Confessions of an unlikely homeschooler


stack-of-books

My wife and I teach our three children at home. This is a rather generous assertion on my part, as she does most of the teaching. My primary job is to keep the whole endeavor funded. Beyond that I also teach the sciences, higher math, wood shop, physical education, and occasionally music.

Society calls what we do “homeschooling”, a semantically-ambiguous term that generally refers to families who opt out of both public and private schools and take full personal responsibility for the education of their children. But our reasons for doing so are different from those of the millions of other families who follow a similar path. In fact, there are probably as many reasons to homeschool as there are homeschooling families.

In conversations with friends I regularly find myself answering the question, “What made you decide to homeschool?”

My wife likes to say that we started teaching our children as soon as they were born. We helped our kids learn to roll over, sit up, crawl, stand, walk, and run. We taught them to speak, read, and write. We were among a small minority who did not send our kids away to preschool. Instead, we picked up a homeschool kindergarten math curriculum from Saxon.

We soon found ourselves facing a dilemma: Our oldest daughter was a year ahead in math and several years ahead in her reading and writing by the time she was supposed to be starting kindergarten, not because she is a savant or child prodigy, rather because we taught her those things at an early age when she was ready for them. Should we put her with peers her same age so she could “fit in” socially but be bored academically, or should we put her with peers of similar ability and have her be a social misfit among older kids?

Neither of these was an acceptable option, so we rejected them both. We opted to in-source the teaching and relied on church, music, sports, and other networks for social connections to her peer group.

This period of our lives coincided with my time in graduate school, and I enjoyed applying what I was learning there to the questions we were facing at home regarding education. I understood that our daughter was a statistical outlier among her peer group at the time in terms of her math and reading skills, but those aren’t the only two types of intelligence, and in all likelihood she was below the mean in some other areas. By the law of large numbers, the education system in general (and the classroom setting in particular) caters strictly to the mean. So how could an undifferentiated classroom experience possibly be optimal for anyone who is an outlier, positive or negative, in any dimension?

The answer, of course, is that such an experience is not optimal for any student. And that fact is obvious when you consider the way the system is constructed. Any rational system is designed to economize around its most scarce resource. For example, certain parts of our healthcare system are characterized by big, expensive buildings filled with expensive people and expensive equipment. Why do we build these expensive hospitals and make the patients show up and wait around? Because the doctors and the equipment they use are the most scarce resources in the system. We optimize the system to make sure that those resources are fully utilized, and we waste the more abundant and less-valuable resources, like the patients’ time.

Our education system is similar. We build big expensive buildings and fill them with expensive (unionized) teachers. We make the students come to the buildings and do a lot of sitting around, standing in line, waiting their turn, etc. Why? Because we view the teachers as the most scarce resources. We optimize the entire system around the most efficient use of their time. Individual student outcomes are of vanishingly small importance.

It’s the collective outcomes that matter most to the education system. Public schools in the United States are modeled after the system established in 18th-century Prussia, whose purpose was to instill in its citizens the doctrine of social obedience to the King and to produce a steady supply of qualified labor for the bureaucracy, the military, and emerging industry.

In other words, the education system was not designed to produce excellence (positive outliers), rather a predictable mean and narrow standard deviation. Why? Because people who think the same are easier to govern, easier to lead into war, and easier to manage at work. To these age-old insights I will add a modern one: It’s also much easier to market to a population that has been systematized into thinking the same way.

I have a habit of waxing verbose on these points whenever I am asked why we homeschool. After one such conversation a few weeks ago, a good friend sent me the following illustration of a TED talk given by Sir Kenneth Robinson. It’s worth watching because it conveys these same ideas graphically and much more succinctly than I do:

 

So I have come to understand that our fundamental reason for homeschooling our children is because we see unique greatness in each of them that we don’t want the system to destroy in its endless quest to reduce variance. We want our children to think in ways that are not strictly correlated with how everyone else thinks.

And in the present environment, the stakes are so high that we cannot afford to outsource this job to anyone else.

That’s why we homeschool.

13 thoughts on “Confessions of an unlikely homeschooler

  1. I’m 34 and I was homeschooled until college. If I have children I don’t know if I would do the same. There are a lot of factors to consider. I was lucky that my Mom had the ability to stay at home and teach us. When I was 5 years old the high school where we lived at the time (Harris County, Georgia) wasn’t credited by the state (I assume that’s not the case now). We ended up moving to North Carolina when I was a teenager and that gave us access to that state’s awesome college system.

