homeschooling, unschooling, and selection bias

Dana Goldstein is one of my favorite policy and political writers working today, and this response to the recent  n+1 piece on unschooling is a good example of why. Goldstein is fair, measured, and diligent with her citations, while at the same time quite critical in her effect. It’s a great piece. (Astra Taylor’s piece is unfortunately not online.)

I’ll cop to it: I fear that the impetus for some homeschooling and unschooling parents lies in flatly illiberal and inegalitarian impulses. I grew up in a racially and socioeconomically diverse hometown with a similarly diverse public high school, and I couldn’t be prouder or happier to have gone to school there. What I learned by coming up, K-12, surrounded by children who were not like me on many dimensions was that this diversity is in and of itself the best education. Not just in the lefty, diversity-loving sense that I value personally, but in the self-interested sense that being exposed to real difference makes you a better and more intelligent person. Finally, I value it from a democratic perspective. Pluralistic human societies remain an experiment, and the public education presents us with at least the possibility of consistent and meaningful exposure to difference in the formative years.

But not everybody wants his or her child exposed to difference. In addition to the public high school, there were two big private high schools in my hometown. Plenty of the parents who sent their children to those schools were good, principled people, and I count many of their children as friends. But there was also always an element of gross classism and racism, floating out there. Indeed, the administrations of those schools (Xavier High School and Mercy High School of Middletown, CT: you’re welcome, guys) were often among the very worst, speaking in the newspaper with evident disdain for the public high school. That the public high school had a significant amount (though still a minority) of poor black and Hispanic students was not a coincidence. And some ugly minority of the students at those schools were always ready with a thinly-veiled crack about the “wrong sort of people” at Middletown High. While I was at school, a star basketball player at Xavier got (illegally) drunk and busted his face. His buddies covered it up, briefly, by claiming that they had been jumped by a bunch of Puerto Ricans from the public high school.

My fear about homeschooling is that it takes this ugly logic that is sometimes prevalent in private schools and brings it to another level: not only is my kid too good to be educated alongside the public school rabble, he or she is too good to be educated with anybody. Certainly, the Christian extremist variety of homeschooling tends to be justified along precisely those lines; they don’t want their children attending school with the impure. Which, to be sure, is their right. But it is decidedly illiberal. The fact that homeschooling and unschooling are the province of those privileged enough to be able to put them into place only serves to make the aesthetics more unappealing. To be clear, I’m not accusing Taylor or her parents of this sentiment. But as Goldstein says so eloquently, people like Taylor have got to consider the larger costs of the educational philosophy they espouse– particularly because it is precisely the worst off who have the most to lose.

Where I do get genuinely unhappy with her piece is in its almost prototypical application of “this worked for me/my child, let’s try it for everybody.” Yes, I’m sure Taylor’s unschooling experience went over gangbusters for her and her siblings. Just as I’m sure many students who are homeschooled go on to great success. But these people, like Taylor, come from demographic backgrounds (socioeconomic security and educated parents) that give them an overwhelming statistical advantage for educational success. The data strongly suggests that someone from a stable, two-parent home with educated and middle class or better parents would succeed academically in whatever kind of school (home, public, private) he or she attends. Selection bias is not an important consideration in education. It is the important consideration.

When I wrote at Balloon Juice about the near-uselessness of teaching grammar, I got some pushback: don’t some people learn grammar? Don’t some students go from not knowing grammatical terms and sentence structure to knowing them? Sure. The problem is that it appears that these are exactly the kids who already demonstrate advanced grammar skills in their writing. Before they know the name of parts, they show ability to use those parts. Although I’m not ready to say this with any certainty, the suggestion from the extant research is that those kids who succeed at learning formal grammar are those who came from linguistically-rich backgrounds in the first place. For those who aren’t similarly predisposed to grammatical fluency, meanwhile, the numbers on in-classroom grammar instruction are absolutely dismal.

