Home Education Magazine
November-December 1997 - Columns
Larry and Susan Kaseman
Hanging On To What Makes Homeschooling Distinctive
As homeschoolers, we are part of a small minority that is, in a sense, in direct competition with conventional schooling, The largest, most powerful, and most pervasive institutions in our society. There are fundamental differences between homeschooling and conventional schooling. If we want to be able to take responsibility for our lives and homeschool in ways that will work well for our family, we need to be aware of these differences and act in ways that will maintain these differences and prevent homeschooling from being reduced to schooling by becoming a small, insignificant part of conventional schooling.
Understanding what is distinctive about homeschooling is more important now than it has been in the past. When the modern homeschooling movement began growing significantly in the late seventies and early eighties, people were very skeptical. Early homeschoolers had to be strongly motivated and have a clear sense of what we were doing and why to have the courage to do something as unheard of, radical, and "crazy" as homeschooling and to withstand pressure from school officials, legal experts, family, and friends.
Fortunately, it is much easier to homeschool these days. It's legal. Most people have heard of it. Media attention is often positive. We have shown that homeschooling works. However, this growing acceptance of homeschooling makes it more important than ever that we homeschoolers understand what is distinctive about homeschooling and communicate this to non-homeschoolers. Unless we have a strong sense of the distinctiveness of homeschooling, it is likely to be drawn into conventional schooling, and homeschooling will become just one small subset of a large institution that serves the state and big business rather than children and families.
Consider the following examples of ways in which homeschooling is being drawn into conventional schooling:
* Homeschooling has become an accepted part of the business of education, with many curriculums, learning materials, educational programs, and even special days at major theme parks aimed at homeschoolers, "the fastest growing educational market."
* Conventional schools are soliciting homeschoolers to participate in courses and programs, partly so school districts can count homeschoolers in the enrollment figures that determine how much money they receive in state aids. A school superintendent in Wisconsin recently shocked homeschoolers by offering that if they would enroll in a two-day mini-course designed for homeschoolers and held on the date when enrollment figures for state aids are determined (so the district would receive a semester's worth of state aids for each homeschooler who was "enrolled"), the district would change its previously unfriendly policy and allow homeschoolers to participate in drivers education and other programs.
* Some homeschoolers are willing to consider submitting to the standards and authority of conventional schools by taking standardized tests, offering their curriculums or homeschooling records for review and approval by conventional school officials, in exchange for a chance to participate in music, drama, or sports programs.
* Some homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers are increasingly evaluating and promoting homeschooling on the basis of how well homeschoolers score on standardized tests, what credentials they earn, and what colleges they attend.
At the same time that homeschooling is at risk of being drawn into conventional schooling, the increasing general acceptance of homeschooling makes it more difficult for us to understand what is distinctive about homeschooling and to convey this to the non-homeschoolers. It's tempting not even to bother. Why not just relax, accept our hard-won acceptance, and focus on the excitement and challenge of homeschooling our children? Because if we are going to maintain homeschooling as a way of life and maintain our hard-won homeschooling freedoms and rights and responsibilities, we need to have a strong sense of what is distinctive about homeschooling and work to maintain our independence of conventional schools. This column discusses important strengths of homeschooling, differences between homeschooling and conventional schooling, and reasons why relying on conventional school standards will undermine homeschooling. Suggestions for what we can do to maintain the independence and integrity of homeschooling are also included.
Strengths of Homeschooling
No two homeschools are alike. The glories and strengths of homeschooling is that it can embrace so many different families and so many different approaches to raising children and educating them. Some of us homeschool with purchased curriculums. Others develop our own curriculums, based on unit studies or our children's interests. Still others focus on living a worthwhile life and learn what we need to know in the process.
But however we approach academics, as homeschoolers we share certain experiences. Among them:
* Through homeschooling, our children and young people are finding the space they need to develop confidence, to discover their passions, to identify the unique contributions they have to make to the world, and to soar. Homeschoolers are growing into mature, responsible adults who are making important contributions to our society, regardless of their approach to academics.
* Our families are growing stronger in at least two ways.
First, as families who homeschool, we are taking responsibility for ourselves. We have chosen to take this responsibility. In fact, many of us have fought for the opportunity to take it. We have chosen to educate our own children despite continual pressure to enroll them in free public or other private schools. Most people assume that parents would welcome a break from the burdens and problems of raising children and would be glad to have schools take over the responsibility of teaching children academic subjects and increasingly instilling values in them and determining what careers they should pursue. Against this backdrop of pressure to send children to school, we homeschoolers are choosing to do something different, to shoulder responsibilities we have to wrestle away from experts, professionals, the educational establishment, and a billion-dollar-a-day industry.
