Common Objections to Homeschooling
7. How are we going to prevent children being taught by "unqualified" teachers?
First of all, to know what is meant by "qualified", we have to know what is meant by quality. We could hardly agree on who was or was not a good painter if we did not to a large extent agree on what was or was not a good painting. The question asked above assumes that since educators agree on and understand correctly what is meant by good teaching, they are able to make sound judgments about who is or is not a good teacher. But the fact is that educators do not understand or agree about what makes good teaching. The dismal record of the schools is proof enough of this. Still further proof is that, when charged in court with negligence (see the section "A Doubtful Claim" in Chapter 14), educators defend themselves by saying (with the approval of the courts) that they cannot be judged guilty of not having done what should have been done, because no one knows what should have been done. This may be so. But it clearly follows that people who don't know what should be done can hardly judge who is or is not competent to do it.
In practice, educators who worry about "unqualified" people teaching their own children almost always define "qualified" to mean teachers trained in schools of education and holding teaching certificates. They assume that to teach children involves a host of mysterious skills that can be learned only in schools of education, and that are in fact taught there; that people who have this training teach much better than those who do not; and indeed that people who have not had this training are not competent to teach at all.
None of these assumptions are true.
Human beings have been sharing information and skills, and passing along to their children whatever they knew, for about a million years now. Along the way they have built some very complicated and highly skilled societies. During all those years there were very few teachers in the sense of people whose only work was teaching others what they knew. And until very recently there were no people at all who were trained in teaching, as such. People always understood, sensibly enough, that before you could teach something you had to know it yourself. But only very recently did human beings get the extraordinary notion that in order to be able to teach what you knew you had to spend years being taught how to teach.
To the extent that teaching involves and requires some real skills, these have long been well understood. They are no mystery.
Teaching skills are among the many commonsense things about dealing with other people that - unless we are mistaught - we learn just by living. In any community people have always known that if you wanted to find out how to get somewhere or do something, some people were much better to ask than others. For a long, long time, people who were good at sharing what they knew have realized certain things: (1) to help people learn something, you must first understand what they already know; (2) showing people how to do something is better than telling them, and letting them do it themselves is best of all; (3) you mustn't tell or show too much at once, since people digest new ideas slowly and must feel secure with new skills or knowledge before they are ready for more; (4) you must give people as much time as they want and need to absorb what you have shown or told them; (5) instead of testing their understanding with questions you must let them show how much or how little they understand by the questions they ask you; (6) you must not get impatient or angry when people don't understand; (7) scaring people only blocks learning, and so on. These are clearly not things that one has to spend three years talking about.
And in fact these are not what schools of education talk about. They give very little thought to the act of teaching itself-helping another person find something out, or answering that person's questions. What they spend most of their time doing is preparing their students to work in the strange world of schools - which, in all fairness, is what the students want to find out: how to get a teaching job and keep it. This means learning how to speak the school's language (teeny little ideas blown up into great big words), how to do all the things schools want teachers to do, how to fill out its endless forms and papers, and how to make the endless judgments it likes to make about students. Above all else, education students are taught to think that what they know is extremely important and that they are the only ones who know it.
As for the idea that certified teachers teach better than uncertified, or that uncertified teachers cannot teach at all, there is not a shred of evidence to support it, and a great deal of evidence against it. One indication is that our most selective, demanding, and successful private schools have among their teachers hardly any, if indeed any at all, who went to teacher training schools and got their degrees in education. Few such schools would even consider hiring a teacher who had only such training and such a degree. How does it happen that the richest and most powerful people in the country, the ones most able to choose what they want for their children, so regularly choose not to have them taught by trained and certified teachers? One might almost count it among the major benefits of being rich that you are able to avoid having your children taught by such teachers.
In this connection, the following story from the Philadelphia Inquirer, November 18, 1979, may be of interest:
Between 1978 and 1979, public school enrollment in New Jersey fell 3% from 1.38 million to 1.33 million. But enrollment in private non-parochial schools from 1978 to 1979 rose 8.5%, from 14,000 to 15,200. And, while attendance data for parochial schools is not yet available, indications are that it experienced a similar jump.
... Rev. Peder Bloom, Assistant Headmaster of Doane Academy at St. Mary's Hall, an independent Episcopalian school founded in 1837, sees not only a larger, but a more varied clientele applying.
"Any number" of parents are both working to pay tuition bills, he says, and presently the biggest single occupational parent group is public school administrators [Author's emphasis], according to private school administrators. It used to be doctors; now they are second...
