Monday, January 30, 2012

Nobody I met was raising chickens...

... but that didn’t stop Newsweek from suggesting, in the online subhed of my new article, that that is who today’s urban homeschoolers are. Okay, no biggie—many of them are kind of crafty. But their headline on the print magazine is another story:  “Are homeschoolers out of their minds?”

Literally another story, because I did not write that one. The editors wanted me to—I got some pushback that I was making urban homeschooling look like “just another choice,” rather than this outlet for crazy mothers who couldn’t bear to be away from their kids.  (I don’t read Newsweek much and had not realized that its prime directive these days is provocation.) Homeschooling isn’t for me, given that one of my favorite moments of the day is when John and Milo—I love you guys, sorry—leave for the morning and the house is quiet. And I do have concerns: that homeschooling parents may make false presumptions about public schools (and therefore their kids miss out on services they could benefit from), that there is something solipsistic about having your whole environment tailored (and sometimes smoothed) for you, that spending so much time around your mom makes you less independent in the early years than I like my own child to be.

But my thinking on such choices was molded largely by the time I spent with a teenager named Gaurav Thakur in 2004, for a Washington Post article. Gaurav was an introverted math whiz whose high school teachers didn’t have much to offer him, so he learned online from home. I went in to my reporting thinking “Weird” and left thinking “Why not?” You know, I am fine with people making their own educational choices for their kids—including this choice. Besides, just about every urban homeschooled student I met was a walking advertisement for Not Being Screwed Up And Perhaps Even Made More Interesting By Homeschooling. They did not lead isolated lives. And their days were pretty fun.


  1. "spending so much time around your mom makes you less independent in the early years."
    I'm curious why you think this is even a concern? As your statement implies, you understand it doesn't mean they'll NEVER be independent. Why the rush?

  2. You need to do more research. Many of us turn to home schooling because public school is simply not providing the services our kids need. Students in our district are subjected to 45 days of TESTING out of 180 days of school. The emphasis is on standards and test taking - NOT on learning.

  3. Anne—It was important to me from my son's infancy that be happy and comfortable with a variety of caregivers, including those he doesn't know, and that when faced with a new environment he participates happily from the get-go without needing me by his side. I know many parents who feel the same as me. I also know plenty, like Tera in the article, for whom that's not really important—they know their children will grow independent eventually.

    AspenPhoto—I have definitely done my research: I wrote an entire book about the pressures of standards and test-taking (called "Tested"). I refer to that in the graf that begins "Many parents are happy to sidestep environments..." though the reference to testing specifically was removed for space.

    1. Considering your son is preschool age and you cultivated (for the sake of argument of nurture over nature) this independence in him before preschool, I'm not sure how this concern applies to homeschooling. Any parent with that goal in mind could cultivate this trait in their child (again, siding with nurture over nature) before having to make the decision between public and home school.

  4. As a pediaician who gave up private practice to homeschool her children, I absolutely made presumptions about traditional brick and mortar schools. I was the product of one myself and I spent my days in private practice dealing with the problems that were created in them. I quickly decided that my children deserved a better experience, definitely one that I crafted carefully and consciously, with less exposure and independence than was typically "supposed" to happen. This translated into happy, well-adjusted children who could easily handle more independence earlier than their peers because of a strong, secure, early foundation with consistency, modeling, and mentoring. My oldest is now a sophomore in college studying molecular biology and never misses a chance to brag about his homeschooling/unschooling background. He is proud of the experiences he had and does not feel that he missed anything other than silly tests, drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, and a schedule imposed upon him by a school board that did not care about his individual needs. With my background in child development, I decided to write a book about homeschooling, Highlighting Homeschooling: Empowering Parents and Inspiring Children, in order to help spread the message that homeschooling is a superior choice to the traditional school model in America today.

    1. I support the view that homeschooling should be an option, because I agree that students and families need flexibility. I object heatedly to the notion that it's a "superior choice." If you disparage and weaken public education, that harms the students whose parents are unable to homeschool, which is just plain wrong, @Bethany. It also disparages students who attend public school. Homeschooling is undoubtedly a "superior choice" for some families, but it's wrong, factually and morally, to tout it as a "superior choice" overall. (Why morally? Because it's morally wrong to try to harm others, especially those less privileged than yourself.)

      I followed a homeschoolers' listserve for some time in preparation for writing an article several years ago, and one thing I noticed was a near-hysterical fear of public school -- and sometimes ANY school, even elite private. Since it seems many students start really wanting to go to school by high-school age, parents were panicking. As a public school parent, I was rolling my eyes at their exaggerated fears -- which, like @Bethany's comment, were also implicitly insulting to my kids, who were implicitly being viewed as a threat to their hothouse flowers.

