The Most Chilling Aspect of Elizabeth Bartholet’s Thought on Homeschooling
Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet gained national attention recently for articles arguing that there should be a presumptive ban against homeschooling. She argues that “Parents should have a significant burden of justification for a requested exception” in order to homeschooling.
After acknowledging that such a “significant burden for a requested exception” will force many children to attend public schools, she comments:
“Most children will do all right in public schools, even if some of them might do better if homeschooled. And parents will be free to make up at home what their children are not getting at school.”
This is the most chilling aspect of Bartholet’s thought on homeschooling, that she actually believes, “Most children will do all right in public schools.”
Is this true?
Meanwhile, teen suicides increase by about 20% during the school year, returning to lower levels over summer break and holidays. This seasonal pattern in in teen suicides stops at 18, suggesting that it was indeed something about the experience of schooling that caused the annual, “back to school, back to suicide season” uptick in teen suicides.
Certainly those teens who killed themselves each year due to a return to schooling did not “do all right.” Bartholet has rightly been inspired to address child abuse cases that are associated with homeschooling. This is honorable. However she is wrong, and glibly wrong, chillingly wrong, to assume that children in public schools will “do all right.”
For most of the past thirty-five years I’ve created small, personalized schools that attract teens escaping large, impersonal public and private schools. These young human beings are a few of the hundreds I’ve known (names changed):
A. Every day Clarisse felt like such a failure at school she would look at the knife rack in the kitchen before school and consider stabbing herself. She switched to a school at which she was allowed to pursue what creative projects and she was vibrant and alive, a shining example of someone who was in love with life.
B. Ben hid under his desk at his previous school. While quiet and timid at his new school, he gradually warmed up and became friendly and social. When he had to return to regular schools in 9th grade he attempted suicide. I don’t know if he survived through school.
C. Charles remembers high school as a place in which he thought about putting the barrel of a gun in his mouth so that it could all be over. He thought he was going insane. As soon as school was over, he felt much better. He is now a happy, successful software engineer.
D. Felix had been at an expensive private school for dyslexics — and yet he had considered killing himself constantly for feeling stupid. Once he was at a school that focused on those creative domains which he loved, rather than the academic domains which were challenging to him, he quickly became happy and joyful.
Teens killing themselves because of the routine humiliation and brutality of schooling are living, breathing presences for me. When I read Bartholet claiming most will be “all right” I envision real individuals who clearly were not “all right” — until they were able to escape public school, at which point they were indeed fine. To reduce access for those that need to escape strikes me as cruel indeed.
The educational research community as a whole has neglected a systematic study of how different schools provide profoundly different environments for social and emotional well-being. For instance, it was only in 2018 that researchers noticed,
“1 in 5 high school students in California experienced suicidal ideation, a number that is high, but also consistent with many other studies on suicidal ideation among adolescents in the nation. However, the new study, the first to have a school-level analysis, found that the level of suicidal ideation varies greatly from school to school, with some high schools reporting as low as 4 percent, while others reached nearly 70 percent.”
Imagine if your child was attending a high school with a 70% rate of suicidal ideation? But most students will be “all right” . . .
Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College, has been a leader in documenting the harms from schooling. While these studies don’t differentiate among schooling types, they do document ubiquitous harm. These are a few of the studies he cites:
• Verbal abuse from teachers is a common occurrence. In one survey, for example, 64 percent of middle school students reported experiencing stress symptoms because of verbal abuse from teachers. Another study revealed that nearly 30 percent of boys were verbally abused by teachers in kindergarten, and the abuse increased in years after that. Surveys of adults indicate that between 50 percent and 60 percent of them recall school-related experiences that, in their view, were psychologically traumatic.
• In a study in which 150 college students were asked to described the two most negative experiences in their lives — experiences that negatively affected their development — by far the most common reports (28 percent of the total) were of traumatic interactions with school teachers. In a study in which adults were interviewed to find out about positive, peak learning experiences occurring in their schooling, few could recall such experiences, but many recalled negative experiences, which interfered with rather than supported their development.
• Hair cortisol levels in young children were found to be significantly higher in samples taken two months after starting elementary school than in samples taken two months prior to starting elementary school. Hair cortisol level is reflective of chronic stress, the sort of stress that can seriously impair physical growth and health.
A large-scale national survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (reported here) revealed that U.S. teenagers feel more stressed-out than do adults and that school is by far the main cause of their stress (noted by 83 percent of the sample). In the same study, 27 percent of teens reported experiencing “extreme stress” during the school year, compared to 13 percent reporting that during the summer.
Clearly before creating a “significant burden for a requested exception” in order to homeschooling we need to evaluate whether a child is likely to be at greater risk at school or at home. It is intellectually and morally illegitimate to assume that a child will be “all right” at school.