As we will see in Chapter 13, when a district court in Kentucky challenged the state board of education to show evidence that certified teachers were better than uncertified, the board was unable to produce (in the judge's words) "a scintilla of evidence" to that effect. The same thing happened more recently in a Michigan court. It is very unlikely that any other state boards would be able to do so.
In the state of Alaska, hundreds or perhaps thousands of homesteading families live many miles from the nearest town, or even road. The only way they can get in and out of their homes is by plane. Since the state cannot provide schools for these families, or transport their children to and from existing schools, it very sensibly has a correspondence school of its own which mails school materials to these families, who then teach their children at home. Nobody seems to worry very much about whether these families are "qualified", and no one has yet brought forth any evidence that home-taught children in Alaska do less well in their studies than school-taught children, there or in other states. For that matter, many states in the Lower 48 have laws saying that if children live more than so many miles from the nearest school, or bus route to a school, they don't have to go to school. It would be interesting to find out how many such children there are, and what provisions these states make for their education, and how well these children do in their schoolwork.
Perhaps the leading correspondence school for school-aged children is the Calvert Institute of Baltimore, Maryland. It has been in business for a long time, and for all that time most school districts - I know of no exceptions - have been willing to accept a year of study under Calvert as equal to a year of study in school. Indeed, this assurance that Calvert-taught children would not fall behind has been part of what Calvert offered and sold its customers and clients. These have been, for the most part, American families living overseas - missionaries, military or diplomatic people, people working in foreign offices of American firms, etc. A recent Calvert ad said they have had over three hundred thousand customers. Clearly a very large number of parents have taught and are teaching their children at home, without these children falling behind. But very few of these parents can have been certified teachers.
The same must be true of the Home Study Institute, of Washington, DC, which has served mostly, but not exclusively, members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. I don't know how many families use or have used their materials, but the quality of the materials I have seen, and the range of courses they offer, suggest that this organization, too, serves a large number of people, few of whom can have been or be certified teachers. Yet again, there is no evidence that the students who learn at home from these materials are failures either in school or later in life.
Years ago I read that one or more inner-city schools had tried the experiment of letting fifth graders teach first graders to read.
They found, first, that the first-graders learned faster than similar first-graders taught by trained teachers, and secondly, that the fifth-graders who were teaching them - many or most of whom had not been good readers themselves - also improved a great deal in their reading. These schools apparently did these experiments in desperation. It is easy to see why they have not been widely repeated. Even in those schools that are willing to allow "paraprofessional" adults, that is, people without teachers' certificates, in their classrooms, the regular teachers almost always insist that these paraprofessionals not be allowed to do any teaching. But poor countries have found in mass literacy programs that almost anyone who can read can teach anyone else who wants to learn.
I found in my own classes, as in others I have since observed where children are allowed to talk to each other and to help each other with schoolwork, that many children were very good at teaching each other. There were many reasons for this. Even though I did my best to convince them that ignorance was no shame, they felt much freer to confess ignorance and confusion to each other than to me, since they knew that they knew little and wrongly thought that I knew almost everything. Also, they did not have to fear that their friends might give them a bad grade. I had told them that I did not believe in grades, and I think they believed me. But they understood, as I did, that this had little to do with reality; both the school and their parents demanded grades, and I had to give them. Some of them, who really liked me, may have feared that after struggling to teach them something I would be disappointed if they didn't learn it. Indeed this was true, and though I tried not to be disappointed or at least not to show that I was, I never really succeeded. They wanted to please me, and knew when they hadn't.
Learning from each other, they didn't have to worry about this. A child teaching another is not disappointed if the other does not understand or learn, since teaching is not his main work and he is not worried about whether he is or is not a good teacher. He may be exasperated, may even say, "Come on, dummy, pay attention, what's the matter with you?" Since children tend to be direct and blunt with each other anyway, this probably won't bother the learner. If it does, he can say so. Either the other will be more tactful, since he rightly values their friendship more than the effectiveness of his teaching, or the learner will find another helper. And this is another and important reason why children are good at teaching each other. Both child-teacher and child-learner know that this teacher-learner relationship is temporary, much less important than their friendship, in which they meet as equals. This temporary relationship will go on only as long as they are both satisfied with it. The child-teacher doesn't have to teach the other, and the child-learner doesn't have to learn from the other. Since they both come to the relationship freely and by their own choice, they are truly equal partners in it. I want to stress very strongly that the fact that their continuing relationship as friends is more important than their temporary relationship as learner and teacher is above all else what makes this temporary relationship work.
