Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Where should religious people stand on homeschooling?

Image courtesy of albertogp123 / Flickr Creative Commons:
Image courtesy of albertogp123 / Flickr Creative Commons:

Homeschoolers stack up better than one might expect when compared to public schooled children. – Image courtesy of albertogp123/Creative Commons:

Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich outlawed homeschooling in Germany in 1938, and the edict has been in effect ever since. In recent years, however, the effort to uphold this law in the country has ramped up, with the German Supreme Court stating that the purpose of the ban being to “counteract the development of religious and philosophically motivated parallel societies.”

But this foreign fight over education is now affecting Americans thanks in part to the Romeike family, who fled from Germany to the United States in 2008 so they could homeschool their children. They’ve been in a high-profile fight to avoid deportation after a decision granting them asylum was overturned. While still in Germany, the family accrued more than $10,000 in fines and the forcible removal of their children.

Germany’s decision to uphold this remnant of Nazism flies in the face of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 26, section 3: “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” Germany’s blatant disregard of this declaration seems to underscore again just how impotent the United Nations has become, even among those who enjoy full membership and a non-permanent seat on its security council.

But Germany’s law and the struggle over family-based education is a harbinger of a conversation that I believe will undoubtedly come to America in the near future. While it is difficult to imagine the United States government outlawing homeschooling altogether, decisions will need to be made that will determine how easy or difficult it might be for a family to choose this option.

So where should religious people stand on homeschooling?

Though I’ve always believed in expanding personal freedoms whenever possible, I’ve found myself favoring greater restrictions on homeschooling in recent years. This position has been influenced by my sixth grade year of education when I and my two brothers were homeschooled. Suffice to say it was not an overwhelmingly positive experience, and my parents were quick to course correct after the year’s end.

But more powerful than my personal narrative, I’ve been shaped by watching several friends who, though unqualified and uncommitted to the task, have set out to educate their own children. Their kids have not been served well—they do very little actual schoolwork, lack discipline and structure in their daily schedules, and have almost no social interaction with other children. If these children pursue a college education, they will likely enter the post-secondary world far behind the majority of their peers.

These children are not being homeschooled, but rather “unschooled.” Their educational experience is much like filmmaker Astra Taylor who recounted in the literary journal N+1, “My siblings and I slept late and never knew what day of the week it was. We were never tested, graded, or told to memorize dates, facts, or figures. … Some days we read books, made music, painted, or drew. Other days we argued and fought over the computer. Endless hours were spent watching reruns of ‘The Simpsons’ on videotape, though we had every episode memorized. When we weren’t inspired—which was often—we simply did nothing at all.”

As religious people who support the common good, we cannot sacrifice the future of our children on the altar of parental preference. Kids are one of the most valuable assets we have and we must ensure they receive quality educations. Freedom is never unlimited, and the ocean of freedom must stop at the shore of the wellbeing of our children.

But this certainly doesn’t mean that homeschooling should be outlawed or even heavily regulated. A few parents I know aren’t homeschooling properly, but this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re facing an education epidemic by allowing for the option. So I decided to do a little poking around into how homeschooled children perform overall, and here’s what I found:

  • Homeschooled children significantly outperform children educated in public school systems in reading, language, math, science, and social studies.
  • Homeschooled children’s tests scores were not significantly affected by their parents’ household incomes or whether their parents were certified teachers.
  • Homeschooled children perform better overall in college—from their freshman years to their senior years.
  • Homeschooled children do not lag behind public school children overall in communication and socialization skills.
National Average Percentile Scores – image courtesy of College@Home:

National Average Percentile Scores – Image courtesy of [email protected]:

As it turns out, homeschooling seems to be more of a social good than a social ill. It’s producing smart and capable students who are performing at the highest levels. Of course, this doesn’t mean we need to abandon public education with its many perks. Instead, the performance of homeschoolers should drive us to reflect on how we can improve our public education systems for those who choose to utilize them. And it should motivate us to find ways to reduce the number of homeschooled students who are not being served well, even as we continue to provide this option for parents who choose to utilize it.

Religious persons—and not just those who are also parents—need to educate themselves on homeschooling and decide where they stand. This conversation is coming, and it is one class in which we can’t afford not to do our homework.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


Click here to post a comment

  • Homeschooling is a wonderful thing for children whose parents are capable of educating them. And those children may do better on standardized tests – but not necessarily because they were homeschooled. They do better because they come from stable homes; had they been in school, they’d do just as well, if not better

  • Learning should be continual, not confined to happening in a brick building, within four walls, from the hours of 8-3. As a former public school teacher, and a friend of many current teachers, I can confirm that during a typical school day, less than two hours of actual “learning” takes place. Between lunch, recess, discipline problems, bathroom breaks, special meetings, grading papers, taking attendance, moving from one subject to the next, hallway travel, and other daily interruptions that take either the teacher or the student out of the classroom, the actual learning time would shock most parents.

