The importance of discussing WHY you're homeschooling your kids with them

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by ChristineMM

Editor's note: this piece references the education system in one part of the United States — we're aware that public education operates differently elsewhere. — Stephanie

Photo by Unhindered by Talent, used under Creative Commons license.

My ninth grade homeschool son is really enjoying the dystopian literature course I designed for him. A few days ago he began reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding and he instantly was pulled in.

Yesterday while I was tending to a plumbing problem my kids were doing their homeschooling. My older son was in my line of sight quietly reading in his bedroom. He looked up from Lord of the Flies to ask me when I read the book (he knew from a prior conversation that I'd read it). I said it was about three years ago, or maybe four. He asked why I didn't read it in school.

I called my eleven-year-old upstairs and said I had something to explain they should know. My kids have never been to school and they don't really know how it all works, ranging from the daily goings on of the students and the big picture issues.

I explained that Lord of the Flies is a book that typically was read in high school, but that in some schools it has been designated as a book only to be read by certain kids. They looked at me with confusion. I went on to explain that schools say they want the best education for all students but not all kids in a school get the same education — that schools divide kids up and decide what they will have access to learn and do while in the classes.

I said that some classes are the harder, more rigorous classes that are reserved for (supposedly) the smartest kids, then there is the larger pool of kids who are in the middle, then a smaller number of kids are in the bottom track. The hardest track prepares students for college and hopefully for admissions to the most rigorous colleges, while the middle group may seek college or may not, but if they go to college it may be a less competitive one. The bottom track may seek an associate degree at a community college or may go to vocational school or go directly to work in an entry-level position or at a job that relies more on hard physical work than requiring knowledge of school subjects (i.e. cashier, waiter, painting, construction, or road work).

I went on to explain that when I was in school near the end of middle school I was in some of the hardest classes but wound up being moved out of most in grade nine. I was burned out of school and chose to not study much. I focused on having fun with my friends and let my schoolwork slide and my grades started to slip. I didn't want to do the work in grade nine Honors Science so I asked to drop it and to go into the "regular" science class. I was still on the college track but I was not in the Honors English class in high school, so I was never given the assignment to read Lord of the Flies. I was busy reading Stephen King for fun in my out-of-school hours.

At this point my fourteen-year-old interjected that Lord of the Flies is so good that he couldn't believe everyone in school is not reading it. I then explained that schools actually wind up limiting access to people's futures. Schools help some students achieve their goals but they can stand in the way of other students. The school controls what the student learns and what classes they take. If you don't get certain grades and certain test scores in middle school it can seriously hinder the path the student accesses for grades 7 and 8 which will impact the classes accessed in grades 9-12.

When the student chooses a career they sometimes have to have certain college degrees. To get that degree you have to have done that type of work in the high school years. If a student is kept out of certain classes and is restricted from reading certain classic books they are instantly prohibited from seeking certain degrees at certain schools.

(I did not say this but it just occurred to me that I could have also said that reading high quality literature expands a student's vocabulary which is vital to know for the SAT exam which is yet another key to college admissions. Even test prep books for the SAT explain that there is no substitute, there is no cramming or test prep class that can be taken in place of not having spent years reading quality literature to help prepare them for the SAT.)

I told my kids that not everyone can be at the top and schools participate in a selection process that either helps students get to the top or prevents them from ever getting to the top. My eleven-year-old asked some questions that indicated he completely got it. He also said something to indicate that the schools wind up having power over the futures of the kids.

Yes son, they do.

My fourteen-year-old asked if all of this is one reason we homeschool and I answered in the affirmative. I said that with homeschooling we have freedom, we could access anything we want, learn anything we want, and read any literature that we want. I could plan courses out or find classes for them to take for a fee — however, their education is only as good as their participation in it.

This is when I gave them the zinger that sometimes they are their own worst enemy by not cooperating. If I know they should learn X math topic by Y grade in order to get all the math done needed to seek that college major to do that career, but they don't cooperate and don't do the work, they are preventing themselves from attaining their goal. I said I could only do so much, I can't do the learning for them. I said that I and their father are trying to give them a very good education which happens to be a home education but if they resist and don't cooperate they will be the reason they fail.

They seemed to get that point also.

I realized on that day that I have not had enough conversations with my kids about why they are homeschooled. I think about homeschooling and education reform and alternative education so much and have talked with other people so much (and blogged) yet I perhaps have not talked about it enough with my own kids. Shame on me and shame on my husband.

On the other hand sometimes discussing a topic in small segments like this is really best when it is spontaneous and is the result of a question asked by my kids rather than me sitting them down for a lecture out of the blue. Short conversations over time are probably better than giving them a gigantic lecture in one sitting also.

  1. What I take away from this is that every parent, homeschooled or not, has to be an advocate for their child's education. You can't make all the choices for your children in or out of school, but you can push to expose them to more meaningful, educational material.

    I'm going through a school identity crisis right now with my first starting kindergarten next year. Do I put him in public school (our schools do not get good reviews) and push to help both my child and our school system become better, trying to change it from the inside? Do I put him in a more exclusive school that aligns with our hopes, desires, and beliefs while feeling uncomfortable with the disjointed privileges of learning in this country? I know I don't have it in me to homeschool my kids, but it is another path I could take where I am deciding how to approach the problems of the US education system… which I feel like I need to do, no matter which kind of learning structure we embark on with our kids.

    • I just had my baby. Our zone elementary school is ranked really poorly, but I would LOVE to be able to walk him to school in the mornings. I know that a lot can change in a school in five years, but only if parents are pushing for it. So I figure sometime around his 1st birthday I'll contact the school and see what I can start doing to get involved NOW, so that it will be better by the time he gets there, rather than waiting until he's there to get involved.

      That's the dream anyway. We'll see if I actually have time for that, or if they welcome my meddling.