One thing that can’t be stressed enough about our current educational discourse is that it is dominated by people from socioeconomic and educational privilege. Our media and punditry is made up, almost exclusively, of people who went to elite colleges. And as elite colleges are made up in overwhelming numbers by the affluent and those whose parents have college degrees, our whole conversation is skewed. It’s perfectly common for a high-profile blogger, journalist, or think-tank fellow to have gone to elite private schools throughout K-12 education, moved on to an Ivy League university, and then gotten a job surrounded by other people from the same background. Many of them have literally never been exposed to educational disadvantage. Never. That’s why I say some in our media and punditry should take advantage of programs that would allow them to teach disadvantaged kids for a few years. They could put their money where their mouths are, and they might even do a little good in the process.

Finally, I’ll end on a more controversial note. At one point, Taylor complains that those who call unschooling an option for the privileged “impl[y] that most people are not gifted.” Well. First of all, if “gifted” has anything whatsoever to do with “above average,” then the statement is pure nonsense. Of course, most people are not gifted. If they are, “gifted” is a term that has no meaning whatsoever. For many reasons, I feel alienated and disconnected from many of my liberal peers. One of those reasons is the common assumption that all people are of equal talent or ability. This is a notion that is contrary to both the educational data we have and the anecdotal experience of anybody. It must be nice to live in a world where you can assume that everyone around you is gifted and brilliant, but that is most certainly not the world we live in.

I am not a fellow traveler with many in our discourse who make this argument. The concepts behind g, IQ testing, the heratibility of intelligence– all of these things are controversial. And not just politically controversial, either, but scientifically controversial.  I have argued against racial genetic fatalism in print many times. But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as natural ability, and it doesn’t mean that intelligence is evenly distributed. If we on the left are going to be a constructive force in the educational debates, both politically and academically, we have to get past the cheery but false notion that everyone is equally capable of everything. That attitude is used as a cudgel against our public schools, and worse, in its refusal to deal with reality, hampers our efforts to help the most disadvantaged kids.


  1. As a public school/private college/Teach For America product, I couldn’t agree more with your recommendation:

    “[S]ome in our media and punditry should take advantage of programs that would allow them to teach disadvantaged kids for a few years.”

    One of TFA’s best characteristics is that it tricks unthinking American leftists into living their convictions. It tempts privileged young soon-to-be-elites with the promise of better law school admissions prospects or earning potential, etc…only for them to find that they cannot leave the enormous injustice of educational inequality behind after all.

  2. I would truly, truly like people like Freddie to define what “diversity” is.

    Through 9th grade I went to public schools. From 10th through 12th grades I went to a good little private school.

    There was MUCH more diversity at the private school. It’s not even close. Only if you define diversity as “whites are a minority and recent-immigrant Dominican kids and black kids constitute the majority” was there more “diversity” at the public school.

    At the private school my peers included: a black scholarship student from Brooklyn; the son of a famous Russian emigre musician; the (black, obviously) son of a member of the diplomatic corps from Ghana; the child of an off-the-boat German Swiss immigrant; the youngest child of an-old school Hollywood movie queen; the child of a Chinese immigrant; a French kid who turned out to be a great lacrosse player; a brother and sister from the West African francophonie (black — this must be pointed out, since bean-counting is the point of this); at least three members of a huge extended family of Persians who had fled the revolution; two brothers who were working-class Italian scholarship kids from the Bronx; a couple white brothers who were Sikhs, complete with distinctive headgear; one open gay kid, obsessed with Anne Rice, who would have been brutalized in the public school I went to; a French girl who had modelled in Paris and her brother; a (black) child actor who had recently starred on Broadway; the son of an Israeli immigrant; a number of all-American level athletes; a recent-immigrant Japanese kid who returned to Japan after graduating; a I could go on.

    Wasn’t even close — when it comes to REAL diversity, rather than “diversity,” the private school won hands down.

    I point this out simply because the idea that public schools represent some ideal of
    “diversity” is extremely reductive and untenable. Depends which schools, depends what you mean by “diversity.”

  3. That’s an impressive anecdote, although not one which contains a lot of socioeconomic diversity. Unfortunately for your position, when discussing public policy and broad demographic realities, we need quantitative data. And the data demonstrates that private schools are less racially diverse and far less socioeconomically diverse than public schools.