  • It’s sad to consider the unschooling of children whose parents lack the discipline to teach their children, and for that something must be done.

    However, there is much to look to in regards to the amount of time public school students actually learn academically as opposed to culturally.

    As someone who has experienced public, private, and homeschooling – homeschooling was successful in creating discipline, a love for studying, creative problem solving, and independent thinking that I didn’t find in the classroom. These are skills that serve me well rather than the groupthink our education programs lean towards (read Quiet by Susan Cain for more details on this).

    As a father of three girls, they are currently in public schools and we review and add to the lessons they get each day. However, the older they get and the more aware we become of culture’s moral shifts, the more we believe we will be homeschooling our girls in the future.

  • The problem of being “unschooled” can be a real problem, but it is exceedingly over-exaggerated. It is much more common for a child to go to a public school every day and still be “unschooled”.

    Since this is a religious site, I find it rather odd that the author doesn’t include anything about the teaching of morals or religion. As people of faith we should consider this very important along side reading, math, science, etc. I’m not a public school hater, I think it is required in an advanced society, but lets be honest here – if you send your children to public school they will be taught morals…many of them different from what you may want to learn. Home schooling serves as a check on state indoctrination. As the state moves more and more away from a Christian worldview, parents are faced with making very difficult decisions. This has to be part of the conversation of where religious people should stand on the issue…

  • Unfortunately, there is more to being schooled, home or otherwise, than just learning the three “Rs”.

    I remember working with a woman who was home schooled through high school. She was about 19 when I met her, and she had just been hired in her first job. She was very well educated, and knew history, English and math exceptionally well (I don’t remember getting into science discussions with her, so I can’t speak about that). However, she was severely lacking in a few key areas.

    Because she was home schooled, the only real contact she had with people were from her family and from her church. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she was surprisingly and disturbingly naive about the world around her (not geographically… her geography was better than mine).

    I remember the first time she heard about someone being arrested for drinking and driving. “YOU MEAN PEOPLE ACTUALLY DO THAT? DON’T THEY KNOW IT’S DANGEROUS?” She was honestly terrified to drive home from work that day.

    Another time, a discussion of unwed teen mothers came up, and she matter-of-factly stated, “Well, that just doesn’t happen. People don’t have sex before marriage.”

    There is a difference between not condoning an activity and not knowing the activity occurred, and this 19 year old woman quite literally had no idea that these activities occurred, and occurred quite frequently.

    I often said that there are two important lesson to learn in school. The first is you need to learn how to learn. The second is you need to learn how to deal with people. Clearly, she had missed that second lesson.

    I don’t know how many home schooled students suffer from a similar lack of knowledge of the world around them, but every time I hear of someone being home schooled, I have to wonder how complete their education really is.

  • It seems to be hit or miss for homeschooling. In rural areas, it may make sense to home school because of distance. However, there are parents who try to lay a bubble around their children because they fear the “evils” of public school. Or, for issues of control. Last time I checked, Jesus didn’t remove his followers from society. He inserted them into society.

  • Isn’t it interesting how this piece evolved in just a few paragraphs.

    It began with a critique of homeschooling, of its seemingly inherent pitfalls and problems. And yet by the end, homeschooling was assessed as, in many ways, superior to public education. Why the alterity? Simply put, the first half was grounded anecdotally, not scientifically. And so it goes with nearly all critiques of homsechooling. Rather than assessing it generally, broadly and scientifically, detractors project their critiques from their own experience (“I was homeschooled and I didn’t like it” “I’ve met a lot of homeschooled kids that were weirdos”).

    This is not to say that homeschooling cannot go badly. It can. But why must these possible (not probable) pitfalls always be the centerpiece of the discussion?

  • On the flipside can we not say the same thing about public education? Shouldn’t we hold this domain to the same scrutiny? There are children who go through 13-14 years in public education who cannot perform basic tasks. Many cannot read or write basic paragraphs. Deductive reasoning skills are flawed. Look at recent numbers of 80% of children in NYC schools that cannot read. You can always find stats to back up your opinion but are they enough to generalize?

    If the argument is to pursue these small in number children who are being ‘unschooled’ at home, shouldn’t we hold this same standard to the tens of thousands who are being unschooled in public institutions? This is a system that has treasury of the community invested in it and the numbers in this domain are far greater. If there is a bigger priority to pursue I would say we need to address that side. As far as education goes in general, where have we come to say that if children do not reach a certain point then we must fault parents and hold them accountable but not do the same for other entities involving children? And the greater question is why should it matter if families do not take their children to the standard of the state? This sounds very statist and that if children do not offer some good to the state, the state must then step in and do something about it.

