There is little question or doubt in the public mind about the value of the homeschool. Homeschooled kids better behaved than children from public schools. homeschooled youngsters seldom become involved in gangs, seldom use drugs to excess, and there are absolutely no reports of a homeschooled teenager committing suicide (contrasted with the several thousand public schooled teenagers who attempt or accomplish suicide annually). 

Estimates vary as to the number of children who arc educated at home, with numbers running between ten thousand and two hundred thousand individuals involved. The count is vague because not all government school districts “permit” homeschooling; in these areas parents must perform the illegal activity in private to avoid drawing attention to their charges. Nevertheless, kids who have spent their primary educational years learning at home have gone on to major colleges, including Harvard and Yale, and to continued success in their chosen careers. 

With this kind of track record, it seems inappropriate to level criticism at this learning institution. Yet, home schools unknowingly perpetuate some of the public schools’ greatest failings. In so doing, they are in the process of creating what John Taylor Gatto, using the terms in another sense, calls a “permanent underclass.” It is not for lack of knowledge or information that this happens; homeschools excel in passing on facts. It is, instead, inherent in the structure of the typical schooling pro cess itself. 

Mr. Gatto has taught English and literature in the public schools for 26 years. He won the 1989, 1990, and 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year Award. He is intelligent, articulate, and intensely aware of the function of the national school system. He also has advocated homeschooling, or some type of deinstitutionalizcd school or free-market system of public education. In his essay The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher, he describes the coercive nature of public education-which, upon reading, began to sound more and more like many homeschools with which I am conversant. My region, the Missouri Ozarks, abounds with home-educating parents, ever since a 1986 state decision made homeschooling a “legitimate” alternative to public education. Mr. Gatto’s six lessons, however, are surprisingly familiar. 

State mandates require that parents record the time that their homeschooled students spend on various topics and keep test papers and representative samples of the child’s accomplishments. In the event of a government scrutiny of the child’s educational career, parents are expected to keep these materials cur rent and easily accessible. Locally, as well as nationally, most parents home school because of religious or philosophical differences in the prevailing state education system or because of the quality of the knowledge being transmitted. Yet parents keep these records as the government requires. In effect, they have acquiesced to the government’s decision that there must be a certain quantity of time “spent” on specific topics for real learning to take place; that children must be subjected to tests of their ability to memorize certain “official” facts; that workbooks and check sheets are mandatory for the transmission of knowledge. Without these records as proof of schooling, the state presumes that the child has not been educated-indeed, that the child has been subjected to “educational neglect”! 

With apologies to Mr. Gatto for condensing his sharp-edged prose, I’ve reduced his six public school lessons into one-or two-word descriptions, and included the homeschool equivalent. 

Controlled Movement. Mr. Gatto explains that his state school requires students to “Stay . . . where you belong.” This primary restriction of personal freedom-that of movement-is characteristic of public, private, and homeschools. We parents often like to set up a specific “classroom” at home in imitation of the way we were educated. Some of these include school-type desks, chalk boards, and even the school bell to signal the end of one class and beginning of another. This, of course, assumes that learning can only take place in that sort of stultified setting (as if children couldn’t read equally well while lounging on the grass under a tree). This lesson, buried in the setup of homeschool ing procedures, teaches the same “locked-in so learn to like it” quality as public schools, the futility of questioning the established order. 

Valuelessness of Learning. Those familiar bells also generate a one-hour class mentality common to public and private schools-that “appropriate” learning takes place in short, given increments. Mr. Gatto indicates that this attitude is the foundation for many youngsters’ inability to concentrate for  the length of time necessary to complete a task, as well as the disinclination to do so. After all, why get too involved in any project when you’re accustomed to being cut off in midstream when the hour is up? 

The solution to the one-hour-class approach is to avoid set limits to acquiring information, to let children follow knowledge at their own speed and in their own way. Even so, it is the rare homeschooling parent who trusts that his child’s unique interests will lead to learning. We inadvertently teach that the child’s guest for information, what he or she really wants to know, is silly and useless. While the youngster’s desire to discover everything about Nintendo or Ninja Turtles may seem counterproductive to parents, the young child does not differentiate between learning about Abraham Lincoln or learning about Batman. The real lesson taught is that learning, itself, is silly and useless

Surrender and Dependency. Mr. Gatto’s students must turn their will and creativity over to a predestined chain of command, which includes school boards, state certification boards, and textbook makers. They are not permit ted to initiate their own learning pro grams or research projects. It is widely assumed that students would be unable to learn without instruction in specific subjects, the ones that authorities determine the kids need to know. 

