What goes unmentioned is what made this lifestyle possible: the fact that Taylor’s mother could afford to stay home with her kids. Yet Taylor bristles against the suggestion that there was anything unique about the ability of her upper-middle class, uber-intellectual parents to effectively “unschool” their children while still helping them grow into educated adults with satisfying professional lives. This critique “implies that most people are not gifted, and that they need to be guided, molded, tested, and inspected,” Taylor complains. “What makes us so sure most people couldn’t handle self-education?”
What makes us so sure? Reality. More than 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are in the workforce. One-third of all children and one-half of low-income children are being raised by a single parent. Fewer than one-half of young children, and only about one-third of low-income kids, are read to daily by an adult. Surely, this isn’t the picture of a nation ready to “self-educate” its kids.
Nor can we allow homeschoolers to believe their choice impacts only their own offspring. 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.
Of course, no one wants to sacrifice his own child’s education in order to better serve someone else’s kid. But here’s the great thing about attending racially and socioeconomically integrated schools: It helps children become better grown-ups. Research by Columbia University sociologist Amy Stuart Wells found that adult graduates of integrated high schools shared a commitment to diversity, to understanding and bridging cultural differences, and to appreciating “the humanness of individuals across racial lines.”
Taylor admits that “[m]any people, liberal and conservative alike, are deeply offended by critiques of compulsory schooling.” I suppose I am one of them. I benefited from 13 years of public education in one of the most diverse and progressive school districts in the United States. My father, stepmother, stepfather, and grandfather are or were public school educators. As an education journalist, I’ve admired many public schools that use culturally relevant, high-standards curricula to engage even the most disadvantaged students. These schools are sustained by the talents of impossibly hard-working teachers who want to partner with parents and kids, not oppress them.
Despite our conflicting perspectives, I agree with Taylor that school ought to be more engaging, more intellectually challenging, and less obsessed with testing. But government is the only institution with the power and scale to intervene in the massive undertaking of better educating American children, 90 percent of whom currently attend public schools. (And it’s worth remembering that schools provide not just education, but basic child care while parents are at work.) Lefty homeschoolers might be preaching sound social values to their children, but they aren’t practicing them. If progressives want to improve schools, we shouldn’t empty them out. We ought to flood them with our kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.
Correction, Feb. 16, 2012: This article originally misidentified the author of a report on homeschooling. It was the political scientist Rob Reich, not the former labor secretary Robert Reich.