    I have a sister who is very dyslexic and the fact that she was home schooled helped immensely.

    I also used Saxon’s math textbooks. There were great.

    One thing that always annoyed me are people who are worried about their children being “socialized.” Public education doesn’t teach you how to interact with other people. Life teaches how to interact with other people.

    1. I completely agree with your thoughts on socialization. It’s ridiculous to think that creating an artificial age-segregated environment is considered “socializing”. That setting is an artifact of an industrial approach to education and does not occur anywhere in the natural world.

      And yes, access to colleges seems to have improved dramatically in the past 20 years. I think families like yours were the pioneers of this approach to education. It must have been tough in many ways. But we’re all enjoying the fruits of your hard work today as homeschooling becomes more mainstream.

      Finally, it’s interesting that you mention the many factors that go into a family’s decision to homeschool. I don’t think it’s for everyone, but I also think there are many who could do it if they wanted to. Neither my wife nor I were homeschooled and we’re not dogmatically committed to it per se, but it’s the best option for us right now. Something better might come along for us in the future, or perhaps for our kids when the time comes for them to choose how they will teach their own children.

  2. I will not get into the homeschooling debate…. parents MUST do what is best for their children and I won’t every question a parent when it comes to something as important as education. And much of what you say in your post is true.
    I get that you are not really attacking teachers, that you are defending your rights as a parent to do what you know to be best for your kids. I also know you have a great deal of respect for teachers and were trying to point out that the system is flawed (and I won’t argue with you there at all) not the teachers but…..
    I will argue your “expensive unionized teachers” statement (and honestly hope that was meant to be a joke. Because I was/will be a unionized teacher and I come from a family of unionized teachers. Our teachers union has negotiated a salary schedule that maxes out at $57k a year (that is 25+ years of service and a Phd in education) My max is less than half of what my husband currently makes. My mom’s unionized salary (she is retiring this year) makes only $52k a year (this is after 30+ years of teaching) My sister (also a unionized teacher) has been teaching for 8 years and has had her pay frozen at the 3rd year teacher pay because of state budget cuts. For the most part teachers unions are not the bullies that Waiting for Superman makes them out to be.
    Teachers unions provide support for teachers when they need it. When I taught at an inner city school and was threatened by a 21 year old student my administration chose to escort me to and from my car every morning and warned me to not walk the halls alone instead of giving that young man consequences. It was only by bringing an AFT representative with me to a meeting that he was placed in an alternative learning center. (and though that may not seem like this was for the benefit for the students, if a student will threaten a teacher what are they willing to do to a student)
    Teachers unions give educators a voice in the system, they have studied educational theory, know that differentiated education is the best way to education students and they all want more control over their curriculum so that they can individualize instruction. Your TED talk video has been flying from teacher to teacher since it came out we all agree we need change… Looking at the big picture in education EVERY teacher knows their job is to prepare kids for a future that we can’t even imagine yet, that fostering critical thinking and creativity/innovation in every child is a must. Our law/policy makers on the other hand still see students as products. Take a look at your local public school board, I’m willing to bet that most of them have no background in education, then look at the state government how many of them have a background in education?
    The teachers unions in Texas helped to put pressure on state representatives ,who decided that students in high school should have to take and pass 15 standardized tests over the course of 4 years in order to graduate, and helped to get a new bill passed that reduced that number to 5 tests. Pushing reform is pricey and it takes a lot of fancy networking… these are things good teachers can’t do! They don’t have the $$ to be big backers of pro-education reform representatives nor do they have the time to network so their voices are heard. Unions give teachers both… they do more work in the name of students than they do in the name of teachers.
    By all means home-school your kids if that is whats best for them but please do not suggest for a second that the teachers are not differentiating or providing individualized instruction…the individual growth of the student is how we measure our success…. not by test scores.
    I have had many failures as a teacher: one student shot and killed by another student, 3 girls drop out of high school because they got pregnant, I see a brilliant student struggle daily through facebook because she dropped out of the university struggling as she bounces from job to job to make ends meet etc. In many ways I have had far more failures as a teacher than successes. My husband (not an educator) doesn’t understand why I feel any responsible for how my students turn out… but I do (as do most teachers) they were my responsibility and every teacher wonders what more they could have done to help each of their “failures” be successful. Being a teacher is very much like being a parent the responsibility that most of us feel is one in the same, I’ve seen greatness in each of my students and my hear breaks a little for them when this greatness is not realized). The collective outcomes only matter to the government/ law makers and sadly their idea of education reform is to run schools more like businesses… the class is the product not each student :(

    *sorry for the long post…. I get a little worked up when it comes to public education and teachers!

