A few months ago, our 11-year old girl came home from spending the weekend at dad’s with a proposal. Her 11-year old step-sister, a competing martial artist who spends a lot of time out of town at competitions, was going to be homeschooled and her step-mother thought she should join them.
Now, there’s some history here — very different views on parenting between the step-mother and my partner, an effort a couple years ago to get custody of my step-daughter — but ultimately the bottom line was whether homeschooling would offer the best educational opportunity for her. Given that she’d just been accepted into our school district’s magnet school program, that’s unlikely, but even without the prospect of a top-quality, specialized education through the public school system, I still come down flatly against homeschooling, for a number of reasons.
First of all, as an educator myself (albeit at the college level), I know how hard it is to create effective learning experiences. All the more so when the student to be engaged is not an adult but a 11-year old child. Skilled educators undergo several years of college-level coursework and guided on-the-job training before they ever take on their on classroom — and then are expected to continue to develop those skills and keep up with new teaching techniques. None of this can be replicated with a computer program, a standardized curricula, and a parent, no matter how dedicated the parent. I wouldn’t take it on, and I have a master’s degree and over 4 years of classroom experience!
Second, curricular materials are only a part — and possibly the smallest part — of an education. Far more important are the social skills that a child learns as part of attending school. A student that stays at home, even if the parents make an effort to maintain an active social life, is gaining little experience in dealing with other viewpoints and perspectives. They are not learning how to relate to people who are very different from them, either in ethnicity, class, or just interests. They are not challenged to defend an unpopular viewpoint, or to build a case against another’s opinion. They have no opportunity to develop leadership skills, empathy, or a talent for empathizing with others.
Third, I shudder to think what the curriculum for homeschooling looks like. I know lots of people choose homeschooling in order to minimize their children’s exposure to ideas that would challenge their family’s religious or political beliefs, and that’s bad enough, but even worse would be a curriculum that follows the No Child Left Behind criteria. Children need the resources a school can offer (if it’s funded well — this is another issue, though) to “tickle” fancies that are well outside the curriculum. After-school clubs, for instance — how is a homeschooled student going to develop a talent for, say, reporting if they don’t have access to a school newspaper? Or how will they discover a passion for event organizing if there’s no dance committee to join? The possible substitutes for this kind of almost random exposure to new activities are unsatisfying at best — I suppose a child could write for some online equivalent of a school paper, but where’s the engagement with a local community the student lives among and cares about there?
In short, I think homeschooling sells kids short, and unless there’s a compelling reason (and keeping a homeschooled step-sister company is hardly compelling) I don’t see any reason to do that to our kids. I don’t doubt that some people have the time and financial resources to compensate for at least some of the shortcomings outlined above, but most folks don’t. I do know there’s some evidence that homeschooled kids do just fine on standardized academic tests — but that’s setting the bar pretty low, and I think as parents it’s important to set the bar as high as possible.