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~ ~ 'i §} SCHOOLS AND ~ HOME SCHOOLERS:

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FRUITFUL~

PARTNERSHIP by John Holt

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A small but growing number of parents are choosing to educate their children at home. Some school districts choose to cooperate with the home schoolers; far more do not. Mr. Holt, a leading figure in the home-schooling movement, .,.o:Ycalls for a partnership - not just grudging tolerance. ~

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n September 1978 Elaine Mahoney, whose two daughters attended public school in Barnstable, Massachusetts, decided to take the girls out of school and teach them herself (or rather, allow and. help them to learn), at home and ;n as much of the world around the home as she could make accessible to them. She was, of course, by no means the first person to do so. For much of history this is what everyone did. Even since the beginning of universal compulsory schooling, a number of parents, because of geographical isolation (still often the case in Alaska) or personal conviction, have always chosen to teach their own children. What was most significant here was not that the school board allowed Mahoney to teach her children at home (many other school boards have done so) but that it invited her children to use the schools and their staff members and equipment as part of their learning re-

HOLT ASSOCIATES INC. 2269 MASSACHUSETTS AVE.

CAMBRIDGE, MA 02140

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sources. In other words, the Mahoney others go for one or two full days a week. girls could come to school as part-time The oldest daughter of the Kinmonts, one volunteers, to use the library or take a of the most active home-schooling farnispecial class, to go on a field trip, use a lab lies in Utah, attends a regular drama class or shop, or take part in such activities as at her local high school. In June 1982 the music, drama, and sports. The Cape Cod president of the Utah Home Education Times reported on 22 June 1979, "The Association wrote the superintendent of a school committee has made it possible for large school district asking him how the Mahoney children to attend special home-taught children might take part in programs offered in Cape schools in order district band and orchestra programs; the to round out their education and to pro- superintendent promptly took steps to vide opportunities for them to socialize make participation by home-schooled with their peers. In the past year (the girls) · children possible. have attended school workshops in solar Although such patterns of cooperation energy, woodcarving, beekeeping, jazz, are occurring more frequently, they still seem to be more the exception than the and arts and crafts. . . . " This pattern of cooperation between rule. Most school districts, faced with a schools and what we have come to call family that wishes to teach its own chilhome schoolers exists in a small but in- dren, tend to respond with grudging tolercreasing number of school districts in dif- ance, echoing the words of one supe.rferent parts of the U.S. In one district two intendent: "We don't approve of it, but children eagerly attend school one day it's your right." These superintendents each week to take part in a creative art and there are many of them - forbid class. A number of school districts have home-taught children to use any school offered to supply parents with the text- facilities; some ·have refused to tell ramibooks and materials used in their regular lies even what texts and materials the classes, and one district provided a family schools are using. Some school districts with $200 a year to buy books and rna- probably fewer than formerly - respond terials of their own choosing. Some chil- to requests to teach children at home by dren go to school for half the day only; threatening to take the families to court FEBRUARY 1983

391


and even to dtprive them of their children.

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contend that it would be in the interest of schools everywhere - even in the most narrowly conceived terms (e.g., budgets, jobs, etc.) - to follow the example of the Barnstable School District and cooperate fully with home sch1>0lers . rather than oppose them. First, it is simply not reali~tic for school departments and districts to perceive home schooling (as many seem to) as some kind of threat, either in the short or long run. True, the number of home-schooling families has grown rapidly in recent years and, if the legal 5ituation does not change for the worse, is likely to continue to grow. But the actual number of families who have chosen not to send their children to school is hardly more than ten or fifteen thousand. Even if present rates of growth continue for a generation, it is most unlikely that more than S'lt or perhaps IO'It of families in the U.S. will choose to teach their own children. Most children will remain in public or private schools for as far into the future as anyone dare look. A county district attorney in Minnesota, testifying l>efore the education committee of the state house of representatives, cogently expressed the reasons why schools are unwise to pursue and prosecute home-schooling families. He said, in effect, it costs us a lot of time and energy to take these cases through the courts; we get a lot or tetrible publicity; we lose many more cases than we win; and even when we win we don't pin anything, for the family usually just moves to anothet school district, or pethaps out of state, and we or someone else has the whole thing to do all over apin. His remarks are true everywhere. Prosecuting these cases wastes a Jot of the schools' and the courts' time, energy, and money - so much that district attorneys in some states simply refuse to prosecute them. Families do indeed win far more often than they lose. I cannot think of one well-prepared case (unfortunately, not all are well prepared) in recent years in which the family has lost. Since the press and othet media have been generally sympathetic to home schooling, these cases almost always brina the schools much unfavorable publicity. And of those families who, because of poorly prepared cases, do lose in court, very few knuckle undet and send their children back to public schooL Most simply move tc ·,nother jurisdiction or find another way to teach their children. My point is that schools would be wise not merely to refrain from opposing home schoolers but to cooperate with them as fully as possible. For one thing, such cooperation might well bring schools some 392

