Thoughts on (some) Liberals Homeschooling our Kids

The opinion piece, “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids: Why teaching children at home violates progressive values”, by Slate magazine contributor Dana Goldstein, touched a nerve with political progressives on Daily KOS who strongly second Goldstein’s call and also others who as strongly disagree. Whatever you think about homeschooling, the piece touches on some fundamental issues about how those of us who believe in equality and justice for all (and particularly in the area of education and human development) can continue to work together to move our country towards realizing those goals.

As I see it, the gist of Goldstein’s argument is that homeschooling is a selfish practice that is antithetical to concern for the entire community, a concern that authentically progressive people should share. “Liberal homeschoolers” in particular are naively undermining a crucial public institution (public schools) that needs not only their tax dollars but their kids sitting at desks in those schools, for those schools to survive and continue to serve the entire community and promote a truly democratic society.

Writes Goldstein…

Although the national school-reform debate is fixated on standardized testing and “teacher quality” — indeed, the uptick in secular homeschooling may be, in part, a backlash against this narrow education agenda — a growing body of research suggests “peer effects” have a large impact on student achievement. Low-income kids earn higher test scores when they attend school alongside middle-class kids, while the test scores of privileged children are impervious to the influence of less-privileged peers. So when college-educated parents pull their kids out of public schools, whether for private school or homeschooling, they make it harder for less-advantaged children to thrive.

Per Goldstein, though a middle-class family may believe they can improve their own kid’s development by pulling that kid out of public school, they are certainly doing a disservice to the less advantaged kids who are left behind, as well as the whole fabric of a democratic society that should not divide people into “us and them” or “haves and have nots”. This even if that middle-class family continues to pay taxes for public schools while educating their own kid outside of public school on their own dime!

To get a sense of the scope of this issue, the latest U.S. Department of Education statistics I’ve seen show that some ten percent of kids in the U.S. go to private school, while only one to two percent are homeschooled. So I’m assuming Goldstein highlights homeschooling in her piece because it is trending upward, while private school enrollment is a longstanding reality (which is actually trending downward).

As a person who generally considers himself a progressive, but also a strong supporter of homeschooling, I acknowledge her concern. I see it as the same concern that was one of the motivators behind “No Child Left Behind”, federal legislation which most progressives would agree has gone horribly wrong in setting measures that have led to “teaching to the test” and will likely soon define the majority of public schools in the U.S. as “failing”. (And as Goldstein notes in the excerpt above has encouraged some of that flight from public schools to homeschooling.)

Ironically, it was no less than liberal icon Teddy Kennedy who co-championed the NCLB legislation. I wonder if he sent his kids to public school?

I share with Goldstein a belief that we need to provide an opportunity for all our kids to get a good education. I would also hope she would acknowledge that what constitutes a “good education” for one person may not be the same for another. Every human being is unique, and we acknowledge that different people have profoundly different ways we learn. We can’t simply require and ensure that every kid in America learns the same curriculum, in the same manner, on the same schedule, and then say we have done our due diligence in offering an education consistent with equality and justice for all.

Promoting Educational Diversity

We progressives acknowledge that we live in a diverse society and that we should celebrate and encourage, rather than squelch, that diversity. We do not support promoting one religion as right while others are wrong. We do not celebrate one cultural heritage at the expense of others. So following that same logic, we should not promote one approach to education and human development to the detriment of all others.

But unfortunately, our current public education system is not honoring educational diversity and is in fact promoting one educational approach, the method that involves sitting kids down in front of a teacher in a classroom who then presents academic material and generally stage-manages the entire learning process. Given that people do have a range of learning styles, this classroom approach really only works for some of our kids. Other kids wither away in a classroom and need more real-world settings (such as say apprenticeships) that provide more practical context for the knowledge and skills acquired. Still other kids are determined to direct their own learning and will continually butt heads with a teacher in their face constantly redirecting them from their natural instincts for self-directed inquiry.

Is the human right to a good education served if we insist on providing a learning environment that suits the first group of kids but not the other two? Sure they are all getting the “same” education, but is that a “good” education for all of them? Don’t we as progressives have common ground in promoting an educational system that allows for a diversity of educational approaches? Don’t we owe it to the fundamental human rights of a person to not force them to learn in a classroom at the direction of an orchestrating teacher if that is antithetical to how they naturally learn?

