As part of my volunteer work, I handle incoming questions about homeschooling from sources other than homeschoolers. Last month, I had the pleasure of talking to a teacher with legitimate concerns about how kids learn without school. This was part of our conversation.
Teacher: As a former teacher sympathetic to homeschooling, I often wonder, who guarantees that the parents actually have the appropriate knowledge to teach? My (older) friend and I were talking about a family we know who home schools; my friend said, “God forbid if I were teaching my own kids math.” In other words, she wouldn’t be qualified…so how do homeschoolers provide the resources for all that kids need to learn? In school, of course, there are different teachers who specialize in various subjects. In my own case, I specialized in English/reading/writing, but not social studies, so we had a different teacher for that. And just a curious question: do states require any sort of testing of homeschoolers? And how do colleges handle admissions of homeschoolers?
Me: Thank you for your question. Essentially, you have four questions which all have a variety of answers. I’ll try to be as brief and straightforward as possible.
1. Who guarantees that parents who homeschool have what it takes to teach their children?
Well, that varies state to state. But essentially, it has the same answer as the question: who guarantees that parents have what it takes to have children and raise them? There is a spectrum of opinions on who actually is responsible for determining the best way to raise and educate children. But most people, and state laws, would agree that parents are ultimately responsible for the well being and education of their children - not the state. The laws across the country generally reflect that perspective. The state’s responsibility is not to guarantee that parents have what it takes to teach or parent their children, but that children and parents have the resources to do their best in these roles, and to make sure that children are not being “abused” (although, what constitutes “abuse” is another mess in and of itself).
What it boils down to, is that every state gives the basic right and responsibility to the parent to decide how to educate their children. Each state has a varying degree of requirements of the parents (all of which, by the way, do not seem to have an effect on the overall results of educational success). And each state has its laws as a result of what the people in that state have decided is the best way to balance the freedom of individual parenthood with the responsibilities of the government.
2. Since nobody knows everything, how can a parent be able to teach their own children successfully?
The answer to that question is - they can’t. And they don’t. Homeschooling parents don’t teach their children everything.
The one thing that, in my opinion, is the most essential, and pretty much the only requirement of being a homeschooling parent, is resourcefulness. We live in a world where information is everywhere. And it’s almost always free. There is no topic that we can’t find a way to learn.
Being resourceful allows us to find solutions that may or may not be traditional in nature. It allows parents to find ways to help their children with the tools that are currently available to anyone who has a curious mind. So, when we ourselves cannot teach our children how to do some things, we can, instead, find a way for those things to be learned in the world around us.
School is no longer a sacred establishment of knowledge. We are living in a technological age, and a social age, where avenues for understanding and opportunities for advancing a person’s skills are not reserved for teachers and those with degrees.
That isn’t to say that those things are useless, or that school is useless. Rather, the traditional four-walls dominant, teacher co-ordinated learning environment is only one of the many ways to learn. It may be true, that at one time, school was pretty much the only place to have access to information beyond what’s handed down by family lore. But in the society we live in today, this is no longer the case. It hasn’t been for a while, but we’re so used to that idea, it’s hard to imagine learning any other way.
Overall, it’s not a big deal if a parent doesn’t know something. They either stay one step of the game and help their kids with the thing they just learned (lots of school teachers do this too BTW), or their kids study it on their own or with a study group, or they find a mentor, or they go to a community class, or they take an MIT free online class, or they take a community college class, or they create a homeschooling exchange with anther parent, or, or, or… the possibilities are literally endless. The only limit is our perception.
3. Do states require testing?
Some do, some don’t. Others offer it as an option. Overall, the states that require testing do not have any significant advantage over states that don’t. And states that require testing almost always have a highly tolerant application of the scores, giving parents time and options to provide evidence of learning.
Testing is the tool of schools to assess learning. Parents of homeschoolers, and governments who are assessing this very small population, have other tools at their disposal.
Then, we also have to ask - who gets to decide what a “good” education is? Who gets to decide if a child is learning? The answer will be different depending on who you ask. So, how can there ever really be a objective gauge of a child’s learning and progress, such as testing? In states that require it, it is a quick and dirty way for homeschoolers to keep the govt. out of their kids’ education. But it doesn’t really tell the govt. much, except that the kids can take a test. What about families who emphasis resourcefulness? Logic? Critical thinking? Deep understanding of topics? Curiosity? Accepting that there may not be one right answer? To question everything? These things bring the best out of a child’s learning, especially when they are young, and may not reflect on a test.
Anyway, testing does exist in some states, but there is a huge debate whether it even means anything. Heck, that debate exists in schools, where testing has far more relevance and usefulness. If it’s debatable whether testing works in schools, it’s even moreso when you look at its effectiveness in assessing a single child’s learning.
4) How do colleges handle homeschoolers?
It depends. Every college is different.
Typically, private schools tend to have more generous acceptance policies, and are willing to review individualized admissions portfolios, instead of weeding out applicants by number cutoffs. But, more and more public/state colleges and universities are starting to create their own policies for students that come from an alternative education experience.
For homeschoolers that are college-bound, again, the skill of being resourceful is the most important to have. These kids need to do research on each school they want to attend, and find out what their requirements are. They also need to talk to other high school homeschoolers who are interested in the same topics and find out how they approaching the college goal. Lastly, college bound homeschoolers often choose to dual-enrol in community college classes, in order to apply as a sophomore or freshman in a four-year university, with college grades to help with their admission.
Getting into college as a homeschooler is not an obvious A->B->C->D path. But then, nothing about the life of a homeschooler is set on rails. So, especially for life-long homeschoolers, getting into college is just another one of the many life learning experiences that practice their ability to figure out the complex problem of setting and attaining a goal.
That said, not all homeschoolers head straight to college. Many of them work, travel or volunteer for a while first. Then go to college when they are more mature and are pretty darn sure what they need to go to college for. Or, they might skip traditional college altogether and choose a trade school or get certified as a specialist.
Overall, homeschooling works. It is not perfect. And it’s not guaranteed to produce perfectly intelligent children. But then, what is? Public school certainly isn’t. And private school isn’t either. Homeschooling is just one of the many options for educating kids today.
Tammy Takahashi lives and learns with her three children (10, 7 and 4) and supportive husband in California. She is the author of Deschooling Gently: A Step by Step Guide to Fearless Homeschooling. She also serves as the editor of the California HomeSchooler magazine, a bi-monthly publication for the Homeschool Association of California. You can read more from her about education and homeschooling on her website. And you can email her at tammy.takahashi @ gmail(dot)com.