As homeschoolers, we take responsibility for ourselves in a variety of ways. Those of us who purchase curriculums take responsibility for selecting one that works well for our family, for helping children do what is required, for planning time off, for skipping parts our children already know, etc. Those of us who plan our own curriculums and learn from life experience take responsibility in other ways.
What happens when we take responsibility for families? Amazing things! We discover that our children learn and do better outside school. We take control of our time and spend it on what is most important to us, setting our own schedules and timetables for learning, going to a park on a beautiful day, reading stories late at night, sleeping as much as we need. We take control of space as we arrange our homes in ways that are comfortable for us, learn from the whole world, understand nature through direct experience, and much more.
Another way in which homeschooling strengthens families is by giving us time together: time to get to know each other; to work and play, laugh and cry together; to make mistakes and then correct them. As parents, we have a chance to raise our children the way we want them raised, to treat them gently, to listen to them, to enjoy them. Siblings who are not separated by conventional schools learn to live closely with each other, to appreciate each other's strengths and accept weaknesses, to be there for each other. (Of course, children who attend conventional schools also have time with their families from which they can gain enormous benefits. However, they have less time than homeschoolers do, and some of it needs to be spent recovering from the negative aspects of attending a conventional school.)
* As homeschooling parents, we are learning with our children. We find excitement in subjects that seemed hopelessly boring or complicated when we were in school. History comes alive, science starts to make sense, and math become a wonderful system instead of a fearful trap.
But even more important, we become stronger people as we homeschool. Some of our new-found strength comes from life skills we learn by working with our children. As they grow, we catch glimpses of children as they were meant to be: funny, adventurous, challenging, full of life, compassionate. As we interact with them, we begin peeling back the layers that we developed in school: layers we wrapped around ourselves because we discovered that we needed to repeat what someone else said was right, whether we agreed with it or not; layers to protect ourselves from the humiliation of being wrong or stupid or not knowing an answer; layers we developed to survive peer group interactions.
Underneath these layers, we parents find our selves and are surprised at our strengths and abilities. From our children we learn to use common sense, to observe the world around us, to learn what we need to know, make our own decisions that will work, to stop worrying about whether someone else thinks we have the right answer, to stop wondering if we have to know something for a test or what grade we will get. The secrets of homeschooling is that it's never too late to start, even for those of us who were thoroughly schooled in our youth. We become like the homeschooling father who decided to retire early rather than move to a different state, a decision that was good for his family but reduced his income. He observed that he would not have had the courage to make such a decision if homeschooling had not given him experience in taking responsibility for life decisions.
* In the midst of all this, homeschooled children learn the basics that conventional schools try to teach. They learn to read, write, and do math. They come to understand how the physical world works (which conventional schools call science), how people behave and why (also known as social science), and how the past influences the present (a.k.a. history). They develop ideas about beauty (art) and learn to make things and mend things that are broken (home economics and industrial arts).
How Homeschooling Differs from Conventional Schooling
When we think about how incredible homeschooling is, we realize that no conventional school can do what a homeschool can do. This is not because teachers don't try hard enough (many are committed, hard working people who care about kids), or students don't study enough, or schools don't have enough money or don't administer enough tests.
Conventional schools cannot do what homeschools do simply because schooling is limiting. Learning is limited because schooling is based on the ideas that people have to be forced to learn, that there is a specific curriculum that everyone should learn at specific ages and in the same way, and that the main purpose of schooling is to produce young adults who will serve big business and the state. In addition, the environment of conventional schools is too limited. Children can only interact with one or a few adults and too large a group of peers. Little of the rich and variety work of the world is done in conventional schools, except for teachers instructing, cooks preparing lunch, janitors cleaning, etc. Contact with nature is very limited. Children are not allowed to eat, drink, move around, or sleep when they need to.
Since conventional schools cannot do what homeschools can do, it follows that as homeschoolers we need to maintain our independence of conventional school mentality. In some ways, conventional schools are the opposite of homeschools. Homeschools allow, even require, people to take responsibility for themselves, while conventional schools require that people surrender responsibility and follow directions. Anyone enrolled is required to followed the rules, curriculum, and standards. Students cannot say, for example, that they want to study American history, but since they are most interested in the Revolutionary War, they want to spend the semester focusing on it. Questions asked in school serve the interests of the schools; they seldom relate to what students need or want to know. Schools claim that there is one right answer and people need experts to tell them what that answer is; people are unable to figure answers out for themselves and often receive lower grades if they disagree. Mistakes are not seen as valuable steps in the learning process but rather as serious problems that need to be punished with low grades and humiliation. Schools teach competition and seldom allow cooperation. Schools take credit for children's learning ("If you can read this, thank a teacher.") instead of encouraging children to develop confidence in their own abilities.
