The author’s children sit and share in storytime. (Photo: Lyz Lenz)
I spent all summer agonizing over preschools. Do I pick the school that has better hours for my work? Or the one with better academics? I realize my daughter is only four (and my son just turned two), but she spends much of her days copying down words from my copies of Kundera novels.
When I talked to my mother about my decision, she paused, before adding, “Well, you know, you could always…”
I interrupted. “No.”
She paused. I changed the subject.
We don’t talk about this much, because, despite the fact that I was homeschooled, I will not homeschool my children.
When my parents began homeschooling in Texas in the early 1980s, that type of education was an undefined legal right. No one knew what it was or what we were doing. Today, home schooling is a counter-cultural movement that unites both religious fundamentalists and liberal atheists. Co-ops offer a la carte classes to fill-in educational gaps. The Internet allows for a whole new range of education and curriculum. Conventions, magazines, and blogs keep homeschoolers connected, sharing curriculum and educational inspiration.
Yet, despite all of that, I refuse to homeschool my children.
Because I was homeschooled, I had little opportunity to interact with people who thought differently than I. When I did, I was intellectually armed for the discussion as if I was going into battle. Before my first lesson on evolution in high school, my mom organized a reading of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, which argues that Darwinism was the catalyst for perpetuating the greatest tragedy of our modern era. This made me a huge hit among my friends. I was 17 before I knew that Homer was anyone besides a blind poet. I won’t tell you how long it took me to understand what a hooker was. It’s too embarrassing.
When I went to college, I found myself scrambling to catch up. Robert E. Lee wasn’t a hero? The Trail of Tears, it happened? Japanese Internment camps? Reconstruction? That entire city on a hill that I had been taught America was — it was burning to the ground.
I’d been warned this would happen. Camps and Bible studies had prepared me with scripts and manuals for the day when my liberal professors would try to destroy my faith. But the professors weren’t destroying anything, they were just showing me a different way of thinking.
My blind spots of education were not crippling. After all, I had the skills to learn, and those were what mattered, as my mom reminded me. And educational blind spots are not unique to homeschoolers.
But homeschooling is part of a larger cultural problem — it’s the mental equivalent of trench warfare. Instead of engaging on the battlefield, we dig in, draw our lines and refuse to budge. American society is embroiled in conversations of racism and sexism that permeate the fabric of our cultural institutions. Donald Trump, the most polarizing (and arguably sexist) Republican candidate for president is the most popular. Police are shooting and killing black men, women and children at an alarming rate. The problems need to be engaged. Yet, instead of engaging, Americans are choosing to entrench themselves further in their ideologies.
Another reason I refuse to homeschool is because I don’t buy that it gives students an educational advantage. One of the biggest claims for homeschooling is the much-touted achievement statistics. The National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimates that homeschoolers on average score higher than students in public school on standardized tests including the ACT and SATs.
But the claims of educational achievement may be overstated. The small amount of data outside of the NHERI casts some doubt on their fantastic claims. The SAT/ACT score claims ignore that very low numbers of homeschoolers actually take those tests. And the standardized test data reveals that homeschoolers have a discrepancy between verbal and math scores, with the math scores lagging behind. Additionally, groups like the Coalition for Responsible Education (CRHE) point to pervasive problems with the data collection of these studies that cast significant doubt on any claims of homeschool achievement. My own personal testing history bears out some of this data for the ACT and the GRE, I did well in the reading and critical thinking sections. But math? Well, let’s just say I showed as much aptitude for math as I did for street slang and Simpson’s trivia.
Further, homeschooling puts children at risk. There are many stories of abuse that happened in homeschooling families and were allowed to continue to happen because of the closed environment that homeschooling perpetuates. These stories are anecdotal and abuse happens in all families, not just homeschoolers’, but homeschooling provides safety for abusers because the victims rarely come into contact with mandatory reporters. Additionally, the CRHE parsed through court documents and news stories about abuse and concluded, “Our preliminary research suggests that homeschooled children are at a greater risk of dying from child abuse than are traditionally schooled children.” Again, my family’s history bears this out. One of my family members was abused by someone close and because of our insularity as a family and our religious background the crime went unreported and unprosecuted. It has torn us apart.
I say all of this as someone who considers her homeschooling experience successful. Science lessons included hatching chickens, raising tadpoles, and identifying birds and insects. Math was both theoretical with textbooks and quizzes, and practical, like the time my mom made my sister and I quadruple recipes in her copy of The Joy of Cooking. Sure, it took me until I was 28 to understand all those Seinfeld references — just when everyone stopped making them. I’ve still never seen The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles and sometimes I get in conversations where I feel like I lived in a cave for 18 years. (Did you know the guy from Nirvana founded the Foo Fighters? Crazy, right?) With homeschooling, learning was as natural as living and I wouldn’t trade that for a million Simpson’s episodes, or however many there are.
Yet, these benefits are not unique to my experience as a homeschooler. My husband is a product of private and public schools and is the smartest person I know. One of my dear friends is a PhD student in the Old Testament and has an autodidact’s sense of learning with an unparalleled social grace—St. Paul, Minnesota, public schools, ladies and gentlemen!
Public, private or home — there is no one solution that solves all the problems with our broken American educational system. But what I can say definitively is this: I want my children to know more of the world than I have to offer. I want them to embrace difference and difficulty — to wade into the messy quagmire of America, to listen and to find their place and to help fix it. Teachers, broken school systems, inept administrators, those are not the enemy, those are symptoms of the bigger cultural problem of people tapping out rather than shouldering in.
In the end, I based my school decision not on academics or hours, but because it is here in our neighborhood. It’s a school where my daughter will learn something that is so hard to find when you are surrounded by sameness—perspective.