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Wake-Up Call

Homeschooling and the politics of education

Posted

We've all heard the phrase "elephant in the room" to describe a significant obstacle or problem in plain sight that people choose to pretend they don't see because for one reason or other they're not prepared to deal with it.

There is such an example in education that's so obvious that it makes most "elephants in the room" seem like mice in a stadium by comparison.

It's more like a brontosaurus in a closet.

I'm referring to the lowering of class size to facilitate student learning. Certainly we should celebrate the state Legislature's bill, passed last week, which, upon Governor Kathy Hochul's signature, will drop class size limits in the earliest grades of New York City public schools from 25 to 20 and the high school roster ceiling from 34 to 25.

That's monumental and long overdue. Of course it comes with a hefty price-tag, but $7.6 billion in extra federal pandemic-related money and an additional $1.3 billion from state funds should go a long way to meeting a decades-old court mandate, provided there is no mismanagement and misdirection. Only 12 of New York State's 675 public school districts have a lower class size than the city that never sleeps.

So what's the "elephant in the room”?

Persistent refusal of the DOE to effectively deal with poor student discipline. As long as there are no significant consequences for violence and lesser intractable acts of defiance, the great opportunity to give kids more personal attention will be largely wasted. Bureaucrats and grandstanding politicians won't acknowledge it, but a single student can completely sabotage all teaching and learning for a whole class, no matter its size.

That's the main reason that parents give for the rapidly spreading homeschooling movement, although there are other reasons also. Before examining them, let's first do a dive into the wonderful promise and near reality of lowered class size as enabled by Albany.

The cost, even when considered separate from the benefits it would underwrite, is quite small.  Over five years it would amount to less than a single year's annual budget. No students will be transferred out or refused entrance due to the factor of space. It will prioritize our poorest schools.

There are anti-public education zealots who see the emphasis on lowering class size as driven by a teachers’ union whose sole interest is to create more jobs for dues-paying members. These union-busting ideologues reject the view that lower class size is advantageous to learning, although they invariably send their own kids to private schools — whose primary marketing point is small class size. Do they also feel that the ratio of attending physicians to critical care patients has no bearing on outcomes?

City Department of Education Chancellor David Banks fears cuts to dyslexia screenings, school nurses, summer programs and the like will be necessary because of the diversion of funds to lower class sizes.

That is a blushing red herring! A distraction. It's time for the DOE's point people to acquaint themselves with the principles of sound accounting.

The state’s Assembly and Senate leaders, the Legislature as a whole, Governor Hochul (if she consummates the bill with her signature), parents and the teachers union should be heartily congratulated for their victory on behalf of our children.

A collateral benefit will hopefully be to put the skids on homeschooling, although that is a complicated issue that has a life of its own and touches on matters that have deep roots and sometimes deeper prejudices.

Homeschooling has become more common since Covid. But for most people it was a reluctant choice that was made not as a reflection of dissatisfaction with schools, but rather driven by exasperation with the constantly shifting instructional scenarios and logistical nightmares caused by policy decisions that may or may not have been based on sound science.

The two steps forward and one step backwards of a return to normalcy was just too taxing and untenable. 

Critics of public schools particularly get their jollies by highlighting fanciful and concocted evidence of  alienation and mistrust of public schools. Most homeschooling parents found remote learning exceedingly inadequate and are eager to return their kids to brick and mortar schools. 

Nonetheless, there is undeniably a homeschooling movement afoot. It was boosted by Covid, but was already gathering steam before the pandemic, which they used as a selling point for an ideologically-driven loathing against public schools and the freedom of inquiry they foster. 

They prefer to exercise guardianship over what they deem their children's over-susceptible psyches by screening, editing, censoring and sometimes banning ideas that they fear would otherwise seep into their posterity's consciousness.

Homeschooling is the refuge of parents who are mentally locked and loaded to fortify their children from the government's subterfuge to control them. Not all are right-wingers or conspiracy theorists. Many simply want what they misguidedly perceive to be the best education for their kids and rearrange their other commitments to be available.

Sometimes they already possess or seek to acquire the necessary subject knowledge and pedagogical skills, but they cannot be the best judge of their performance. Homeschooling is inconvenient for most parents, but many have the inclination and inspiration to see it through.

There is no vetting of these parents for competence as teachers. They may provide structure, select appropriate instructional materials, and employ style and techniques that have been effective tools in child-rearing, but these may not necessarily apply to the special teacher-student relationship. And of course, social interaction with peers is essential, so parents must find outlets in sports teams and other associations.

Many great men and women, such as Mozart, were home-schooled, but usually this was due to hardship or lack of opportunity. I know a 7 year-old who is so well-rounded, mature, happy and precocious that it's impossible to imagine his thriving any better in school, but no doubt an opposite outcome is more likely when a child is kept away from other kids, no matter how benign the home environment.

Homeschooling is not a viable substitute for a traditional educational setting, especially a public school. When encountering a passionate disciple of it, however, try to discover their motivation.  Its foundation will determine whether they are likely to be receptive to the persuasive power of government schools. If they are political animals, there will be no taming the beast. 

But if they have an open mind, then it will be a snap to convince them of the virtues of our public schools, made even more stellar by the lowering of class size.

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