The Gist: Individualized attention and pacing through a customized curriculum to achieve, on average, higher academic performance.
A newsletter inspired by Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto.
The biggest reason why you should NOT homeschool your kids is because it’s hard. Though some families pull it off with two working parents (or even a single parent!) by making the most of weekends, co-ops, and time around work, most often a parent needs to stay at home or work part-time, or the family must have the resources to hire outside help. Conventional school allows, per Peter Drucker’s general advice, for parents to do what they do best and delegate the rest. Still, how much better would homeschooling have to be for your kids for you to consider it?
Conventional school has the advantage of setting your kids up to be taught by a team of professionals. But consider two things: first, fairly compare yourself as an amateur to what it takes to become a teacher. With a college degree, you could be teaching dozens of kids at the start of the next school year without too much difficulty. To highlight a well-known example, Teach for America trains its participants for a single summer before putting them in a classroom. And, notably, “just 23 percent of new teachers come from the top third of their graduating class” – compared to 100% in South Korea. Of course, the median teacher is going to have more experience, but, at least in the early years, are you so sure you can’t teach addition?
Second, no matter how passionate teachers are about their job, they have different incentives than you do as a parent. The performance (and well-being) of any individual child is not especially relevant to their total careers – and, indeed, they might be compelled against their own desires to do any number of things that are not the best for your kid, such as teaching to a useless test. But forget bureaucratic mandates and public service job protection, put teachers trying their best in context by thinking about your own experience: in your own jobs, have you ever given less attention to a particular customer’s needs than you would a family member in the same situation?
Figure 1. Have you ever, years after being in school, run into one of your teachers and they had no idea who you are? That tends not to happen with parents.
Conventional school teachers are also charged with teaching en masse. Within a single class, teachers must teach at an average pace, leaving some behind and some bored. But teachers can also be responsible for a much larger group of kids that they see throughout the day, such that there may be a 16:1 student to teacher ratio at the entire school, but a single teacher is not always closely tracking the same 16 kids throughout their education but may instead be looking after a slice of 100+ kids’ education. And, of course, teachers are likely to change every year, with new adults trying to get a fresh handle on your kids.
The biggest reason why you SHOULD homeschool is that your child receives individualized attention at the pacing that is best for her. Absent unusually active procreation, the student to teacher ratio is going to be better than any conventional school – and the teacher is going to know students’ precise strengths and weaknesses for years. Kids get to zoom ahead with what they’re good at and spend more time with what they find challenging. This individualized attention tends to be credited for the results: “Numerous studies demonstrate that homeschooled students obtain exceptionally high scores on standardized academic achievement tests” – whereas public school students average the 50th percentile, homeschool kids average in the mid-to-high 80th percentiles. Relatedly, homeschool kids can be years ahead of the standard school curriculum and, though you may think that parents constitute generous graders, homeschoolers enjoy higher average GPAs in college. If you were comparing two conventional schools against each other, wouldn’t you want your kids at the place with the (dramatically) higher averages?
Figure 2. BBBBRRRRRRRRIING!!!!!! Alright, that’s all we have time for today. Please return to this same place in this email at the same time tomorrow. Or, you could take a homeschooling philosophy: rather than bells governing the schedule, arbitrarily interrupting the brink of insight, momentum can govern the schedule. Read on, or don’t, it’s up to you!
Of course, academics are not everything – the most frequent concern skeptics bring up is that kids are not properly socialized outside conventional school. This critique is rather difficult to prove or refute statistically – I often ask critics if they’ve actually met homeschoolers or if this is speculation; my own anecdotal experience is that some of the friendliest, most social people I know were homeschooled. But taking the question seriously: what exactly are your kids being socialized to? Or, put another way, would you rather your kids learn values from their peers or their parents?
Homeschooling parents have more options in how to socialize their kids consistent with their values – joining an organized sports team, Bible study, co-op, or whatever they think is valuable. But there’s also something else: conventional schools, for the sake of convenience, segregate kids by age, forcing students into the study of every subject based on when they were born, not how much they get the concept. But why should kids – up until they’re 18, sometimes 22 – spend the vast majority of their time with their exact same age? John Taylor Gatto, an award-winning New York City public teacher, decried that modern kids are ahistorically separated from the adult world, prolonging adolescence. Homeschoolers have the opportunity to forge meaningful relationships with adult mentors and get real world experience through volunteering, community service, observation of workplaces, or even work and apprenticeships.
Figure 3. Great Scott! Not enough kids have their own Doc Brown.