There is an old rule in medicine (not always obeyed): "First, do no harm." In other words, in treating patients, make sure you do not injure them. The rule is just as true for teaching. Above all else, be sure that in your eagerness to make them learn, you do not frighten, offend, insult, or humiliate those you are teaching. Teachers of animals, whether dogs, dolphins, circus animals, or whatever, understand that very well-it is the first rule in their book. It is only among teachers of human beings that many do not understand and even hotly deny this rule.
It is because they understand this rule, if not in words at least in their hearts, that the kind of parents who teach their own children are likely to do it better than anyone else. Such people do not knowingly hurt their children. When they see that something they are doing is hurting their child, they stop, no matter how good may have been their reasons for doing it. They take seriously any signals of pain and distress that their children give them. Of course, the distress signals that children make when we try too hard to teach them something are quite different from the signals they make when something hurts them. Instead of saying "Ow!" they say, "I don't get it," or "This is crazy." It took me years, teaching in classrooms, to learn what those signals were, and still longer to understand how I was causing the distress. But parents teaching at home are in a much better position to learn these distress signals than a classroom teacher. They are not distracted by the problems of managing a class, they know the children better, and their spoken and unspoken languages, and they care about them more. Also, as I have said elsewhere, they can try things out to see what works, and drop whatever does not. Since they control their experience, they can learn more from it.
This is not to say that all families who try to teach their own children will learn to do it well. Some may not. But such families are likely to find homeschooling so unpleasant that they will be glad to give it up, the children most of all. A home-schooling mother wrote me that when, simply out of fear of the schools, she began to give her children a lot of conventional schoolwork, they said, "Look, Mom, if we're going to have to spend all our time doing this school junk, we'd rather do it in school." Quite right. If you are going to have to spend your days doing busywork to relieve adult anxieties, better do it in school, where you only have one-thirtieth of the teacher's anxieties, rather than at home, where you have all of your parent's. So far, only one family I know of has given up home-schooling as a failure, largely because the parents couldn't control their anxieties. In time, there may well be others. I doubt that there will be many.
We can sum up very quickly what people need to teach their own children. First of all, they have to like them, enjoy their company, their physical presence, their energy, foolishness, and passion. They have to enjoy all their talk and questions, and enjoy equally trying to answer those questions. They have to think of their children as friends, indeed very close friends, have to feel happier when they are near and miss them when they are away. They have to trust them as people, respect their fragile dignity, treat them with courtesy, take them seriously. They have to feel in their own hearts some of their children's wonder, curiosity, and excitement about the world. And they have to have enough confidence in themselves, skepticism about experts, and willingness to be different from most people, to take on themselves the responsibility for their children's learning. But that is about all that parents need. Perhaps only a minority of parents have these qualities. Certainly some have more than others. Many will gain more as they know their children better; most of the people who have been teaching their children at home say that it has made them like them more, not less. In any case, these are not qualities that can be taught or learned in a school, or measured with a test, or certified with a piece of paper.
Are there then no requirements of schooling or learning? Isn't there some minimum that people ought to know? Could people teach their children who had never been to school themselves? Even if they didn't know how to read and write? I think even then they probably could. A woman told me not long ago, after a meeting, that though she had a degree from Radcliffe and a Ph.D. from Harvard, the most helpful, influential, and important of all the teachers she had ever had was her mother, who had come to this country as an immigrant and who was illiterate not only here but in the country of her birth. And while working as a consultant to a program to teach adult illiterates to read, I heard about one of the students, a middle-aged woman who had for years concealed her illiteracy from her college graduate husband and her children, whom she used to regularly help with their schoolwork. For many years I told her story to show how cleverly people can bluff and fake. Only recently did I realize that this woman's children would not have come to her year after year for help on their schoolwork unless her help had been helpful. She was in short not just a clever bluffer, but a very good teacher.
I don't expect many illiterate parents to ask me how they can take their children out of school and teach them at home. But if any do, I will say, "I don't think that just because you have not yet learned to read and write means that you can't do a better job of helping your children learn about the world than the schools. But one of the things you are going to have to do in order to help them is learn to read and write. It is easy, if you really want to do it, and once you get out of your head the idea that you can't do it. If any of your children can read and write, they can help you learn. If none of them can read and write, you can learn together. But it is important that you learn. In the first place, if you don't, and the schools find out, there is no way in the world that they or the courts are going to allow you to teach your children at home. In the second place, if you don't know how to read and write, your children are likely to feel that reading and writing are not useful and interesting, or else that they are very difficult, neither of which is true. So learning to read and write will have to be one of your first tasks."