Twelve Things to Know About Homeschooling
If you’re thinking about homeschooling, you need to know the pros and cons before you commit. If you’re already homeschooling or are just curious, you might learn something new. This article will give you a brief overview of what’s involved in homeschooling, including answers to common questions. A complete and comprehensive description would fill an entire book, so consider this a starting point. (Please note that any resources or organizations cited here do not constitute an endorsement by the author or by this website—they are for informational purposes only.)
1. Why do parents homeschool their children? There are a variety of reasons. Children who have particular learning styles (such as gifted children or those with atypical abilities and sensitivities) often do better in a homeschool environment, especially if their needs are not being met in a traditional classroom. Children who want to seriously pursue music, athletics, or theater often find that they need the flexibility of a homeschool schedule. Other families have to travel for work or military duty, and homeschooling gives them another education option that isn’t dependent on a foreign school schedule. Some parents don’t agree with the morals and politics that pervade public or private school classrooms, and they homeschool in order to effectively transmit their values and beliefs to their offspring. Many homeschool parents and children have had negative experiences with public or private schools and believe they can do a better job at home.
2. Are all homeschoolers politically conservative and Christian?
No. That is a stereotype. In my social circle alone, there are homeschool families from all walks of life, ethnicities, nationalities, different religions, and varying political persuasions. It is an amazingly diverse population.
3. Do both parents have to teach?
Not necessarily. A parent who works full-time obviously cannot teach during work hours. Therefore, the non-working parent typically becomes the main teacher. This does not mean that the working parent needs to be totally hands-off when it comes to educating the children. I know one family where the father works full-time as an engineer, but after work he is able to work with his daughters in math and science. During the day, his wife teaches reading, writing, and history, and takes the girls on field trips.
If both parents work full-time, homeschooling is more difficult, but not impossible. I know one family in which both parents work full-time. The mother’s employer gives her a lot of flexibility in her scheduling, and the older sibling helps the younger sibling.
Cyber charter schools (also called “virtual academies”) are another option for busy parents who want home-based education but who don’t have time to teach. Cyber charter schools are publically funded and follow the same curriculum as regular brick-and-mortar public schools, but they’re internet-based. Students work from home and take their classes online, connecting with a teacher and other students through interactive software. The cyber charter school or virtual academy provides the curriculum and teachers, monitors the student’s online time records and course progress, and grades the assignments. For a side-by-side comparison between traditional homeschooling and a virtual academy, click here.
Some families hire tutors for specialized subject areas, such as languages, music, and art. Thanks to the Internet and Skype, tutors don’t have to live in your area or even in the same country. But if face-to-face works better (especially for hands-on skills like music and art) ask around for recommendations, and check out your local colleges for talented students who are looking for extra work.
You can also hire professionals. One homeschool family I know hired a professional artist (who is also a lecturer at a local college) to teach drawing, painting, and art history to their teenage children. A homeschool group in my area hired an engineer (who took time off from his day job as a rocket designer) to teach physics to a group of homeschool students once a week for a semester.
Learning groups (also called co-ops) are another option. Parents in the co-op each take turns teaching a group of students. One parent might be good at teaching writing, another math, and another history or a foreign language. The students get the benefit of working with whatever parent is strong in a particular area.
Another option is to form writer’s groups that mimic adult writer’s groups: During periodic meetings in person or on Skype, students share what they’ve written and offer constructive criticism of each other’s work. The same can be done for math groups, where two or more students get together in person (or on Skype) to solve equations and offer ideas for how to approach difficult problems.
Once a student is old enough, community colleges and trade schools (such as cooking schools and computer programming schools) are another possibility. One student I know began taking courses at a community college and a local cooking school when she was 14 to prepare for a career as a chef. Another student started taking college courses in Japanese when she was 15 and is now quite advanced.
4. What are the advantages of homeschooling?
- Homeschooling offers flexibility. Since homeschoolers aren’t on a traditional academic schedule, they can take field trips any time they want, study when they want, take long weekends camping or hiking (or go in the middle of the week), and travel during the off-season. If a child learns better later in the morning or afternoon, it’s easier to make a homeschool schedule fit the child’s rhythms rather than convincing a traditional school to let the child start math at, say, 11:00 a.m. rather than 8:30 a.m.
- Homeschooling allows students the opportunity to start working as interns during school hours and gain valuable on-the-job experience. I know one 12-year-old homeschool boy who started working as an audio/video technician for his mother’s women’s group meetings. A professional videographer heard about the boy’s strong work ethic and offered to mentor him. The boy has since taken on freelance jobs whenever possible.
- Homeschool children get to pursue their interests in depth. If a child is fascinated by the history of automobiles, for example, or photography or computer programming, he or she won’t need to put that interest on hold just because the classroom teacher needs to move on to other topics.
- In a homeschool setting, children and parents see firsthand how they are directly responsible for their educational path and progress—which is an important trait colleges expect from their students.
- Parents who design a curriculum for their children know exactly what their children are being taught and whether a given curriculum is working with an individual child. A parent can experiment with different approaches and find what works, without having to negotiate with a large school bureaucracy.
