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In Defense of Elizabeth Bartholet: A Homeschool Graduate Speaks Out

By Lindsey T. Powell
Lindsey T. Powell is a Patent Administrator in the Office of Technology Development at Harvard University.

By many standards, I would be considered a homeschooling success story. I graduated summa cum laude from an Ivy League institution, am gainfully employed by Harvard University, and will be applying to law school in the fall. In third grade, I begged my parents to homeschool me, a plea that I still regret.

Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet recently made waves with her article suggesting a presumptive ban (not a complete ban, as her remarks have been mischaracterized) on homeschooling in America, requiring parents to “prove they are capable of providing an adequate education in a safe environment.” Bartholet emphasizes the lack of regulation and accountability governing the practice. Among other objections, she discusses cases of undetected abuse, and uneducated parents’ failed attempts to teach their children. While these are valid concerns worthy of debate, many families make the decision to homeschool with the belief that doing so serves their child’s best interest. For that reason, I’d like to discuss the less sinister, but still very real consequences of homeschooling.

As Professor Bartholet notes, a sizable majority of homeschooling families are motivated by religious or ideological reasons. Despite participating in numerous homeschool groups and extracurricular activities, I never met a student with religious or political views differing from my own until I arrived at college. Of course, I knew these individuals existed, but they were always the hypothetical, easily vilified other. It took collegiate friendships to break down internalized stereotypes and see the good in people of different faiths and political persuasions.

Parents often act with the best of intentions when choosing to shield their children from negative influences, but raising them in echo chambers is a dangerous breeding ground for intolerance and misunderstanding. Exposure to opposing viewpoints is crucial for the development of critical reasoning skills. This is especially important for high school students, who will soon encounter disparate viewpoints in college or the workplace.

Advocates cite studies claiming that homeschool students outperform their traditionally schooled peers. However, these findings do not tell the full story. As Professor Bartholet explains, data on homeschooling outcomes is difficult to collect. Data showing high performance only represents the experiences of students who took standardized tests and applied to college. What about those who never will? Furthermore, poster children for homeschool success often come from backgrounds correlated with higher levels of success in traditional schools (higher income, two-parent households, etc.).

The trope of the high-performing homeschooler who gains admission to an elite college is not representative of the reality for many homeschooling families. The Cardus Education Survey, a random sample of 1500 high school graduates, found that religious homeschoolers are four times more likely to end their academic career after high school, and are 60 percent less likely to obtain an advanced degree. For particularly gifted students, homeschooling may be a boon. But it is far from clear that the average homeschooler fares better academically than they would in conventional schooling.

Looking back on my homeschooling experience, I realize that many of my “unique opportunities” would have been available to me in a traditional school setting. I participated in Bible studies, tennis lessons, and even successfully lobbied my state legislature to amend the adolescent driving curfew. But homeschooling, even with these experiences, came with a dangerous sense of isolation and an inappropriate self-emphasis on productivity to compensate for missing out on “normal” rites of passage. Homeschool prom is just as it sounds, and a graduation of three is quite the letdown after twelve years of hard work.

While Professor Bartholet’s proposal of stricter government regulation conflicts with my own Lockean leanings, her critics in the homeschooling community largely miss the mark. The reactions to Bartholet’s work ignore the downsides of the homeschooling experience. Any adequate rebuttal to Bartholet must at least consider the many homeschooled students who do not attend college, and those who, like myself, suffered painful social isolation because of homeschooling. Responsible homeschooling has a place in the academic realm. But far too often, parents choose to homeschool based on an idealized narrative of close families, high test scores, and perfectly sheltered children, without considering the risks of intense groupthink and social isolation.

Lindsey T. Powell is a Patent Administrator in the Office of Technology Development at Harvard University.

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