At the heart of homeschooling is flexibility: you are not wed to the “comprehensive,” standardized, politically correct curriculum offered (and too often obligated) by the state. Your customized curriculum for your kids has almost limitless options – you can teach your kids eminently practical subjects like cooking, personal finance, and car maintenance; or you can invest deeper into the great works of Western civilization rather than whatever is trendy; or you can edit the standard curriculum to focus more on what’s important (literacy and numeracy) and less on frills (foreign languages); or you can have your kid specialize early on in whatever their passion is, taking time to pursue it as far as he possibly can, with appropriately less attention on other subjects – a budding businessman might spend the time allocated for English on biographies of industrial titans, for math on analyzing cash flow statements!
Figure 4. Great works of Western civilization like Zack Snyder’s 300!
For better or worse, conventional school was literally designed by the Prussians to induce conformity and indoctrination. To that end, there’s an interesting question as to whether the 5th Amendment to the Constitution makes compulsory school problematic: “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” If adults were compelled to attend re-education camps under threat of separation from their families, you can bet a court would rule that unconstitutional. Still, some argue that conventional school imposes routine and discipline on children that prepares them for the reality of submitting to employers’ hierarchy. Of course, homeschooling can offer similar values but it can also offer different ones: do you want your child to learn conformity or curiosity, compliance or creativity?
There are other things at the margins that can make a real difference. Teenagers have meaningfully different sleep patterns than adults – and yet school’s start is based on adult convenience more than teenage sleep optimization. When one public school delayed start an hour, standardized test scores jumped double digits. Unless you’re in that district, you could adjust your homeschool schedule to accommodate your kids’ health. In the same vein, what is served in school cafeterias is inherently the result of a political lobbying process – you could instead ensure that your kids are eating leafy greens at every meal.
Figure 5. Then again, can your kids really become adults without the modern rite of passage that is consuming mystery meat and plastic cheese with a spork?
Still, any conventional school, operating at economies of scale, is going to have resources from tax dollars or tuition that allow for lab equipment, theaters, gymnasiums, and any number of other expensive facilities. Some of these can be directly accessed (Tim Tebow laws), some of these can be easily replicated (plenty of private gyms, especially available in the middle of a school day), and some can’t – which might very well limit your kids’ opportunities, especially for leadership. At the same time, homeschoolers have the flexibility to use the world’s resources not at any school – to visit museums and zoos as any field trip might, but also to factories and fire stations or anything else that a parent might think helps a kid learn.
You may read all this and conclude that a custom education may be ideal for your kids but not realistic for your family – neither parent has the confidence, passion, time to take on the responsibility. Even if one did, parenting and homeschooling may soon become a 24-7 job with no breaks – and that can be a recipe for a lot of stress. Interestingly, when parents are polled about what they would like to do better as parents, they report that they’d like to spend more time with their kids. When kids are polled as to how their parents could be better, they report that their parents really need to reduce their own stress. Whether you pursue homeschooling or not, think about getting yourself in the right place for both yourself and for the quality of your family relationships.
Still – not available to all parents – if you’re spending substantial resources on your children – such as sending them to a private school – consider whether your kids might be better served by redirecting those same resources to private tutor(s) whose job security relies totally on the performance of your own kids. The real question is whether there’s a marketplace for quality tutors in your area – good places to look include homeschooling co-ops, the best local conventional school teachers who would like to make some additional money after school, graduate students in particular subjects, or even professionals to teach what they do for a living.
The worst reason people do not even consider homeschooling is social pressure – parents’ peers will always understand and approve of efforts to get kids into the right conventional schools but might think homeschooling is weird. It is certainly unusual in the sense that homeschooling is only done by a small minority of parents – but I hope that this email clarifies why they might do what they do! And to quote that old chestnut of parental wisdom: if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do so, too?
You may also be concerned about getting your kid into the best college possible. Assuming that college is indeed best for your kid, homeschooling actually allows maximum positioning – increased performance on standardized tests but also the flexibility for your kids to accentuate their eccentricities to tell a compelling story to admissions departments. You could also mix and match to some degree, homeschooling until the 9th grade to give your kids a head start and then send them to a high school renowned for sending kids to colleges of interest. Alternatively, you could use the time before and after conventional school hours to help kids with troublesome subjects, encourage them to advance in easy ones, or teach them new subjects altogether – but note that this practice only involves addition, not subtraction, so you won’t be able to totally pick and choose to exclude what you don’t want from conventional school.
To sum up: conventional school allows parents to delegate education to a team of professionals (often with divided attention and mixed incentives) with substantial pooled resources for facilities, potentially providing opportunity for kids for leadership and social interaction with exact-same-age peers. Homeschooling allows for highly motivated (but perhaps inexperienced) teachers to provide individualized attention and pacing through a customized curriculum, including family values and flexible real world experiences, according to kids’ talents and desires, producing, on average, higher academic performance.