The Recent Historical Challenge to Progressive Education

As progressives, it seems that we should take the words of the greatest American progressive philosopher of the 20th century, John Dewey, to heart…

Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself.

Candidly, I think Dewey would likely be troubled with homeschooling, since he saw public education as an institution to help build an active and effective adult citizenry for a democratic society. But given that, I think he would be equally troubled by what is going on in our public schools. Quoting Dewey again…

The notion that some subjects and methods and that acquaintance with certain facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of predigested materials.

Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.

I think Dewey’s words ring true today, since “traditional” education has reasserted itself to dominance in the past 30 years.

Since the 1983 publication of the profound critique of U.S. public schools by the Reagan administration, “A Nation at Risk”, policymakers, business leaders, academics, and the media have pursued a renewed campaign to harness American education to the values of the economic system – productivity, efficiency, accountability, standardization, and rational management. Students’ intelligence and creativity have arguably been appropriated by the corporate state as “intellectual capital.” In line with that framing, federal and state governments defined “goals,” “standards,” and “outcomes” and demanded that all young people achieve certain milestones by predetermined ages.

This shackling of public education came to a head with Rod Paige and the “Houston Miracle”, which led to the George W. Bush administration partnering with Ted Kennedy to pass “No Child Left Behind”. A compromise at best between “corporatist” conservatives looking to exercise top-down control over the education system and progressives trying to ensure that that system would not continue to “leave behind” our most economically disadvantaged communities and their young people. A compromise that has led to our current state of increasingly regimented curriculum and teaching methodologies in order to “teach to the test” and avoid the coercive remedies built into NCLB.

Our Path Forward & Its Historical Precedents

We come together here on Daily KOS because we see ourselves sharing a movement for human progress that acknowledges the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. As a veteran activist, I know that the most successful movements are multi-faceted and challenge an entrenched system from all angles including from within and without. For example, the eight decade U.S. movement for women’s suffrage that culminated in final ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 comes to mind. Did not that movement finally succeed by leveraging the leadership of its “good cop” Carrie Chapman Katt, lobbying respectfully in the halls of political power, while its “bad cop” Alice Paul and her followers challenged the status quo with provocative street actions and prison hunger strikes?

When it comes to developing a truly humanistic education system, don’t we likewise need to fight the battles from within and without? And if we progressives just get riled up by Goldstein’s piece and take opposite sides, aren’t we guilty of fighting with each other rather than coordinating our efforts to continue to humanize and democratize entrenched aspects of our American culture?

As a “liberal homeschooler”, I truly believe that I and my fellow homeschooling travelers are not part of the problem but can and should be part of the solution. Not by forcing our kids back to school against our judgment of their developmental needs, but by sharing with the majority of other progressives (who continue to have their kids in public or even private school) a goal of transforming a recalcitrant American institution towards achieving the goals that John Dewey envisioned.

Those of us with kids who do well in that conventional classroom environment should keep our kids there to add their positive energy to that educational venue. This while at the same time lobbying teachers, administrators and school boards to move away from centralized and regimented curriculum enforced by “teaching to the test”.

Those of us with kids who do not do so well in that conventional classroom environment, and choose another educational path, should continue to do so while continuing to raise our voices in the educational debate, playing a role as a sort of “bad cop” or “canaries in the coal mine”. I really don’t think we are doing teachers and the other students any favors by forcing kids to be in a conventional classroom environment that is against their developmental nature, and which risks turning teachers into jailers and poisoning an important learning environment.

We should honor those among us who are willing to be public school teachers by doing our best to ensure that the kids in their classrooms are happy to be there and resonate in this instructional academic approach to learning.

We also need to be realistic that educational transformation towards a more holistic and humanistic vision of a John Dewey is a long-term effort. It will probably progress incrementally and not come to fruition until most or all of our kids in K-12 schools today are adults. Our American young people are not an abstract mass of humanity to be dealt with in abstract mass terms. They are over fifty million unique souls who we are individually responsible to to provide them with the opportunity for their own development towards achieving “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” within the context of our human community.

9 replies on “Thoughts on (some) Liberals Homeschooling our Kids”

  1. Too many white liberals assert privilege to buy their way out of society’s problems when the going gets tough, it makes you poor allies in the fight for social justice.

