I’ve been a private tutor in New York City for the past five years, and in that time I have worked extensively with eight different homeschoolers and had contact with a number of others. Some of these families are providing their children with absolutely magnificent educations. Others are doing a very poor job of it. I’ve given a great deal of thought to the characteristics that set successful homeschooling families apart from unsuccessful ones, and I believe I have some useful ideas for helping families determine whether or not they ought to take the plunge. Of course there are both academic and non-academic considerations to take into account with education, but my topic here is to primarily discuss the academic issues.
My first question for any parents considering homeschooling is: Why? There are many possible answers to this question, but I think most of the time, the answers fall into one of three categories. First, there are families who simply feel that they can provide their child with a better education than they could get in any available school. Next, there are families who find themselves in a difficult situation, and homeschooling seems like it might provide a solution (although it was never a first choice). Finally, there are families with children who work (usually as actors) and who can’t reasonably go to regular school, too.
All of these categories contain both successful and unsuccessful homeschooling families, although the most common the pitfalls seem to be different. Among families who want to try homeschooling because they believe they can provide a truly superior education, I’ve noticed one major downfall- parents who assume that their interests form the core of a good education. For example, I had a friend in college who was rather bitter about the fact that her parent’s (both math majors from Harvard) version of homeschooling led her to be rather competent at beginning calculus by the age of 11, but sadly unable to write more than a simple sentence or two until she entered public school in the 6th grade.
On the other hand, I now have a homeschooling student whose parents know they can’t do math or science justice- that’s why they’ve hired me and it’s why they make a great effort to make sure a variety of adults who are fluent in math and science contribute to her education. That child is getting a great education in the humanities from her parents and a great education in math and science from me and other people.
Unfortunately, no one is fully competent in every subject that a child should be exposed to, especially as they get older and material gets more complicated. Have you thought about how you will address all of the subjects that your child should be studying, and not just the ones that are your own personal favorites? Have you considered what the implications are of potentially passing on your own academic weaknesses or prejudices to your child? Do you have a plan to avoid, or at least ameliorate, this potential pitfall?
In my experience, families who consider homeschooling because of a difficult situation are perhaps the most diverse group. These are also some of the families who have the most trouble making homeschooling work, for the simple reason that they are already under some sort of intense stress, which makes everything more difficult. The questions I would pose to these families are: Why do you think homeschooling will improve your situation? Do you realistically have the time and energy to devote to this important project? I have seen families who were forced into homeschooling make it work very well and I have also seen homeschooling degenerate into something quite awful.
My favorite example of a family that was forced into homeschooling by circumstance but made it work well for them is a family consisting of an aunt and uncle who adopted their very troubled and severely school-phobic nephew. By the time they adopted their nephew, he had already learned to associate school with failure and responded to it with a mixture of indifference and aggression. It was bad enough when he was a prepubecent child, but as he entered adolescence the situation became absolutely untenable. For this student, homeschooling has been a wonderful second chance that has allowed him to begin learning without having to carry the baggage from his previous failures around. He has made enormous progress in the years since I began working with him. I truly believe that he could not have made this amount of progress in any other environment.
On the other hand, I once participated in the homeschooling of a boy whose mother was terminally ill. The situation was even worse than you might think because she was on medication that made her quite literally and dramatically insane. The poor woman had many frightening hallucinations and became so fearful that she sometimes didn’t allow her son to leave their apartment for stretches of several days. Although homeschooling by a team of professional educators allowed him to more or less keep up academically, the emotional cost of being isolated from his friends and the outside world while he was trying to deal with his mother’s illness made a terrible situation even worse. I truly believe that it would have been better for him to go to school. Even if he had failed every subject, just getting outside of the house and seeing his peers would have been an improvement.
Finally, there are families with a professional child. In these situations, the relevant questions aren’t so much about homeschooling, they’re really about the child’s career. Can this individual child handle a career? Is the desire for a career truly coming from the child? If the career doesn’t carry over into adulthood, will he or she have the skills necessary to make a life in another way? I’ve only known one professional child personally, and she was a charming 8th grade girl who truly loved acting. I homeschooled her while she was performing in an off-Broadway play. She was quite driven to succeed in all aspects of her life, and she was able to do remarkably well in terms of keeping up with her academics as well as her career. I had a lot of admiration for the way she handled all aspects of her life. I also respected the fact that her parents supported her desire to pursue a career in acting, but they absolutely did not push her. Her situation was close to ideal. On the other hand, she told me some disturbing stories about other professional children that she knew who were essentially coerced into pursuing acting careers that they did not want for themselves. Obviously, that is a deeply unethical choice for parents to force on their child. Homeschooling is really beside the point.
In my experience, homeschooling families generally do pretty well (and often extremely well) when they enter into homeschooling with their child’s interests truly front and center. They often run into problems when homeschooling is more about the parents than the child. Ask yourself why and how you want to do this before you start. Be as honest as you can with your answers. The way you think about your child’s education will undoubtedly change over time, but if you keep those questions in mind, your chances of making the right choice for your family is quite good.
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