    1. Kibbie, thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I’m glad you recognize that I don’t think individual teachers are the problem. My mom taught in the public schools, as did both of my dad’s parents. My dad’s grandpa organized the public school district in Thatcher back in the 1930s and served as its first superintendent. Incidentally, he resigned under threat of termination by the school board for his refusal to cut teacher pay during the Depression.

      As you point out, many public school teachers work for a base salary that is far lower than they could earn in the private sector. Granted they also enjoy many benefits that the private sector does not afford, but that is beside the point. I think most public school teachers have motivations similar to yours: They sacrifice personal wealth for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of their students. And it seems that you and I agree that the current system is doing a bad job of allowing that to happen.

      I stand by my assertion that public schools are expensive and that unions are part of the problem. I doubt that teacher salary and benefits account for even one-third of the total cost of public education today. And I’m sure that teacher pay increases have not kept pace with the overall cost of public education per student over the past 40 years:

      Assuming an average class size of 25 (which may be generous) and cost-per-student of $12,000, an average school district is spending roughly $300,000 per class per year.

      If teacher salary and benefits account for $100,000 per year (again, being generous), where are the other $200,000 going?

      And how is it that we were able to get by on less than half the per-student spend (in constant dollars, adjusted for inflation) 40 years ago? That would imply that the overhead — total spend less teacher salary — has increased more than eight-fold over that time period in constant dollar terms.

      Why?

  3. I was brought up in private (k-5) and public (6-12) schools. While I did have some positive experiences, the negative ones far outweighed the positive. The deciding factor when it came to my own kids was the D I got in high school for a class in which I got perfect scores on all the classwork and tests just because I was already familiar with the material. Homeschooling was never on dh’s radar until he met me and it has taken many discussions over the years to convince him. Now we have a 2yo who is already starting to read (well, recognize a few words, but at not quite 2.5, I say it counts) I think he’s realizing that school would be detrimental to her. He is still concerned about socialization since we’re both homebodies, but we’re working on getting her to activities a couple of times a week.

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your own experience. Those first words that a child reads on her own are a priceless moment.

      Sounds like you are off to a good start teaching and socializing your little one! Finding other homeschool kids who are well-socialized will do wonders to convince doubting family members that it is in fact possible to teach your children at home and not have them turn out anti-social.

  4. Great article. Thank you for writing it. My husband and I started homeschooling our 5th grader this year for the same reasons that you mentioned. He is bright and sensitive and works hard in school, but school was very frustrating for him. He began to hate school, even though he had some fantastic teachers, and was an honor roll student. The “system” was beating him down. He was up at 6 got home at 3 and then had tremendous amounts of homework that left him very little, and oftentimes, no free time in the evenings. We had so little family time and saw no end in sight. So we too opted out. We have only been homeschooling a few months now, but the difference is amazing. He loves the stream-lined quality of his curriculum and that he has time for science experiments and creative endeavors, and we love seeing his love for learning and curiosity coming back. When people bring up “socialization” my answer is that I have done my research and am at peace and perhaps they should do theirs before they give misinformed opinions. My son gets more time now with his friends in the neighborhood than he ever got while in public school because now he has no homework. He is a much happier and healthier kid, and I’m more convinced every day that we did the right thing.

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. It sounds like you guys made a great move for your family, I’m thrilled that you have more time together and that your son has the opportunity to pursue his own interests.

      And it’s great to hear that you have such a direct answer to the inevitable questions about socialization :)

  5. After reading your blog, I want to commend you and your wife for choosing to homeschool. It’s a very different way of life. If you ever think you may have made a mistake — think twice! My brother and I both homeschooled our children back in the day we could have been jailed for it! Never any regrets from either of us. out of 5 children between us, 4 went on to college. One was even a taecher in public school, but found better wages in the retail field! All of their children are now being taught at home, with the exception of 1, who is luckily able to hold her own in the public school system. We didn’t worry about socializing our kids, who chose to become scouts, play little league. and take karate! We were members of churches, support groups, and sought out other parents in our shoes. It wasn’t easy, curriculum was hard to come by, even John Saxon math, which has always been advanced and the best around! but, we did it and our children, and grandchildren are better for it! Proud of our classes of 1990, 1991, 1993, 2000, and 2001!

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