    Here, for example, is a NAEP report that contains demographic data:

  4. Honest and sincere question: if what I cited is not “socio-economic diversity,” then what is socio-economic diversity? This is not a rhetorical question. I’m actually requesting that you answer it. It would seem that to a “progressive,” “poor black kids from West Africa and Brooklyn, plus immigrants,” precisely equals socioeconomic diversity. But then, I don’t really know, which I why I ask.

    Here’s another question: Why do you privilege “socio-economic diversity” over other types of diversity? In other words, let’s say that what I cited does NOT represent socio-economic diversity. Fine. Let’s say I take your word for that. Why, then, is the sort of diversity I cited inferior than your version of “diversity”?

    Here’s yet another sincere question, not a rhetorical one. Are you really happy with your education? Maybe if I followed your blog all the time I would know this, but I don’t, and thus I presume to ask you to answer the question here. Did you ever feel that you could have done better if you had gone to more “elite” schools? I can honestly say that switching to private school was the key factor for me — if I had stayed in public school, I never would have made it to an Ivy League college and then gotten a full-ride fellowship to an Ivy grad school. For me personally, then, apart from my “duty to society,” it worked out well.

    Do you ever feel PERSONALLY shortchanged by your education at non-elite schools? Do you ever think, “the hell with society, I’d be a better and more effective thinker, with a richer intellectual life, had I gone to better schools”?

    (And I know, you can simply short-circuit this argument by making the tired claim that no one ever learns anything at the Ivies anyway, blah blah, all they do is produce little Yglesias-style glib operators, blah blah. But I happen to know that that’s not true.)

  5. First– again, you need to do a better job with your evidence. “I know that’s not true” is not a credible way to argue. They taught me that, in public schools. Strange that they didn’t teach you about argument from anecdote when you were getting your free rides in the Ivy League. (But don’t worry, we’re all very impressed.)

    Second, since you are presenting me with unverified character sketches of dimly-remembered people from your past, I don’t have much to go on as far as the socioeconomic status of your peers go. I can only refer, again, to data, and the data says that private school students come from upper-middle and upper class households in overwhelming majorities.

    I’m interested in racial and socioeconomic diversity because I think that those are the differences that most matter for public policy and pluralistic democracy. I don’t know how you could quantify the beautiful and unique snowflake kind of diversity, nor would I want to. Human beings are diverse, as anyone who has bothered to explore the world a little bit would know. Those Dominicans you wave your hand at in your previous comment happen to be incredibly diverse themselves. Some of them are even– gasp!– gay. The idea that there was something deeper in the diversity of your classmates because you perceive them to be more interesting than your conception of public school kids is flatly bigoted.

    I’m in fact incredibly happy with my own education. More to the point, I am aware that the vast preponderance of empirical data suggests that educational outcomes are far more dependent on student than on school. The fundamental idea that a student’s outcomes are highly school-dependent simply is not credible anymore. Again, you cannot understand education if you don’t understand selection bias. What’s more, the assumption of superior education thanks to superior financial or employment outcomes is such a nightmare of confounding variables, nepotism, patronage, network effects, and superior resources that I wouldn’t even offer a guess at what the reality is. If you’d like to put your money where your mouth is, come here to poor old public Purdue, and compete against some of our engineering students in an academic decathlon. We’ll see the value of that Ivy League grad degree then.

    You ask me what would have been better for me. Well, when I said that I couldn’t have been happier with my education, I meant it. My parents certainly had the ability to send me to a private school, but believed in egalitarianism and the power of public education enough to choose otherwise. More to the point, my needs aren’t the primary concern of public policy. That’s part of being a citizen in a democratic polity.

    Most importantly, the condescension and bias in your comments demonstrates to me exactly the value of a public education. Your contempt for those who were educated in public schools is so obvious, and yet so unapparent to you, that the implicit bias of your limited experience is made even more clear. That bias hurts you both intellectually and morally. As someone who’ll one day be a parent, Ill do just about anything to not raise children of similar bias and defensiveness.

    1. Oh, and by the way, five of my peers at my public, non-exclusive high school went to Ivy League schools.

      I apologize if I’m being intemperate, but I am a passionate advocate for public education.

