Argument with a homeschool opponent

Professor Eugene Volokh posted a comment on a Family Court case involving a dispute between parents over homeschooling versus public schooling. I initiated an e-mail correspondence with one of the people who left comments. I reproduce some of that correspondence here.

From: Malcolm Kirkpatrick
To: Dilan Esper

Dear Sir,

I saw your comment on homeschooling at the Volokh Conspiracy. Please reconsider.

From: Hyman and Penroe, Journal of School Psychology.
"Several studies of maltreatment by teachers suggest that school children report traumatic symptoms that are similar whether the traumatic event was physical or verbal abuse (Hyman, et.al.,1988; Krugman & Krugman, 1984; Lambert, 1990). Extrapolation from these studies suggests that psychological maltreatment of school children, especially those who are poor, is fairly widespread in the United States...."

Roland Meighan, "Home-based Education Effectiveness Research and Some of its Implications", Educational Review, Vol. 47, No.3, 1995.
"The issue of social skills. One edition of Home School Researcher, Volume 8, Number 3, contains two research reports on the issue of social skills. The first finding of the study by Larry Shyers (1992) was that home-schooled students received significantly lower problem behavior scores than schooled children. His next finding was that home-schooled children are socially well adjusted, but schooled children are not so well adjusted. Shyers concludes that we are asking the wrong question when we ask about the social adjustment of home-schooled children. The real question is why is the social; adjustment of schooled children of such poor quality?"

"The second study, by Thomas Smedley (1992), used different test instruments but comes to the same conclusion, that home-educated children are more mature and better socialized than those attending school." ...p. 277
"12. So-called 'school phobia' is actually more likely to be a sign of mental health, whereas school dependancy is a largely unrecognized mental health problem"....p.281

Clive Harber, "Schooling as Violence", p. 10, Educatioinal Review, V. 54, #1.
"...It is almost certainly more damaging for children to be in school than to out of it. Children whose days are spent herding animals rather than sitting in a clasroom at least develop skills of problem solving and independence while the supposedly luckier ones in school are stunted in their mental, physical, and emotional development by being rendered pasive, and by having to spend hours each day in a crowded classroom under the control of an adult who punishes them for any normal level of activity such as moving or speaking."

"Autobiographical Notes," in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Paul Schilpp, ed. (1951), pp. 17-19
"It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly."

A statistician in the office of the Attorney General gave me the charts below. This is what advocates of compulsory attendance statutes must defend...

I was a teacher in the Hawaii DOE schools for ten years.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick
From: Dilan Esper
To: Malcolm Kirkpatrick


Thanks for your note. I didn't say why I wasn't a fan of homeschooling in my comment-- I just noted my opposition. But since you raise it, I will tell you that my concern is about insuring that there is a collective base of knowledge that is shared by all Americans. I.e., I want every educated American to understand Darwinian evolution, STD prevention, that there are other religions that claim millions of reasonable people as adherents besides the one that they were raised in, that there are valid criticisms of religious belief that have persuaded many people, the basic principles that are enshrined in our Constitution and why they are important, etc.

My concern about homeschooling is not so much about outcomes-- I assume that most homeschooled kids do fine, but I also suspect that some kids would have done better in the public school system (it all depends on the teaching skills of the parents). And I fully understand any parent who pulls his or her kid out of the schools because the parent thinks he or she can do a better job educating the child, especially if the local schools stink.

But I suspect that in actuality, many children are homeschooled in part or in the main because their parents don't want them exposed to ideas that are different than the ones the parents hold or kids who might express those different views. And the problem is that there is a societal consequence that is paid because of that-- we end up with kids who don't understand basic biology, don't understand how to use contraception or have safe sex, and never get exposed to conflicting ideas or have the opportunity develop critical thinking techniques. Since education determines future national competitiveness, this seems like not such a good thing to me.

