Home Education Magazine
March-April 1998 - Columns
Larry and Susan Kaseman
Don't Let Credentials Get You Down
"How do homeschoolers get high school diplomas and other credentials?" The question is not a new one. We've asked ourselves and other people have certainly asked us. However, recent developments are making the answer more complicated than it used to be, in some ways limiting the options available to homeschoolers who want conventional credentials.
Should we homeschoolers be worried about getting conventional credentials? Are homeschoolers' futures jeopardized because the path to a conventional diploma is less clear-cut than it is for a student in a conventional school? Why and how is the process of getting a diploma becoming more complex? What choices do we have? This column will address these questions.
Why Is It Becoming More Complicated for Homeschoolers to Get High School Diplomas?
Getting a diploma is becoming more complicated for at least two reasons. First, high schools throughout the country are increasing the requirements that students must meet to earn a diploma, even if they are attending a conventional school. States are also moving in the direction of what are referred to as "high stakes" graduation tests. For example, beginning in 2002, students in Wisconsin will have to pass a 12th grade test to earn a diploma. The number of required credentials is also increasing. For example, school-to-work programs are designed to lead to certificates of mastery that will be required for some jobs.
Developments such as these are part of the response by schools to demands from big business and some members of the general public that schools produce people who are better trained for today's economy. They are part of state and national goals and standards in education (including Goals 2000) and state and national testing programs. As the requirements for high school diplomas and other credentials become more specific and rigid, the processes by which homeschoolers can earn such credentials become more complicated.
A second reason that earning diplomas is becoming more complicated for homeschoolers is that as the number of homeschoolers increases and as homeschooling gains wider recognition, some states and local school districts are increasing regulations and restrictions aimed specifically at homeschoolers. School officials and educational policy makers are increasingly trying to incorporate homeschooling into their systems. More policies are being written concerning homeschooling. The upshot of many of these policies makes it more difficult for homeschoolers to earn conventional credentials. Here are two examples:
* State universities in Georgia now have special requirements for homeschoolers, who now must take four SAT subject tests and score higher than most students who take these tests.
* High schools in Milwaukee now refuse to give homeschoolers credits they can use toward graduation for work they have done as homeschoolers unless they pass the public school's final examination for every course for which they want credit. Of course, these schools routinely give students who transfer from public schools and from other private schools credit for their previous work. This means that to earn a diploma from a Milwaukee high school, a student must either attend that school from the beginning of ninth grade through graduation, or transfer from a public school or a private school that is not a homeschool, or pass final exams. (In practice, at least one homeschooler who wanted to earn credits by taking final exams found that it was very difficult to find anyone who could administer the exams or who would take responsibility for them, so that approach did not work for that homeschooler.)
Both of these developments, the increasing graduation requirements for all students and the increasingly rigid requirements for homeschoolers, have the same result. Homeschools must become more like conventional schools if homeschoolers are to earn conventional diplomas and other credentials. One has to either give up homeschooling entirely to attend a conventional school for one or more years (regulations vary from district to district) or adopt a curriculum very similar to that used in conventional public schools to prepare to pass the same tests that students in conventional schools must pass to graduate. Either approach costs us important homeschooling freedoms.
How Can Homeschoolers Deal with the Increasing Complications of Earning Conventional Credentials?
Faced with the reality that homeschools must become increasingly like conventional schools if homeschoolers are going to earn conventional diplomas, homeschoolers have several choices.
* Obviously, we could simply work hard to comply with the increasing demands. Where requirements like Milwaukee's exist, homeschoolers could either prepare for and take the required tests or make sure that young people who wanted diplomas enroll in public schools no later than their freshman year. Homeschoolers in states like Georgia could prepare for and take the required tests. However, such action would obviously decrease our homeschooling freedoms. We would increasingly have to follow curriculums that prepared young people for such tests instead of being able to choose an education that is different from that provided by conventional schools.
* Homeschoolers can earn diplomas from alternative schools, perhaps through correspondence if the school they choose has a correspondence program. Some homeschooling curriculum suppliers also offer diplomas and other credentials to young people who meet their requirements.
* Some of these policies are so obviously discriminatory that homeschoolers may decide to challenge them and may succeed in getting more reasonable policies.
* We could challenge new regulations in court. This is risky. Courts generally reflect public opinion, and some a significant portion of the general public feels that homeschooling is an acceptable approach to education for qualified families but that the government really should determine who is qualified. In addition, since the early 1980's, federal district courts, federal courts of appeals, and state courts of appeals (including state supreme courts) have all upheld the constitutionality of state laws regulating homeschooling, with the exception of a few state supreme court cases around 1980-86 that ruled that state laws were too vague. There is no evidence that courts would reverse this trend; indeed, they would be very likely to uphold stricter graduation requirements for homeschoolers. Such rulings would set precedents that would be difficult to overcome, which is one reason that initiating court cases is risky.