      • Anie, I absolutely agree with your pro-active approach here: getting involved is the best way to both determine what a school is really like as well as have the opportunity to make positive changes. School ratings are one thing but what actually goes in a school in another; schools with high rating may not actually be so good or such a good match and the opposite can be said for schools with lower ratings that are actually great places for learning. Schools that teach a diverse group of learners — English language-learners or free/reduced-lunch recipients — often get an unnecessarily bad rap because of lower test scores but offer creative, engaging programs not to mention a rich learning environment. 🙂

    • There are no easy answers. You mention changing it from "the inside" as a parent of a child enrolled in school. Correction: a parent is "on the outside". Even a parent volunteer in a classroom is an outsider. Some of my friends entered the teaching profession in order to try to effect change "from the inside" as a teacher. They all quit to homeschool their kids. The people I know who are still teaching never said anything about wanting to change the system but they have issues with it, they just keep going along keeping it as it is and sometimes being unhappy with things. Example reading specialist teacher wanted to help the kids and learned an "alternative" reading program from Europe but her funding was cut for the program which they used as special ed. She was out of work for years now is going back for autism behavioral mod special training since there is a need for more of those trained professionals in the schools but not enough staff to hire who can do that.

      As Moms we all want what is right for our kids. Good luck with your decision making.

        • Let me rephrase that: as someone without the economic resources for alternative schooling, it is extremely disheartening to be assured that trying to make the best of our situation will be a futile effort.

      • I feel like, as someone who has never been a parent of children in a traditional school setting, you're not in a position to tell people what their experience will be if they attempt to create change. The fact that your school experience was a negative one does not mean that people who are forced, or choose, to send their kids to public school are doomed to have uninspired, uneducated children. Please remember that the majority of people in our country do not homeschool or send their children to private schools; most kids are part of the public school system. The attitude that it's not worth trying to make change because it won't work is the reason so many schools are failing – and for most people, those schools are the only option.

      • I am an inner city teacher and I love what I do. I affect their lives every day. I AM making a difference from the "inside."

    • In my experience, private schools do the exact same "tracking" that the public schools do. I went to an expensive, exclusive private middle school and my parents had to fight tooth-and-nail to get me out of the lower track into the advanced track. Nevermind that I was routinely blowing the curve in the lower track, the upper-track math teacher simply didn't think I was "advanced math material."

      No matter where you school your kids, private, public, or at home, you've got to be their biggest advocate and fill in where things are missing. There are some really fantastic teachers in both private and public schools – and some really crummy ones.

      • That was my experience too. I wasn't that great at high level Maths and English, but I wanted to do it because I found it interesting. My teachers had other ideas. Even though I didn't do that well, I still enjoyed learning about complicated concepts. The English concepts I still use a fair bit.

      • Last year I went to an open house for a parochial private high school (as I was worried that homeschooling high school was out of my league) and heard the presentation that described the tracking. Sadly just like when I was in middle school in the 1970s-80s and in high school in the 1980s they had the same issue with limiting the number that could be in the top tier to kids that would fit in one class. They also had one class that they put all the LD kids in (all different LDs) and 85% of the kids were in the "in the middle" college prep class whose course description would not fit the college admissions requirments of top tier colleges or science or engineering majors (at any college).

        I am going to blog today about the pros of tracking. This is a complex issue.

  2. As much as I wanted to be able to do homeschooling for my daughter and future kids throughout their school career. It was neither financially feasible nor do I have the patient. I like having a outside career. Now with my license in cosmetology could I? Yes, but in our current home we dont have the space.
    Now in saying that. I was in a private school from k4 (Pre-K) till 5th grade, which I couldnt emotionally keep up any more after dealing with my parents very public (small town) divorce. So upon 6th grade, I went to public school. Since being in public school I have been to 3 different high schools. One in Mo, Germany, and Ga. Mo is ranked #11 in schools; Ga #49, and Germany, it being a military school would probably have been in the top 10. Why am I saying all of this because I think despite what school or where you put your kids in you have to put just as much effort into making sure they do their assigned school homework as well as whatever you feel the need to give them.
    My mom, while I was in public school, was getting both her BA and Masters, she used to give me her homework to keep me challenged. At 12-13 I read Catcher and the Rye, I had to write a book report and all for her to review. Even though I went to all these different schools my mom kept up with my schooling from home. She always told me, "use me as your ladder because that is what I and your grandparents are so you can reach the stars". I still have this mentality towards my daughter. Though she is in a state ran Preschool program I have kept up with all her schooling. She knows many various things. I think for parents, who dont homeschool or put their kid(s) in private/alternative schools, we have to take the next step to keep their kids engaged, challenged and able to reach for the stars. Instilling in them that you let no one, whether it is a person, a group, or a government system, stop you from reaching your goals.

    • I completely agree with this! Ultimately it's up to parents to fill in the gaps and to keep up with what their children are learning!

      My daughter is only 17 months and in a preschool/daycare program at my college, but I make sure she learns how to drink from a cup from me, not from her teachers. I feel her school is so she can socialize and get extra help, but overall I need to be the one who's doing the main teaching, or else why did I have her?

    • Mrs. Ebonee, What a great mother you had. I am envious! I didn't grow up with pro-learning parents and it was basically me independently dealing with my own public school education and I had no one advocating for me and suffered as a result such as being made to re-take Algebra I in grade 9 as they didn't have enough Algebra II teachers to fit the need of the students even though I got all A's; I had to re-do the same exact textbook for a second year. I also was not guided to take the right classes I needed to seek admissions to the college major I wanted. My parents were of no help.

      My childhood experience was a main motivator for me wanting to give my kids something different than public school plus raising my kids in a pro-learning home environment (my husband is pro-learning).

      • Yes, I definitely was blessed as a child. And I do understand your rational because I have many friends whose parents were exactly the same way. Even in those students in private school.

  3. I'm sorry to read about your bad experiences in school growing up. It's unfortunate when the set-up is less than optimal; I had mixed experiences with it growing up. Fortunately, there *are* many public schools that work very differently than the system you describe here. I know this because I am proud to be a public school teacher — and it's not a high-income area or a magnet school, although I certainly find it to be a special community and positive learning environment.

    Of course, there are many factors affecting school quality but I absolutely believe in the benefits of public schooling: our future depends on it! It's sad to see how often it's vilified, even unintentionally, because it makes it even harder for those of us who are trying our best to educate all, including those who have the desire to be homeschooled or attend alternative options but lack the resources. That said, I also absolutely believe in homeschooling as a wonderful option and wish these two forms were seen more as complimentary rather than oppositional.

