Portfolio Reviews Are Here

On Sunday night a thread began on the Capitol Hill Homeschoolers e-mail list. Apparently a couple of people had used the new online system created by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to submit their annual homeschool notification, and shortly after submitting their forms they received a notice that they had been scheduled to meet with OSSE staff to have their homeschool portfolios reviewed. This was the first I had ever heard of someone having a portfolio review, so I thought I should do some checking around to see what was driving this change. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

For quite a few years now Stephanie Thomas has been the person at OSSE responsible for managing relations with the homeschool community. I spoke with Stephanie today and she told me that she has, indeed, stepped up her schedule for reviewing homeschool portfolios. She says the program has been going on for some time now, but that she is increasing the number of reviews she does this year. She promises that there is no rhyme or reason to her pattern of picking people, she does it at random. If you receive a request, she wants to see a sample of the work you’ve done in every subject over the past three months. Stephanie will actually do the review herself.

That is the official story. Here’s what I would request on behalf of DC homeschoolers — if you are chosen for a review, please tell the community as much information as you are comfortable with about how it is conducted. The more information we share with each other the less likely we are to be caught off-guard, and the more likely we’ll be able to provide useful feedback to Stephanie to make the process work better over time.

The Portfolio Regulations

Chapter 52 of the DC Official Code is the law that establishes homeschooling regulations in the District of Columbia. There are a few portions of that chapter that help explain what OSSE can expect to find in a DC homeschooler’s portfolio. First, let’s look at what the instruction requirements are according to the regulation:

1) We must spend a sufficient amount of time teaching our children. What is a sufficient amount of time? Well that is largely up to us, the teachers. The law requires that we “Provide thorough, regular instruction of sufficient duration to implement the home school program.” As with most of these laws the homeschool community wanted them to be open to interpretation. We didn’t believe that we had chosen to teach according to the dictates of our conscience only to have the content and style of that education be prescribed by the DC Board of Education. It is up to us to determine how much time we need to spend to accomplish thorough teaching. We should be able to give a reasonable defense that our schooling is thorough, regular, and of sufficient duration.

2) We need to cover, during the course of a student’s education, a fairly standard range of subjects that should include “language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, art, music, health, and physical education.” Again, we should be able to defend our choices about the specific content and range within each of those areas. According to the regulation, the goal of our education should be to “ensure that children participating in a home schooling program receive thorough, regular education that will enable them to function as productive members of society in the 21st century.”

Those two points describe what DC’s regulations require that we do during a school year. We must teach a range of subjects and we must teach them thoroughly. So where do the portfolios come in? The regulations require that you “maintain a portfolio of home schooling materials for each child which includes evidence of the child’s current work, such as examples of the child’s writings, worksheets, workbooks, creative materials, assessments, or any other materials that demonstrate that the child is engaged in thorough, regular educational activities in a range of subjects.” This material must be maintained for a year. This does not mean that you have to maintain everything your child writes or colors, nor does it state that you have to maintain a portfolio that covers EVERY subject. You need to maintain a sample of material from a range of subjects that helps demonstrate that you are covering those subjects thoroughly.

Finally, the regulations explain how a request may be made to review a student’s portfolio. The process is fairly straightforward and explains the goal of the reviews:


5206.1 The OSSE may, at its discretion, request to review the portfolio of home schooling materials described in Section 5205, provided that the following requirements are met:

(a) The request is made in writing;

(b) The review is held at a time and place mutually agreeable to the representative of the OSSE and the parent or legal guardian;

(c) There are not more than two (2) reviews conducted during a school year; and

(d) The purpose of the review is to ensure that the child is receiving thorough, regular home schooling instruction, consistent with this chapter.

Nothing in this section shall be interpreted to require a regular periodic review of all portfolios.

I hope that as these reviews become more common, as I assume they will, DC’s homeschool community with come together to share information about the process. It would be especially important for someone to share if they were to receive a “Notification of Deficiencies” letter. Such a letter may simply represent a lack of knowledge about common homeschooling procedures and the community may be able to help educate OSSE.

