TV host John Oliver is essentially a court jester for people who consider themselves political and cultural elites; the topics he addresses reflect their concerns. So when he does an extended take on homeschooling, you can assume that, after years of innovation and growth, DIY education is on the radar of the tut-tutting class. And when he accepts homeschooling as a potentially beneficial practice, but one that needs more oversight from the right people, you know anti-homeschoolers are in retreat, fighting a rearguard action to maintain a degree of control because it's too late to abolish a practice they dislike.
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"Getting To Be Homeschooled Can Be Transformative"
"By one estimate, there are now around 2 million children being homeschooled in this country, and parents can choose that for all sorts of reasons," the host allowed on the October 8 episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. "Maybe their kids have social or health problems, or disabilities that aren't being accommodated. Maybe they're families with legitimate fears about school safety, or who are in the military and move around a lot. And there's also a growing number of black parents opting to homeschool due to whitewashed curriculums and zero-tolerance policies in schools that disproportionately criminalize their kids at an early age. So, there are a lot of reasons to do it. And the fact is, for some kids, getting to be homeschooled can be transformative."
That's quite a shift from a few years ago when Harvard Law School's Elizabeth Bartholet penned a sniffy Arizona Law Review piece favoring a "presumptive ban" on homeschooling.
Oliver showed a brief clip of Victoria, a Detroit girl who described switching to homeschooling as "just like a kind of like a sunshine, like the clouds opening a little bit."
But then we get the cautionary note.
Who Is In Charge Here?
"The ceiling of how good homeschooling can be is admittedly very high," Oliver added. "But the floor of how bad it can get is basically nonexistent. Because to an extent you may not realize, in many parts of the country, homeschooling is essentially unregulated."
"Let's start with the fact there's a lot we don't know about homeschooled kids—from exactly how many there are, to what they're learning," he added ominously.
Who is this "we" who doesn't know how many homeschooled kids there are or what they're learning? Because I'm pretty sure those kids' parents have a handle on things. I don't know where John Oliver sends his kids to school, but that doesn't keep me up at night. Of course, I may not be part of "we."
"In most states, there is no oversight, and no evaluation by anyone of the academic program and of students' progress," Oliver further frets. To show that's bad, he points to a clip of Michael Donnelly of the Home School Legal Defense Association describing his kids dissecting specimens in the kitchen.
"Are kitchens the best lab for this kind of thing?" Oliver asks in horror.
Hard counter surfaces that are easy to clean—sounds pretty sensible. Would he prefer to use the living room coffee table? This is silly. My homeschooled son used the kitchen counter for dissection, too, as well as for chemistry and other science lessons. Lots of families do, as evidenced by an industry selling homeschoolers lab equipment and dissection specimens.
Oliver continues from there, though the discourse never rises above the level of some people I don't like are choosing homeschooling for reasons with which I disagree. He points to the religious nature of some publishers of crappy textbooks (as well as a tiny group of Nazi parents who self-published teaching materials because there was so little demand for Hitler-themed readers), but families can take them or leave them, unlike the spun texts assigned in public schools.
"The books have the same publisher. They credit the same authors. But they are customized for students in different states, and their contents sometimes diverge in ways that reflect the nation's deepest partisan divides," The New York Times' Dana Goldstein wrote in 2020 of history textbooks produced for state-level buyers in California and Texas, "customized to satisfy policymakers with different priorities."
Then, Oliver huffs: "In many states parents don't ultimately have to teach their kids anything at all."
Apparently, Nobody Is in Charge of Public Schools, Either
Uh huh. A RAND Corporation survey of public school teachers finds that "since 2019–2020 it's become more common for math teachers to skip math content that's covered by their state's math standards." Test scores fell off a cliff in recent years, accelerated by public schools' failures during pandemic shutdowns ("a majority of states saw scores decline for fourth- and eighth-graders in mathematics and reading between 2019 and 2022," according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics). Many schools (we're looking at you, Los Angeles Unified School District) promote underperforming kids anyway, with a nothing-to-see-here attitude. Who isn't teaching "anything at all?"
That public schools can be terrible is obvious from Oliver's joking allusion to his own misery in school, as well as the clip of Victoria, who was so delighted to find "sunshine" in exiting government offerings for DIY education. Victoria is in good company.
Families Stepped Up When the Pros Fumbled
"In the first full school year after the onset of the pandemic, K-12 public school enrollment in the U.S. fell by more than a million students," according to an Urban Institute report published in February of this year. "And these enrollment losses persisted through the 2021-22 school year." By contrast, private school enrollment increased by 4.3 percent and homeschool enrollment increased by 30 percent.
"To put this in perspective," adds the Urban Institute report, "in the 22 locations with homeschool data, K-12 public school enrollment fell by 710,513 students while private school enrollment increased by 102,847 students. The corresponding increase in homeschool enrollment was 184,047 students."
Who regulates education? Parents yanking kids from failing public schools and choosing alternatives, like homeschooling, have taken on that regulatory role. They clearly care more about the responsibility than "professional" educators neglecting standards and promoting kids they haven't taught.
The flood of families looking for something better is why John Oliver put on his concerned face over homeschooling. But the flood is also why he has to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of homeschoolers, because the ranks of DIY-educating families have grown beyond early adopters to include people of all sorts of backgrounds and motivations, including some who might watch his show.
That a court jester for self-appointed elites is reduced to fretting over worst-case scenarios among homeschoolers while glossing over public school failures shows just how far battle lines have shifted between families and control freaks who, just recently, pushed to ban the practice.
For an (admittedly aging until I update it) list of homeschooling resources, check here.