  • His followers weren’t vulnerable and impressionable children. They were adults. Big difference.

  • This post has absolutely nothing to do with Christians and whether or not they should support/utilize homeschooling. Instead it is the author’s personal views on homeschooling (he didn’t like, he thinks homeschool parents are lazy), and proceeds to include many cliche stereotypes of homeschoolers. Boo.

  • I can easily turn this around on you – how many people who graduate from public school have no idea how to deal with other people in a constructive way? How many people who graduate from public school lack basic discipline or respect for authority?

    Granted, being sheltered to the point of being naive is a bad thing. But so is being so engrossed in a bad culture that you can’t show up for work on time or pass a drug test or do what your boss tells you to do. Breaking through uninformed notions of how the world works is much easier to do that trying to learn discipline for the first time at age 25.

  • Our fellowship community has been homeschooling since 1976. My mother HS’d one of my younger sisters, who has no children. My other sister was High Schooled in the most drug infested school in Toronto at the time, and she home schools her 3 children next door to a good school. My wife and I home schooled our 4 children till this year, with fantastic scholastic results, but when our two younger boys asked to go to High School, we checked it it out, and agreed. They are currently enjoying themselves immensely and acing their work. Its about choices.
    Home schooling, or public schooling for that matter, really has less to do with school curriculum, teaching and resources, and everything to do with character developing discipleship, nurturing and hope.
    Schools and institutions in general, including the church, have devolved into mono cultures, and have gradually reduced our ability to see the world as multi layered, filled with choices and opportunity.
    We do a great disservice to our children if we continue to couch this debate in an either/or context. We’ve been slowly conditioned to adopt a them vs us worldview, inside and outside the church, and in so doing, have played into the hands of more circumspect opportunists, both inside and outside the church.
    If we debate anything, I think it should be that.
    Our community has raised our kids to see the world as an oyster, and education as a fork.
    We took the time to figure out what kind of learners we have and then did the hard work of choosing appropriate learning environments for them.
    And we trust them.
    If we cant trust our kids, its because we failed to empower them to take responsibility, and in that sense, their education should be about empowering them. How, where, who and when aren’t as important as what they are actually learning. An empowered child who’s an excellent artist but poor science or math student, is still empowered, and therefore equipped with the innate skills needed to master difficulties when called upon.
    Or they will have the creative impetus to find the help they need, instead of complaining and quitting.
    Lest I sound like an armchair critic, allow me to offer a few tips that may help bewildered parents to untie their particular child’s granny knot learning problem. These questions were fundamental to us in determining the choices we made and make, in learning anything.
    Some people are predominantly concrete learners, others are abstracts.
    Some are kinetics while others are academics.
    Some are visuals, others are auditory or tactile’s.
    Most schools don’t and won’t consider these critically important learning dynamics because in a one size fits all monoculture, choice is moot, and conformity is culturally inculcated through the curriculum.
    Too many schools have been slow, and resistant to bend with the shifts in pedagogy’s that industry, technology and parents demand. We need Ford Shelby GR 1 thinkers but risk adverse teachers colleges churn out K car teachers.
    Because we let them.
    R & D funding follows innovation and open architecture innovation, unlike America’s steadily eroding manufacturing sector. And here in Canada, we’re proudly returning to being hewers of wood and haulers of oil; selling the value added manufacturing opportunities to the worlds highest bidders.
    The missing ingredient in all this isn’t education, or training, as badly as they need an overhaul.
    Its hope, vision and care for our neighbors, and better or different schools aren’t going to produce them.
    We’re still free and democratic nations and its not too late to drive change at every level, and thereby inspire our children to follow us, refusing a ‘good enough’ approach to life, and hacking our way thru the jungle of mediocrity to excellence.
    We had excellence at one point in history, and lost it, so its pretty lame to argue that we need lower taxes, better schools et al so we can return to excellence,
    We need to quit complaining and arguing, take the TV out and shoot it, grab our kids and go with them to do the change we want.
    And that includes the change we say we want in the church.
    Or just keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I was just wondering why use the United Nations as a reference, rather than scripture. I also was curious about the absence of God’s purpose for education to begin with. If government schools were necessary for a healthy nation, I imagine He would have given the government that responsibility. But, He didn’t…and for good reason.
    He, more than anyone, knows the inherent worldview instruction involved in teaching itself. It simply can’t be removed, no matter how “neutral” it claims to be.

