Sunday, August 29, 2010

Homeschooling: An Overview

While homeschooling is becoming more common in the United States—approximately 2.5 million school-aged kids were educated at home last year—the method is often shrouded in vague notions of pajama-clad children lounging about, families with 10 children dressed alike, or spelling/geography/what-have-you-bees academic superstars.

Parents decide to homeschool for many reasons, but at the heart of each family stands a firm belief in the right of the individual—for parents, to educate as they see fit, and for children, to start them off on a path of truly enjoying learning.

A National Household Education survey found that “concern about environment of other schools” and “dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools” outranked “to provide religious or moral instruction” for the first time since such motivations were tracked. Another multiple-option survey from Trinity University found the majority citing “can give child a better education at home” over “religious reasons” as their primary reason for homeschooling.

The decision to homeschool is not taken lightly. Parents acutely feel the burden they’re placing on themselves, and are often racked with fear: “What if I can’t teach them to read?” “Am I leaving “gaps” in their education? “How will I handle algebra?” Rather than a casual decision to whisk their kids out of the public school, months are often spent researching other options, trying to make the current situation work, looking at curriculum requirements, evaluating books, and a lot of soul searching. Most families go down to a single income, with the mother as primary teacher/facilitator. Expenses also go up buying books, resources, and other items that their tax dollars otherwise would have paid for. Most homeschooling families spend approximately $500.00 per child per year on curriculum, with the first year costing even more. Parents also give up any semblance of “alone time” in lieu of being together 24/7.

Blog posts, advice columns, grassroots connections, state/local organizations, conventions, and curriculum fairs all help to field the fears and concerns of parents trying to decide whether this lifestyle—and it is a lifestyle—is worth it for them.

Homeschooling parents can be hard on their children, with exacting standards. My friends and I used to think it highly unfair that our public schooled friends could get an A with only a 90, while we were held to a 93 or above. The lives of homeschooling children after graduation reflect back on the parents. Homeschoolers generally want their children to go on to college, to get good jobs, to be successful. “Dumbing down” their grades—often a reason they leave public school in the first place—will not help their children, and they know it. Any deficiency will quickly show up in transcripts, test scores, essays, or initial college grades.

In order to ensure no “learning gaps” exist in their child’s education, most homeschoolers try to follow a method that best suits their teaching style and their children’s learning style. These methods popularly include:

Classical Education
Charlotte Mason
Boxed Curriculum (School-at-Home)
Distance/Facilitated Learning
Unit studies

Each has its strengths and weaknesses for a particular family; one can indulge in nature studies all day while the other reads Cicero. In both cases, they nail the essentials through books oriented towards their style of learning, while hitting all the electives they want to cover. There is no need for rigidity, however. Most homeschoolers fall under the “eclectic” category—that is, they mix and match. Many parents, the first year they homeschool, write down a flexible list of all that they want to cover, and place it side-by-side with any state or college acceptance requirements. From there, they can easily see what remains to be done in how many years. Combining those subjects with topics that the student is interested in, the parent and child can then work on finding the books and resources they feel would work best. Choosing the right curriculum for the year is a challenge, especially if it’s non-returnable, and occupies the entire month of August for most families. Catalogs fill the mailbox, reviews are read, samples obtained, books ordered, examined, returned, and new ones bought.

Planning and organization is the cornerstone of homeschooling—and for good reason. Most homeschoolers plan out their work for the year, month, and day, but remain flexible. There’s no need to be tied to a five-days-a-week schedule; days can be spontaneously taken off and made up later; work can be doubled in order to take the next day off. There’s room for Real Life. Some families school year-round with many breaks; others follow siblings in the public schools; still other change up the year to have breaks for new babies, travel, or other unique situations. Homeschooling schedules vary with the family—and that flexibility is one of the primary reasons so many people choose to homeschool. It’s relaxing, it’s spontaneous, and it allows for plenty of field trips, books to be read, new concepts explored, and detours accepted.

When I was homeschooled in elementary school, my day would often look like this:

Morning Chores
Independent Work (Math, Grammar, Reading, other Workbooks)
Lunch & Together Reading
Together Work (Science, Art, Music—other activities my siblings and I could participate in together)

Homeschooling allows for extremely close bonds to form (and fights to occur) between siblings. The teaching parent will often combine classes, instructing similarly aged kids the same subjects, and making up the difference later on. As most homeschooling families do tend to be larger than average, this doubling up eases the schedule for the parent, and allows for collaborative work. The lack of emphasis on specific grade-levels makes this easy to accomplish.