    • Yes! Absolutely. There is no need to demonize traditional schooling if it just happens to not be the track that works best for your family. I am forever indebted to my amazing experiences in public schools, and to the fact that public schools are available for my daughter. The choice to homeschool is one that comes from a position of privilege that I don't see acknowledged in the above piece.

  4. So inspired. I was stopped from taking additional science GCSE(I'm British)just because of something a teacher said to me in the exam room (about my skirt length!!). At 15 this angered me that having a skirt above me knee rather than below. This was a mahor detail as in the exam room not approiate and I walked out and explained why I felt it was not the right thing to say to me at that moment. Due to walking out I wasn't allowed back. May seem stupid now but at the time it was important to me.

    I no longer have as many options. I was lucky and did not need it for my career choice but you are right school can have such an impact and some they help while others get mainly ignored. Especially I feel those in the middle as the top students gets pushed to go to better things and the bottom get extra support while those in the middle get left.

    Parents helping with the learning (my mum was fab at this) is so vital. I had to accept I messed up but mum supported my view as she agreed. She has also made sure I had as many life lessons as adcemdic lessons. I have read many books well beyond my age at the time but also seen poverty in Jamaica. Both have shaped me and I firmly believe in educating at home and school as both are important and finding a school which suits your view. When the time comes I will most likely home-school if I can afford to stay home due to many bad experiences at school(nothing being done about bullying from students and teachers, lack of support emotionally and lack of being pushed to my potential).

    College however I am in the top 3 of my course with top grades and a bright future. I mistake does not mean your chances are over. The educators make such a difference.

  5. I would really like it if the Editor's Note at the beginning of this post said "this piece references the education system in SOME PARTS OF the United States — we're aware that public education operates differently around the world."

    In many places, the type of "tracking" referred to here isn't even allowed anymore, and a lot of public schools do a great job differentiating their instruction and providing a challenging learning environment for their students. I understand that this is one person's perspective, but the implication is that this is "how it all works" in public school – it was, perhaps, in this author's school, and in many others, but it's not like that everywhere. Not by a long shot.

    • I see that the website added the disclaimer that you suggested.

      My experience was in the 1970s and 1980s.

      Today I am going to publish a blog post I drafted last week about the issues in public school when tracking is banned.

      It is a complex issue.

  6. The thing to remember is that it works both ways. I was in the advanced/AP science/english/history courses, yet when I wanted to take a course at the local Vo-tech I was told I was too smart. by taking what I wanted after high school and working my way up at the company I have been working at since high school, I am now an Equipment mechanic (and farmer). Granted I don't work on what I would prefer ( I work on large ovens in food production environments, instead of farm machinery), at least I get to turn a wrench. People forget that there is still a need for an educated plumber, electrician, carpenter… They can be the ones who come up with some of the most creative solutions to real world problems.

    While I didn't go to the most rigorous college like many of my peers (including my wife), I still feel as though this course is the best for me… a well paying job without college debt that allowed me to purchase a farm with very little debt. Most of our college friends are either working in retail, fast food or call centers right now.

    Just a different perspective…

    • THIS!

      I wanted to learn how to work on a car, get some basic repair skills, etc. while I was in high school, but because I was taking AP and honors classes, I was told I was too "smart" for those classes. And my parents backed the school – "you can learn that at home". Only I didn't.

      Even the "smart" kids should learn how to change their oil and use tools!

    • I also found that being in the advanced English classes often left me missing some basics that hurt me in college. Sure, I read Native Son and Slaughterhouse Five (two of my favorite novels to this day), but I've never read Canterbury Tales or Moby Dick. I miss out on a lot of allegory, humor and cultural references because there are so many key books in our canon that I didn't get exposed to. Who's to say that Moby Dick is less advanced than Slaughterhouse Five or that people who don't test into an advanced lit class somehow can't handle the violence in Native Son? It's all so arbitrary. I think in my school it has more to do with the assumption that advanced students have parents who are less likely to complain that their children are reading a book where the protagonist is a murderer or an anti-war veteran.

  7. I know many people dislike the concept of tracking in schools but, when I was in high school, I was truly grateful for it. Being placed in honors classes meant that I finally got to participate freely in class without fear of eye-rolling bullies who perpetually had it out for any kid who "ruined the grading curve." After years of being afraid to raise my hand, lest I incur the wrath of the students who didn't care about learning, I could actually engage my teacher and fellow students in an intelligent conversation about our assigned reading…which, for a change, everyone had actually *done*.

    • I think tracking is not so great for all the kids who are deemed not smart enough and don't have potential. My mom teaches very low level freshmen english. So the lowest "track". They're all about 1st or 2nd grade reading level!!! And even though she's a really good teacher, the classes are not the best environment for these students. She has huge class sizes and what she mostly has to deal with is discipline problems. I think what happens in tracking (at least how my mom explained it to me) is that these same kids keep getting put in the same classes where the teachers are overwhelmed by it and all, and so these kids never really get a chance to learn, because many of the teachers are just trying to get them to be quiet and sit still without breaking out in fights.

      But, I totally get what you're saying! I remember when I asked to be put in honors classes (my test scores said honors but my grades and laziness said mediocrity) and I was like, "Finally! People care about learning!!!" But then I got out of most of those classes after a year, because all the students were very rich and white (I was/am neither of those things) and I just ended up hating them all and how the teachers treated them like they were just the most brilliant students in the world. But that was just my personal experience.

  8. Maybe I missed the point here, but: You seem to be railing against tracking, while acknowledging that homeschooling basically lets you have a "track" of one and that it's still up to the capabilities and work ethic of the kid. You said that you chose to take a lower track in high school, and explained to your kids that if they didn't learn X then paths would close to them.

    • Homeschooling is more customized than "a track of one".

      The homeschool parent has choices about how to homeschool. State laws vary about how much freedom there is. (A few years ago Maryland forced homeschoolers to teach the same subjects in the same grades and the same basic content as public schoolers. I don't know if it is still like that. I would have been unable to do the Middle Ages in a year as they wanted US History instead.)

      Once the state issues are out of the way the parent can decide HOW and what to teach.