    We need to become educated about education….the responsibilities of a parent, teacher, and student given by God. Not to mention His purpose for His tuition (Proverbs 17:16, 23:23)

    The Church is called to equip…and a church/worldview/belief system always will. It’s just a matter of which one.

    Our job is choosing, hiring, and supporting the right one. One that’s not perfectly understood or taught by believers…on Sunday or on Monday. But the consequences for relinquishing the role to others who aren’t capable of offering what He had/has in mind are much larger than we realize.

    Like marriage, sticking with God’s original purposes and roles matter to Him so it should to us. Our job isn’t to force others to learn His viewpoint. But, changing the truth isn’t an option.

    For years I thought that our current public schools began on the right foot and then went south at some point. But a diest’s beliefs about God’s interest in subjects (or lack there of), let alone the thiught that He wants to inform them…are no basis for educating anyone.

    For more information and thoughts on this I’ve put a few things together at the link below, just in case anyone’s interested.

    Thanks again for the discussion. You’re right…we can’t afford to get this wrong.

  • Allison,

    I use the UN declaration rather than scripture because that part of my article was offering commentary on the German Supreme Court’s comments. So the declaration would be relevant as Germany is a member nation, but the scripture wouldn’t be. The reason I didn’t mention it in general is that the Bible is silent on public education. There are some Biblical principles we can use to help us think through this, though. And I think those need to be a part of the conversation.


  • Ryan,

    The thrust of this article is the penultimate paragraph: “As it turns out, homeschooling seems to be more of a social good than a social ill. It’s producing smart and capable students who are performing at the highest levels.” The point is that the data proved my preconceptions to be misconceptions. So I think we actually agree here.



  • Having homeschooled my four children (they are adults now), I can say that it requires lots of hard work and is best done in a community of sorts. Too many people like the idea of schooling their children at home, but don’t want to put the time, energy, and self-discipline into it. Also, I could not have stayed sane without the women who taught my children subjects I’m not strong in, co-taught classes with me so our children could enjoy discussions, and families who spent hours organizing debate clubs and tournaments for homeschoolers to compete in. I’m thankful I had the freedom to make the choice and pray this right is not taken away. Should every Christian family home school? No! But, for those who are willing to make the effort, they should be allowed.

  • Thanks Mike.
    And well done Allison, for your wise perspective, and value added research that you linked to. Your writing bears all the hallmarks of scars received in spiritual trench warfare. Its refreshing, and rare to hear that sense of militancy that the church lost long ago when we plunked ourselves down on our Laodecian couch.
    My mother was threatened with court action for my sister’s truancy.
    She told the school principal to get a court date quickly, so she could tell the world all the things he was allowing to happen to children, and how much potential her daughter was being robbed of, translated into a lifetime of lost income from achieving mediocrity rather than excellence.
    It died right there; he was bluffing.
    Just like Satan, a roaring toothless lion. He is militant and we are not.
    Its his smartest weapon yet.
    We’ve forgotten how to fight in the spirit, and see that warfare surface in the visible world, to the kingdom’s advancement.
    Check out this NON christian’s story for a teaser example of what can be done when empowered sons and daughters of The King decide to adopt a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude to fulfilling our responsibility to our own children.
    John Taylor Gatto, New York State and City teacher of the year, quit teaching because he could no longer be part of a system that changes humans into lemmings, as fodder for elite oligarchs.
    His book “The Underground History of American Education” is filled with research, stories and ideas, aimed at waking up a sleepy nation that is watching as the enemies of goodness tear our heritage to shreds, and we help them.
    I’ve shown it to many, many christian homeschoolers, private schoolers and concerned public schooler’s, but not one person has been stirred enough to see past their own personal or group dynamic and get upset.
    And as they say in poker, that’s the tell.
    We’ve lost our overarching perspective and undergirding servant mentality of a kingdom view of the world.
    We even call our perspective a ‘worldview’, foolishly assuming that as we argue, debate and gradually lose our nations to the godless, we are good stewards.
    Sad, watching history repeat itself, as the few vocal watchers on the wall cant rouse enough citizens to raise a small army a midst a nation of Christians.
    So, lest I be misunderstood, let me sum up what we need to see, and talk about.
    God sees all of us Christians, who walk according to Jesus commands of love, as one body. It’s us that don’t. He wont let a few of us go ahead of the others.
    If we are going to lose our heritage, children and future inheritance because some wont risk losing in this life what we cant lose in the next, then we are all going to lose. If anyone reading this thinks they stand, take heed, because WE stand, or none do.
    This time in our history may very well be the last call to the Godly remnant.
    I, and many others have heard the trumpet blow, warning us that the enemy is at our gates, even inside already. Gates are figurative, the enemy isn’t.
    Read history, read scripture and listen to the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit, who will not yell at us. He’s a dove, easily missed by busy folks doing good.