If you have received a review notice, or if you have any questions or comments about the portfolio reviews, please do share thoughts on the Google Groups e-mail list or on the Facebook Group.

Why I’m Sticking with Paper

August 15th is quickly approaching, so in accordance with the DC Homeschooling regulations I submitted my “Notice of Intent to Home School” form today to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, otherwise known as OSSE. I was rather surprised when I almost immediately got a reply from the program analyst in their office who oversees homeschooling. She said she would be happy to accept my form, but she wondered if I might rather submit the form online instead. Hey, I’m no troglodyte! I’m all for government innovation and efficiency. So I figured I should take a look at the online form to see if it really was better than submitting a paper copy.

Sadly, from the start I was rather concerned. The initial registration page for the site requires you to check a box that says, “By checking this box I agree to the terms of the DCMR 5200 Homeschooling Regulations.” That seems innocent enough, but I find it interesting that I was never asked to check a box that says that I agree to the terms of the District’s codes against murder, yet I can’t go out and kill someone. I didn’t ever check a box that said that I agree to the terms of the District’s rules of the road, but I still got warned the other day when I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign. The point is that no one should be expected to “agree to the terms” of a legitimate law. We are all held to a legal standard whether we agree to it or not. However, it is possible that I may need to assert some day that I believe a particular law or regulation to be invalid. If that is the case I wouldn’t want to have already asserted that I “agreed to the terms” of that invalid law. Strike one against the online form.

Strike two came when the form asked what my “reasons for homeschooling” were. There is an assumption inherent in that question. The assumption is that being in public school is the typical, accepted, natural, and proper place for children to get an education. The only reason someone would teach their child any other way is because something must have been wrong with the default option. Of course this isn’t true. To be fair, I tested the form and you aren’t required to submit any answer at all. There is no red asterisk next to the question like there is for most of the other questions. On the other hand it doesn’t specify anywhere that the question is optional nor does it say something like, “The Office of the State Superintendent of Education finds it helpful to understand the education choices of parents in the District. Accordingly we request that all of our parents voluntarily fill out a few survey questions to help us better understand the educational landscape in the District.” I could live with the question if it were phrased that way. As it is, it looks like the question is required of all homeschoolers and it is invasive and unnecessary.

The form lists seven answers to the “reasons” question, plus an option for “Other.” Not surprisingly most of the answers indicate that you have a problem with the default, appropriate choice of rational parents — putting your children in public schools. So perhaps you fear bullying or you are not satisfied with the school’s curriculum. The point is that there isn’t an option that says, “Homeschooling is a superior choice for my child.”

The third strike against the form is a bit more picky, but again, it shows the government reaching for more information than they need. DC homeschool regulations require that homeschoolers have a high school diploma or that they request a waiver of this requirement. The online form should state, “Please upload a copy of a diploma indicating that the parent has a high school degree or greater.” Instead the form specifically requests the parent’s “highest educational achievement” — information not required by the law. We have always submitted my wife’s high school diploma as the minimum required by law. Yes, we have both earned a college diploma or higher, but the law doesn’t require that information.

So there were the three strikes against this new online form that convinced me that I should just turn in the paper form instead. But what bothered me even more was that no one asked for our community’s input when developing this online form. I understand that OSSE can’t view any specific organization as “the voice” of homeschooling in the District, but I also know that they have repeatedly run into problems that could have been avoided by trying to involve the homeschool community first. I know that OSSE can easily contact me, and they know that I can contact others. This could have been avoided with an easy attempt at communication.

So for the 2015-2016 school year OSSE has a scanned copy of the paper form “Notice of Intent to Home School” that lists the names of my three children who will be homeschooling this year. The form is still available on OSSE’s site. I would encourage other DC homeschoolers to follow the same practice. Perhaps next year the online version will be more appropriate.

Remember, forms are due in by August 15th.