As I said in the comments thread, though, homeschooling is clearly constitutionally protected under existing law, so I wouldn't worry if I were you about my view gaining much traction. The most one could possibly see is some effort to require testing and instruction in particular subject areas.

Once again, I appreciate you taking the time to write.


Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

From: Malcolm Kirkpatrick
To: Dilan Esper

Dear Sir,

You surprised me with the almost instant response.

Although one must weigh costs and benefits of both homeschooling and (compulsory, tax-funded, State-operated) schools, my first message dealt entirely with the psycholigical and physical trauma which schools inflict. The charts of seasonal variation in arrests suggest that school is a cause. In Hawaii, juvenile hospitalizations for human-induced trauma exhibit a similar seasonal variation. Schools exact a higher cost that parents, apparently.

If we consider the relative benefits, one must measure academic performance of both groups. It would be hard to design a controlled experiment, but I'm not sure that's important. This is a very long discussion for another day.

Why suppose that a legal regime which features compulsory attendance will yield the result which you offer as the justification for compulsory attendance? I see a theoretical problem and a couple of empirical problems for your side. I'll note the most simple empirical obsrvation first: the current system does not yield the result you offer in justification. This system currently graduates mathematical and scientific illiterates. The Einstein quote suggests a reason: the compulsory methods of school provoke an allergic reaction.

Somewhat more theoretically, would you not expect producers to offer a higher-quality product (better-scripted curricula) if they had to win their customers through voluntary, mutually-agreed exchange? I was a Math teacher. Currently a I tutor. Most US Math books are garbage. The authors and publishers who prepare the current curricular slop have no incentive to offer what customers want. One large cost of the current system is the stultification of innovation which the anti-competitive structure induces.

Some economist (Herbert Simon?) once wrote that Economics and Evolutionary Biology were the same theory with different names attached to the variables. People who offer the proposition that everyone should understand Darwin (evolution by natural selection) as a justification for the State-monopoly school system demonstrate that they do not understand evolution. As P. J. O'Rourke wrote: "Natural selection doesn't work on things that don't die". Belief in an effective State-operated school system is a variety of religious faith in Intelligent Design.

Theoretically: why suppose that aggregation of decision-making authority and resources will yield a better result that the aggregate result of millions of individual decisions? Imagine a city-wide decision on tomorrow's lunch menu. Should we all vote on what size shoes 12-year-olds should wear? In abstract, the education industry is a very unlikely candidate for State operation.

Please read this one page Marvin Minsky comment on school.

The most important value for citizens in a democracy to hold is tolerance of diversity. The way to teach tolerance of diversity is to tolerate diversity, seems to me. Homeschooling parents have chosen to homeschool, not to move to Mars. Their kids will encounter "others" inevitably.

Economic competitiveness? Ben Franklin attended school for two years. Cyrus McCormick was homeschooled. Thomas Edison was homeschooled. Richard Arkwright, James Hargreaves, and Thomas Highs were either homeschooled (Arkwright) or minimally schooled (others unclear). Hiram Maxim left school at 13 and apprenticed. Sam Colt went to sea at 16 and carved a wooden model of his revolver while under weigh between Boston and Bombay. The Wright brothers were high school dropouts.

Please read this article on artificially extended adolescence by Ted Kolderie.

It does not take 12 years to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom (including teacher training; abolish Colleges of Education). State provision of History and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers would be (is, in totalitarian countries).

The "public" (i.e., government-operated) pre-college school system in the US originated in anti-Catholic bigotry and survives on strident lobbying by current recipients of the taxpayers' $500 billion+ per year education-dedicated revenue stream. "Public education" has become a make-work program for dues-paying members of teh NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel, a source of padded contracts for politically-connected insiders, and a venue for State-worshipful indoctrination. If this is not so, why cannot any student take, at any age, an exit exam (the GED will do) and apply the taxpayers' $10,000 per student-year education subsidy toward post-secondary tuition or toward a wage subsidy at any qualified (say, has filed W-2 forms on at least three adult employees) for at least the previous four years?