  2. Even as a progressive and a public school teacher, I’ve often considered homeschooling my own children, almost exclusively because I don’t like our emphasis on one-size-fits-all education (despite ‘differentiation’ talk to the contrary) and I really don’t think it will fit with my older son’s personality. Also, I have an almost visceral reaction when it comes to high-stakes standardized tests. The only things holding me back at this point are money (I can’t afford to stop teaching full-time) and some misgivings regarding the equity research you cited.

    I’ve also thought about simply opting my kids out of the state tests, but they would still be subjected to days’ worth of unnecessary test prep.

    Interestingly, my commonwealth just allowed a “Tim Tebow” homeschool sports bill to die in committee, and I’m not really sure what I think about that, either! A topic for another day, I guess…

  3. Amy… I share your thoughts about one-size-fits-all enforced by standardized testing. To use an farming metaphor, its turning our public education system into a single crop “monoculture” rather than a healthier diverse crop array.

    My mom’s mantra as a parent was that, “Kids will tell you what they need!” So after too long sticking to some misguided “tough love” with our own son Eric, we finally realized what he was “telling” us and pulled him out of school in the middle of eighth grade. See my piece for details… TBD

    As to the state tests, I’d say give your kids the option to opt out, including explaining to them the politics at stake. We did that with our daughter Emma, and she chose not to take them. I think that sends a real message to the school and the whole system that you will not help perpetuate a negative educational trend. With your kids’ assent, maybe you could even take it a step further and request that they be opted out of any test prep as well. That would be provocative!

    Just thoughts!


  4. The National Institutes of Health estimates between 15% and 20% of the population may be dyslexic. My son is. My husband and I were both teachers early on, and in 8th grade we decided to quit drugging him and homeschool. He was in the Behaviorally Disordered classroom. That is how public school dealt with his “differences”. We didn’t have that at the small schools where we taught (10 kids per grade versus 800).

    In regards to social justice…it’s not just privileged whites who homeschool. That is somewhat of a racist statement. I personally know many black homeschoolers. Sure, lots of homeschoolers are “wonderbread” parents…but inadequate schools hurt black kids, too. Why do you think so many blacks drop out? So they can start selling drugs and live a life of crime? Or maybe…because they are made to feel stupid and just give up. I know one woman who homeschooled because her son was very bright, as was her daughter. It had been suggested, however, that her daughter needed ritalin. Kids do leave school because of drugs, more than you know. The pharmaceuticals…

    NCLB has become a joke, hurting the very kids it was supposed to help as they become scapegoats for failing schools. It’s funny, too, as both the Kennedy’s and Bush’s had dyslexic family members who I am sure were thought of in school accountability.

    Deweys dream could come true if kids were taught the way they learned. While teaching to the test, recess, art, shop, music and theater became superfluous. Those very classes the atypical learners need most.

  5. Cool Dana… thanks for the positive feedback!

    I read your piece you linked to in your comments. As a fellow advocate of unschooling, I think it was concise and well said. I agree with all your bullet points except perhaps one…

    * Working collaboratively with each student to set short-term and long-term individual goals, and create a plan for pursuing them.

    That almost seems to externally directive for my own sense of egalitarian parenting, though I would hope that my own kids would want to consult with me on their own thoughts on their path forward. I know that when I attempted to apply this approach with our own son Eric when he unschooled during his teen years, he gave me a lot of push-back which I eventually honored given a principle of respecting his inherent worth and dignity.

    Anyway… just to note that! Glad you are out there as a thoughtful and well-spoken advocate for unschooling!

    Cooper Zale

  6. Finding this almost a decade after it was written after a particularly interesting spike in POC homeschoolers, as highlighted in a new VICE Youtube video (

    Great piece, I feel like your ending discussing unique souls. It’s so easy to get caught up in talking about “education” and “departments of education” and think of them as these big evil collectives and not as a tool for children.

  7. Emily… thanks for your comment! It has been a decade since I wrote the piece and so I went back and reread it. It is interesting that more people of color are getting into homeschooling. Back when I wrote the piece it was a pretty exclusively non-POC educational option, with either an elitist of strict religious feel to it.

    I’d be interested to hear what your situation is in regards to schooling. A parent? An educator? Just an interested citizen?

    My kids are in their thirties now, but both left regular school in their early teens in favor of the self-directed version of homeschooling most call unschooling. That was a whole adventure that I have also written about, if you’re interested.

    Cooper Zale
    Lefty Parent

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