Parents On The Pros And Cons Of Homeschooling

Many people laud the benefits of homeschooling. But the practice also has critics. Host Michel Martin talks with a group of parents about their personal experiences: homeschooling advocate Michael Farris, dad Paul Hagen and mom Shawn Spence.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. We wanted to continue our conversation about homeschooling, whether the idea of teaching your children at home sounds amazing or like your worst nightmare.

Our next guests have all been there and will share their stories. Michael Farris is chair of the Home School Legal Defense Association. He's also the chancellor of Patrick Henry College in Virginia. That's a college designed for homeschooled students but also welcomes other students. He's also a dad of ten, who helped home school his own children. Shawn Spence is a former teacher and a mom of five who homeschooled her children for a number of years. Also with us is Paul Hagen. He was himself homeschooled, he now teaches in a private middle school and he's a dad of three. And Paul Hagen is one of the hundreds of listeners who wrote to us on Facebook and Twitter about their experiences with homeschooling. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

PAUL HAGEN: Hi.

SHAWN SPENCE: Thank you for having us.

MICHAEL FARRIS: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So Michael Farris, I'm going to start you with, because you are, as my introduction would indicate, not just a practitioner but a major advocate. What brought you to that?

FARRIS: Well, I was a home school dad first, and as a lawyer experienced in first amendment litigation, the homeschooling community started calling me, asking me for help. And I figured out that there was a real need to organize the movement into an opportunity to protect all of our rights, and so I was a home school dad and I'm still a home school dad for 33 years now of homeschooling our kids. Our youngest is 16 and he's a junior in high school. But the others are all grown and either in college or married and working.

MARTIN: What was so important to you about the experience? You've essentially organized your life in order to do it, your entire family has. Why is that? Why do you feel it's so important?

FARRIS: Well, the basic reason we started homeschooling is that we learned from an educational psychologist that kids get their values from whomever they spend a majority of their time with. And so we saw our oldest daughter, who was in the first grade at the time, caring way too much about what her fellow six-year-olds thought about life and her mom and I thought that we were smarter than a bunch of six-year-olds and that we'd rather transmit our values than the six-year-olds transmitting their values. And so we heard about it, we thought great, we thought we'd try it for a year and, well, that was 33 years ago.

MARTIN: Shawn Spence, what about you? As I understand it, you didn't intend to go down this path, you are in fact a licensed teacher and had been a teacher. Your husband's also a college professor. Why did you start?

SPENCE: We moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and I think I often hate to say the city, because I have a lot of friends who have different experiences, but it was in Baltimore where we started. And our children were having a difficult time, after moving to Baltimore, with the educational experience. Overcrowded classrooms, stressed-out teachers, ill-prepared teachers, lots of behavioral problems. Indicative, unfortunately, of most schools in this country right now. And actually, the first person who introduced homeschooling was a teacher at that school. Our son had been reading, already in kindergarten, and she had 30 people in her class, no TA, and she said I can't help him. He is bored. He is spending his entire day with his head down. And we - you should help him, because we can tell that he's just going to be lost here. And so I was not unfamiliar with homeschooling.

When I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I had a great couple and all four of their children were homeschooled. So it was not foreign, it was just that I was pregnant at the time with child number five and it was really the last thing that I wanted to put on my plate. But I'm so glad that I did. I immediately connected with a homeschooling organization, Umoja Home School Group in Baltimore. At that time, we were servicing about 30 families. We grew to service 80 families. And we did everything that kids in school did. We had gym. We had field trips. We had sleepovers. We did the things that our children would normally do, even though - and we also group taught in certain cases. If this parent worked at, say, a science facility, they would have the kids come and visit and they would bring in scientists. So it was very much a group effort. And I'm so glad because our children were able to learn at their pace with their specific learning style. And that is very different, because I think the whole, group them in and teach everybody the same way mode, hasn't worked.

MARTIN: It's interesting, because your experiences of the two of you track very much with what we understand from the statistics on this. The National Center for Education Statistics says that the overwhelming majority of students who are being homeschooled are white, but then followed by African-Americans. But the reasons that parents give are, as you said Michael Farris, the number one reason parents give is the desire to provide religious or moral instruction and that the second most popular reason, closely followed behind, was a concern about the school environment.

And so that tracks very much with the experience that other people have. But Paul Hagen, a lot of listeners wrote in to say that they loved their home school experience. You wrote that it gave you a lifelong love of learning. But you and your wife decided not to home school your own children. Could you talk about that?

