Every Family Homeschools (Part 1) - An Interview With Kyle Greenwalt

Kyle Greenwalt, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University and the author of Home/Schooling: Creating Schools that Work for Kids, Parents and Teachers.

In the book, Greenwalt seeks to redefine homeschooling as something all families engage in and that all public schools should support. He talked to us about the cultural and economic shifts that have shaped homeschooling and public education's relationship to it.

"Before the industrial revolution, everything happened in the home," said Greenwalt, including education. During the 19th century, cultural and economic shifts led to compulsory public education, he notes, "and now, we're regulating and holding these institutions accountable for the outcomes that happen there."

According to Greenwalt, growing "cynicism and distrust of public institutions" is what's leading a diverse range of parents to homeschool their children, a movement that began in the 1970s. His research indicates that these families are now as diverse as the population at large: although early homeschoolers were often religious, secular families also homeschool in large numbers.

"To me, there's no surprise that homeschooling rises at this time when we're really starting to question on both the left and the right whether or not institutional life is always good for us," said Greenwalt.

Because parents “can't expect anyone else to oversee a child's education,” Greenwalt said many families have embraced it as their primary responsibility, “and I don't think schools are very good at recognizing that.”

Public Education Has Turned Teachers Into Stand-In Parents

Today, three-fourths of all public school teachers are women, but public education began with male teachers who often moved into careers in law or the clergy, said Greenwalt. “The argument was made that women would be better teachers because they were more maternal, they were more caring, they would do a better job of shaping character and it would be a great preparation for motherhood,” he said.

That social/cultural frame helped foster the concept of in loco parentis, the legal concept that teachers are stand-in parents who offer moral, physical and ethical instruction. “This is pretty unique within different models of the world,” said Greenwalt. “Most places view the teacher as a civil servant. That's very different than viewing the teacher as a stand-in parent.”

“Most parents want their children to be treated like a special person,” he noted, but American parents are relatively unique, as they associate more attention from a teacher with favorable outcomes. In Japan and China, where elementary class sizes may average forty to fifty students, “parents get concerned if it gets much lower than that because they worry that the teacher's going to over-dwell on their child,” Greenwalt said. “The idea there is that kids need to work things out for themselves, and we really don't do that very well in this country.”

Homeschooling Helps Families Address Unique Needs That Aren’t Met In Public Education

Although teachers “say they want parents to be partners, for the most part, they haven't really encouraged parents to view themselves as educators,” said Greenwalt. Saddling children with a high load of homework ”really cuts down on the parents' ability to make decisions about how family time is going to be spent and what learning can happen in those spaces,” he added.

Funding cutbacks and a focus on standardized testing has helped many parents identify gaps in public education, said Greenwalt. “I think many parents recognize that especially when schools are cutting back on the arts, music and so many things that go into making a good life. Parents have had to fill that gap.”

Greenwalt cites data from the National Center for Educational Statistics that found that only 36 percent of homeschooling families surveyed said “the desire for religious or moral instruction” was their primary reason for homeschooling. Issues like bullying, allergies, racism -- or a desire to excel in athletics or the performing arts -- were just as important to many homeschool families.

Demographically, he said it’s hard to discern a difference between the general population and the homeschooled population, since indicators “like political identification, degree of religious commitment, social class, race,” don’t seem to influence which families decide to opt out of traditional education. “If you got all of them together in a room, they'd look like the country as a whole,” said Greenwalt.

In years past, there was “a pretty uneasy alliance” between secular and religious homeschooling communities but as the community enlarged and more states have laws to protect parents’ right to educate their children, there’s less cohesion, said Greenwalt.

In the second part of our interview, to be published next week, Greenwalt will talk about the barriers that prevent more families from actively homeschooling, and the challenges about drawing conclusions from data on homeschooling.

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