* It would be unwise to initiate laws supposedly designed to uphold the rights of homeschoolers and prevent such regulations from being passed. In the first place, laws designed to protect homeschooling rights actually backfire. Because such laws require legal definitions of homeschooling, as homeschoolers we are thereby increasing the government's control and authority over our homeschools by asking it to define what homeschooling is and is not and to allowing it to change this definition whenever it so desires. In addition, such a law would be unlikely to pass. As explained above, many members of the general public feel that homeschooling regulations are reasonable. In fact, introducing such a law might backfire because it could easily be amended so it ended up increasing government regulation of homeschooling.
* Fortunately, other responses to the question of getting credentials are available to us. As homeschoolers, we are good at identifying, questioning, and challenging assumptions that most people think cannot be changed. We are good at devising alternatives. In this case, an alternative is to question the whole system of credentials and develop ways to live our lives that do not require conventional credentials.
Why Homeschoolers Are Less Likely to Need Conventional Credentials
Young people who are homeschooled independently of conventional schools are likely to have traits and qualities that prepare them for adult life. Here is a list of some. (Note that we are not claiming that young people who have attended conventional schools do not have these qualities, because some do. The point we are making is that it is important for us as homeschoolers to recognize that although homeschooling does not give young people conventional credentials, it does give them many important opportunities to develop skills and qualities that are much more important than conventional credentials. Also, attending conventional schools often interferes with the development of these skills and qualities.)
* Homeschooled young people understand clearly how the world works. This is no surprise. They have spent their lives in the world, observing and participating in real activities in their homes and communities, and sometimes in distant places as well. As a result, grown homeschoolers are engaged in activities such as developing software for Apple Computer, working on the assembly line at General Motors, running non-profit organizations, setting world records in juggling, and raising and training horses. They have figured out how to travel in this country and overseas safely and inexpensively. They have created their own internships and businesses and are doing well in a wide range of colleges and universities. The point here is that whatever part of the world these young people choose to work and play in, whatever activities they choose to do, they have the experience, the confidence, and the ability to figure out what needs to be done and do it. Homeschoolers are prepared for adult life because they have been living their lives in the real world, not sitting isolated in a special building following someone else's orders.
* Homeschooled young people know themselves. They have had opportunities to make their own decisions, to pursue special interests, and to learn through trial and error in real life situations what they are good at and where they need to improve. They have been under less pressure to acquire the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that conventional schools require and have had more experience thinking for themselves.
* Homeschooled young people have had experience with different people of varying ages. They have interacted with their peers through homeschooling groups, organizations like 4-H and scouts, church groups, neighborhood and community activities, etc. They have also spent time with young children, old people, and those in-between. These experiences prepare them to interact effectively and appropriately with people they encounter as they work and continue learning.
* The people that homeschoolers know often provide good contacts and opportunities. As the old clich/ says, "It's not what you know; it's who you know." One important strength of homeschooling is the networking that goes on among homeschoolers who develop all kinds of ways of helping each other and between homeschoolers and other people they know.
* Homeschooled young people have experience taking initiative. Homeschoolers don't have to follow the dictates of a large and rigid institution. They are used to having some control over their learning and activities. They have had experience developing plans and following through on them, whether this be making peanut butter sandwiches and having lunch in the backyard or building a bicycle from salvaged parts.
* Homeschooled young people think clearly. They evaluate information on the basis of its merits, asking whether it makes sense and is useful, rather than focusing on whether it will be on the next test. They also evaluate their experiences and use them to build a framework that allows them to understand and work in the world.
* Homeschoolers are good at transferring what they have learned to new experiences. Homeschoolers are used to seeing the world as one whole, not chopped up into isolated subject areas. They can tackle new challenges because they know how to use common sense, observe what is going on, ask questions, try what seems to be most reasonable, and make corrections if needed.
* Homeschooled young people are good at learning new skills. Learning is something they want to do, not a chore that has been imposed on them. They have had many positive experiences learning new things, and they are eager to learn more. They have been able to make mistakes and admit that they did not know something without getting a failing grade or being humiliated in front of a class, so they are much freer to learn.
* Homeschooled young people are connected to their families. They have spent a lot of time with their immediate families and perhaps their extended families. Family members listen to them, offer support and encouragement, help them over rough spots, and provide a base for rest and recreation. This kind of support system is a big advantage as young people are interacting with the outside world.
