September 1, 2016

Tearing Open the Box

I truly lament the fact that so many homeschooling parents needlessly fear their kids being “behind.” Some manage to avoid falling prey to the lie in their kids’ elementary years…but the monster often rears its very ugly head all over again once a child approaches high school. We become petrified that he “isn’t keeping up” in math or “won’t have enough” science. We give ourselves ulcers over AP classes, dual enrollment, and early graduation. And we fall into the trap of thinking we should use public school requirements as our guide.

Though I don’t like to advertise it, I spent nine years before my kids were born teaching at the secondary level in the fourth largest school district in my state – first at a middle school and then at one of the city’s four public high schools. My state has a very good reputation when it comes to public schooling; its students consistently earn SAT/ACT scores among the highest in the nation. But it’s precisely because of my experience inside the system that I’m so passionate about assuring home-educating parents that we have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Instead of perseverating about “keeping up” with the system, we must choose to grab hold of reality by forcing ourselves to remember that we have absolutely no legitimate reason to use the government school system as our measuring stick. We must understand our actual legal obligation – i.e., to follow the homeschool law in our state of residence, which is always distinct from that which governs public/government schools. And we must grasp the moral truth of our real, foundational obligation, which is to meet the actual needs of each of our individual children, regardless of what bureaucrats might say on paper. 

Additionally, we can hold onto a couple of homeschool truths: First – as I learned from having spent the last three-and-a-half years surveying nearly 3,000 resource providers for TheHomeschool Resource Roadmap – public school textbooks can’t hold a candle to any material written for homeschoolers. That was true before common core, and it probably goes double (for non-common core homeschool material) now. Second, the typical lecture-style classroom cannot begin to approach the effectiveness of the one-on-one tutoring and self-directed learning approaches inherent in home education. In fact, a quick Google-search will reveal plenty of stories about the most out-of-the-box “radical unschoolers” who excel at Ivy League colleges despite never having cracked an algebra book. Thus, it’s basically inevitable that any homeschooled child with diligent parents will receive a better education than his schooled peers without having to imitate the system at all.

What does that mean for high school planning? First, it means choosing to flat-out reject the entire notion of “being behind” and deciding instead to accept each child where he really is as an individual today – whatever that means in each subject area. Second, it means developing a plan to help her learn at her pace – whatever that is and wherever it eventually leads – with neither overwhelming her nor letting her slide. It does mean taking college admissions expectations (but not public high school requirements) into account if it seems best for a child to go directly into a four-year college. But is also means knowing that four-year college isn’t always necessary or wise – right away or ever – and that colleges don’t expect us to mirror the system; in fact, they understand that homeschoolers are different, readily accept them, and even recruit them. Finally, it means trusting our intuition (and our kids’ preferences) enough to stop feeling inferior and get on with thinking outside the box.

On a practical level, how that plays out for each child’s high school experience will be distinct; in fact, each of us should be able to tell a unique story about each of our children’s journeys. But perhaps just a few examples will inspire you:

  • Andy isn’t particularly “math-y,” nor is he interested in a STEM-oriented career. Thus, his parents are unapologetically counting Pre-Algebra as his first high school-level math course. And then he’ll do Algebra 1 and Geometry before choosing either Statistics or Practical Math for a fourth credit. Alternately, he’ll take his time – no law exists saying one “must” complete one credit in nine or 12 months – and eschew a fourth credit entirely, choosing mastery of three credits’ worth of material over racing through more. The university he’s considering if he pursues a history major prefers three math credits for admissions, but doesn’t specify a minimum competency for non-STEM majors; the art school he may attend instead doesn’t even have a math requirement. Thus, skipping Algebra 2, Trigonometry, and Calculus doesn’t put him “behind.” It simply acknowledges how he’s wired and gives him more time for his actual interests;
  • Kelly doesn’t like to read, perhaps due to mild (but undiagnosed) dyslexia. Her parents know their homeschool law requires her to take “English” every year, and the law specifies the inclusion of literature and composition at the high school level. But they won’t throw her into the intensive multi-year, “college-prep” program they used with her older brother, who was interested in writing novels from an early age. Instead, they continue to work on Kelly’s spelling and grammar skills – legitimately counting her time as a portion of the 140 hours per year they’ve learned will constitute one “English” credit – and they’ll rely on a resource called Movies as Literature to complete her first two English credits. Then, using her progress and the knowledge they purposed to gain about specific reading and writing skills Kelly should master before taking the English 101 course at their local community college, they’ll determine the best course of action for her remaining two credits later on;
  • Paul has Downs Syndrome. He loves to learn, but at age 14 his functional skill level is currently at about “third grade.” His parents understand from their state’s homeschool law that Paul needs to somehow address content in math, reading, language arts, science, and social studies each year, and that they’re free to incorporate a wide variety of elective credits in any other areas according to Paul’s needs and interests. They also learned that working through at least 75% of a textbook or spending roughly 120-150 hours of study time constitutes “one credit.” They were initially concerned about the legitimacy of their documents, given that Paul will never be able to tackle “higher math,” read Shakespeare, or write a research paper. But a family friend who works in special education explained that schooled kids with special needs earn recognized diplomas the same as anyone else, and encouraged them to simply use materials that match Paul’s actual ability and aim toward maximizing his potential before graduating him;
  • Savannah began taking classical ballet lessons at the age of four and was being cast in significant roles by the time she was eight. Her parents knew she was also intellectually gifted – they’d had her IQ tested and it came out at 160 – but she became increasingly disenchanted with formal academic subjects; she simply didn’t want to spend hours of each day on math, science, history, and literature. When she was 13, a professional dance company offered her an internship that would eventually enable her to become its principal dancer. But traditional academics would get in the way, so her mother devised a personalized study plan using prep-books for the GED and several CLEP tests. She didn’t take any official tests; instead, she devoted time to studying through the books and then took the practice tests in the books. By doing so, she demonstrated clear mastery of every typical high school subject as well as a handful of college-level courses. And, coupled with all the elective credits she could legitimately be awarded in dance, choreography, and costuming, Savannah’s mother developed an impressive transcript that enabled Savannah to graduate high school and begin her internship at age 15.

I could go on and on, describing myriad other ways in which families can choose to be different by setting aside inaccurate, mechanistic labels in favor of truly meaningful learning for their kids; in fact, homeschool mom Sue Patterson has compiled a book – Homeschooled Teens - that details the experiences of 75 kids. But what ultimately matters for your children is what you decide to do with and for them. Will you continue to let yourselves be bullied by an irrelevant public school system and false notions of “being behind?” Or will you peek out of the box and even consider tearing it open so you can customize your child’s education for his or her ultimate, lifelong good?


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