PHI DELTA KAPflAN

good publicity, and that would be a welcome change. About two years ago I spoke on a local television talk show about the Mahoneys' home schooling and their happy relationship with the Barnstable schools. Shortly thereafter, Barnstable school officials began to receive queries by mail and by phone from parents and school officials across Massachusetts and even from neighboring states. The Barnstable school district was naturally delighted to be the center of so much admiring attention and to help break new and important ground in education. But a far more important reason for cooperating with the home-schooling movement is that it is likely to yield important ideas and methods that might help schools solve many of their most serious and intractable problems. To be sure, some of these problems have their origins outside the schools and can hardly be affected by anything schools do. But others have their origins in the schools themselves, in the way they are organized and in their fundamental assumptions. U.S. schools are burdened by a set of assumptions: first, assumptions about children; second, about learning; and finally, about teaching and the relationship between teaching and learning. These assumptions shape everything schools do, and I believe them to be a root cause of the schools' frustrations and failures. Schools tend to assume that children are not much interested in learning, are not much good at it, and are unlikely to learn anything useful and important unless adults tell them what to learn, tell them when and how to learn it, check up on them to make sure they are learning it, and reward or penalize ("reinforce")

them according to whether they seem to be learning it or not. These assumptions about children are often unconscious, and, indeed, schoolpeople often say the very opposite. Moreover, these assumptions about children are not supported by research or experience. They are rooted in popular Calvinist assumptions about the inherent badness of children and in the deep need of many adults to credit themselves for anything good that children may do. No one with eyes and ears open and a mind in working order can long remain in the company of babies or young children without observing that they are in fact voracious, tireless, and skillful learners and that they create learning out of their experiences in much the same way that scientists create it out of theirs. Concerning learning, teaching, and the relationship between them, schools tend to operate according to the following seven assumptions: • The act of learning is inherently passive, difficult, painful, and dull mostly memorizing uninteresting facts because one is forced or paid to do so. • Learning is and can only be the result of teaching; nothing is learned unless it is first taught; children learn only when (and only because) adults teach them. • Teaching is a mysterious and difficult activity that can best be carried out by specially trained and licensed people. • Teaching consists mainly of dividing the material to be learned into the largest possible number of the smallest possible units of information and presenting them to children in a predetermined sequence, with an appropriate schedule of rewards and penalties. • When trained and licensed people

"All right, I'll go. But I'll come back with classroom pallor. "


carry out these procedures and children do not learn (or soon forget what they are taught), it can only mean that something is wrong with the children. • By definition, all problems of learning can only lie in the child, his or her family, social class, etc.; none can ever be blamed on the school, its teachers, or its methods. • Therefore, an important part of teaching consists of d iagnosing the many neurological, environmental, and psychological disorders of children - the supposed causes of their failure to learn and prescribing and carrying out various treatments (rarely cures) for these disorders. Of course, many people in education do not share these assumptions, and some oppose them passionately. Over the years I have met many such people - classroom teachers, administrators, professors of education. Yet, even at the height of supposed change in education, they have always felt themselves to be members of a small and hard-pressed minority, usually misunderstood, distrusted, or even despised by most of their colleagues, often in danger of losing their jobs. Never, anywhere, have such people said to me, "Around here we are in charge." Instead, they talk mostly in terms of surviving. The effective and controlling assumptions of education everywhere are the ones I have · named.

