REVIEW OF “SCHOOLING IN PRIVATE: A STUDY OF HOME EDUCATION” BY JANE VAN GALEN
Home educators, conventional educators, and school officials are offered substantive information for contemplation in Jane Van Galen’s 1986 Ph.D. dissertation “Schooling in private: A study of home education•. Van Galen employed the qualitative research techniques of participant observation, open ended interviewing, and document analysis to study her subjects. Her goal was to describe “the norms, values, beliefs and actions of the various actors and groups who are involved in the home-schooling issue” (p. 5, 6). Van Galen attended meetings, conducted interviews, and analyzed documents in North Carolina over a period of 18 months during 1984 and 1985. She engaged in participant observation at state, regional, and local meetings of home schoolers; she accompanied home schoolers as they met with representatives of other groups; she used audiotapes of meetings that she did not attend. Van Galen conducted open ended
interviews with 23 parents from 16 home school families; she had interviews with ten state and local education officials and others involved with monitoring or regulating home schooling; she also interviewed representatives from several public education lobbying groups about their organizations’ perception of home
schooling. The collection and analysis of a variety of documents was also a part of her data collection; these included books, newsletters, press reports, and a lawyer’s files related to home school cases.
The researcher was careful to explain various strengths and weaknesses of qualitative research, and emphasized that “this study is a description and analysis of the values, beliefs, and actions of a small group of parents who are home schooling under specific conditions, in a specific place, and at a particular
time” (p. 44).
There are two major categories into which home schoolers fit, observed Van Galen. The first classification is the Ideologues. “Their goal in keeping their children at home is to teach their children an alternative ideology [strong religious convictions, a conservative political and social perspective, and emphasis on the importance of the family] than that which they believe is being taught elsewhere” (p. 94). The second division is the Pedagogues. They are “more interested in creating an alternative pedagogy for their children to that available in the schools. Their criticism of the schools is not so much that the schools teach heresy, but that schools teach whatever they teach ineptly” (p. 95). Van Galen wisely pointed out that the two categories are “by no means discrete” (p. 95). Viz. there are home schoolers who emphasize both ideological and pedagogical reasons for home educating their children.
Whether a parent belongs to the Ideologue or Pedagogue category, Van Galen perceived that they are drawn to home schooling for any or all of four reasons:
1. It will build and strengthen the family.
2. It will protect their children from undesired influences.
3. “Their child has unique needs that cannot be met in a traditional classroom” (p. 128).
4. Available private or public schools are not acceptable.
Van Galen provided substantial qualitative data to support the existence of the four preceding reasons. All of these reasons indicate goals that home school parents have. However, Van Galen pointed out that there are impediments to reaching the goals which are built into the home school culture that should be critically evaluated by home schoolers and others.
Her chapter entitled “The Construction of Learning” may be of most interest to home school parents and those interested in improving the state of home education. In it Van Galen discussed various processes home school parents go through: (a) starting out and its unknowns, (b) learning about learning (materials,
children, schooling, and principles of learning), and (c) structuring learning. She used examples of these processes experienced by home school parents to conclude that, ironically, … the parents who are most suspicious of the schools [Ideologues] are more likely than others to employ methods and materials that most closely resemble those employed by traditional school, and those parents who argue most strongly that they alone should have authority over their children’s learning are among the least actively involved in teaching their children. Under the guise of parental rights and responsibilities, these parents have substituted the school’s overt control over their children’s education for the more subtle control of the publishers of commercial curriculum.
The Pedagogues, on the other hand, have broken most completely with models of traditional schooling, and in doing so, have also assumed more authority over their children’s learning than parents who are more dependent on commercial materials. Being more aware of children’s developmental needs and being more willing to utilize the resources available to them, they are able to structure activities and experiences that are more genuinely appropriate for their individual children. (p. 249)
Van Galen began her final chapter by generally portraying the Ideologues in a negative sense. Viz. these parents fear “losses” to humanism and to a new social order (i.e. the New Age). These parents are limited to narrow definitions of teaching because they have neither the knowledge nor skill to be broader, Van Galen proposed. Contrariwise, she depicted the Pedagogues as representing “themes of strength.” “Their reasons for home schooling are more firmly grounded in what they hope to gain rather than in what they fear losing” (p. 255). Van Galen explained that the Pedagogues are more concerned with teaching
and learning, read more broadly about teaching and learning, take a more active role in their children’s education, and believe their home is the best place to learn for their unique children.
Hopefully Van Galen has been successful in procuring an accurate description and in offering honest observations about her population of home school families. It may be that she has struck and will strike some sensitive cords amongst home school parents and professional educators. Perhaps her study will stimulate home school parents to ask a series of questions, and respond with serious and logical answers: What can I learn from Van Galen’s observations and insights? “Why• do I teach my children at home? Why do I teach the “way• that I do? Is there a “better way• to teach my children? Can I learn “from others•? If I can learn from others, how might I increase my opportunities to do so?
In a final section, Van Galen discussed implications for policy making. She pointed out that simply because parents may know their children better than anyone else does not necessarily insure that they are aware of all the opportunities available to help them be the best possible teachers of their children. Therefore, “Leaders of the movement and the parents themselves may want to consider modes of organization that would encourage home schoolers to share practical ideas, assist new parents, and develop methods that take advantage of the flexibility offered by home schooling without infringing on the privacy of the parents or centralizing organization” (p. 259, 260). Regarding misunderstandings that home schoolers have of public school people and vice versa, Van Galen suggested that people should gain adequate and appropriate information before making blanket condemnations. Thirdly, the researcher addressed the concept of evaluating home schooling. To put it succinctly, “Evaluating whether home education is good or bad requires that one first ask whether it is good of [sic] bad “for what•, and conflicts arise between home and traditional educators over precisely these questions of purpose” (p. 262). Within the context of evaluating home schooling, Van Galen considered arguments about conventional schools as agents for the transmission of culture, for socializing students, and for offering to students more than can
parents alone. From here she went on to discuss the role of the common school and the dissatisfaction with it by the public as the school tried to assume responsibility for more numerous and more complex functions; accompanying this was a general decline in the sense of common purpose for common schools. Rather than home schoolers being confused and lacking understanding of what they are doing, Van Galen proposed that the metaphysical certainty that is provided by the parents’ belief systems minimizes the disorientation they experience in society. They know that their values and beliefs are shared by few others, but they attribute these differences to other’s confusion and uncertainty rather than to any deficiency in their own belief systems. (p. 269)
Van Galen has been creative and thoughtful in her discussion of home schooling in North Carolina. She has brought (to this author) a welcome respite from standardized test scores of home school students. Her discussion addresses the social and cultural issues, and the form and substance of home education in
North Carolina. Perhaps Van Galen’s findings and thoughts will stimulate researchers, home school parents, educators, and sociologists alike to do some new cogitation regarding this still little studied form of education.
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