When we send children to school, even for something as seemingly wholesome as band, we risk having our family getting caught up in the limitations of the school mentality. What is music? For homeschoolers, it's lullabies, silly songs, friends and neighbors making music for their own enjoyment, informal concerts, maybe formal concerts, and the opportunity to truly develop their musical talent. Why would people want to trade such richness for band uniforms, directors stuck with a limited repertoire (no matter how much they love music), and competition for first chair? Some people may argue that band offers the opportunity to play with a large group of other people. This is important, to be sure. However, if people didn't send their children to school for music, they would have more incentive to make their own, organize community bands or just get together informally to play whatever they want. In addition, people who take control of their own music are more likely to make music a meaningful part of their whole lives. If conventional schools' approach to music works, why are there so many children in school bands and so few adults who make music?
In short, conventional schools seem to fill up spaces that would provide wonderful opportunities if they were left open. They give us the impression we have covered the right parts, the important parts of music, and math, and history, when all we have done is be exposed to a small sample that someone else selected, a piece that may not be what we needed. Conventional schools limit our vision of what music, and math, and history, and life itself could be. If we are going to reclaim learning, and music, and other subjects, we can't keep turning to conventional schools. As homeschoolers, we can do the school part of homeschooling any time we want. We just have to find a curriculum and do it at home. But schools cannot do the home part of homeschooling, no matter how hard they try.
Therefore, as homeschoolers, we have to consider two important questions. First, if we as individuals decide for some reason that we want to participate in a conventional school course or activity as a small part of our homeschool, how can we participate in conventional schools without sacrificing more than we want to of the important parts of homeschooling? Obviously, each homeschooling family that wants to participate in public school courses, programs, and activities needs to make its own decision. (Of course, it works very well for homeschoolers not to participate in conventional schools, and most homeschooling families do not.)
However, as with any other community, what some members of the homeschooling community do affects us all. This leads to the second question, how can some homeschoolers participate in public schools without threatening the freedom, independence, and self-definition of the rest of us as homeschoolers?
At first glance, this may seem like a rather ridiculous question. How could a few families taking courses in conventional schools effect a whole movement? However, there is such a strong tendency to see homeschools basically as schools that we homeschoolers have to work hard to prevent this from happening. When homeschoolers enroll in conventional schools, it seems to confirm the idea that homeschools are basically schools. Therefore, such enrollment impacts the homeschooling movement in ways that are much greater than the numbers of homeschoolers who are enrolling.
Why is there such a strong tendency, among homeschoolers as well as non-homeschoolers, to see homeschools as schools? It's partly because we call ourselves schools. However, we use the term school because we have to, not because we want to. Because of compulsory school attendance laws (which would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to repeal in our society at this time), we need to say that our children are "going to school at home" to be able to homeschool legally. Perhaps more importantly, the vast majority of the population is convinced that school is essential. It's still a real reach for most people to accept the idea that children could go to school at home. The idea of children not going to school at all is beyond them, and they would strongly oppose it through the force of public opinion and through new laws. Therefore, even though some of us would strongly prefer not to use the word school to describe what we are doing, we seem to have no choice.
Therefore, when we homeschoolers enroll and participate in conventional schools, it reinforces the schooling part of homeschooling for the general public and more importantly for us homeschoolers. We then are tempted just to see ourselves as schoolers, not to think about how homeschools differ from conventional schools, not to even bother trying to maintain the distinction between homeschooling and conventional schooling.
And what is wrong with that? If we don't strongly and clearly distinguish homeschooling from conventional schooling, we will quickly be folded into a school mentality that says that families need to surrender their children and their responsibilities to schools. In addition, the more homeschooling is accepted by the general public and the more mainstream families homeschool, the more crucial it becomes that we homeschoolers have a clear sense of what distinguishes homeschooling from conventional schooling.
When we understand the ways in which homeschooling is distinctive, we are in a good position to decide when if ever it would make sense for our family to use any of the trappings of conventional schooling and how we could use them without compromising the independence and integrity of our homeschooling or threatening the important ways in which it is more than schooling. As homeschoolers, we each have to decide what will work for our family. Such decision making is, after all, at the heart of homeschooling. There are not lists of what we should and should not do, including things like participating in conventional schools, using conventional curriculums and standardized tests, earning credentials, and attending college. However, for our own sake, and for the sake of other homeschoolers, present and future, we need to consider ways in which our decisions will affect us as individuals and as a family and will affect other homeschoolers and the homeschooling movement. How can we do this?