      **If they want** to do such a thing.

      I did want that freedom. I teach my kids "where they are at" and progress forward with their learning with goals for each subject. Their abilties vary and they have different natural talents. Thus my kids may be 2 years ahead in math but "behind" in spelling and learning more topics in history than the kids in school in that grade.

      Not every homeschooler uses the freedom at their disposal though. Some just buy a curriculum for grade 5 and teach whatever they laid out for that year. In that case they are indeed "teaching to a track of one".

      If anyone is curious about "after-schooling" or homeschooling with a rigorous education check out the book The Well Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer.

      I was also very inspired by the writings of Marva Collins about seeking educational rigor and excellence after she was digusted by the low expectations placed upon minority public school students in Chicago. I found her writings truly inspiring.

  9. Ok. So when your kids grow up and meet people who received great educations in schools with none of the tracking you're talking about, what will you say?

    Or when they meet people like me and most of the people I work with who are (for the most part) cashiers who have college degrees?

    I really really believe in homeschooling and equality in education, but I feel like your story is sort of… off. It seems to present an oversimplified and unrealistic view of traditional schooling.

    • I'll tell them that these people were lucky to have a great education/public school experience, like Auntie Stacey. I'll tell them there are great teachers, like their Grandmother. I'll tell them not everyone is as lucky, and I wanted the best education for them that I could provide.

      When they see cashiers with college degrees, they won't be surprised, because their mother was one as well. They'll know that a college degree is an open door, but not a guarantee of future earning power. They'll know we live in tough economic times, because their father and I talk about these things. We don't live in a vacuum.

  10. Is it just me or do any posts that have to do with nontraditional educational choices attract a lot of folks' ire? I'm public-educated but also very open to all school choices for my kids. And certainly I am open to all school choices for OTHER people's kids, since each family has to make the best decision they can for their family.

    I just think that we should be able to have discussions without so many people getting upset that a nontraditional viewpoint is being discussed. After all… aren't all of us a little nontraditional, in one way or another?

    • I am not against nontraditional schooling. It is simply just the way she made it seem. Yes she stated that in SOME PARTS of the United States but regardless of how bad tracking is. The way she explained it to her kids made it seem like, ok the school system is going to screw you over and instead of trying to change it or even adding my home schooling after school and on weekends I want nothing to do with the public school system and it's ways.
      She didnt state that even though she doesnt agree with the school system that many famoous and successful people have accomplished many things going through the very system she has such disdain for.
      Or at least that's how she is making it seem in her post.

      • Hey guys! I've emailed Christine to let her know there are some questions being raised. Let's give her a chance to respond before discussing what does and doesn't seem to be in the post — it's all about perspective, you know?

      • There are so many questions and things I want to comment on so here are various thoughts:

        Before I began homeschooling I read many books to learn from. I read about alternative education methods and saw how much thought went into developing the pedagogy behind the school's programs (i.e. Montessori, Waldorf etc.).

        I tried reading of the philosophy behind American public school education but there is not one thing unless you read John Taylor Gatto's huge book and choose to believe it. (The Underground History… that he wrote.)

        I then read about education reform which was written by teachers and school administrators who were on the inside trying to change it. The earliest writing I found was from 1905 begging for a reform of a bad system. I couldn't believe either that an ed reform movement was underway when I myself was in school. As a student I had no clue that anyone was trying to change it and saw it as flawed. Who knew?

        Some recent documentaries have been released that have current statistics.

        Have you seen:

        Waiting for Superman
        Race to Nowhere
        The Lottery

        John Stossel did a show a few years ago called "Stupid in America". Last weekend he did another show focusing on this topic.

        I have seen lectures on CSPAN's BookTV by Charles Murray author of "Real Education" and many others. The info shared was sobering and scary.

        Knowing all that and how the good intentions of people on the inside have failed to make change led me to believe that anything I did as a mother of a child in school would be futile.

        A mom friend of mine who has used public, private and homeschool for her kids has been on the Board of Ed for a few years trying to change to help the terrible reading and math scores and to make the program more rigorous (and that is a wealthy Connecticut town where census data shows most parents have a bachelors degree, many have a master's and some have other degrees MD etc). She has found the greatest resistance is from the administrators and teachers themselves.

        I have heard horror stories from my friends who have kids in "very good" highly ranked public schools.

        To respond to the statement about some people being successful or famous after going through public school, what can I say? The system has failed some and some got through it and some did well with it.

        Various scores are on the decline in America. Educational reform people on the inside say rigor has decreased since I graduated in the 1980s. America is going down in the world rankings, other countries' students are outpacing us with their learning. I find that scary.

        What was right for our family so far has been to homeschool. Who knows if we will be able to continue that and for how long. I'm just trying to do what I think is right and best for my kids.

        Elsewhere on my blog I have made the statement that I don't expect everyone to homeschool. I write of my experience and why I do it, that is all. If someone wants to read of my experience and my opinions they can, if they don't want to hear it, they don't need to read it. If someone wants support and encouragement to homeschool I am happy to give it. (I used to be a homeschool support group leader.)

        I want the best for all kids really which is why I have ideals and standards. I don't think I myself can change the public school sytem but I do have control over my own kids so I'm doing what I think is right for them.

        (When I was in my mid 20's I was elected to town council and was put on the education committee. I learned a lot there about financing and politics in the school and some insider knowledge that made me realize it was a "machine" that one person could not change.)

        Something not mentioned in my piece was that one of my sons was diagnosed with learning disabilities so homeschooling allows customization to try to help him have learning success despite his challenges and to try to boost up his weaknesses not just play to his strengths.

        I am an idealistic person and it kills me not to see every kid getting access to a great education or to see a kid with an LD struggling and not getting the help they need. I wish I could just wave a magic wand and have everyone have some ultimate great experience but it is not possible. Even discussing what a "great education" is is subject to debate.

        Meanwhile I have my two kids to raise and I need to focus on parenting them which right now also includes homeschooling them. I can't fix America's education system or the world's. I'm just not that powerful.

    • I don't see people getting unnecessarily upset, simply having a respectful debate. We don't all have to agree with each other in order to respect each other. I disagree with the author, but that doesn't mean I am angry or threatened, nor do I feel that the discussion has gotten somehow out of hand.

