To many people, going to school every day is as natural
as day and night or the changing of the seasons. But a growing number of
families are choosing one of the many alternative forms of education loosely
grouped as “homeschooling.” Exactly what homeschooling is, is difficult
to define because it is, by its very nature, individual. Homeschooling
could be defined as “anything that is not traditional school” but even
that is tricky. What about alternative schools? What about cooperative
schools where parents and teachers work together? What about children being
taught out of school by officially certified tutors? A useful way
to look at education is as a continuum with the most structured, institutionalized
public school at one end and the most freeform learn-by-living “unschoolers”
at the other and everything else in between.
Because institutionalized school is so much a part of our culture, many people are suspicious of homeschooling. “How can anyone learn that way?” they ask. “How will they ever go to college? And of course, “What about socialization?” Homeschooling parents and children laugh at these questions, but to the curious or concerned people asking them, they are valid questions.
That homeschooled children do learn, if not exactly how or even what their schooled counterparts learn, has been proven over and over. There have been many studies showing that homeschoolers generally score as well or even better than their school counterparts on a variety of standardized tests (HSC FAQ). But the question of how parents, with little or no formal training in teaching, can successfully teach their children in all the required subjects through many grades still bothers many people.
On the subject of whether parents are “qualified teachers” John Holt, a teacher, author, and advocate of educational reform, including homeschooling, points out that the school system does not even agree within itself on what constitutes good teaching. Teachers charged with negligence have successfully defended themselves by saying that they cannot be judged guilty of not doing what they were supposed to do, because no one is sure what they were supposed to do. “It clearly follows” he concludes, “that people who don’t know what should be done can hardly judge who is or is not competent to do it.” (51)
I could argue that if the goal of school is to instill in children a certain set of knowledge, then parents should know this material. After all, they have been through the school system. But the truth is most parents do not have everything they want to teach and everything their children want to know at their fingertips. Neither do most teachers. But they both manage. The key is not to know all the answers but to know how to find them and then to teach the child how to find them. If a child wants to know why the stars twinkle, his mother may not know, but she can ask a friend or relative who is interested in astronomy. Or she can go to the library and look through astronomy books until she finds the answer: because the stuff between the observer and the star gets in the way and blocks the light sometimes. Parents can do this and, in doing so, teach their children to find information on their own.
Once the simple problem of knowledge is solved, we come to the real heart of teaching: the interaction between teacher and student. Children (and adults) learn best with a teacher who knows their strengths and weaknesses and cares about them personally. Surely, most parents have at least as good a chance of establishing this rapport with their children as a teacher does. After all, who knows a child better or loves him more then his mother (or father)? Many teachers and ‘experts’ seem to think they do. My mother complains about people who thought they knew her child and what was best for her better than she did: Doctors who did not believe in breast feeding (which not only provides ideal nutrition, but boosts immunity), the preschool director who was amazed at how much my behavior had ‘changed’ from the first semester to the second, when my best friend was there, too (I was just acting the way I always did with my friend) and many, many people who thought Mother should leave me alone in various situations when I wanted her there (I learned to deal with people as well as the next kid, eventually). This problem has persisted and followed me into college life, where I still encounter well-meaning counselors who believe they know what is best for a student better than I know what’s best for myself.
Despite fears, homeschoolers seem to do fine when they go to college. It is quite common for homeschooled teenagers who want something more or different in the way of education but do not want to go to high school to take classes at local community colleges. Some, of course, do badly or drop out, but many do quite well. Julie Amundson began taking classes at De Anza College when she was 13. Now, at 17, she is attending UC Davis. Another homeschooler, Jane Donnelly, was a West Valley College honors student and student senator and recently transferred to Cal Poly. Many highly selective colleges, such as Stanford and those of the Ivy League, actually seek homeschooled students because they are focused, self reliant, and able to adapt to living on their own (HSC FAQ). According to California HomeSchooler magazine, “This year 4 out of the 15 homeschoolers who applied to Stanford were accepted. That equates to about 25%. Overall about 15% of all applicants to Stanford are accepted.” (Koos Breazeal 9)
Socialization has two, somewhat related meanings. “How do they socialize” meaning “how do they find friends” and “how are they socialized” meaning “how do they learn how to behave acceptably.”
The question of “how can you have any friends if you aren’t in school?” leaves me somewhat puzzled as to the purpose of schools. If the idea of school is to give children a place to socialize, why are they forbidden to talk, or even pass notes quietly to one another? If the idea is to gain an education, then why is school necessary for socializing?