HAGEN: Yeah, that's right. So I feel like I had a really good experience. I had a very dedicated set of parents who were interested in home school. And, you know, curiously enough, my wife and I originally thought about homeschooling our boys. We have three young sons who are just starting off with school. And my wife is an educator, as well. She has a masters degree in education with two - certified in both social science education, as well as special education. But we decided that the challenges of home school and the potential pitfalls of home school were not appropriate for our family, and instead that we could be supportive parents within the public school system and support our kids in that way.

And that seems to work better for our family and saying that, you know, I'm one of seven kids myself. And I have two sisters who have kids and who are beginning the home school experience, as well as a sister-in-law who is going to be homeschooling her kids. And so, you know, I think our - my family's experience has been a mixed experience of the family culture of home school, and yet we have decided that, for us, that wasn't going to work.

MARTIN: What about the issue that Josh Powell raised, and Michael Farris I'll start with that, which is to - the first issue is the gaps. Is that his parents just weren't equipped to teach every subject to the level that he feels he needs to compete in the - kind of the modern world or to have the kinds of choices that he wants to have for himself. And then the second issue he raised, although it was not a factor in his case, is the possibility for - the opportunity for abuse, fewer eyes, I mean, things could be going on and nobody would know. I mean, Mike Farris, do you want to start?

FARRIS: Well, we have to make some decisions if we're going to live in a free country. And in a free country, you can't help the fact that there will be some gaps, there will be some mistakes. Some people will not do the right thing with their kids. But Scotland's got the solution for that. They're appointing a Guardian ad Litem for every child in the country and there's going to be a government monitor of every single child, because as Shawn pointed out, the public school situation, with monitors, is failing.

And so the idea that government monitoring works and produces the results, there's no track record to demonstrate that. So I believe in freedom and the basic rule is, in our country, if you neglect your kids' education there's always a stop gap. The prosecutor can prosecute you if you abuse your child, religious exemption or not. That's not relevant. If you fail to provide your child a necessary adequate education. And the difference between adequate and the best possible education is a matter of judgment and discretion, and so the government shouldn't be in the business of intervening in families, as long as there's an adequate education going on. And if there's not, educational neglect's always an opportunity no matter what the underlying home school law is.

MARTIN: Shawn, what do you say about that?

SPENCE: I actually worked with our local school system. So I'm not familiar with every state, but what I do know is that our children had speech impediment initially, they had some stuttering and we were able, as taxpaying citizens, to go to the public school and receive a speech pathologist training. Also when it comes to gaps, we also were able to work with local universities and have a tutor in areas like chemistry and calculus. And so I believe that, in those cases, there are opportunities. Our children took courses at the local community college in certain advanced areas. I'm English, their dad is political science. There are some things we don't know.

But there also are opportunities and I am so excited about things like Open University, because many universities are realizing that the cost of education - so this adequate education that the previous guest discussed is not available just because you go to public school. And we're very clear about that. Private education is where people are - where we're competing. So there is a gap between public and private education already, initially, regardless of where. So when you look at the opportunity for MIT, University of Michigan, they have Open University, have courses that you can attend online like he did, GED courses. There is an opportunity in the community to fill those gaps without having to subject yourself to abuse. And I...

MARTIN: ...If you're just joining us, we're talking about the benefits and pitfalls of homeschooling. We're talking with advocate Michael Farris, homeschooled his 10 children and is continuing to do so. Mom Shawn Spence who, at one point, homeschooled her five. And dad and history teacher Paul Hagen, he was himself homeschooled and is choosing not to home school his three children. Paul, I want to play a clip from a listener who also wrote in to us via Facebook. Kay Flueling (ph) of San Diego, California was homeschooled. She says she didn't enter her first classroom until college. This is what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF NPR LISTENER)

KAY FLUELING: I became really fearful that I wasn't smart at all and that if I went to school, all my friends would be way smarter than me. I didn't know what I was missing. So I always felt like I must be missing something.

MARTIN: Well, she went on to say that her fears turned out to be unfounded. But Paul, what about that - what about you? When you went into a traditional classroom, did you feel that you had what you needed in order to function there, socially, as well as academically?

HAGEN: Sure, great question. So, just like Josh and this caller as well, I never went into a traditional classroom until I went to a community college and then finally to a four-year college and university. And I will say, you know, the very first time I walked into a classroom, it was a basic English class, English 101, and I remember looking around the room and wondering where I stood in regards to these other students. And there was certain trepidation, certain fear, walking into that classroom. And as it turned out, I fared well and was able to handle the pressures of college well, and so, once again, my home school experience was very positive. But I want to talk just briefly about some of the gaps also that Josh had mentioned and that you had brought up, Michel.