  11. Ah, I'm jealous. I wish I could homeschool my kids–I really admire the creativity and personalization you can bring to your children's education! But homeschooling is not an option for me right now, as it is not an option for many parents in this country.

    When I read perspectives from homeschooling advocates, I immediately get defensive and protective of public schools, even though I have taught in large, urban public schools and know some of their downfalls. (Many of these arguments are paired with anti-teacher sentiment, which really hurts me as a professional.)

    And while I applaud parents who have the resources to be able to provide such an education for their children, I know that this is not a possibility for an overwhelming majority of parents. I firmly believe that a quality public school system is an essential component to a democratic society. I worry that singing the praises of homeschooling (and demonizing public education) prevents us as a society from investing in the education system that should be designed to build a stronger, more equal society. Yes, there are serious problems with our current public education system; however, we need to remember how essential it is, and we need to truly strengthen it and renew its purpose.

    • Thank you so much for reminding us that free, public education is crucial to democracy! I teach at an urban, public school and struggle with exposing my students to creative, intellectually challenging experiences while still teaching basic skills. All of my students are English Language Learners, many come from low income families, and few have support at home. Finding a balance between student choice and self-driven learning and the bare essentials of reading and writing (I teach English) is a daily struggle. Now that "tracking" is discouraged, I have students reading at a 3rd grade level and students reading at an 11th grade level all in the same 8th grade class. No, not all students are reading the same books in the literature circles, but they are all quality texts that my students self-selected from my collection.

      Not to go off on a rant here, but given that we NEED public education in order to ensure all young people equal access to our democracy, how can we use this discussion to effect change within the system? My daughter will go to public school, but I will do everything I can to work with her school and her teachers to make sure she is receiving a quality education.

    • Thanks for adding this argument to the discourse. It is a new argument for me – and a valid one, I think. If we want people to have equal chances, there should be some sort of public system.

  12. As someone who has lived in "low income" areas by choice most of her life, it makes me sad how many people downgrade public schools. States put out statistics about public schools, but you really need to get the opinions of teachers, and parents who actually attend/work at these schools. The elementary school two blocks from my first apartment was old and run down. Sadly according to the city it was sub par, and poor quality because of the type of people who went there. But if you asked parents in the area, they loved the school. The teachers worked harder and were more dedicated to their students. The school had more after school programs than my nephews top quality elementary (read- all white, suburban). Statistics are one thing, but actual testimony is another.

    • The problem with parents' "testimony" is that parents' have a psychological stake in the belief that THEIR particular child is in a "good" school, with a "good" teacher. The majority of parents at EVERY school in the country believe their child's school is better than average. For every school to be better than average is mathematically impossible.

      In the interests of full disclosure, I am a former public school teacher who is on my fifth year of homeschooling my own children, and one of the reasons I do this is that the public schools in this area are awful, in terms of graduation rates, MEAP scores, teacher retention, crime/violence/gangs/drugs and teen pregnancy. Another reason is that the local good quality private schools are unaffordable to us – it would cost us more than I made working for my children to attend there. Homeschooling is cheaper.

      Xa Lynn

  13. I saw someone here suggest that a parent could simply 'add homeschooling after school and on weekends' to supplement their child's education. Are you serious? Do you really think it's fair or necessary to force a child through five full school days a week and then expect them to spend the little precious downtime they have on nights and weekends 'homeschooling'? I find this unrealistic, if not ridiculous. If you want your kids to hate schooling, then sure, make them spend 96% of their time doing it… Otherwise I would advise against this idea.

    Many of the comments here seem to come from those whose feelings are hurt by the suggestion of public school's failure to educate children properly, but you shouldn't take it personally. The education system in America is reprehensibly poor, and needs to be completely reconstructed or at the very least, reformatted. I'm not sure why anyone thinks that homeschooling makes it difficult to get into colleges for some reason, this isn't true by any means, and your 'what will you tell your children when they meet college grads who are lowly cashiers?' theory is not only a little insulting, but totally irrelevant to the conversation. No college or school program can guarantee anyone actual success, you just have to do your best to find your passion or talent, and risk the fact that your dreams might not 'come true' the minute you get that degree. You could very well end up working a minimum wage job with a masters degree under your belt regardless of whether you spent hours cramming for honors classes, or simply managed a great SAT score out of home school.

    Whatever your ideas about the author are, I think anyone who denies the failures of the American public school system is either very unaware, or is choosing to ignore reality. It's got nothing to do with vilifying schools, it's about holding the school system responsible for it's own issues. There are some great teachers and administrators out there trying their best to make the broken system work, but I think the question really is, are you okay with trusting your child's future to an institution that may or may not be capable of giving your child even the minimally required education that's been decided upon by some board? What if your child is perfectly bright, but has a learning disability? What if they require special attention, or don't fit into the cookie cutter ideal of a 'good student'? In the American public school system, these children will be labeled failures and the majority of schools will not want to waste their time working with them. The way the funding system works in America, schools need numbers. They need high test scores and impressive enrollment statistics, in order to stay open. Unless your kid is contributing to that directly, they don't care.

    • That first paragraph – Hear Hear! My mother did exactly that and I am sure it is what built our very turbulant relationship that has continued to this day (I am in my late 30s) AND caused me to almost drop out of school early (I didn't, and I am now a teacher)

    • I am the one who made the statement and no, I really don't see the issue wthadding work after school and weekends. My daughter is 4 and loves her Hooked on Phonics as well as any extra work books I add. She loves being able to look at a street sign and actually reading all the letters and learning how to spell words.
      Perfect example: We were watching Hunchback of Notre Dame and she said" mommy, how do you spell sanctuary? " I feel in that moment that I as a mother have proven my point.
      I am not saying that the school system is great by any means. Upon moving to Ga, I realized how bad the system really is for many because the majority of the students I see coming out of school don't see the basics. What I am saying is if you don't have the resources to put them in private school/alt school, taje it upon yourself to fill in the gaps. My mom saw I struggled in statistics and geometry as a kid, she broke it down using salt and pepper shakers to help me. If you see your child has a learning disability, do what is best for the child. If you see taking them out the best choice do so. But don't make the school system seem worthless because many people still use the system you are down grading and building themselves up.