We could agree on testing. I suggested something like the above proposal (test out and subsidize) to the Hawaii legislature.

Do you have a professional interest in this issue? Like family law? I hope you can use what I have written. Seems to me, in the absence of evidence that one or the other method of instruction was abusive, the judge in the case which was the subject of the Volokh post was no more compelled to use the parents' difference over homeschooling as a consideration in awarding custody than he would be compelled to use their preferences in wallpaper design.

Again, thanks for writing back.

1. Remember, my basic objective isn't that I think public schools do a great job as it is that I want people exposed to contrary ideas. Indeed, to make this more particular-- a person like Monica Goodling, who apparently made it pretty high into the Justice Department without having ever really been exposed to secular cosmopolitan society, is scary. And that's even though by all accounts she got a great book-learning education.

2. That said, I do think you are ignoring all sorts of positive outcomes in the public schools. A lot of schools stink, but a lot of others don't. That's why you have upper and middle class parents clamoring to move into homes in particular districts. It seems to me the educational benefit of a choice to homeschool is dependent on this.

3. I am willing to try almost anything, including voluntary exchange / voucher programs, with respect to terrible schools such as in the inner city. But again, my perception is that a lot of homeschooling takes place in areas where the schools are fine; people just don't want their kids to be exposed to ideas they don't agree with.

4. Trust me, I understand Darwin. And given his theory's importance to such things as overuse of antibiotics and the like, I would like the public to understand him too. Given the social conflict that gets stirred up by literalistic faith in religions, I would also like the public to understand that a number of events related in scripture are unlikely based on extensive scientific evidence. And I'd like the public to understand that when a scientist says the word "theory", he or she means a hypothesis that is consistent with the available evidence, and not just speculation.

5. You seem to be making a broader argument against modernism. Yes, in an industrialized society, kids stay out of the workforce longer. I suspect you wouldn't want to legalize child industrial labor, which would change that. Yes, in a modern society, it is much harder to become extremely successful outside of a few fields without extensive education in an accredited university where academic freedom prevails. I would suggest to you that those are good things, but I would also suggest that they are inevitable-- especially now that we face a global employment market. If we don't educate our workforce properly, India and China will.

6. I don't believe that educational decisionmaking should be centralized (except that there should be a few nonnegotiables that everyone should learn), but I don't think it IS centralized either. Despite the fact that our schools are mostly public, they are also locally controlled, with state backup. Even with No Child Left Behind, the key decisions are mostly made at the local level and not the federal level.

7. It may be that the public school movement had some ugly origins. So did many institutions. Jazz, the blues, and gospel have their origins in slavery, but that hardly discredits them as forms of music. Since people aren't now using the public school system to discriminate against Catholics or any other historically oppressed group (except to the extent that one wants to talk about de facto segregation of racial minorities), it really doesn't matter what happened a century ago.

8. My background as a lawyer is that I have worked on some major civil liberties cases. (That's why I respect the right of homeschoolers to homeschool, even if I disagree with the practice.) I am not really involved much in family law or education law. I don't presume to be an education expert; I do, however, know the value of critical thinking and being able to understand the motivations of people with different backgrounds and different worldview. It is an absolutely essential skill. I learned it by being exposed to lots of things that I and my parents didn't agree with in the schools and in college and graduate school. My concern is whether these kids will develop the same skill set.

Take care,

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

III.A,B, combined. Mine in italics, Mr. Esper's in bold.

Thanks for writing back. I have bolded my responses to you.

1. I do not understand what you mean by "exposed to secular cosmopolitan society". Everyone who holds a government position is "exposed" to society. Your problem cannot be that some people are exposed and still have politics other than yours, can it?