- Homeschooling can foster a special bond between parents and children because they spend a lot more quality time together, working on common goals.
5. What are the disadvantages?
- The teaching parent has high demands on her time and energy because she has to chart out an academic course and make it happen.
- Homeschooling won’t necessarily cure an unmotivated student. Many students who go from traditional school to a homeschool environment do well because they are no longer bored or stifled and they get to pursue the interests they want. But some homeschool children have hard time motivating themselves to make progress in academic subjects such as math or writing, and that can be a serious challenge to a homeschool parent.
- You will meet people who disapprove of your choice to homeschool. They’ll want to know whether your children are being properly “socialized” (an issue which I’ll address below). They may stereotype you. They may believe homeschooling is inherently wrong or odd. Because some parents view school (especially private school) as an important status symbol, they may resent the fact that you are implicitly rejecting this idea, even if you’re not.
- You won’t have an automatic social community unless you make it happen. Some parents who transition from traditional school to homeschool find that they miss the PTA meetings, the bake sales, fundraising events, or volunteering at the annual school carnival. There are ways to make up for this loss, however, such as forming other social groups, volunteering for charities, and organizing field trips for your homeschool network.
6. What about socialization?
This is one of the biggest questions people have about homeschooling. My reply is that socialization is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, homeschool kids don’t have the built-in peer group that public and private school kids have. That means they and their parents will have to make more of an effort to find social networks.
On the other hand, homeschool kids are not subjected to the kind of peer pressure over clothing, media exposure, and “fitting in” that traditional school kids are. If a child is obviously different, homeschooling can protect her from the kind of cruel or thoughtless treatment that happens all too often in traditional classrooms.
When people ask about socialization, they might really be asking a different question, such as: “Is socialization the main disadvantage to homeschooling?” “Aren’t you sorry your kids are missing out on proms, homecoming, graduation, and being a cheerleader or a football player?” “Just how weird and a-social are homeschool kids, anyway?”
As one homeschool teacher explained, people assume that “lack of public school socialization produces an awkward, abnormal child, which is of course ironic because that would mean public schools produce ‘normal’ children. What is interesting is that the concern has nothing to do with character, test scores, aptitude, or the education of the child at all. It shows you what society really values: coolness.”
There is a lot of truth to this observation. I generally find that homeschool kids are less jaded and cynical, less peer-dependent, and more engaged with learning than traditional school kids are. Homeschooled kids are also open to socializing with older and younger children. They aren’t taught that their peers are limited only to those kids who are in the same grade.
Kids who are eccentric loners in a traditional school setting may actually do better in a homeschool setting because they aren’t being picked on and they can’t just hide in the back row with their head down, hoping the teacher will ignore them. By not being forced to deal with a large, overwhelming classroom in which a harried teacher has to balance the competing interests of twenty or thirty students, a homeschooled kid can focus more on his or her own interests, and explore those interests without negative comments from others. Bright kids who misbehave out of boredom in a traditional school may settle down in a homeschool environment because they can learn at their own pace (or seek out other bright kids or adult tutors), and not have to wait for the rest of the class to catch up.
As another homeschool mom points out, socialization is an overblown issue. “Unless one lives in the outback, kids aren’t usually homeschooled in isolation. There are so many opportunities to mix in with other people in the form of field trips, co-op classes, homeschool group events,” along with church or synagogue groups, scouting activities, weekend baseball or soccer matches, and so forth.
“Homeschoolers get a bad rap as being socially awkward,” she notes, “when what’s really happening is that they don’t look like your garden variety child, so that is seen by outsiders as a negative rather than the positive I believe it is.”
7. What does a typical homeschool day look like?
This depends on the family and the ages of the children. When children are very young, many homeschool families schedule field trips, park days, and creative projects so their youngsters get a lot of hands-on interaction with the real world. Young children love to do the same activity over and over—they won’t be bored going to the zoo or the science museum every other week, or getting together at the park with other homeschoolers four or five times a month.
Homeschool parents often do activities and projects at home with their children, such as cooking lessons that double as chemistry lessons, or construction projects that triple as history, anthropology, and structural engineering lessons. One homeschool family I know spent over a month re-creating ancient Egyptian artifacts in papier-mache, plaster, and gold paint. The children were encouraged to conduct research and understand the religious reasons behind designs in Egyptian burial masks, sarcophagi, and jewelry.
As children get older, their academic schedules tend to become more structured. Some families have strict schedules in which each hour is planned out. The kids are expected to complete a set amount of work on a variety of subjects (such as math, logic, writing, reading, history, science) during the course of a day. If they’re taking classes through a cyber charter school or a virtual academy, then they are expected to log in every school day and complete the assignments that are provided.
Other families are more laissez-faire, and aren’t as focused with making progress through textbooks or workbooks, or getting through a set curriculum in a certain amount of time. These parents encourage their children to spend their academic time delving deeply into one or two subjects until the child’s curiosity is satisfied, and then moving on to a new topic.