    • I think it depends on how you do it. If you have a structured class with specific goals, etc. yes it probably WILL backfire. If, however, you choose more of an "unschooling" approach – gear the material to your child's interest – you can be REALLY successful.

      I loved to read as a child. My mother rarely restricted my reading (the only thing I was not allowed to read was "Cosmo"). I read Faulkner, O'Henry, and others. I would even read nursing school books. If my mother had forced me to only read what I was "supposed" to read, I would have begun to hate reading.

      My oldest brother loves art. He got books on art, art classes, and materials for art. My middle brother loves computers and math. He got workbooks on advanced math, access to a computer, etc. My youngest brother loves airplanes. He got books on airplanes, models, etc. We were constantly learning, and we loved it.

      All our parents had to do was make sure we had access to the information, then get out of our way.

      We all went to traditional schools – but we were able to follow our interests at home. You really can have the best of both – although it can be difficult. And to this day we still love to learn, even if it's not in a classroom setting.

      • The way my mom did it was definitely unschooling. She let me learn everything that I had desires for as long as my religion followed hers. (That's a whole other story)
        I do the same for my daughter whatever she wants to learn I teach her, for her age.
        Yes, it is hard work but our children are the future of the world. If we dont put the effort into them, who will?

    • Supplementing your child's education out of school does not have to mean formal classes and hours of extra study. My children are "educated" by me through discussion and practical application of skills I believe they need that the education system is unable to provide. They are encouraged to read solid literature, to speak and write with proper grammar. Do they resent me for this? Maybe sometimes but it's my job to ensure they are correctly prepared for adult life. Public school is a part of their education (as private school has been in the early years) but not the end all. Supplementing and supporting that system is what is right for my family.

  14. While I did attend public school, and we did have two levels of English courses (high was optional, but you could take it in addition to middle)-Middle and Lower, both courses read Lord of the Flies. The only difference was the work expected from the classes was on a different level.

  15. And please, I do not mean to say that the teachers in these schools don't care, I mean to say that the boards deciding funding and curriculum etc. don't care. I have attended public, private, and Charter schools during my K-12 education. I was also home schooled on and off for several years throughout that time. My mother was chronically ill, or I'm sure she probably would have chosen to keep us at home full time. In school, I was diagnosed with two learning disabilities, but still managed to excel in most of my classes. My biggest issue was that I was outspoken. In my honors classes, when I wrote a letter to the school board about a frustration with the curriculum, I was threatened by teachers who told me that I didn't know enough to criticize it and needed to be quiet or my grades would suffer. I could honestly rattle off endless accounts of when I was belittled and disrespected by representatives of the school system, or when it totally failed to educate or keep it's promises, but it would take me hours. My point is that public education is a massively important part of our economy, of our culture in it's entirety even, but it is severely lacking here in America and has for the last fifteen years or so, been failing to do it's job. Parents who want to change the system need to really, truly stand up to it, and if you believe in public education for all, then you need to think about what you can do to improve the public education system for EVERYONE, not just your own offspring.

  16. If everyone with the energy and skill to change the system opts out of the system… well then it will never get any better.

    • True, but you could also apply that argument to a lot of other social justice issues. Why bother packing healthy lunches for your kid when you could advocate for healthy school lunches for all? Why pull out of the boy scouts when you can work on making your troop a more accepting place?

      Pulling out of the system and advocating for change aren't diametrically opposed. You can do both. There's also no shame in looking at your own family's time, skills, and needs and deciding that opting out is the best solution for your family at that time.

    • I refuse to support the continuation of a broken system by staying in it, or allowing my children to stay in it. I don't have the time or talent to fix something that broken, but I CAN keep it from hurting my own children. And so I am.

      Xa Lynn

  17. To anyone interested in learning a somewhat different, but equally thought-provoking, perspective on schools and education, I highly recommend "Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling" by John Taylor Gatto.

    I was really surprised to read that most schools consider "Lord of the Flies" to be high school Honors reading.I went to a pretty mediocre private K-8 school, and we read it in 7th grade.

    I was really confused when I got to the part of this article where ChristineMM seems to tell her children that she is also using the "tracking" philosophy on them, that if they don't learn stuff "on track" then they won't be able to get ____ degree and ____ job. This seems to support the very public school philosophies that she's trying to tell her kids she disagrees with. Forgive me if I'm wrong here–that's just how I interpreted it.

    As someone who doesn't have kids yet, I theoretically very much want to home school or free/Sudbury school my future children, but I also realize that my own situation at that time, and the particulars of my children's interests and personalities, may alter my plans. My personal schooling history will probably make it VERY difficult for me to deal with "regular" school for my children, but deal with it I will if need be.

    I find it so unfortunate that many people so strongly equate higher education degrees with lifelong success. I find this a particularly outdated notion. I know a large number of people with 4-year degrees, or even Master's, and not a single one of them has a better job than most of my non-degreed friends–although one of them is paid better per hour, for doing the exact same job as his coworkers who don't have degrees.

    • It is true though, that certain degrees are required to do certain jobs.

      In some cases an alternative education with something one feels is ideal is going to close doors to the kids. In our family we take the desires of the kids into serious account in order to determine how they are educated. I want my kids to pursue their dreams. I don't want to homeschool them in some way I determined but then they find they cannot do what they wanted to do with their future due to something *I did to them*.

      One of my kids wants to be an engineer. He must learn X, Y, and Z topics in order to gain admissions to a college to seek an engineering degree. He has to earn certain grades and pass multiple standardized tests with certain grades just to get into an engineering school. The degree is required to do that job. Period. Same goes for some other professions with laws behind them i.e. attorneys and doctors.

      The other issue of having a college degree from certain prestigious schools opening doors is another issue entirely. Sadly it is also very real at least in some circumstances. My husband was questioned about why he chose the college he did for his bachelor's and why didn't he go to a bigger name college? This was said in interviews. He thought the college was a good choice for what he wanted but he had doors closed. Disappointing to say the least.

      I also saw favoritism in my career (before I left to be an at-home mom). The company I worked for had two colleges they favored for the undergrad and MBAs for certain positions (not all were management jobs). I wonder why people do those things, why do some people have such favoritism? I am a person who has not been in that good place to have the "right college" and I don't like the minsdet so I can't relate and continue to be confused by it.