As students grow older, parents take on more of a facilitator’s role, buying books and gathering supplies, rather than actually teaching. By middle school at the latest, students have been taught how to teach themselves—how to take responsibility for their own education, how to pace themselves throughout the year. Homeschooling allows you to move at your own pace; I could read phrough all of Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen, and the Brontës, writing papers along the way. I could also spread out my math until I (at least sort of) understood it. It’s common for homeschooled high schoolers to be done with all of their work by noon; if you only have so many subjects, you know how many pages have to be done each day, and when you’re just working by yourself it can be finished very quickly.

My high school schedule looked something like this:

AM: (book work)

After Lunch:
Interactive lessons, depending on the day:
Archaeology Lab
Figure Skating
Farsi lessons

On the days where I had no other outside activities, I just finished early; I could devote the rest of the day to being with friends, helping my little siblings with their work, or continuing to read whatever I was interested in. This schedule went smoothly while we were at home. However, with five kids in the family, the youngest twelve years younger than myself, we joked it ought to be called “carschooling.” Lessons were done in the waiting room, in the car, at the mall. Distractions ceased to exist—even at home, I often had some child on my lap, or at least their (hopefully happy) playing would echo throughout the house. My best friend (the oldest of 11) and I both have pictures of us making dinner with a child on our hip while reading some book. Like most Eldest-Homeschooled-Siblings, we learned to study no matter what the circumstances.

However, I fully realize that perhaps I had the ideal combination of circumstances and personality. Homeschooling is not some magical formula that determines success. There are parents that should probably never attempt it, and some kids for whom the structure and oversight of public school better suits them. For myself, I was introverted, and thus cared nothing for the larger “social” scope of school; I left the public school after third grade, and both before and after I preferred close friends over crowds. I enjoyed learning, I knew what I wanted to do (archaeology and English), and I enjoyed the opportunity to direct my studies towards these ends.

My brother, the eldest after me, did not enjoy homeschooling. He didn’t listen to my mom, wanted to spend more time with larger groups of people, and needed the direction of teachers who were not his parents. He also had a habit of playing with Legos more than tackling his math. The one advantage that he had—and one my parents disapproved of—was the copious amount of time he spent fiddling with computers. He always knew he wanted to go into an IT field; in the public high school, he was able to take Cysco programming classes and gain college credit.

However, the fact that homeschooling is not for everyone does not mean that it cannot be for anyone. When one imagines all the possibilities for failure—and cases of actual failure—it’s not hard to jump to conclusions of wide swaths of the population growing up in religiously conservative, ignorant families who only seek to shelter them from the godless, liberal masses. And unfortunately, like many stereotypes, there is almost always a grain of truth in this, despite how inaccurate the overarching picture might be.

The stereotype homeschoolers hate the most, and roundly scoff at, is what they call “The S Question”: Socialization. The image of homeschooling can be one of families isolated within their homes, totally cut off from anything else. This perception could not be farther from the truth. Homeschoolers are actually incredibly socially active—both with each other, and with the outside world—and this is generally true of all types of homeschoolers.

Many join co-ops, which are groups in which a qualified parent or volunteer teaches a class: a physicist teaching physics, a doctor teaching anatomy and physiology, a writer teaching writing. The vast majority of homeschoolers have experience within classroom settings with homework due and all the formalities of a normal class.

There’s also the perception that homeschoolers have to do everything themselves, when really, they’re more orchestrators of individualized education plans than anything else. They have no problem with utilizing the best experts available, or sending their kids off for a class or three. During my high school education, I took Algebra II at a local high school, logic at a co-op, piano lessons with another friend, Farsi lessons from a tutor, skating lessons from a coach, was a stage manager with a local theatre company, worked as a volunteer in the state archaeology lab, and held a job at the Discovery Channel Store. I was anything but sheltered, and I certainly did not teach myself everything.

Homeschoolers also congregate as local groups and set up shared field trips, take classes together, and just get together to play. These varied experiences are certainly not unique to me, and lend themselves to homeschooled students having broad socialization skills; they often do not care to only be with their own peer group, however. I had plenty of friends my own age, including of course my best friends, but I also considered people of all ages to be within that category—and valued the time I was able to spend with them throughout the day.

The true test of homeschooling as a legitimate educational option, however, lies in the results. Trinity College found that homeschoolers scored an average of 1.7 points higher on the ACTs and 67 points higher on the SAT. With many home educated students graduating from high school, colleges no longer find them an anomaly. College applications have specific instructions for homeschoolers (no class rankings!) and employers often hire homeschooled students.

On par academically and socially, as shown by test scores, college acceptance/ graduation rates, and statistically higher levels of community involvement after graduation, homeschooling has rightly been accepted as an alternative form of education. Now moving into the second-generation, the first class of homeschoolers taught by homeschooled students is poised to continue and improve upon the methods that their parents helped to create.

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