I have no problem with conservatives at all. But I think everyone's ideas-- liberals' and conservatives'-- benefit from being exposed and tested and argued with and blown down by others. And the parents of the Monica Goodlings of the world seem to want to go to great lengths to ensure that this never happens, because they fear that their kids might end up having different views than they do. This prevents the marketplace of ideas from functioning, and also creates a more divided society where there are a bunch of people running around who have no idea how any reasonable person could have come to a different conclusion than they did. To make it clear-- I don't think that much of hippies raising kids in communes either, for the same reason.

2. The relative benefits of any option depend on the costs and benefits of other options. Compulsory attendance statutes, tax subsidies, and the policy which restricts parents' options for the use of the taxpayers' pre-college education subsidy to schools operated by government employees impose large costs and the one small benefit which society derives (a floor under the most deprived children) does not compensate for the enormous costs imposed on students, parents, real classroom teachers, and taxpayers. Society would get more of what we want (reading vocabulary, reading comprehension, mathematical and scientific literacy, and vocational preparation) and less of what we don't want (drug abuse, vandalism, and violence) from a voucher-subsidized competitive market in education services or from an unsubsidized market than we get from the current policy.

Well, you just weigh the costs and benefits differently than I do. We don't spend THAT much on education, considering how important it is. (Other countries spend more.) And that floor is extremely important.

All US K-12 schools stink, except homeschools, Sudbury-style schools, and virtual schools (homeschools with accredited correspondence enrollment). Some years ago, the Singapore 5th (fifth) percentile score (TIMSS 8th grade Math) was higher than the US 50th (fiftieth) percentile score.

Beverly Hills High School does not stink. Nor does your average suburban middle class school.

3. Exposure, again. It will happen in any case.

4. I agree that physicians must understand the evolution of antibiotic resistance. I agree that it would be wonderful if most other people did too. Since schools currently do such a wretched job teaching Science, I do not see this as an argument in favor of compulsory attendance, tax subsidies, and the policy which gives the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel an exclusive position in receipt of the subsidy.

The last time I checked, there's a boom in charter schools, which do not participate in the "cartel". And again, good schools teach science very well. Some homeschooling parents do as well. But others have big-time ideological problems with aspects of science instruction.

I do not believe you fully appreciate the Darwinian argument, or you would recognize its application to economics. "What works?" is an empirical question which only an experiment (a competitive market) can answer. What aquatic respiratory system best accommodates fluctuations in saline concentration (survival in estuarine environments)? Release 1000 larvae and see. What cuisine best accommodates local tastes and budgets? Release 1000 entrepreneuers and see. Devout Christians and socialists believe in Intelligent Design. Materialist biologists and capitalist economists do not. My parents were economists. I was a Biology major before I switched to Math.

Herbert Spenser argued out of the Darwinian tradition, but many Darwinians reject him. You are making Spenser's arguments, not Darwin's. In any event, your main problem is making Darwinism prescriptive rather than descriptive. Just because we evolved over billions of years doesn't mean that society and our economic and education policies should be run under a "survival of the fittest" algorithm.

5. On-the-job training is education. One cost of school is the opportunity cost to students of the time they spend in school. Compulsory attendance statutes, child labor laws, and minimum wage laws put the o-j-t option off limits to children. The (benefits - costs) net effect of these laws is enormously negative.

This is too deep a discussion to get into, but there are various reasons why society switched from an apprenticeship model to a credentialed education model. Suffice to say, it isn't going to switch back, even if you don't like the current model.

6. How can anyone contemplate the standard curriculum (Math, Science, English, Social Studies) and doubt central control? The system of "Carnegie units" is about 100 years old. It was a dumb idea when it was new. Colleges of Education, accreditation agencies, and the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel exert enormous influence. The NEA is behind the National Board for Professional Teacher Certification.

Actually, lots of local school districts opt out. Heck, they even opt out of NCLB testing requirements. Yes, there's a lot of standardization, but that's actually do to market forces-- textbook publishers, for instance, are going to make textbooks that will sell to the maximum number of schools and districts. That will be true with or without any federal or even state standards.