      • Christine, thanks so much for taking the time to reply to individuals' comments. I read your reply earlier in the thread, expanding on your views about "tracking," in addition to your reply above, and I think I understand your perpective a little better now.

        I'm well aware that, if you want to be a doctor, you need to go to college for it! Depending on the particular career/degree, I do understand the reasons why we have this system.

        That said, as a child of parents who either never went to college, or only attended for a couple years, who both ended up doing well in their chosen careers (my dad is a chemical engineer and founder/president of a very successful company, and my mom was a legal secretary who worked in some very prestigious positions)–and as someone who chose not to pursue a degree after attending university, I guess I've just never understood the supposed inherent value of having a degree (assuming it's not absolutely required for your field), other than that you've demonstrated a higher tolerance for beaurocracy. Maybe it's helpful if your prior school experience has stifled your motivation to learn independently?

  18. I'm pregnant with our first, and I think at some point there will need to be a conversation about education with our daughter. I can't say for sure what route we will choose, but what I do know is that whatever she chooses with her career- college or not, we'll support her.

    I know that your intentions were so that your children could best understand your reasoning behind homeschooling- however, to say that someone who chooses a vocational school is someone who had no other option because of their education level gives me pause. I went to a private middle school and high school, presumably because my parents thought that was best for my education. I graduated with honors. I could have gone to 4 year college, but I didn't. I went to culinary school (a vocational school) instead, because that's what I wanted (and currently do) with my life. My husband is a self taught graphic designer, successful in owning his own business. He also could have chosen to go to a 4 year school for it, but didn't.
    I think that while your intentions were good, and I understand what you were trying to get across- it's not something that remains true. People that choose vocational schools, or no school at all- can be very successful. I'm sure you will support your children with whatever they choose, but it would make me sad if someone made my daughter think that 4 year college is the only option for children who are smart.

    • My older son wants to be an engineer so I am gearing his education toward that goal. I am trying to help my son seek his dreams. He does not, at this time, want a job that could be accessed via a vocational school education. Would anyone argue that helping my child seek his dreams is bad?

      I am glad that you sought your dream, which included a culinary school education.

      Long story short I was unable to go to the college I wanted due to my father's refusal to pay for it so at the last minute I went to a different college for a different degree. I quit college to attend a vocational school and did that job for a number of years before finding out my options for income and job options were very limited without a bachelor's degree. I had to go back to college as an adult non-traditional school to have more doors opened to me. Thus I want my kids to do what they want and to have doors opened, whatever that may be for them.

      I wish all people could seek their dream career, whatever that is.

      In no way am I putting down anyone who uses vocational school. I come from a lower middle class family of blue collar workers. My grandparents all were poverty level people doing service work or factory work who had hard lives struggling to get by hand to mouth. They lived through very hard times, this was all before the days of welfare so there was no kind of "helping hand" to ease their suffering.

      I don't care what my kids do for work but hope they don't live hand to mouth and have a life of anxiety over money or get stuck working jobs they hate. I hope they find a career they love as my husband has (although we have had employment struggles due to the economy so our lives are not perfect by any means).

      • My husband is an engineer. He went to a vocational school. I on the other hand went to private school, took honors courses, got great grades, but never finished college and have no degree. Each situation is different, and college isn't for everyone.

  19. I agree with Scout. I followed the "honors" track in high school, graduated with a near perfect GPA, and then after attending a very prestigious university for a year and doing very well (dean's list both semesters) I decided it wasn't for me. I left to attend a two year college so that I could become a veterinary technician and do what I feel passionately about. Two year colleges and vocational schools are not just for those who some may deem "not smart enough," but they are a great option for those who have specific career goal in mind. I loved the classes I took to earn my two year degree. They were challenging and interesting to me. People who choose vocational schools are often just as successful and happy as those who pursue other methods of education.

  20. If you want to talk about being honest with your kids, I think the real important thing to talk to them is why you're able to homeschool. For the majority of families in the US, homeschooling is not a financially viable choice. I've interacted with a lot of families who don't seem to recognize that its their privilege that allows them to homeschool. I've talked to a lot of parents and children who seem to think that they're parents love them more, or care more about their education, because they don't realize that its not possible for everyone to do.
    In some ways, I would argue that homeschooling is just as invested as "tracking" as public schools. After all, parents who choose to homeschool are putting their kids on special track to get them out of public or private schools. If the goal of our country is to educate our children and raise contributing members of society, then isn't homeschooling leaving a lot of this kids in the dust? I understand that all parents have to make their own choices regarding their child's education, but as members of society shouldn't our goal be education for all children?
    At a certain point, all of the families with the resources and time needed to pursue education reform and alternative education will abandon the system and leave the majority of students behind. If you have the time to homeschool, don't you have the time to work for true, lasting change in schools?

    • It doesn't take a 6 figure income to homeschool. It isn't a privilege. It's a choice. It takes a willingness to live without cable, gym memberships, new clothes, new cars, new toys, dining out, trips to the movie theater, etc., etc,. and a willingness to shop resale, buy in bulk, cook from scratch, borrow books and movies from the library, reload your own ammo, and make your toys from leaf piles and sticks in the 10×10 foot space in front of the apartment. Just ask my kids. Anyone who thinks most homeschoolers are rich hasn't spent any time with them.

      Additionally, I'm raising well-educated, involved citizens of this nation – ones' who know its history, how its government is supposed to work, how it actually works, and how they can work to change what they don't like.

      As a member of this society, my goal IS education for all its children. But I do not agree that a public school education as it is currently practiced actually qualifies. The system does not reliably turn out self-aware, responsible, self-disciplined, compassionate citizens. I cannot change a monolithic broken system. I can keep it from hurting my children. It is my duty to do so. Eventually, there will be enough citizens not participating in the current system that it will be forced to change. That is the only way left to effect true, lasting change in schools.

      Xa Lynn

      • Honestly, this kind of comment is what I come to Offbeat Mama to avoid. All those things you do to afford to live on one income? I do them so I can afford to live on TWO. Please do not make the offensive suggestion that were I simply not so greedy for the good life, I could homeschool my kids.