What We Can Do
* In our own homeschools, we can strongly emphasize the home part of homeschooling and the ways in which homeschooling allows us to take responsibility for ourselves and strengthens our families. We can keep our focus on what we have decided is most important. We can decide not to evaluate our homeschools on the basis of conventional school standards such as how well our children score on standardized tests, how well they complete conventional school curriculums by following the directions exactly as written, how many prestigious colleges they are admitted to, or how many conventional credentials they acquire.
* We can share with other homeschoolers our ideas on how homeschooling is distinctive and how it strengthens our family. We can also share our conviction that homeschooling works and our experiences that show that it does. The more homeschoolers are confident that homeschooling works, the less likely we are to turn to conventional schools for reassurance and confirmation.
* If we, like most homeschoolers, are not involved in conventional school programs ourselves, we can continue not to be and recognize the major advantages to not participating in conventional schools.
* If we are considering participating in conventional school programs, we can ask ourselves, in ways we may not have considered before, what we will gain and what we will lose and make sure that the gains are worth the loses. The supposed advantages to conventional schools are widely advertised and accepted throughout our society; it takes something like a homeschooler's perspective to identify the potential problems.
Some homeschooling families who are considering participating in conventional school programs ask themselves questions such as:
-Is it worth the time and energy that will be required, that we could use in other ways?
-Is it worth interrupting family and community activities?
-Is it worth exposing ourselves and our children to conventional school standards, values, and pressures?
Many homeschooling parents are not surprised when their children announce that they would like to attend a conventional school. After all, we live in a culture that invests an enormous amount of energy and money in trying to convince young people that conventional schools are the best place to learn, to prepare to get a good job, and to make friends and be part of an exciting social scene. Back to school sales are pretty blatant. But even as gentle a soul as Mr. Rogers does his bit to get children psyched for school. In addition, there is all the pressure from friends, relatives, and total strangers whose frequent questions about school convey to young people the message that being in school is what gives you value, meaning, and worth. Also, other young people often put a lot of pressure on homeschoolers, partly because they have been sold a bill of goods themselves and partly from feeling, "If I have to go to school, you should, too."
Homeschooling parents react in different ways to their children's interest in attending a conventional school.
-Some ask what parts of school the children are most interested in and figure out ways to meet those interests outside of school, perhaps through private lessons or tutoring; young people's activities such as 4-H, Scouts, and groups they organize around special interests; and other social activities. They help their children appreciate the richness of their interactions with friends of all ages and the pressures of social life in conventional schools.
-Some parents share with their children their concerns about the obvious and subtle problems with school in an attempt to balance the strong messages they get about school from outside the family. They also consider the effects that school attendance will have on the rest of the family. A decision about school attendance is then made the way decisions are made about other potentially harmful activities.
-Other parents reluctantly allow their children to attend school with the understanding that they will see how it goes and that the young people will be welcome to resume homeschooling whenever they want to.
It is a mistake to think that we should have our children participate in conventional schools just because the schools are there and we have already paid for them through our taxes. It is even more important to realize that we don't need schools to validate what we are doing. It helps to remember that test scores, credentials, and college admission cannot measure the important work we are doing within our families.
* f we decide to participate in conventional school courses or programs, we can make it clear to others that such participation is only one part of our educational program and that most homeschoolers do not participate in conventional schools and do not want or need to. We can also be careful not to set precedents that could be applied to other homeschoolers who have a legitimate need and desire to remain independent of conventional schools. This means refusing to have our children tested or submit our school records or do other things that would set precedents that would then threaten the freedom of other homeschoolers because such requirements might be applied to other homeschoolers, including those who have no interest in participating in public schools.
The first and most important step in maintaining the independence of homeschooling is for those of us who are homeschooling to see homeschooling as distinctive and to appreciate and celebrate that. If we lose sight of the crucial differences, we will lose the heart of homeschooling. Then we can say to others that homeschooling is distinctive. We can acknowledge that although a few homeschoolers participate in conventional schools and some use conventional curriculums, take standardized tests, earn credentials, and attend college for part of their homeschooling, these hallmarks of conventional schools are not the most important part of homeschooling. The most important parts of homeschooling include taking responsibility for our families, strengthening our families, and growing with our children. If we simply take our homeschooling freedoms for granted, we are very likely to lose them. But if we work to understand and maintain the distinctiveness of homeschooling, we will strengthen our freedoms.
© 1997 Larry and Susan Kaseman
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