      And sorry to be so harsh, @Bethany, but you did your son no favors socially in encouraging him to "never (miss) a chance to brag." In school, he might have learned some humility, modesty and consideration for others.

  5. Ms. Perlstein, you have a 3-year-old. I have an 11-year-old and 9-year-old and we spent a collective total of 7 years in the public school system before pulling them out to homeschool. You've spent how many years with a child in the public school system? I have to question which one of us is operating on false assumptions about the system.

    Doing research is worthy and I commend you for it. But it is completely different than watching firsthand what happens to YOUR child in the public school system.

  6. In no way is support of homeschooling an insult to the children that are trapped in the American educational system as it is today. @ Caroline, Rather it is an indictment of a system that has higher drop out rates than most developed countries, students that are 25th out of 30 other developed countries in math skills and has 70% of 8th graders not reading at grade level. America used to have the highest rate of college graduates (and still does in the above age 50 and category) but now in the 25-34 age range ranks behind: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. These are very concerning statistics and ones that show our current system does not work.

    I truly believe that the critics of homeschooling are no different than the critics of people that chose private school for their children. Maybe the critics are just defensive about their own choices. But people that pull their children out of public school for better opportunities are always under scrutiny for abandoning the system. But in reality, these are the very people that are trying the hardest to effect change. In my book, the last chapter is devoted to why homeschoolers especially are uniquely situated to be a public face on educational reform as there is no one closer to education than us on a day to day basis. We cared enough to sacrifice greatly to educate our children at our own expense to try to avoid some of the issues that are inherent in the traditional brick and mortar schools.

    @Caroline, you shouldn't assume I encouraged my son to brag about homeschooling. It is his choice to tell his story, not mine. He was so concerned about the lack of study skills and basic knowledge that he found in his fellow students that were products of a traditional educational system that he decided to volunteer as a tutor in the academic tutoring lab of his university, which he continues to do now about 10 hours a week. He since has been so successful in tutoring (as graded by fellow students) that he was asked by several of his teachers (Biology and Chemistry) to become a mentored study group leader for their classes. His first love is molecular biology, but a couple of months ago, he called and was asking my opinion of educational psychology as a minor, as he felt that his experiences were so far superior to that of his friends in high school. He started researching and was dismayed at the lack of research out there about homeschoolers(in general) and the application of self-determination theory(in particular) in schools especially, that he felt that maybe he could make a contribution in thise fields. (SDT in educational terms refers to allowing student choices to improve outcomes - in essence student-led education.) He commented to me that as an Eagle Scout, he had learned the importance of leadership, and now that he was in college and contemplating life on his own, he felt that he could be a leader in this area to help children today that are unmotivated and disenfranchised learn to love education and view it not as a task to be tolerated 5 days a week 180 days a year, but rather as a lifelong journey that contributes to the betterment of self and society. He even chose this subject as his thesis paper for his honors philosophy class. Now if this is not an example of consideration for others, I don't know what is.

    So in summary, homeschoolers as a whole (at least the ones I know) do not view their children as "better" or view other children as a "threat", they simply have realized that one size fits all does not serve anyone's best interest and have had the strength to stand up against the majority to do what is right for the child. And in my humble opinion, doing the best for each child is the superior choice.