Despite the ubiquitous fear that homeschooled children will be lonely, isolated, and anti-social, most homeschoolers have very active social lives. Many homeschooling support groups have weekly park days where the parents talk and the children run, play games, talk, fight, make up, and generally act like children. These same groups may arrange classes together and go on “field trips.” In addition to this, homeschoolers can and do participate in the same extracurricular actives as other children, such as sports, scouting, and camps of all sorts. Having met other children and made friends, homeschoolers have abundant time to play with those friends. Any formal ‘schoolwork’ they do can usually be accomplished in a few hours in the morning, leaving afternoons free for socializing. One homeschooling mother, finding herself constantly driving her child to activities and friends’ houses, commented that she sometimes wished there was less socializing in their lives.
As for teaching children to interact in safe, polite, socially acceptable ways, putting them into a crowd of other unsocialized children overseen by one or two overworked adults is not the way to accomplish this. John Holt believes that “If there is no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough.” He points out that the social life of children in every school he has seen was mean-spirited and snobbish with kids divided into the popular elite and the outcasts (45). Social behavior does not spontaneously evolve in unsupervised groups of children. How can they learn appropriate behavior from others who don’t know any more than they do? The result of this is more likely to be the kind of brutal, primitive behavior suggested in Lord of the Flies. There has to be someone to model appropriate behavior and enforce it. Schools do provide some of this. There are teachers, principals, and security guards to monitor behavior. But at home, there is even more. A parent can be there to catch the toddler’s fist and say, “Don’t hit him. Hitting hurts!” and to ask “How do you think you would feel if she grabbed your truck?” A parent can be there to comfort and counsel the angry teenager and remind her that hitting the offending party with a brick, while appealing, will only serve to get her arrested. The National Education Association reminds parents that “It's at home that children first learn the values they will carry throughout their lives. Before children formally begin school, they already have been schooled at home in the basics of getting along with people, communicating effectively, and solving problems.” (NEA). If parents are the key source of these values it would seem to follow that, if parents do not teach and reinforce these things at home, even the best school will make little difference.
There are at least as many reasons for homeschooling as there are homeschoolers. Some parents remember unpleasant experiences at school and don’t want their children to go through the same thing. Some, according to Julie Eberle, are concerned that school will not provide an environment that promotes creativity, self-motivation, and independent thinking (2). Some fear for their children’s safety and want to keep them away form gangs, drug use and violence prevalent in many public schools. Others may simply enjoy having their children around and enjoy watching and helping them learn. In fact, homeschooling parents learn a great deal in the process of teaching their children. If you read to your child about Marco Polo, you are bound to learn about Marco Polo. According to one article, “because homeschoolers usually use phonics to teach their children to read, they improve their own reading skills by learning the phonics they didn’t have in school” (Blumenfeld).
Homeschooling is, however, not right for everyone, but neither is school. If both parents have to work full time to support the family, then it is not an option. Or perhaps both parents have careers that are important to tem. A parent who has given up her own happiness in the name of what she believes is best for her children may come to resent those children, and the children will surely pick up on this. Also, happy parents are more likely to raise happy children. Maybe the child wants to go to school. Maybe she enjoys the group situation or has good teachers who inspire her. Maybe she wants to get out of the house and away from her parents so she can stretch her wings a little. Forcing a child who wants to be in school to homeschool makes as little sense as forcing a child who hates school to go. I know people who enjoy school. I know homeschoolers who chose to enter school at some point. Some decided they didn’t like it or got their fill and returned to homeschooling. Others stayed in school and were happy. Because they were choosing to be there, not being forced to go, the energy they might have put into resistance went into learning. There is a whole spectrum of possible educational options and every family should have the right to choose one that works for them.
Blumenfeild, Samuel. “Why Homeschooling is Important for America.” Vital Speeches of the Day. New York 1 Oct. 1995, available though Proquest, “homeschooling”
Eberle, Julie, “Making the Dining Room a Classroom” Sales and Marketing Management New York May 1998, available though Proquest, “homeschooling”
Holt, John Teach Your Own: New York, Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1982
HSC (HomeSchooling association of California) web sight, Homeschooling Questions and Answers, http://www.hsc.org/faqofficials.html#learn
Koos Breazeal, Cathy “Homeschoolers in the News” California HomeSchooler December 1999:9
NEA (National Education Association) web sight, Parent Power, http://www.nea.org/parents/ppower.html