In a recent statement titled, “No Need for Bullying in The Debate on Homeschooling,” at the Chronicle for Social Change, Harvard law professor and colleagues Dr. Rachel Coleman, James Dwyer, Milton Gaither, and Frank E. Vandervort describe recent tweets by Ted Cruz and Mike Pompeo as “bullying.” Cruz responded to Bartholet’s proposed presumptive ban on homeschooling as “This is barbaric. Myopic. And unconstitutional.” Separately Mike Pompeo tweeted, “The risk to children is NOT from homeschooling,” the secretary of state wrote. “The risk is from radical leftist scholars seeking to impose THEIR values on OUR children.”
I’m glad to hear that they are concerned about bullying. Bullying is certainly a very serious problem in schooling,
Nearly 1 in 5 students (21%) report being bullied during the school year, impacting over 5 million youth annually (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2018)
Youth who are bullied are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, lower academic achievement, and dropping out of school (CDC, 2018)
Students who experienced bullying or cyberbullying are nearly 2 times more likely to attempt suicide (Hinduja & Patchin, 2018)
Strangely, however, Bartholet was not concerned about bullying in her Arizona Law Review article advocating for a presumptive ban on homeschooling. Did she not recall middle school when Cruz tweeted that her idea of a presumptive ban on homeschooling was “barbaric”?
Perhaps if she had she would have recommended more funding for anti-bullying programs, which reduce bullying by about 15–20%. I’m sorry, but I think I speak for most parents when I say that is just not good enough. If my child is being abused at school, I want my child out of that environment. If I can’t afford a private school and Bartholet puts up significant barriers to homeschool, I’d break the law to keep my child safe. Does she really want homeschooling parents to be arrested and prosecuted for keeping their children safe from bullying?
Bartholet and her colleagues are rightly focused on cases of child abuse and maltreatment. I know of no one who is against improving ways to reduce child abuse and maltreatment. At the same time, the campaign to reduce child abuse and maltreatment must recognize the risks of such abuse and maltreatment both at home and at school. If Bartholet and her colleagues want to be regarded as respected advocates for children, they must begin to acknowledge the egregious harms common to schooling — and they must respect a parent’s right to remove their children from a harmful environment. (80% of homeschooling parents cite “A concern about the environment of other schools” as a reason for homeschooling, the single most widely cited rationale). Until they do, their campaign to protect children from the possibility of mistreatment at home will rightly be regarded as willfully blind to the all-too-common phenomenon of mistreatment at school.
On April 21st, 2020, I sent the following email to Professor Bartholet and her assistant:
Dear Professor Bartholet,
I am writing to request your support for a study on Adverse Schooling Experiences (ASE) analogous to the CDC/Kaiser Permanente initiative that identified Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as a significant causal factor in adolescent and adult morbidity and mortality. At present I am in the early stages of conceptualizing such a study. Your support would be invaluable in developing momentum for such a project.
I assume that a scholar of your stature, with a long-standing commitment to the welfare of children, is aware of the evidence that schooling is often a damaging experience for children. If you are not aware of the evidence for schooling being a damaging experience I’d be happy to point you towards various suggestive studies. But precisely because the issue has not been adequately studied we need an ASE study that documents the harms in a manner analogous to the ACE study.
Of course I became aware of your work through the recent controversial article on homeschooling in Harvard Magazine. I expect the article must have misrepresented your views as it seems to suggest that you are only concerned with harms from homeschooling. It curiously represents you as if you are unaware of the harms from conventional schooling. An interest from you in supporting an ASE would advance the cause of children’s welfare considerably while demonstrating to the public that you care for the welfare of all children, and not only those at risk of abuse by families.
I’ve spent most of the past thirty five years creating small, personalized schools at which teens flourish. I’ve known hundreds of children who transfer from large, impersonal environments to a small, highly personalized environment. Many suffered from clinical anxiety or depression, some were suicidal. The change in environment often resulted in a dramatic increase in well-being. I’ve had more than a few students explicitly tell me that my schools have prevented them from killing themselves.
There is nothing hypothetical about this issue for me. It is possible to create such schools at a lower cost than the per pupil expenditure in most states. I’ve supported many others in creating such small personalized schools. To be completely transparent, I believe that broader awareness of the evidence that schooling is damaging to many children will accelerate a movement to create more small, personalized schools — or to homeschool when that alternative is not a possibility.
Let me know if you are open to a conversation on the development of a study on Adverse Schooling Experiences. I’ve had an informal set of conversations with other scholars on this issue and am in the process of creating an advisory group to explore the development of such a study. I would be honored to have you join forces with us on behalf of the welfare and well-being of millions of children.
Thank you in advance for your consideration,
Academy of Thought and Industry
She has not responded, no doubt after having been flooded with emails.
I include it here after having sent this article both to her and her colleagues in the hopes that they will support a study on Adverse Schooling Experiences (Milton Gaither has responded thoughtfully and supportively). In order to know the relative threat to children of homeschooling, public schooling, and other forms of schooling, we need more focused empirical work on the harms associated with diverse models of schooling.
Otherwise, respected scholars such as Professor Bartholet and her colleagues may support legislation that prevents millions of children from escaping the psychologically damaging, and all too often fatal, experience of schooling as it currently exits.
Academy of Thought and Industry