Home Schooling

Hard lessons from a veteran homeschooler

If it wasn’t the Covid closures, maybe it was the recording of a contentious school board meeting that went viral. Or a TikTok video posted by a woke teacher. Or perhaps the relentless reports of declining academic standards. Given the heated discourse around almost every aspect of public education, it’s hardly surprising that more and more families are opting out. According to the Census Experimental Household Pulse survey, in the last three years, the families of 1.8 million children made the switch, totaling 4.3 million American children homeschooled in 2022. The growth is steady and expected to continue. But glib calls to jump ship gloss over some persistent challenges inherent in homeschooling.

I discovered these challenges firsthand thirteen years ago when my family moved from Brooklyn to rural upstate New York and began homeschooling our kids, then six and eleven. We were less motivated by school board battles or declining academic standards than a general dissatisfaction with the one-size-fits-all classroom model. In Brooklyn, my kids had gone to a lively, sought-after public school that emphasized project-based learning within an otherwise traditional classroom. Even that school had been a poor fit for my quirky older child. I thought he was neither nurtured to his full potential nor assisted in his difficulties coping with the rhythms of the school day. My younger child was sociable, poised, and academically adept, which meant she was often ignored by teachers and partnered with difficult kids to keep them focused. The fault, I thought, lay not in the choice of teachers or curriculum, but in the very concept of assembly-line education for children, a common complaint of homeschooling enthusiasts. Coloring my opinion was the memory of my own uninspiring school years. We were ready for something different. We jumped in.

Right away we met enthusiastic homeschoolers in our new area, though they sorted into distinct groups with entirely different philosophies, methods, and cultures. The three main tribes: groovy, artsy parents who had moved up from the city and were pursuing child-led unschooling; Waldorf-inspired families with a strong homeschool culture; and Christian families who were mostly replicating traditional school at home.

Socially we fell into the first group. I wasn’t sure about “unschooling,” an approach that relies entirely on a child’s innate curiosity and natural interests to guide every aspect of the child’s education, but these were my people: artists, writers, skeptics. They were almost cultish in their love for unschooling, and they evangelized hard. I was showered with success stories. One former unschooler was studying linguistics at Oxford. Another had gone on to a prestigious technical university where he was headhunted by Google. A high school girl was working as a student-trainer on a horse farm in France, and so on. If you let kids find their own path, the credo went, they would go deep into their interests, and these kids proved it.

That sounds lovely, but does it work?

Granular data on the homeschooling experience is notoriously difficult to obtain, much less measure, and that which is touted often seems artificially rosy. My new friends didn’t mention the kids who choose to go back to school sometimes with regret about their homeschooled years or those I call “the casualties”: kids who fade away from homeschooling without finishing high school. But I would come to know kids who fit both those profiles (along with many successful homeschoolers).

Additionally, glowing reports on the test scores and college outcomes of homeschoolers often fail to provide a breakdown for the results of the widely varying methods, from traditional school that happens to be at home to radical unschooling and everything in between.

Putting it all together: Community and curriculum

Regardless, we were all in. Still unconvinced about unschooling, I was even less interested in online school, using a packaged comprehensive curriculum, or attempting to carry the entire project on my own. My goal was somewhere in the middle: to piece together an individualized curriculum using a mix of paid classes, parent-run cooperatives, and select purchased curriculum. And like every other family we would meet in the homeschool world, even those doing traditional school almost entirely at home, we would become constantly in pursuit of social opportunities. This meant groups.

The first year, we drove an hour every Wednesday to attend a cooperative group that hosted a wide mix of homeschooling types. There were unschoolers, conservative Christians, and everyone in between. Here, parents taught classes that ranged from basic astronomy to self-portraiture to medieval studies. Those who weren’t teaching sat around knitting and chatting, often in separate groups, and everyone contributed to a giant soup pot to make a shared lunch.

If I hadn’t already been smitten, the end-of-semester showcase would have sealed it: a teen girl played classical guitar, a group of girls put on a silly play they’d written, a ten-year-old boy improvised on the piano, a wildly talented teen boy sang a mashup of ‘80s songs; my daughter and her friend sang a song. Later in the spring, the group’s brilliant older kids were in an all-teen performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps the most beautiful piece of theater I’ve seen.

So far so good—but wait!

But as we said end-of-year goodbyes, I was stunned to hear from several parents that they wouldn’t be back in the fall. Their kids were going back to school or they weren’t going to make the drive or they were focusing more (or less) on academics and the group didn’t fit their plans. Plus, the incredible group of teens was graduating. This was my first taste of the hardest thing about homeschooling but a reality in our rural area: building and maintaining groups was Sisyphean labor. Groups fell apart or waxed and waned precariously and had to be rebuilt every year, even every semester.

Our difficulties were exacerbated by New York State homeschool policies, which are among the strictest in the nation. In some states, homeschooled children can participate in extracurricular activities like sports or band or even attend school two or three days per week. This kind of support would have made a huge difference, but in New York we had to create or discover everything on our own and at our own cost. For example, my daughter couldn’t do band at school, so at one point we were driving an hour and paying $60 every week for trumpet lessons.