      1. I am glad they did, but I am not seeing that in the future for the kids who go to my child’s school. I have heard that even when they get to junior high, they are overwhelmed by the work load. 4 to 6 out of 10 do not graduate high school. And this is in a little middle class suburb of Portland, Oregon, not the inner city. I want to stay and make change, but I am not going to make my kid do so if it means making her join these statistics. I still argue that today’s budget cuts have made public education a seriously broken system, and even the teachers who are working with the disadvantaged kids are lamenting their inability to do much with a classroom of 40, nearly no money, and a requirement to test the daylights out of the kids if they want even that thin trickle of money to come in next year. I argue that leaving public school is no longer about leaving diversity, it is about fleeing a disaster, and many of us do it with great regret.

  6. “and compete against some of our engineering students in an academic decathlon. We’ll see the value of that Ivy League grad degree then”

    Depends on the subject — in my subjects of specialty, I’ve gotta be in the top percentile and I’d waste ’em. In engineering, they’d surely kick my ass. Also related fields. In the event, though, I don’t get to Indiana as often as I’d like. Though I’ve got a friend in Bloomington, I can stay with him if it ever comes down to it.

    “Well, when I said that I couldn’t have been happier with my education, I meant it”

    Okay, right on, then it all worked out for both of us! I got a reduced tuition deal at an elite private school and then went to an Ivy college and got a free ride through an Ivy grad school — and you went to a local college in central CT and then Purdue. It’s diversity at its best — we both got what we wanted and needed, my bruddah! (As a member of my own tribe from central Long Island might put it in our rich local patois.)

  7. Ill drink to that. I don’t mean to be a jerk about this stuff. I just feel as if I’m defending where I’ve come from.

  8. My fear about homeschooling is that it takes this ugly logic that is sometimes prevalent in private schools and brings it to another level: not only is my kid too good to be educated alongside the public school rabble, he or she is too good to be educated with anybody. Certainly, the Christian extremist variety of homeschooling tends to be justified along precisely those lines; they don’t want their children attending school with the impure. Which, to be sure, is their right. But it is decidedly illiberal. The fact that homeschooling and unschooling are the province of those privileged

    What seems odd is that with your calls for empirical evidence and data elsewhere, you don’t seem to mind sweeping generalizations that characterize the motivations of homeschoolers as well as their level of privilege, with zero evidence on either of those points.

  9. I made and make no such sweeping generalization. I expressed a personal fear about a possibility, which is definitionally not generalizable.

  10. Where is your empirical evidence that homeschoolers “don’t want their children attending school with the impure” or that homeschoolers are “privileged” financially?

  11. The former is a fear about motives. Perhaps it’s irresponsible to speculate in that way, and I’ll think about it. As for the latter, I think that Goldstein’s piece makes a compelling deductive argument, but you’re right to say that I should have been more careful. Unfortunately, as Goldstein also says, there is precious little demographic data on them available. But I will keep an eye out for what I can find and report back. Would that satisfy you?

  12. Our family unschools, and I would like to invite you to explore it more deeply. It takes a while to fully digest what it truly means, since it is an utter departure from the status quo. To be honest, when I first heard of unschooling, I thought it sounded strange and unrealistic. Then I thought it sounded appropriate for trust fund kids who would not have to function in the “real world.” It was only after spending many months pondering the essence of learning, thinking about what the “real world” really means, reading many books, and, most of all, observing my own and other people’s children, that I really “got it.”

    We do not unschool in order to give our children a “leg up” and ensure that they get into better colleges. In fact, given that we are exactly the type of family that produces academically successful children, it may be that unschooling will make it *less* likely that they will attend Harvard Law School or become physicians. We unschool in order to allow them to develop, as completely as possible, into the individuals that they truly are, with joy, confidence, and empathy for others. We unschool in order to increase the chances that they will grow into self-aware, engaged, compassionate, open-minded agents of change in the world.

    And yes, my children are gifted, but not in the simple bell curve manner that our public school system dictates. They are gifted in the way that Astra Taylor is talking about, the same way that every single person is gifted — we all have gifts that make us individuals. We all have passions and interests, we all have areas that come more naturally to us. Our public school system is very narrow, and only rewards (with its system of rewards and punishments) a specific type of learner who engages in specific types of behaviors, who generally comes from a specific background. The system is broken, terribly broken, and it does a disservice to every child…. but most of all, it does a disservice to lower income children.