Obviously, more specific points could be added to this list, but the general point is that homeschooling prepares young people for adult life in many different ways. It offers opportunities that conventional schools simply cannot provide because of the constraints that have been placed on them. (Think about it. Conventional schools have to deal with large numbers of young people in a small space, isolated from real life and work, and at the same time keep parents, community members, and taxpayers happy. No easy task. It's not surprising that conventional schools are not well suited to meeting the needs of individual students. They are not good places to try to develop the skills and abilities listed above.)
Because of the strengths homeschoolers develop, they find and create activities and opportunities that suit them and enable them to make significant contributions.
Should Homeschoolers Get Credentials Just In Case They Need Them?
Some people may contend that it is a good idea to get high school and/or college diplomas and other conventional credentials for insurance, "just to be on the safe side." At first glance, this might seem like a good idea, and it is a decision each family needs to make for itself. However, further thinking reveals that it has serious drawbacks, including the following.
* Diplomas have obvious costs. There are fees, of course. Then it takes time and energy to figure out how to earn a diploma, to prepare for tests and/or meet other requirements, and to complete the process. Sometimes the requirements are minimal, easily met, and may be worth the time and energy required, but sometimes they are complex and rather arduous.
* Diplomas have hidden costs. They require that people get involved in the system of conventional education and comply with the standards and values of the institution granting the diploma. Again, sometimes these costs are quite manageable and the diploma is worth it. But sometimes the hidden costs of getting a diploma are significantly greater than the benefits. Then many homeschoolers decide they are better off forgoing a diploma they would have "just in case" and focusing on the far more important strengths that they do have.
* Sometimes working for a diploma distracts people from a more sensible and worthwhile approach to learning and living. It's easy to get so caught up in trying to meet the requirements for a diploma that one forgets to focus on learning what one really wants or needs to know and to pursue special interests that will lead to work one loves. It may be tempting to let moving toward a diploma take the place of asking and trying to answer more important questions about learning and life.
* In the final analysis, employers, college admissions committees, and young people themselves look to what people know and do, which often is not reflected in a diploma.
How Do Homeschoolers Find Work, Get Into College, Etc., Without Conventional Credentials?
Many homeschoolers find the following steps helpful as they discover and create ways to convince employers to hire them, programs to accept them, and colleges to admit them.
* First, realize how qualified you are. If you're not convinced yourself, it will be difficult to convince someone else. Remind yourself that homeschooling is a strong asset and certainly not a liability. You may want to review the list above and think about specific ways in which you have learned through practical experience, interacted with people of different ages, learned new things, applied what you learned in one area to another, etc. You may want to talk with homeschoolers you know and read about what homeschoolers are doing and how well homeschooling has worked for them in articles in this magazine and other publications and books. The more convinced you become that homeschooling works and that homeschoolers are well prepared for adult life and do a wide range of things very effectively, the better position you will be in to convince others.
* Remember that people who have not had first hand experience with homeschooling themselves are unlikely to understand how well it has prepared you for what you want to do. Therefore, it is your responsibility to explain this and to convince them that you are qualified for whatever you are applying for because you are a homeschooler, not in spite of your homeschooling background. You need to do the work of figuring out how your unconventional education has prepared you to do what you want to do. You cannot expect other people to figure this out. If you don't point it out to them, there's a good chance they will not realize how qualified you are. This is certainly not always easy to do, especially for people who tend to be shy and/or modest. But if you don't, you are not being fair to either yourself or the person for whom you would be a very good employee or apprentice or student. Without becoming a braggart or an arrogant snob or a strong critic of conventional education, you can learn to present your qualifications.
* Be as creative and resourceful as possible (without losing touch with reality, of course!) Don't just take your experiences and accomplishments at face value. Consider the deeper lessons you have learned from them and qualities you have developed that employers and colleges are looking for. Choose the words you use carefully to give yourself as much credit as possible. For example, don't just list a string of odd jobs you've had and things you've done at home and in your community. Show what you did and what you learned. Instead of saying, "I baked bread and sold extras to the neighbors," you might want to say, "I started and ran my own business by baking bread once a week and distributing it to neighbors." Whenever possible, show ways in which you were responsible for something specific. "I learned to take responsibility by mowing neighbors' lawns. I began by doing two lawns, established new customers, and by the end of my third summer, I was mowing 10 lawns regularly."
* Keep records of what you do so you have material to work with when you want to show how qualified you are. On a regular basis, write down things you have been doing, even if they don't seem terribly exciting at the time. You don't know when something that seemed insignificant may turn out to be just the key you are looking for.