7. Jazz was not the policy of the slaveowners. Anti-Catholic bigotry was the policy of the founders of the US "public" (i.e., government) school system. How much of the damage which the current system inflicts do supporters intend? I do not know, but I suspect the answer is "a lot". "Assignment by district" confines poor and minority students to corrupt, bloated urban districts. One benefit which the current system provides to high-SES parents is that the consequent institutional lobotomization of poor kids gives children of high-SES parents an unearned advantage in college and professional schools.

Stop it. Unless you can establish that the public schools are now discriminating against Catholics, it doesn't matter (except as a curiosity) what they were doing 100years ago.

I tutored, from 3rd to 6th grade a kid who cracked 1200 on the SAT before he turned 13. I continued to advise his parents and discuss his coursework after 6th grade. He was homeschooled after 7th grade, took the GRE (Math) at 16, and was accepted into the grad program (Math) before he turned 17. He skipped high school and college. School is a huge waste of time. THAT damage is QUITE intentional. The SAT is trivial. Again, it does not take 12 years to teach a normal child to read and compute. Once kids learn to read (i.e., decode the phonetic alphabet) you could dispence with English class. Is the 12 year sequence anything but an employment program for teachers? If school is really an education program, why do we not make the English syllabus explicit and let kids test out? Read 2000 lines of poetry. Read 5 19th century British or American novels by at least three authors. Read 3 non-European novels. Read 5 plays by at least three authors. Come in and tell us what you read and take a test.

Same for all 12 years of History/Civics. Just let kids test out. The sociologist David Reisman recommended that Social Studies not be part of the pre-college curriculum, as he felt that many teachers would not resist the temptation to indoctrinate students. I'll see your Monica Goodling and raise you Jay Bennish.

Look, the cure for indoctrination is to have a diverse educational environment with lots of teachers, not one teacher at home who has no professional certification and thus is LESS likely to be able to avoid indoctrinating the student.

Finally, I reason axiomatically, here:
1. Most parents love their children and want their children to outlive them.
2. If you live among people there are basically three ways to make a living:
a) you can beg,
b) you can steal
c) you can trade goods and services for other people's goods and services.
3. Most parents accept #2 and prefer #2-c for their kids.
4. Therefore, most parents want from education institutions what taxpayers want from education institutions, that children be raised to make their way in the world.

5. System insiders have systematically different interests, more predatory on taxpayers (and often on students).

No doubt there is a principal-agent problem in schools. But there's also one in homeschooling. The parent's interests may be to make sure that the kid believes exactly what the parent believes. Whereas the kid's interest may be in rejecting the parent's beliefs where they are stupid and narrowminded. Either way, you have a principal-agent problem.

The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition). People do not become more intelligent, better-informed, more altruistic, or more capable (except to the extent that they command violence) when they enter the State's employment rolls. The State has no natural expertise in education.

That's just not true. State Boards of Education are made up of former teachers and administrators who often have graduate degrees and doctorates in the field of education. There's plenty of expertise-- certainly far more collectively than even a good, conscientious, openminded homeschooling parent.

Beyond a very low level, there are no economies of scale at the delivery end of the education business. Education only marginaly qualifies as a public good as economists use the term, and the "public goods" argument implies subsidy and regulation at most, not State operation of an industry. The "public goods" argument for a State role in the education industry contains a serious flaw: oversight of corporate operations is a public good, so oversight of government functions is a public good. The State itself cannot supply this good. Government assumption of responsibility for provision of any public good transforms the "public goods" problem but does not eliminate it.

That requires proof. I could imagine many economies of scale. First off, it's simply cheaper to educate people in groups. (Really, our economy would suffer if, say, 40 percent of parents quit the workforce to homeschool.) Second, it's easier to develop and enforce consistent standards in larger educational institutions. Third, to the extent that high schools provide a credential that is informative for employers and colleges and universities, having larger entities effectively standardizes the credential in a way that is helpful.

Thanks for the chance to get this said.