As children get older, they develop the ability to shape their own academic journey. Homeschooling is especially suited to those who are self-starters. Such students are capable of working through a math workbook on their own, and asking for help when they are stuck on a problem. Or they’ll spontaneously read books and write stories without much prompting. Other homeschool children who aren’t as self-motivated will need a parent to prod them and make sure they stay on task.
Whether a family should make learning highly structured or more laissez-faire depends on what works best for each child and for the family.
8. How do you know what to teach?
Before I talk about curriculum options, let me share my personal philosophy: Reading, writing, and math are the most important academic skills. If your child can master those three foundational subjects, he will be able to teach himself pretty much any other subject.
Reading is the most crucial. In order to do math, you have to be able to read. In order to write well, you have to read well. All three skills are developed through practice, practice, practice. Just as a good musician has to listen to a lot of music, and constantly practice an instrument, so a writer must read a lot to get a feel for language, and then put it into practice by writing regularly. Same with math. You get good at it by solving a lot of math problems.
Regarding curriculum, you have basically two options. You can either go with a ready-made curriculum, or you can custom-design one based on your child’s needs and interests. A lot of homeschool families do a combination of the two. (If you opt to go the cyber charter school/virtual academy route mentioned earlier, then the curriculum will be provided.)
Here is a partial list of curriculum resources:
- State standards. This is a good starting point if you’re worried about whether your child is at grade level in a given academic area. When I searched “seventh grade California standards” on the Internet, I got 350,000 hits. The first two hits directed me to the California Department of Education, where they describe what they expect students to know for every grade level and subject area.
- Syllabi from private and magnet schools. Many private and magnet schools publish their course syllabi online. I found the sixth grade math syllabus for a performing arts/magnet school in my area that explains what mathematical concepts will be covered, and what textbook will be used. You can do some Internet sleuthing on your own and find all kinds of information from educational institutions from around the world, including prestigious schools whose curriculum you can access at home if they publish it on the Internet.
- Online bookstores and libraries. There are a lot of textbooks and workbooks for the homeschool market. Some are complete packages that cover a range of subjects, and include a teacher’s manual. Some focus narrowly on one topic, others focus on a cluster of related topics. There is also a lot of educational software available if your child prefers to learn on a computer. If you’re buying from an online bookstore that includes customer reviews, read them. This is a free and valuable source of information and advice from other homeschool parents.
- Custom-designed curricula. Some parents create workbooks for their children if they don’t find what they’re looking for. One homeschool parent put together a booklet of math word problems for his kids, and had copies printed and bound for not very much money. Another parent created a short anthology of classic poetry (most of which is in the public domain) to help the children get a feel for language. Asking other homeschool families about their curricula is a good way to learn what’s out there and what they’ve found most useful.
9. Am I locked into a homeschooling commitment for the rest of my child’s academic career?
Not at all. You can take it one year or even one semester at a time. If homeschooling works one year, but not the next, no problem. You can always enroll your child in the local public school. Of course, it’s better to time the enrollment so that your child isn’t starting in the middle of the year, but it won’t be impossible if that’s the only option.
One family I know homeschooled until seventh grade. At that point, the boys decided they wanted to go to a traditional school to play varsity sports. The boys both did very well academically and socially. Their teachers considered them model students because they were so polite and well-behaved. Both boys eventually earned college degrees and are now happily married men with children.
10. What about getting into college?
Many colleges and universities welcome homeschool applicants, and say so on their webpage. Do an Internet search with the words “homeschool admissions” plus the name of a particular college to see what they’re looking for in homeschool applicants.
Because homeschool students don’t have normal high school transcripts, many colleges will put greater weight on their SAT and ACT scores, and they require the student to describe in detail what their course of study has been, including any college courses they may have already taken.
Top-tier colleges require all students—not just homeschoolers—to be outstanding. This can work in a homeschooler’s favor if he knows how to take advantage of his flexible schedule to excel in a particular area or pursue an interest to a degree that sets him apart from the typical applicant.
11. Is homeschooling legal in my state?
Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states. But each state has its own requirements. Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho, Iowa, Alaska, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Michigan do not require homeschool parents to contact the state if they choose to homeschool. At the other extreme, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Massachusetts require parents to submit test scores, curriculum, professional evaluations, and parental teaching credentials. Other states fall somewhere in between these two extremes. You can do an Internet search (“homeschool laws” plus the name of your state) to find out what your state requires in terms of paperwork and standardized testing. The Home School Legal Defense Association website also gives a state-by-state summary.
12. How do I find other homeschoolers?
Do an Internet search to find out whether there are homeschool groups near you. If not, you can start one. Ask people in your social network whether they know of any local homeschool families, then contact those homeschoolers to find out what networks they belong to and what activities are available. Clergy and religious groups, pediatricians, sports associations, and local scout troops are all possible resources for finding other homeschool families.
Homeschooling can be a rewarding journey that will bring you closer to your children and give you the chance to help them shape their destinies to a degree that isn’t always possible with traditional schooling. Good luck!
Copyright 2014 by Christine Silk. All rights reserved. This article first appeared at PragerUniversity.com.