And I think that's a real concern. It's one of the concerns that my wife and I had when we considered what we would do with our children. I think most home school parents know why they want to home school and there's some really good reasons for doing that. Certainly, the public schools in this country are failing. They're failing millions of students and that's a really big problem that needs to be addressed. And so many parents, like Shawn, will take their kids out of public school in order to provide a better academic base for their kids or there's religious reasons to take your kids out of a school and to make sure that they get that religious or moral instruction that you would like them to have.

My concern and what I've seen personally, both in my own family and from the different people that I've come across over the years, is many of the parents who choose to home school their kids don't necessarily know the how. So, as Shawn said, there are many opportunities for home school parents to provide just incredibly full experiences for their kids. And yet, that's not always the case. And so I guess, you know, I'm supportive of home school to a degree, but I would always caution parents as they consider getting into home school, because there are some real pitfalls and there are some gaps that we see across home school.

MARTIN: In the time that we have left, I wanted to ask each of you, how would you recommend parents go about making the decision for themselves to see whether they really are suited to this, if they want to give their kids the tools that they want them to have later on to make their own choices about their lives? Michael Farris?

FARRIS: Well, some people would contend that homeschooling is easy. It's not easy. It's hard work, it's very hard work. And if a family is willing to undertake that hard work and is willing to augment their own programs and their own abilities with other things, like, we've done very well with our kids, but I can't really teach high school level science. There's a PhD physicist in our church who's taught my sons science and our second youngest son is now at the University of Virginia getting a chemistry major, thanks to Tom Larry's teaching him of science. And so parents who want the best for their kids learn how to do what they can, augment other places. And there are many, many resources. The vast majority of families recognize their own gaps and they go make utilization of the resources that are available to them.

MARTIN: Shawn, what about you? How would you say another parent might go about thinking about this, or...

SPENCE: I think the first step is to look at your resources. Look at your family structure. Look at what you are willing to do, as Mr. Farris said, and also, it's important that the issue for us, for stopping homeschooling, was financial. There is an investment that is needed. We're talking about tutors. We're talking about other classes. So there has to be an assessment as to who is going to do the majority of the teaching. Do you believe in standardized tests? And really ask yourself the questions and why you feel like your education was stellar or substantial and what will - what did your education provide that you can or cannot or need to know more information. So I think it really is - for me, I'm a lifelong learner.

I think I was homeschooled and not really homeschooled. My parents just dropped me off at the library, because they were tired of me asking them questions they couldn't answer. So I think that I learned what the libraries offered and I learned about museums and I was unafraid to ask questions and I wanted to have my children to have that same zeal. I find that now one of our children is very challenged with traditional education. He doesn't - he's not excited. He's not engaged. It's no longer interesting, and believe it or not, although he's been there now for about three or four years, he likes his friends, he's very social, but he is considering that it's just - the teachers, the environment. He doesn't feel like he's getting and being himself anymore. And so there is another side to it...

MARTIN: ...He keeps going back to that. He keeps going back to homeschooling.

SPENCE: ...Yeah, for that particular child, in particular, because I think that it really is the opportunity to give your children that critical thinking. That desire for learning and that willingness, because with this gentleman Josh, he took it right. He took the initiative. Initiative is something that's taught, in a situation, as well. You know, at home.

MARTIN: Paul, final thought from you. We have about a minute left. What would be your best advice to a parent who's trying to figure out if homeschooling is appropriate or not?

HAGEN: Yeah, sure. I, you know, I think the first thing would be know yourself and know your family. It is going to be a lot of work. Home school is a great deal of work. I have the utmost respect for home school families who work really hard at this. And just know if you've got the stamina to do that and if that's something that you're willing to invest your time and energy and your resources in, I think that would be number one.

And then realize that there are those potential pitfalls of maybe some lack of direction or lack of academic discipline that you might need to, you know, gaps that you might need to fill. And I think if you can answer those questions and you can bring a community in around yourself you can be very successful homeschooling. And if not maybe a public school or a private school might be better for you.

MARTIN: Paul Hagen is a dad of three and a history teacher. He joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. With is in Washington, D.C., Shawn Spence, a mom of five and Michael Farris, chair of the Home School Legal Defense Association and chancellor of Patrick Henry College in Virginia. Thank you all so much for joining us.

FARRIS: Thank you.

SPENCE: Thank you.

HAGEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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