The capability of state “authorities” to provide for the educational needs of specific kids is seriously in question. That any public authority is better able to do this than a concerned parent is al so doubted by home educators. Yet, many homeschoolers simply turn this most critical decision over to another set of “authorities.” While the various text books available and published specifically for homeschoolers appear to pro mote more desirable values and more reliable approaches to learning (as in phonics), the underlying lesson is still the same: parents don’t know how to teach, aren’t competent to teach, and that they must surrender their children to someone who knows better. In contrast, “unschooling” advocate John Holt once remarked tongue-in-cheek on the best way to help children read-make it illegal for anyone under the age of 12. Human nature being what it is, every one would be an avid reader by their 13th birthday without any formal instruction whatsoever. 

Mr. Gatto further notes that it takes only “about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills well enough that kids can he self-teachers from then on.” If the simple freedom of self-teaching is not allowed to youngsters, the joy of learning what they yearn for, how can we expect them to grow in to freedom-loving adults? 

Insecurity. Mr. Gatto points out that public schools promote the belief that a person’s “self-respect should depend on an observer’s measure of your worth.” In other words, in contrast to the great philosophical and religious teachers throughout history who advocated self knowledge and self-evaluation, this system teaches that anyone who is a declared authority knows better. As adults, we turn ourselves over to various institutions and professionals to make significant decisions about our health, financial well-being, and legal status. We often wrongly assume that they care more about our welfare than we do that is, we acquiesce to their imagined infallibility. In the same way, we presume that those who create and administer tests, both of knowledge and of mental ability, are somehow privy to in sights that we arc lacking. If a youngster “fails” a test-that is, refuses to regurgitate something that the tester considers appropriate-this is taken as a sign of the child’s relative value as scored against other children. The falsity of this premise is clear in public edu cation-tests do not show true worth, aren’t consulted by potential employers, and arc subject to the vagaries of the testers. Yet, homeschoolers do the same thing each time a test is applied. Why do we insist upon comparing our individual child with either some hypothetical “norm” or another unique child? Pity the child who refuses or is unable to complete a given test: a sure sign of way wardness, defiance, troublemaking, stupidity. That this child may have a strong sense of self, different opinions, or a desire for personal freedom, is not considered. 

Surveillance. Mr. Gatto’s final lesson in public schooling is that “you are being watched.” This intentional surveillance goes deeper and further, however. Students are encouraged to snitch on classmates, on their parents, and even on themselves. Transcripts of the proceedings before the U.S. Department of Education in 1984 detail a frightening array of information elicited in public schools-of probing questions, lessons, and programs that reveal profoundly personal information about students and their families (such as the parents’ employment status, marital spats, or discipline methods). Surely, we homeschoolers do not use this approach, do not seek out this kind of revealing information, do we? Yet the homeschool equivalent does exist. Perhaps it is incidental to the intimate environment in which we work, but home schooled youngsters are constantly be ing watched, supervised, and instructed. Their behavior at home is always monitored, and their actions in public are minutely scrutinized. 

Many home-educating parents unknowingly feel that their children are representative of the entire movement, and try to show the public face of their child as nearly flawless as possible. While no one wants his youngster to misbehave in a restaurant, or to throw a tantrum in the supermarket, home schoolers are particularly sensitive to social criticism. Parents were raised in the same public-school system that judged them by others’ values, as noted in lesson five, and consequently they pass this method of validation on to their off spring. 

The fact that the homeschooled child is often the more polite and well-mannered is of scant reassurance when this lesson is applied, for children learn to create a “persona” as government-school youngsters do. The solution for home schoolers is to guarantee their children privacy in their thoughts and effects, and to their less supervisory of their public behavior-a more difficult task for the parents than the kids. 

Mr. Gatto’s “permanent underclass” is the result of a public-school training in these lessons, the development of “people who are to be deprived forever of finding the center of their own genius.” To avoid this destructive outcome, homeschoolers must also be alert to the covert messages they teach, to the hidden lessons children receive about authority, control, and dependency. In essence, homeschools are the ultimate bed of political education, the first lessons in the rights and responsibilities of personal freedom. We must be certain that we teach this by deed, as well as by word.