About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.
courtesy CORBIS

The plight of non-affluent American children before the Progressive Era.
– courtesy CORBIS

Recently, a blog post written by Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann called “18 Reasons Why Doctors and Lawyers Homeschool Their Children” hit the internet big time.  In it, Dr. Berchelmann explains why it works better for her and her husband to homeschool their children.  She gives reasons such as:

  • We can’t afford private education.
  • Our kids are excelling academically as homeschoolers.
  • Homeschooling is not hard, and it’s fun!
  • Use whatever public school services you like.
  • Our family spends our best hours of each day together.

These are all common reasons why homeschooling works for many families.  But she never actually says why “doctors and lawyers” specifically are engaging in home education.  I surmised the title did not have to do as much with the article as with the blog on which it was posted (“Children’s Mom Docs”), whose writers are all pediatricians, and whose audience are professional “moms on the go.”   Nevertheless, the article was forwarded and linked and posted on social networks all last week with vigor to audiences other than those who might normally read that blog.  I saw it myself several times from different sources.  The title reminded me that while there are many advantages to homeschooling, it is still a form of education available to a small portion of the population that can afford to arrange time for a parent to be home.

The site from which she gets her statistics provides an interesting infographic extolling the virtues of homeschooling.  It comes from College@Home, a clearinghouse for online for-profit courses and MOOCs (massive open online courses).  Interestingly, the statistic given for occupation of parents only covers the father: the top three professions of dads of homeschoolers are “Accountant/Engineer,” “Professor/Doctor/Lawyer,” and “Small Business Owner.”  It states no occupation for the mothers of homeschoolers.  We are left with the impression that to achieve homeschooling, the mom needs to be at home – a very traditional version of family that no longer applies in most American households.  Besides the tradition aspect, there are few homes in this country left where one parent can afford to stay home.  According to census data, in 2008, close to 75% of incomes were less than $50,000/year.  Of that, 47% were less than $25,000/year.  These statistics tell us that while affluent families may be pulling their children out of public schools at an increasing rate, quality public education is still necessary and important in our society for the vast majority of Americans.

Unfortunately, like many issues in education, there is a whole world of conflict that revolves around homeschooling.  The way in which some homeschool advocates vilify public school and vice-versa is discouraging to me.   I believe there are benefits to all varieties of education, but that none of the options available should in any way diminish a free, public education system for all American children.  That is difficult in an era where we seem to base everything on a consumer model of “eat or get eaten.”  One of the difficulties within this conflict is that even families with the means to provide other education opportunities for their children outside of the public system, still use that system to their benefit.

As Dr. Berchelmann admits in her article, neither she nor her husband are trained educators, but homeschooling is “easy” because they simply got the preformed curriculum from the state and use that with their kids, and their kids can still participate in the local public school’s extracurricular activities.  They, and thousands of other families, are still relying on state-provided curriculum and programs.  But yet their children aren’t exposed to trained educators who also know how to teach them things that you don’t get out of a textbook, like critical thinking, a love of learning, collaboration and teamwork, and the multitude of other skills and aptitudes that trained, quality educators can provide.  Yes, some homeschooled students are children of highly educated professionals, and many of those traits may naturally be passed down.  However, many homeschooled children are not in school because of belief systems or because of inability to access needed services – and they could really benefit from the help of a trained expert educator.

Meanwhile, as the statistics note, a full 73% of homeschooling parents cite “dissatisfaction with the American school system” as the reason they withdrew their children.  There is a clear problem here.  The parents who are using state-provided materials are still relying on the very system they disdain.  How many of those parents continue to work or advocate for a better system?  The quality of curriculum and programs including arts, music and extracurricular activities that homeschoolers use are the very things being whittled away for the children in the public schools because of more and more public antipathy towards a universal and quality education for all American children.  Let’s not fool ourselves: the politicians and “reformers” who are currently inflicting the high-stakes competitive model on public education would have no platform at all if Americans coalesced to insist on the kind of education system we believe our children deserve (and didn’t just leave it to the exhausted teachers to speak out).   In the end, this is a democracy, and we get the politicians and the “reformers” that we allow.

Yes, we are a land of choice and doing things our own way.  But I think the bigger question is: are we also a land that believes all who live here should have an equal footing from which to start?  When we established mandatory universal education, the idea was to train up citizens and skilled workers in a newly industrial era.  We were able as a citizenry to push the government to make the astronomical change of not only getting children out of the factories, but also requiring them to get an education and providing that education for them.  Why can we not now do the same thing to shift the system into a model that provides the necessary resources and education for all children in this country?

Back before that change in the Progressive Era, the only kids who received a quality education were those of wealthy families.  There was no middle class – just the rich and the poor.  We are returning to that widening gap in our society again, and it’s reflected in how the problems in our education system are being handled.  Why do we as a country settle for a system that encourages those with the means to withdraw their children, allows the resources of the system to flow to private and for-profit entities through vouchers, and pressures those who remain in the system with a competitive model that in no way reflects true education?  It’s fine if more and more “doctors and lawyers” want to home school their children – all parents with the means to do so should have that freedom.  But perhaps we can all still remember that 97% of American students in this country are still in traditional schools, and they still deserve more – from all of us.

To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here


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