But even supportive state policies wouldn’t have offset the biggest cost of homeschooling and the most hidden. We paid for curriculum and tutoring and materials and books and group fees, but the biggest drain on our budget was lost wages. Although my kids were no longer babies or toddlers, I continued with the part-time workweek I’d adopted when they were younger in order to meet the ongoing logistical demands of homeschooling.

Our second year, I helped create a group for elementary age kids. It dissolved within the year because a kid hit another kid, and the moms argued about whether their children had to follow rules or not. One unschooled girl wasn’t OK sitting out of classes she didn’t like; she wanted to disrupt them. Her mom thought it was cute.

Homeschooling teenagers: Lots of frustration and some bits of real joy

The older my kids got, the harder it was to curate and organize groups—and all the more necessary. Even my introverted son, who’d been largely content to hang out at home and get dragged to all-age groups, became desperate for friends his own age. This became a vicious circle. The scarcity of homeschooled teens sent many teens back to school, leaving even fewer in our homeschool world. Those who remained were then even more desperate for teenage companionship, and more likely to go back to school.

Ever the optimist, I started a new group just for teens. A local non-profit had converted the annex of a nineteenth-century factory into a maker space for children and teens. It was stocked with art supplies and woodworking tools and murals-in-progress and, at one point, the wooden ribs of a hand-crafted boat under construction. The group liked our mission and said we could meet there one day a week at no cost. Incredible!

We got to work. But the dad I started it with wanted no rules, so we argued about that and he left. An artist mom who was unschooling her four kids stepped up, and she and I ran the group for two years. Next an impressively organized and kind senior girl ran it for one year. And then, after three years total, we all were done and the group dissolved.

It was lovely while it lasted. We did discussion and debate and art and hired a biology teacher. An acting coach taught them to curse in Shakespearean dialect and made them memorize sonnets and perform parts of Macbeth for parents. I taught a literature class to a group of adolescent girls; they acted out Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, a haunting and beautiful interpretation. In the discussion group, a Christian girl and an LGBT girl debated abortion kindly and respectfully. A sullen blue-haired boy who’d left school in some disgrace blossomed with us.

Ongoing challenges

But the challenges were persistent. Homeschooling families often have no money, so classes had to be dirt cheap if we wanted turnout. Attendance was a struggle. We were always texting tensely and calling to find out who was coming that morning and hearing that a kid didn’t feel like getting out of bed today. Or their anxiety was up. Or they were skipping bio but might be in later. Or they wanted to know if the heat was working (sometimes it wasn’t). Few did homework.

My biggest frustration was the lack of common foundation. We couldn’t build on anything. We always had about eight kids, twelve to sixteen years old, but they were different kids every semester and their skills and knowledge diverged wildly. I stopped being shocked by how many kids (both lifelong homeschoolers and kids who’d left school recently) couldn’t read well. History classes fell apart as some kids were bored and others lost.

And then there were the personalities. We did a class on Serial, the podcast, but we couldn’t get a popular fifteen-year-old boy to come on board or even to sit down, so that fell apart, never mind that the younger students, all girls, were interested and prepared. That year, all the younger kids were girls and all the older kids were boys, who dominated in every way. This was not the classroom I’d imagined when I pulled my daughter out of school because the teachers were ignoring her.

My kids and I joined yet another group. In this one you had to try out and get voted in, a harsh but successful formula in a world populated by misfits and rebels. This group had no time for children who didn’t behave well, and by then we were grateful for the rules and the structure. Like the other homeschooling collectives we’d joined, this one required parental presence and was a full day of classes taught by both parents and hired teachers.

I led a class on satire for a group of smart, competent teens. The Charlie Hebdo massacre happened in Paris just days before the first class. I was shocked to learn the kids thought the artists were essentially at fault. “Not that they should have been killed,” said one senior girl, “but they crossed a line.” I also heard that the American colonists had invented slavery. Even teens who had been homeschooled since kindergarten and had smart, reasonable parents could profess a “woke” outlook.

Our years of homeschooling produced so many beautiful moments, but what I remember most was scrambling constantly. It was so. Much. Damn. Work. And I haven’t even gotten into choosing curriculum or teaching math or the tests or the quarterly reports.

The outcome? My daughter went back to school in ninth grade, behind in math but caught up by October. She is now twenty, in college, and will graduate a year early. Always pragmatic, she is sanguine about her homeschool years. “Some parts were good, some parts were bad,” she says.

And my son? I regret homeschooling him. Taking him out of school did not meaningfully alleviate his struggles or nurture his gifts. He remained isolated, unregulated, and in need of more structure. I asked him, now twenty-four, what he thought of homeschooling. “One hundred percent a mistake,” he says. “I’m still catching up.”

I can’t know what would have happened if he’d stayed in school. But homeschooling, like every education option, was a mixed bag with its own challenges and shortcomings. I still support homeschooling. But I would have been better served by more logistical support and facts than utopian idealism.

That sounds lovely, but does it work?

Source: https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/hard-lessons-veteran-homeschooler

Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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