still has 3rd grader at home. My hope is that homeschool laws and college admissions won’t revert to greater levels of control and restrictions because if they do, fewer voices will care.
But, to end on a more positive note, I am encouraged by my friendships with a couple of younger moms who are excited about teaching philosophies and methodologies. They have the exciting future of determining what their children will learn every single day. There is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing your child has experienced an education tailored exactly to their needs while you sat right there beside them, learning with them along the way.