Figure 6. This email was inspired by Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto, an award-winning New York City public school teacher writing passionately about his attempts to be less juvenile prison guard and more facilitating mentor. Gatto argues that conventional school works well as a daycare and jobs program but fails to fully unleash kids’ potential. He contrasts an earlier American era filled with adventurers and tinkerers supported by families dedicated to virtue against a modernity of divorced parents divorced from fully attending their kids who themselves default to television rather than creating their own fun. Gatto set up a guerilla community service program where each of his students did over 320 hours a year! But he also routinely set up his students for individual “apprenticeships,” dispatching a litterer to apologize to the police and spend a day getting to know how cops work, other kids to learn in real workplaces about journalism or truck dispatching or whatever. Ultimately, Gatto insists that “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness—curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight—simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids to truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then.” I feel compelled to relate a particular story in full:
“It’s likely I’d have returned to advertising if a little girl, desperate to free herself from an intolerable situation, hadn’t drawn me into her personal school nightmare and shown me how I could find my own significance in teaching… It happened this way. Occasionally I’d get a call from an elementary school. This particular day it was a third grade assignment at a school on 107th Street, which in those days was nearly one hundred percent non-Hispanic in its teaching staff and 99% Hispanic in its student body. Like many desperate teachers, I lolled most of the day listening to the kids read, one after another, and expending most of my energy trying to shut the audience up. This class had a very low ranking, and no one was able to put more than three or four words together without stumbling. All of a sudden, though, a little girl named Milagros sailed through a selection without a mistake. After class I called her over to my desk and asked why she was in this class of bad readers. She replied that “they” (the administration) wouldn’t let her out because, as they explained to her mother, she was really a bad reader who had fantasies of being a better reader than she was. “But look, Mr. Gatto, my brother is in the sixth grade, and I can read every word in his English book better than he can!” I was a little intrigued, but truthfully not much. Surely the authorities knew what they were doing. Still, the little girl seemed so frustrated I invited her to calm down and read to me from the sixth grade book. I explained that if she did well, I would take her case to the principal. I expected nothing. Milagros, on the other hand, expected justice. Diving into “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” she polished off the first two pages without a gulp. My God, I thought, this is a real reader. What is she doing here? Well, maybe it was a simple accident, easily corrected. I sent her home, promising to argue her case. Little did I suspect what a hornet’s nest my request to have Milagros moved to a better class would stir up. “You have some nerve, Mr. Gatto. I can’t remember when a substitute ever told me how to run my school before. Have you taken specialized courses in reading?” “No.” “Well then, suppose you leave these matters to the experts!” “But the kid can read!” “What do you suggest?” “I suggest you test her, and if she isn’t a dummy, get her out of the class she’s in!” “I don’t like your tone. None of our children are dummies, Mr. Gatto. And you will find that girls like Milagros have many ways to fool amateurs like yourself. This is a matter of a child having memorized one story. You can see if I had to waste my time arguing with people like you, I’d have no time left to run a school.”
But, strangely, I felt self-appointed as the girl’s champion, even though I’d probably never see her again. I insisted, and the principal finally agreed to test Milagros herself the following Wednesday after school. I made it a point to tell the little girl the next day. By that time I’d come to think that the principal was probably right—she’d memorized one story—but I still warned her she’d need to know the vocabulary from the whole advanced reader and be able to read any story the principal picked, without hesitation. My responsibility was over, I told myself. The following Wednesday after school, I waited in the room for Milagros’ ordeal to be over. At 3:30 she shyly opened the door of the room. “How’d it go?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she answered, “but I didn’t make any mistakes. Mrs. Hefferman was very angry, I could tell.” I saw Mrs. Hefferman, the principal, early the next morning before school opened. “It seems we’ve made a mistake with Milagros,” she said curtly. “She will be moved, Mr. Gatto. Her mother has been informed.” Several weeks later, when I got back to the school to sub, Milagros dropped by, telling me she was in the fast class now and doing very well. She also gave me a sealed card. When I got home that night, I found it, unopened, in my suitcoat pocket. I opened it and saw a gaudy birthday card with blue flowers on it. Opening the card, I read, “A teacher like you cannot be found. Signed. Your student, Milagros.” That simple sentence made me a teacher for life…
I never saw Milagros again and only heard of her again in 1988, twenty-four years later. Then one day I picked up a newspaper and read: Occupational Teacher Award Milagros M… has won the Distinguished Occupational Teacher Award of the State Education Department for “demonstrated achievement and exemplary professionalism.” … Miss M. was selected as a Manhattan Teacher of the Year in 1985.”
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below and forward it to a friend: know anyone who is a parent? How about someone who went to a conventional school? Or perhaps someone who was once a child?