* Don't minimize or overlook something you've done just because you did it at home. If you planned, designed, and built a garage, say so, even though it was for your own family. There's a widespread assumption that things we do at home don't really count. Don't buy into that idea.
* Get to know a wide range of people.
* Be willing to do work that is not particularly exciting, perhaps for no pay, to gain experience and demonstrate how qualified you are.
* Use resources such as those available through the Whole Works Catalog of Career Resources (1-800-634-9024).
What Can Homeschoolers Do If a Diploma Is Required?
Start by asking who is requiring the diploma, for what purpose, whether the requirement could be waived, and whether an alternative to a diploma might be acceptable. Diplomas as such are required in surprisingly few situations. Often it is enough to simply say that you were homeschooled, do not have an official diploma, but are an independent learner with lots of experience taking responsibility for your own learning. Increasingly employers and colleges and universities are seeking and welcoming homeschoolers because of the strong reputation we are developing. (Consistent with the principle above that as homeschoolers we need to take responsibility for explaining to others the important ways in which we are qualified, it is better to make such a statement than to say "None" when filling out a form or when asked whether you have a diploma.) In such a situation, a diploma is not really needed, even though it may seem at first that it is a requirement. Many jobs do not require official diplomas, and many colleges are much more concerned about other parts of an application.
If a diploma is required for some reason, perhaps because one is applying for a job in a highly bureaucratic setting, homeschoolers can issue their own diplomas just as other private schools do, by setting up criteria that must be met and awarding diplomas to people who meet them. The question with this kind of diploma is how to make it convincing to whoever needs to be convinced. Sometimes a formal certificate is all that is required. These can be purchased from school supply houses or generated by computer.
Sometimes a transcript showing subjects studied and perhaps grades is required. Again, transcript forms can be purchased or created. Some conventional high schools give one semester's credit for 90 hours of classroom work (based on one hour a day, 5 days a week for 18 weeks) and accompanying homework, so it does not take a great deal of time to earn a credit in any given subject area. Sometimes homeschoolers want or need to document their transcript with supporting details. For example: "American Literature - 1 year - Read 8 full length novels and 4 plays and discussed them with my mother and sister; wrote a 10-pg. paper on the life and writing of Willa Cather; watched 8 videos on the lives of American authors-Final grade: A."
Another way to earn a high school diploma is to take a GED (General Educational Development) exam or The exams now being offered in some states. Students often have to be 18 to be eligible to take such exams or at least to get credit for them (otherwise officials fear too many students would take the exams and quit school). GEDs sometimes have a negative reputation because they are often used by people over 18 who dropped out of school for reasons that are assumed to be their problems (most people can't imagine good reasons for not attending school). Therefore, some people are prejudiced against young people who have diplomas based on GEDs.
Yet another way to document one's learning and transcript is by taking CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) tests. These are standardized tests that are like taking a final exam without taking a course. For approximately $50 one can take a test in any of a wide variety of subject areas. Most colleges give college credit for scores they consider high enough. But even without this official sanction from a college, CLEP tests are a widely recognized way of demonstrating that one has learned. (Actually, of course, such tests show only how well a given person performs on a given day on a given test. They are not an accurate or meaningful measure of what a person knows or can do, and they have the pitfalls of standardized tests. However, in some circumstances they can be a useful way to convince someone that you should be given a chance to demonstrate what you can really do.) For information about CLEP tests, call 1-609-771-7865.
One final note: A Christian Science Monitor article on the new regulations in Georgia also said, "The change is being driven mainly by home schooling's phenomenal growth. Begun in the 1980s by a handful of devout Christians, homeschooling has today penetrated every region, and every socio-economic and racial group." (December 29, 1997, p. 3) Of course, homeschooling actually grew out of the free school movement of the 1960s, a piece of history that is very important because it helps people appreciate the diversity of the homeschooling movement. We need to keep these facts clear ourselves and correct others if they make a mistake like the Monitor article did.
As homeschoolers, we need to realize that if we want to earn conventional high school diplomas and other conventional credentials, we will need to make our homeschools increasingly like conventional schools. However, as homeschoolers, we have strengths and abilities that prepare us for life far more effectively than conventional diplomas do. We find we can do what is important without conventional credentials and that, in fact, it makes more sense to focus on the doing rather than spending time, money, and energy getting conventional credentials.
Larry and Susan Kaseman have been learning through homeschooling with their four children since 1979. Their book Taking Charge Through Home Schooling: Personal and Political Empowerment discusses many of the issues raised in this column. It is available for $14.95 ($12.95 plus $2 shipping and handling) from Koshkonong Press, 2545 Koshkonong Road, Stoughton, WI 53589.
© 1998 Larry and Susan Kaseman
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