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ne serious consequence of the prevalence of these assumptions, grounded more in folklore than in experience o r research, is that they can scarcely be tested with a large enough population and over a long enough period to produce meaningful results. However, many small-scale experiences, in homes and in schools, have shown that, when children are allowed to decide when they will begin the exciting task of learning to read and are allowed to work out for themselves the problems of doing so (with no more help or checking than they ask for), the great majority of them learn to read much more quickly, enthusiastically, and efficiently than most children in conventional schools. But not in the foreseeable future can we expect a school district to duplicate this experience with more than a tiny fraction of its pupils - if any at all. Similarly, many experiences in homes and schools (even in the penal institution for boys described by Daniel Fader in Hooked on Books) have shown that, when children who can read at least a little are given access to a large and varied selection of books, told to read what they like, and given plenty of time without interruption, checking, testing, or competitive

H ome schooling is a laboratory for the Intensive and longrange study of children's learning and of the ways In which concerned adults can help them learn.

grading, not only does their reading skill improve but they come to love reading. Yet even those schools that have tried such programs on a small scale and found them successful have rarely applied them more widely. A number of schools in various parts of the U.S. have begun to devote a short time each day to •'sustained silent reading," but even these schools rarely allow more than 10 minutes a day for this work. To give even as much as a single hour per day to silent reading (thus taking time away from reading instruc· lion) would strike most educators as a dangerously radical experiment. Not in the foreseeable future can we imagine a school district saying to its students, "You can read anything you like, and as much as you like, and we aren 't going to grade you on it." Or, "You can study whatever you want, and we don't care what grade you're in." Or, "If you're working on some project, take as much time as you need to finish it." If educational experiments such as these are ever to be undertaken on a large scale (as they should be), it is not likely to be in schools as we know them . Nor are we likely to see large-scale and long-term research conducted to find out whether frequent testing actually helps children learn or only hinders them, or whether other methods of evaluating learning might not be better than the standardized testing now almost universally used. We are equally unlikely to see any research that questions or examines any other standard assumptions and practices in education. There is only one place where this kind of research is likely to be carried out on a large enough scale and for a long enough time to yield significant results. That place is in the homes of families who are teaching their own children. This is the main reason why the home-schooling movement is so important to schools. It is - in effect, though certainly not by design - a laboratory for the intensive and longrange study of children's learning and of the ways in which friendly and concerned

adults can help them learn. It is a research project, done at no cost, of a kind for which neither the public schools nor the government could afford to pay. Even if our public institutions could afford such research, it would not be as good as that now taking place in homes. The idea that conducting research requires "professional distance" - according to the many teachers and student-teachers I have asked, still the prevailing opinion taught in many schools of education - ignores the value of flexibility of curriculum and schedule, and above all the closeness, the intimacy, the emotional warmth, and the security of those homes in which parents elect to teach their own children. The absence of professional distance makes those homes effective environments not only for children's learning but also for the training of the parent/teachers themselves. All teachers who learn to teach well learn to do so mostly from their students, who show by their responses when teaching has been helpful and when it has not. But even the most attentive, perceptive, and thoughtful classroom teachers could never elicit from their students the amount and intensity of feedback that home-schooling parents typically get from their children, because parents know and understand their children so much better. Some people might argue that this family activity could not properly be called research, that it would not be significant because it would be haphazard and uncontrolled. Careful sampling a nd other matters of research protocol may indeed be necessary if we want to know what large numbers of people are doing, but these procedures are worthless if we want to learn what people might be capable of doing. It took only one person, Roger Bannister, to prove that the fourminute mile was possible. That no one else had done it was beside the point. Not only did he show that it could be done; he showed that, if you wanted to find out . how to do it, he - not the average runner - was the one to ask. So far, the homeschooling movement may not have generated statistically impressive numbers of success stories, but, if it is not legally prevented from growing, it is sure to do so. Meanwhile, as it grows, it gives more and more encouragement and support to those people within the schools who are trying to make fundamental changes.

ut the home-schooling movement • provides more than just encour· agement to those who seek change in the schools; it also provides much useful information. There is a great deal of internal communication within the homeschooling movement. As people who FEBRUARY 1983

393


:md even to deprive them of their chil· dren.