    I do not believe that unschooling is the answer for every family, and I fully recognize that my family is lucky to have the resources to allow us to choose this lifestyle. I actually spend quite a bit of time and thought considering how I would reform our educational system, if it were within my power; honestly, my heart breaks for every brilliant, engaged little child who enters school and loses their faith in their own giftedness. I wish I had the answers for how to help every child, but I don’t. I wish I had the power to create a system outside of rewards, punishments, labels, and intense competition for narrow goals, but I don’t. So, for now, I focus my energy on helping my children become the best human beings that they can be and working for change on a global level in my own small ways.

    We need as many children as possible to become free-thinking, creative, empathetic adults in order to help solve some of the massive global problems that we face. In my opinion, unschooling is one path that allows children to get closer to this goal.

  13. I started my children in public school for all the reasons you cite here, and have been thrilled at all that they have learned. No, not even learned. As only children can, they have embraced the socio-economic and ethnic diversity around them with the belief that it is the only way things could be. With a heavy heart, I am now considering homeschooling. I think the lessons we all took from our experiences in schooling are now antique, and we have to give modern homeschoolers some credit for dealing with an entirely new situation. It is not diversity that drives me out of public school. It is the fact that they cut $29 million from just my district last year, and will cut another $40 million this year. It is the difference between the education my older child got and the form of daycare my younger child is receiving only 2 years later. My child missed 3 days of school last month and won the perfect attendance award because, clearly, the administration did not notice she was missing. Homework that is turned in with all wrong answers is checked in and returned with a gold star, and the concept is not reviewed. Her class size will be 39 next year, in the 3rd grade. She gets 25 minutes of gym and music per week. She comes home with her shins black and blue because recess is barely supervised and the children seem to have decided upon kicks to the shins as their mode of all conflict resolution. I have begun to volunteer for recess duty to help reduce the violence and teach the kids some resolution skills that are more appropriate. I volunteer in the library because if I did not check out the books, there would not be library. At some point, I am at the school the whole time my kids are, and I still need to supplement after school so that their education does not fall desperately behind. I worked my butt off to get a ballot measure for a local option levy to help the schools, but it failed and next year’s cuts will be even more brutal. I can work and work from the grassroots level, the volunteer level, and the political level, but I cannot make the changes in time for my own kids to get an education. I suppose I could try to get richer and move to an area where the public schools are more like private schools, but I do not see the difference between that and white flight.

  14. When the government fails on this scale, is it the liberal’s responsibility to experience every aspect of the failure as fully as the member of society who is least able to escape it? If I am a liberal in Hurricane Katrina, am I allowed to escape New Orleans in my (elitist) car and then work for reform on all levels? Or am I required to stay on the roof of my home, risking drowning along with those who had no mode of transportation, to keep my liberal street cred intact? The public school system is beginning to look like a disaster on a similar scale, and I know few people who are willing to sacrifice their children’s educations (and sometimes safety) for their grassroots ideals. Please take a look at what is happening in even the middle-class school districts across the country, and try to empathize with parents who are working for change, but are unwilling to force their children to suffer through such a truly broken system simply because there are other children whose parents cannot find a way out. That is like saying my children must go hungry until we can solve the problem of hunger in America. I am sure there are areas of your life now where you do not require yourself to personally experience the utter failures of our society, and yet you consider yourself an active part of the solution. You may have earned your street cred by going to public school in a town that is 80% white, in a state that usually falls no lower than 3rd in the nation for public schooling, but I think you could show some humility in the face of even my 7 year old, who goes to a school that is 26% white, in a state that vies for the very middle, and will have endured a total budget cut of $66 million dollars by this time next year. You may say I am free to move to Connecticut, but I see no difference between moving to an area where the public schools are better funded by high property tax revenue (and more white, affluent people) and homeschooling. Either way, my daughter’s formerly respectable, middle class, suburban school is going to fail the students who cannot escape it, and I will be leaving behind TRUE diversity.