  7. As a homeschooled child and one that does not regret the choices that have been made about my schooling, I feel that you did not make accurate assumptions about homeschooling. You talk about how homeschoolers might not socialize as much as schooled kids, might be more dependent on their mother, and how they make wrong assumptions about kids who go to public school. All of them are wrong. We socialize just as much as other kids, and do it with people of all ages and lifestyles, not just with 20 other kids who are within one or two years of my age. Most homeschoolers would actually have superior socialization for the reason of diversity. To give an example, here is something that happened in my life and similar situations happen like it on a daily basis: I had been going to my Shaolin Kempo dojo group classes for about three months, after class, I got into an engaging conversation with one of the students. When he asked me what age I was, he flipped out when he found out I was only twelve. He said almost everyone in the dojo thought I was 17 or so because of the level of maturity I showed and because of how I socialized.
    But then Homeschoolers are also not as dependent on their parents. Because of the attention we get and the life lessons we get out of the real day-to-day life of our parents, we get leadership skills and are more willing to go out into the world and take on life rather than wonder about how to deal with a life completely different from the 8 to 3 school lifestyle most kids are use to.
    Homeschoolers also do not make assumptions about public school kids, nor do we consider them "different" or "evil." In fact, I think it is the other way around. When somebody tells me they are in a brick-and-mortar school, I just brush over it and think of it as I would any other thing they would tell me. But then when I tell people I am homeschooled, they start acting like I am some type of alien or a demented person. I then get asked a lot of weird questions like "Does that mean you are a genius or an idiot?", "Do you socialize?", "Have you ever had a test?" Over the years, I have had to answers these questions over and over again and I get sick of having to listen and wonder why nobody thinks of the answers using PURE LOGIC.
    In short, I have never been to school, and the only school I ever have and ever will want to go to will be college. You see, homeschooling is not "an outlet for crazy mothers." But rather an outlet for people whose lifestyle causes them to either not want the one size fits all mentality for their kids, or whose schedule could not fit public school. My family just has the case of both, with me being an internationally ranked martial artist and a kid who would have gotten bored with the material taught to me in my "Proper" grade level. When I was 10, I took four 9th grade level courses online from a college and got all A's that year. So next time you talk about something like this, please do not make assumptions based on your opinions, but on fact from homeschoolers who will tell you the truth.

  8. Hi Amanda,
    I am not sure who the "who" is you are referring to, or whether you read the Newsweek article, but it made clear these kids were doing plenty of socializing, as you know. And while the cover headline was provocative, the article didn't make these mothers out to be crazy at all.

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  10. Caroline, I agree that students and families need flexibility. And when it comes to providing a great education, government should provide choice -- through public schools, charter schools, online schools, vouchers and support for homeschooling families -- rather than the bureaucratic, ineffective, one size fits all educational monopoly.

    Regarding your objection to calling homeschooling a “superior choice” because it disparages and weakens public education, let’s examine the facts.

    First, public schools across the country are already ranked from A to F. Here’s an example of the Florida school ranking

    In a related article Florida’s Governor said “It is critical that our students have access to world-class schools.”,0,239306.story

    Do you think the Governor is “wrong, factually and morally, to tout” world-class schools and his actions insult your kids and disparage students who attend lower performing schools?

    Similarly, US News and World Report ranks the “Best High Schools.” .

    In an article discussing the rankings, they even refer to poorly performing public schools at “droupout factories”. Do you believe this well-respected magazine that focuses on education is insulting your kids or disparaging students in public schools?

    If we can rank public schools, and recognize those that are superior than others, than why can’t we compare other educational choices to public schools?

    Second, US public schools do NOT provide a world-class education. Out of the top 34 OECD countries, US students were ranked 27th in math -- behind Slovenia, Poland, and Greece -- and 17th in science. As well, only 72% of public school students graduate on time and the US is third from last in the percent of 15 year olds enrolled in school, only above Mexico and Turkey. With statistics like these, it’s not hard for homeschooling to be superior to public schooling.

    world ranking

    graduation ranking

    enrollment data

    Finally, the definition of superior is “above the average in excellence, merit, or intelligence.” Homeschool students have higher test scores, higher college GPAs and higher college graduation rates than other students. By every measure, homeschooled students on average do better than students in public or private schools. Regardless of whether you find this offensive, this is the definition of superior.

    test scores

    college grades and graduation rates

    Homeschoolers succeed because of the involvement and dedication of their parents, the customized instruction that is tailored to the student’s learning style, and the focus on inquiry, learning and connections rather than memorization and test taking. And they do it for a lot less money then public schools spend. The Los Angeles Unified School District will spend $11.7 BILLION dollars (see page IB-10 of the report) for 820,187 students (top of page IA-10), or $14,265 per student.


    Homeschoolers spend a tiny fraction of that and have a far better outcome.

    I recognize that many families don’t have the ability homeschooling, but for those that may be considering it, homeschooling is a SUPERIOR CHOICE!

  11. Ms. Perlstein,

    Having been through the editorial process once, I understand how slight editing can change the overall effect of a piece. I would love to read your original draft.

    I would like to say that my fellow readers need to recognize that simply stating concerns (in this case the concerns of a psychologist who is not the author) is not an attack. These articles get the public thinking about the issue, take the opportunity to springboard a discussion about your own experiences.

    All in all I think you addressed the issues that most people express concern for in your article fairly. It made me really think more concretely about the option. My husband and I have been talking about it for sometime, but you inspired me to put it on paper. So thank you.

    I will not post all of my thoughts here, they are on my blog if you are interested.