Alisa Harris: “Even growing up, I knew I was one of the lucky homeschoolers”
“Even growing up, I knew I was one of the lucky homeschoolers. My family knew homeschooled children who worked in the family businesses instead of doing school, kids who could barely read and who had learning disabilities that their families were not equipped to even identify, let alone address.”
My homeschooling experience was a rich and wonderful one. History came alive through the diaries of pioneer women, epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey captured my imagination, I had free rein of the public library to check out everything from Tolstoy to Thoreau, I wrote as much as I wanted to, and gave speeches on all of the things I was passionate about. My education was beautifully tailored to develop my talents and imagination, and my parents encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone and do activities that challenged me.
My mother was a certified elementary school teacher who was able to help children love learning, which wasn’t a problem because I loved it anyway. I dutifully did all of my lessons, cried when I got less than perfect scores, devoured 19th century literature, and read Jane Eyre before I could properly pronounce lunatic. My father was actively involved in our intellectual development, kept track of the books I read, and encouraged me to read deeper.
There were downsides, however. My science education was often scientifically inaccurate and haphazard. I was convinced I was bad at math, in part because my conservative homeschool circle did not encourage girls to get a STEM education, and in part because it’s difficult to learn higher-level math when your teacher isn’t trained to teach it. It’s a problem that still crops up every time I take a standardized test.
Even growing up, I knew I was one of the lucky homeschoolers. My family knew homeschooled children who worked in the family businesses instead of doing school, kids who could barely read and who had learning disabilities that their families were not equipped to even identify, let alone address. There were cases of neglect and shocking domestic violence and sexual abuse. In so many of these cases, the physical, educational, and emotional neglect was never confronted, not even by fellow homeschooling parents, the only people in a position to see it. The abuse remained hidden until it ended up on the nightly news or the wives and children fled.
Perhaps because my own experience was positive, I’ve only recently made the connection between those problems of neglect and abuse and the complete lack of homeschooling regulation or oversight in so many states. In my home state, neglectful homeschooling families had only to notify the state before they proceeded to ignore their children’s education. Standardized tests might have motivated these parents to pay more attention to their children’s education, but when I was in high school a homeschool coalition lobbied to repeal all required testing, and my younger siblings and their friends took no standardized tests at all.
Throughout my homeschool experience, my social circle was limited to other homeschoolers, and since I was one of the older children, I had almost no social interaction with children my age. In the few instances where I was able to interact with strangers, my parents were encouraging and did their best to coax me to be friendly, open up, and focus on other people rather than my own insecurity and fear. Still, without regular social interaction with peers, I struggled with shyness longer than I should have with parents who encouraged me. My siblings have been able to cultivate a wider social circle by joining local sports groups, public school drama groups, and choirs. These rich and diverse experiences have been incredibly valuable to their education and their social skills.
For all of the above reasons, I am in favor of sensible homeschooling oversight that preserves all the best aspects of homeschooling—the rich, individualized, and creative education—while mitigating some of the isolation, neglect, and potential harms. Homeschooled students should be allowed to benefit from the diversity of relationships and experiences they can gain by taking a class at a public school or by participating in public school sports and extracurricular activities.
We also have a responsibility to protect children who may be at risk for neglect or abuse. We need to intervene and assist if a child’s education is being neglected, and we need to ensure that parents are qualified to teach. My parents and the many other responsible homeschooling parents I knew would have easily exceeded the standards proposed by Coalition for Responsible Home Education. For less fortunate kids, these standards would have protected them and kept them from slipping through the system’s cracks.
Alisa Harris was homeschooled in New Mexico K-12, 1991 to 2003. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.