Every Family Homeschools (Part 2) - 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 first part of our interview, Greenwalt talked about how cultural and economic shifts turned teachers into stand-in parents, and how homeschooling helps families meet their individual needs. Here, he describes some of the challenges that prevent homeschooling families from benefiting from public schooling that also make it hard for researchers to draw conclusions from homeschooling data.

Decades After Legal Battles, Many Homeschoolers Remain Skeptical of Tebow Laws

Because homeschooling families faced decades of legal challenges to secure their right to educate their children, many harbor “some suspicion toward the state and the institutions they represent,” said Greenwalt. As a result, even though so-called Tebow laws make it easier for non-traditional students to join in arts, athletics or other scholastic enterprises, “they don’t want to participate.”

At a national level, “the Homeschool Legal Defense Association and the more conservative people in the movement are quite opposed to any cooperation between public schools and homeschooling families” said Greenwalt

Today, thirty-one states allow homeschooled students to take part in public interscholastic sports, but “some of those families and organizations have opposed these Tebow Laws,” he added, although “the rise of online charters” might encourage more homeschool families to engage. That would allow homeschool children to play varsity sports in the public school system.

“I think it's still part of a holdover effect from the families that won the right to homeschool, state by state in the 1980s,” said Greenwalt, referring to legal battles that were “contentious, and in some cases, a very traumatic experience for families who had to go to court or face jail time.”

Many educators and school teachers have their own prejudices, because “there was a sense that these people are opting out,” which led to incomprehension and mistrust, he said. “If you ask most people, their gut reaction to homeschooling is that this is not a good thing.”

Public School Has Become “A Rite Of Passage”

Despite well-recognized problems like school violence, bullying and cutbacks, attending public school is essentially “a rite of passage, and we don't have any of those in our society anymore,” said Greenwalt.

Warts and all, the prevailing attitude is that public school is something “everyone should go through, even though we all have poor memories of our own schooling,” said Greenwalt. “They just kind of feel like everybody else should go through it, too.”

Parents shape their lives around their children, and as a result, “so much of our adult identities are tied up in parenting, especially for middle class and upper middle-class people.” Without bake sales, track meets and school trips to bind them, homeschooling families “have to work a little bit harder to feel plugged into the neighborhood,” Greenwalt said.

“There's a little more intentional effort for those families to connect,” he added. “Web sites like Outschool are really fascinating to me; these networks where people can plug in the things they want to learn with people who have the skills to teach them.”

What Does Data About Homeschooling Tell Us?

Although “it's not hard to to gather data” about the long-term impacts and efficacy of homeschooling, “it's hard to say what is going on with that data,” said Greenwalt. “If you really want to make claims about what's more effective, or who's doing better, you have to have random assignment to groups, and you can't do that with homeschooling,” he noted. “People self-select into these groups.”

“It just gets ideological really quick,” he said. “Whether you're for or against, people have a hard time putting that aside when it comes to the research,” added Greenwalt. “A lot of the studies are performed by homeschool advocacy groups, which doesn't mean they're not good studies, but it makes people suspicious about the findings.”

And because many homeschooling parents are wary of state actors, they’re unlikely to join a study, he added.

“My reading of the research is that there's not a huge difference, but homeschooled students might do slightly better academically and in college,” said Greenwalt, who wonders whether homeschooling on its own explains why those students “do slightly better than public school kids.”

Homeschooled students not only have a more flexible schedule than public school students, they also spend more time with parents, reading, and exploring individual interests. “Any of these things could be causing a more positive effect, but some of these things could be transferred to public schools, and we might see a similarly strong effect if we just gave kids more flexibility,” concludes Greenwalt.

“The big question is how they fare in life and those types of studies are really hard to put together to evaluate,” he said. “For me, the purpose of the book is to ask: what is good in each, and where points of mutual comprehension and learning can come about.”

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