  15. Hey Freddie,

    Great blog and I appreciate your posting on Dana Goldstein’s article. I was a public school kid myself K-12, was bused to a tough inner city school years 6-9, and then went to an inexpensive state university in my hometown of Tampa, Florida. Right now I am finishing a doctoral degree in European History at Duke University. As I read other blogs and the posts here by home-schoolers I am struck by comments like this for example:

    “I actually spend quite a bit of time and thought considering how I would reform our educational system, if it were within my power; honestly, my heart breaks for every brilliant, engaged little child who enters school and loses their faith in their own giftedness. I wish I had the answers for how to help every child, but I don’t. I wish I had the power to create a system outside of rewards, punishments, labels, and intense competition for narrow goals, but I don’t.”

    I wanted to point out that confessions like this from a post above frankly add weight to the power of Dana Goldtein’s (the other Dana) argument, which is that by removing your kids from the public school system you have less or even no investment in participating in working towards solutions. Amazingly these commentors even acknowledge that their alternative programs do not offer viable models for public school reform. Which makes perfect sense because if they did they would no longer be somehow “outside” the system, the status quo, the space of the “mass” if you will. I do not agree with some of these voices that now define liberal values solely in terms of individual choice and the recognition of the fundamental uniqueness of every individual and indeed, every point of view. It is odd how well this rhetoric meshes with a general consumer ethos in our contemporary culture. I think this general flight from the public sphere extends beyond the public school debate, and certainly beyond American shores as this recent book by the leading French feminist Elisabeth Badinter makes clear:

    I am not against the right of parents, whatever their political values, to homeschool their kids. But that is not what this debate is essentially about. Again the obsession with “individual choice” is overshadowing a more fundamental issue: Who will defend our public institutions as we move into the future? As we speak not only public schools but public universities nationwide are turning into semi-corporate entities, the humanities face massive cuts, and pundits on both the left and right seem content to join hands in agreement on the decadence, elitism, and corruption of university educators and faculties. You are absolutely right that outcomes depend more on the student than the school. The caricatures and so-called analysis in books like Reading’s “The University in Ruins”, while claiming to come from a radical left perspective, end up painting duplicate portraits as conservatives based largely on theoretical abstractions – often based on essentialist notions of human nature – rather than concrete and careful data collection, participant observation, and and an appreciation for historical context.

    In the U.S. we have a general tendency in our public discourse to talk about our institutions in extreme terms: they are either the best the world has ever known, or the bottomless pit of the universe. Reality exists somewhere in between, but I do not think it will be appreciated if liberalism is continually defined in terms of individual choice, which is more often than not an expression of class advantages. I’m sure this post will be controversial and upset some, but I wanted you to know that I appreciate your work to keep fighting for public schools.

    1. I understand your points, yet I stand by my belief that stepping thoughtfully outside of a system that does not respect children (while still giving my tax dollars and votes in support of public education) is completely consistant with progressive values. If you are interested, I wrote a response to the other Dana Goldstein’s article. You can read it here:

      And, for what it’s worth, I went to public school from 1st through 12th grade, and got a four-year degree from a public university. I did well, by the standards of school, though it has taken me many years to rediscover my intrinsic joy of learning and belief in my non-academic skills. School was the place where I learned to play the game, learned to compete with each others to get the “prizes” from the teachers, learned how to regurgitate what was needed to get the best test scores. Life is where I have learned how to be a good human being, how to interact peacefuly yet honestly, how to learn about things that fascinate me and develop relevant skills.

      I would love to live in a world where children were allowed to follow their own interests, learn at their own paces, and learn how to listen to their own indicator of personal success, outside of a competative structure of testing. I am opting out of a system that I see as broken (and yes, there are some great teachers, who manage to do spectacular jobs DESPITE the current system) for the sake of my own children, and also to show the world around me that there is another way. For me, it is a human rights issue–because children’s rights are human rights, and my progressive values are deeply rooted in a striving for human rights.

  16. Have you read Ivan Illich’s “De-schooling Society”? What do you think of his argument that the factory model of institutionalised education (i.e. schooling) is specifically designed to minimise diversity and encourage conformity for the purpose of perpetuating itself within a post-industrialist society? How does spending most of every day for 12 years with kids of all the same age compare with spending time with people from 0 to 99 years old on a daily basis, interacting with them, helping them, learning from them. That’s what children of parents who understand unschooling have the opportunity to do.

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