  • It should be noted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a General Assembly declaration. As such it holds no legal force other than to act as a sense of the UN membership. Germany is not “blatantly disregarding” it anymore than it is the US Constitution. Neither has a legal effect in Germany.

  • “Germany’s blatant disregard of this declaration seems to underscore again just how impotent the United Nations has become,” Many people say this, but, in fact, the number of wars (and the number of people dying in wars) has decreased sharply since the end of WWII. Joshua Goldstein argues in his excellent book Winning the War on War (reviewed on my blog) that the United Nations has had a lot to do with that. Based on my observations of UN Peacekeepers in Liberia, I agree with him.

    My experience in Liberia leads me to suggest another factor to consider with regard to the homeschooling question. Education there is compulsory, but not free, and the result is that many children — especially girls — don’t get to go to school at all.

    I don’t want to see restrictions put on homeschooling, because for some families it’s the best option, but I do think our priority should be to provide the best public schools we can. Homeschooling is a huge commitment that relatively few families will be able to do well. Private schools can be excellent, but they’re not guaranteed to be, and they have no built-in responsibility to serve the entire community. The surest way for the community to make sure that a good education is available for all children is to take the money available for education and invest it in public schools.

  • I said they disregarded it, not that they violated it. The UN cannot make binding laws regarding the sovereign nations who participate in it. Yet Germany is a member state of an organization that says they are denying a human right. That’s a pretty stout charge, and yes, they’ve disregarded it.

    And no, it is not the same as disregarding the United States Constitution. The United States Constitution intends to address, well, the United States. But a Universal Declaration intends to speak universally.

  • “Since this is a religious site, I find it rather odd that the author doesn’t include anything about the teaching of morals or religion.”
    @jz religious doesn’t mean christian.

  • I find it interesting that this article is anecdotal and personal on the one hand, and then statistical at the end of the article on the other hand. It does nothing to deal with the fundamental right of families to decide their own child rearing preferences. With the moral attack against the first institution of mankind (the family), it seems the author sides with government or societal superiority over parental rights. Who is to say that anyone outside a family unit should decide what constitutes correct academic education? When we cross that line, as has seemingly been the case, we place government over family and make ourselves more socialist than individual.

  • One reason for compulsory education in Nazi Germany was religious indoctrination.Jonathan, you make a mistake by comparing the modern, secular, education with Nazi Germany.

    Life comes from God and returns to God. All life and all races follow God’s ordinances. No people and no race can ignore them. We want the German youth to again recognize the religious nature of life. They must realize that God wants the individual as well as the whole people, and that they lose contact with life when they lose contact with God! God and nation are the two foundations of the life of the individual and the community. We want no shallow and superficial piety, but rather a deep faith that God guides the world, that he controls it, and a consciousness of the relationship between God and each individual, and between God and the live of the people and the fatherland. The National Socialist state will promote such a deeply religious educational system. We want parents to support and strengthen this by honesty and by good example.

    Race, military training, leadership, religion! These are the four unshakable foundations of the new German National Socialist education!

    Source: “Die Erziehungsgrundsätze des neuen Deutschlands,” Frauen-Warte, #22 (1936/37), pp. 692-693.

  • Some more from the German women’s magazine I quoted above. Note the bolded sentence below. The Nazis were not against family-based education because they saw obedience to parents promoted obedience to the fatherland.


    A youth being trained for such important national duties must accept the idea of following the Führer absolutely and without question, without unhealthy carping criticism, without selfishness or opposition. They must learn to obey so that they, having themselves learned to obey, can believe in and trust their own leadership and can grow to be leaders themselves. Only he who has learned to obey can lead. Germany no longer believes that the masses can lead themselves by majority rule! The masses themselves are nothing! We do need not a people ruled by majority votes, but a people with the will to leadership. The German youth must learn that and act accordingly! Thus the German youth belong in organizations where they will learn the nature of leadership in its most noble form, where they can learn to obey and — if they are called to it — also learn to lead. They will not bend to an empty mass will expressed through useless votes, but rather look with enthusiasm to the nation’s strong and noble Führer. They must learn that once again. **We parents want to exhibit such authority to our youth by strengthening family authority and establishing in our homes a healthy and natural obedience on the part of our children.** This will not suppress the youth, but rather provide them the controlled freedom and authority they need to develop their abilities.

  • Excellent site you have here.. It’s difficult to find high-quality writing like yours these days. I seriously appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!