I

contend that it would be in the interest of schools everywhere - even in the most narrowly conceived terms (e.g., budgets, jobs, etc.) - to follow the example of the Barnstable School District and cooperate fully with home schoolers . rather than oppose them. First, it is simply not reali~tic for school departments and districts to perceive home schooling (as many seem to) as some kind of threat, either in the short or long run. True, the number of home-schooling families has grown rapidly in recent years and, if the legal situation does not change for the worse, is likely to continue to grow. But the actual number of families who have chosen not to send their children to school is hardly more than ten or fifteen thousand. Even if present rates of growth continue for a generation, it is most unlikely that more than 50Jo or perhaps lOOJt of families in the U.S. will choose to teach their own children. Most children will re· main in public or private schools for as far into the future as anyone dare look:. A county district attorney in Minnesota, testifying "efore the education com· mittee of the state house of representa· tives, cogently expressed the reasons why schools are unwise to pursue and prosecute home-schooling families. He said, in effect, it costs us a lot of time and energy to take these cases through the courts; we get a lot of terrible publicity; we lose many more cases than we win; and even when we win we don't gain anything, for the family usually just moves to another school district, or perhaps out of state, and we or someone else has the whole thing to do all over again. His remarks are true everywhere. Prosecuting these cases wastes a lot of the schools' and the courts' time, energy, and money - so much that district attorneys in some states simply refuse to prosecute them. Families do in· deed win far more often than they lose. I cannot think of one well-prepared case (unfortunately, not all are well prepared) in recent years in which the family has lost. Since the press and other media have been generally sympathetic to home schooling, these cases almost always bring the schools much unfavorable publicity. And of those families who, because of poorly prepared cases, do lose in court, very few knuckle under and send their children back to public school. Most simply move tc ·,nother jurisdiction or find another way to teach their children. My point is that schools would be wise not merely to refrain from opposing home schoolers but to cooperate with them as fully as possible. For one thing, such cooperation might well bring schools some 392

PHI DELTA KAPPAN

good publicity, and that would be a welcome change. About two years ago I spoke on a local television talk show about the Mahoneys' home schooling and their happy relationship with the Barnstable schools. Shortly thereafter, Barnstable school officials began to receive queries by mail and by phone from parents and school officials across Massachusetts and even from neighboring states. The Barnstable school district was naturally delighted to be the center of so much admiring attention and to help break new and important ground in education. But a far more important reason for cooperating with the home-schooling movement is that it is likely to yield important ideas and methods that might help schools solve many of their most serious and intractable problems. To be sure, some of these problems have their origins outside the schools and can hardly be affected by anything schools do. But others have their origins in the schools themselves, in the way they are organized and in their fundamental assumptions. U.S. schools are burdened by a set of assumptions: first, assumptions about children; second, about learning; and finally, about teaching and the relationship between teaching and learning. These assumptions shape everything schools do, and I believe them to be a root cause of the schools' frustrations and failures. Schools tend to assume that children are not much interested in learning, are not much good at it, and are unlikely to learn anything useful and important unless adults tell them what to learn, tell them when and how to learn it, check up on them to make sure they are learning it, and reward or penalize ("reinforce")

them according to whether they seem to be learning it or not. These assumptions about children are often unconscious, and, indeed, schoolpeople often say the very opposite. Moreover, .these assumptions about children are not supported by research or experience. They are rooted in popular Calvinist assumptions about the inherent badness of children and in the deep need of many adults to credit themselves for anything good that children may do. No one with eyes and ears open and a mind in working order can long remain in the company of babies or young children without observing that they are in fact voracious, tireless, and skillful learners and that they create learning out of their experiences in much the same way that scientists create it out of theirs. Concerning learning, teaching, and the relationship between them, schools tend to operate according to the following seven assumptions: • The act of learning is inherently passive, difficult, painful, and dull mostly memorizing uninteresting facts because one is forced or paid to do so. • Learning is and can only be the result of teaching; nothing is learned unless it is first taught; children learn only when (and only because) adults teach them. • Teaching is a mysterious and difficult activity that can best be carried out by specially trained and licensed people. • Teaching consists mainly of dividing the material to be learned into the largest possible number of the smallest possible units of information and presenting them to children in a predetermined sequence, with an appropriate schedule of rewards and penalties. • When trained and licensed people

"All right, I'll go. But I'll come back with classroom pallor. "


Schools and Homeschoolers from Phi Delta Kappan