        • Laura, it seems to me that you're the one who brought up privilege and financial security in terms of families who homeschool. It seems a bit strange to attack this woman for sharing her personal experience, which was in response to your comment generalizing homeschoolers as being privileged.

        • Yeah, so we homeschool due to my son's terrible 9 years in the public system and this was our last option before he just quit. It turned out awesome and two years later we love it! But I'm here to tell you that we do NOT make many financial sacrifices to do it and we're homeschooling a high schooler. Our yearly costs so far add up to $56.34. I anticipate adding two more books for the next semester, but there's no way I'm spending another $50 for them. I buy used textbooks from Amazon.com and other used book retailers, often college texts that are a season or two out of date. We use our public library extensively. There is a LOT out there on the web, including FREE courses you can use with (and supplement) at home through open-access programs like the Chemistry we're using at MIT.edu. Our main privilege and way we can do this is that I work mostly from home. I recognize this and I'm here to help my son when he needs it. But honestly, that is not a requirement for a high schooler as they are great independent workers at this age if you let them. Point it, NO it does not take a lot of money to homeschool. If you want it to cost thousands, you certainly can spend that money easily, but it doesn't have to be that way.

          (What chaps my hide is that I'd love to use Typing of the Dead for Keyboarding practice but for the PC it's INSANELY expensive.)

  21. Nice article! You could also talk to your kids about how the educational system (both the people in it and the distribution of resources) often affirm racism and classcism. For example, the public high school I attended my senior year had a strict track system. More than 1/3 of the students were black, but there wasn't a single black student in any of the AP or honors courses. These discussions about homeschooling may be a good opportunity to discuss privilege and institutionalized racism with your children.

    Btw, I was both homeschooled and attended public school so I know how heated/difficult conversations about education can get. Personal parenting discussions like this make me wish there was a word or short phrase meaning, "I wouldn't make that choice, but it's not intrinsically bad and you're doing what's best for your family so rock on with your bad self." Kudos for handling a difficult question with grace.

  22. My fiance has asked me to tell our story and why we have chosen to homeschool. He (and I) are both from expat families and lived overseas until we were junior high age. We then returned to the states and were enrolled in public schools.

    He spent his early school years enrolled in a wonderful private 'American School' where competition and love of learning were encouraged. They had access to the best teachers, computers and libraries money could buy. He was encouraged to learn, explore and excel.

    I lived in a very poor third-world country without a free education system. My classmates were from large families whose parents worked very hard, sacrificed and saved to be able to afford to send one or two children to school in the hopes that that child would have all the opportunities they never had, and an easier, longer life.
    My classmates were bright, intelligent, studious and hard working. The culture of competition was intense. We all strove to be the best, the brightest, the hardest working. We were self-directed, and with an intense love of learning. We had large classes(50 children) few books and no computers. Our education was stellar.

    When my partner and I were enrolled in American schools in the 1990's we experienced a massive culture shock. The school culture was so very different. Asking questions in class and in depth discussions of a topic were discouraged because it slowed down the coverage of legally required topics. If you raised your hand to answer to many questions we were told to put our hands down and 'give someone else a chance,' even though no one else's hands were raised. Learning disabled kids were kept away for half the school day or more, and virtually ignored when they were in regular classes. ESL kids received no extra help. The only way for a kid to get extra attention was to act out, sometimes violently. I have witnessed teenagers stab one another during class, throw desks, and hurl disgusting insults at hardworking teachers. There's no respect for learning.

    I have always been an avid reader, but other students often expressed shock that I would read voluntarily. It was a culture of anti-learning, where students bragged about having never voluntarily read a book.

    I'm not saying this to bash teachers, because my mother is a wonderful public school teacher who stays until 7pm each night helping as many children as she can manage their workload. As are my aunts, cousins and sister. But they are not silent about what a hard job they have trying to educate despite a broken system.

    We want our children to have a lifelong love of learning. We want our children to seek answers, solve problems, be creative. We want to give them every opportunity to succeed. We're not wealthy. We live on one income and freelancing because it's better for our family. We sacrifice a lot of luxuries to be able to ensure that when our children are ready for school we'll be the ones to teach them.

    I recognize that it's not possible for everyone, and that we have some advantages. But we've seen the worst case scenario and we have to do what's right for us.

    We want our children to attend college if that's what they want, but we know it's not the end all. My partner has his dream job, because he's brilliant and hard working, even though he hasn't completed his degree. I have a degree, and like many of my friends, wasn't able to find work doing what I wanted, and spent many years working menial jobs.

    My partner is an airline pilot, and endures a tough schedule, but when he's home he is able to be actively involved in their education. We can balance each other's skills. I can teach literature, he can teach math. Instead of just talking about China, or ancient Rome, or the battle of Gettysburg, we can take our children there. We wouldn't be able to do these things if they were enrolled in a school, because their schedule would be determined by the school.

  23. I just wanted to comment here, as someone who has seen both sides. I was homeschooled K-12, and LOVED it. It was by far the best experience I could possibly have, and I have a first-rate education that I doubt I would have gotten any other way. I don't think I would have been happy at a "regular" school; and I also think it's possible other kids have a good experience there, whether homeschooling works or not can be a very personal thing.

    On the other hand, as a teacher, I understand how incredibly difficult it is to tailor a curriculum to the individual student, while meeting expectations from parents, supervisors, and legislators. I teach at a school that is "tracked" and I find that there are definite advantages; that said, I have always recommended that motivated students be moved up. I do feel badly that not every student is given the opportunity to take AP classes, etc., even if they want to. But I also know how difficult it is drag a roomful of students through a book that they simply can't read — whether because they don't want to, can't read at that level, or whatever reason. When you have over 150 students, with 45 minutes a day to prep/call parents/manage all the other classroom business (including tutoring), when you teach up to 4 different preps and 5 classes in a day, when you are creating your materials, grading, managing a website, keeping up to date with students' issues and learning disabilities . . . there is a limit to what can be achieved in that atmosphere. I think it is unreasonable to ever anticipate that schools will be able to totally individualize instruction.

  24. Hey guys! I think this one has pretty much talked itself out. Thanks for all of your input — discussion like this is one of the best parts about the Empire — but I think we're good here.

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