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Pro-Choice Homeschooling

I noticed a somewhat inflammatory statement come up on an e-mail list I read recently, and the responding posts made it clear that the e-mail had hit on something brewing in the homeschool community.

The sender of the first post made a comment to a newbie homeschooler that they can join a public homeschool program if they need hand-holding and like to do lots of paperwork and testing. I was tempted to respond, but in the end I didn’t have to because other people did.

There are actually a number of options for homeschooling families, which fits with the basic idea behind homeschooling in general: choice in education.

The people that I refer to (somewhat in jest) as “real” homeschoolers are the ones who really do go it alone. To fulfill state requirements (in California — each state has different laws regarding homeschooing), either the children must be tutored by a credentialed adult (parent or hired tutor), or the children must be students at a private school. The loophole is that anyone, regardless of credential, can start a “private school,” and many homeschoolers do.

Someone I know whose business attracts homeschoolers tried recently to figure out how many there are in our county. One way she did it was to count the number of kids registered in private schools in our county that have fewer than 6 students. Chances are, all of those private schools are family homeschools.

The rest of the kids who are being homeschooled are doing so through a program. There may be some private schools that have independent study students, but most of the students are in public school programs. Those come in two flavors: the charter school and the special program. In our county we have both, and the homeschooling experience at those schools varies widely.

My daughter’s program is a public special program that has fewer than 100 students. Under No Child Left Behind, this renders it “statistically insignificant” and thus exempt from testing requirements. Still, a few of the kids (mostly the middle school kids) do take the tests, and largely do very well on it.

Her program requires only a monthly meeting with a teacher-consultant. Everything else is optional. But most of the people who take part are there for the optional stuff: class days for different age ranges, enrichment classes, fieldtrips, a science fair and school play, and social events.

As a newbie homeschooler myself a little over a year ago, I was desperate for guidance and really appreciated having to meet with our consultant once a month — I could have used more! But there are very seasoned homeschooling veterans in the program (one who was herself unschooled) who continue to appreciate the other offerings of the program.

As to burdensome documentation, I think it’s pretty relaxed. We have to give “samples” of the child’s work in several categories once a month. One mother in the program says that her best friend is the digital camera: she just prints out photos of the cool stuff they do.

Public charter programs are different in that charter schools are subject to testing and reviews of their viability in order to continue. I’m sure that the documentation requirements of charters varies as much as other aspects of homeschooling programs, but they are certainly under more pressure to show that their students are learning along the expected curve.

The problem with this is that many people homeschool because they’ve noticed that few children actually do learn on any expected curve. Some of our kids are years ahead in math but way behind in reading. Some of our kids spend six months learning everything about dinosaurs (including the Latin roots of their names), but not progressing in math at all.

So the problem with requiring homeschool charters to test is that the test itself puts pressure on the parents to make sure their kids are learning on the expected curve, which in a way cancels out what homeschooling is all about.

On the other hand, I know that a lot of local homeschooling parents love one of our charters because it puts money toward classes your child can take out in the community. And some homeschooling families probably appreciate the testing to reassure them that they’re on the right track.

So the reality is that there are trade-offs to how you do homeschooling, and families where we live have a nice variety of choices to fit to their teaching and lifestyles. Perhaps some of the “real” homeschoolers look down on families that take part in programs, but they shouldn’t. Homeschooling is all about structuring learning in the best way for your child.

For me and my daughter, our public program is a precious resource. I envy the “real” homeschoolers the way I envy the young women with their buff bodies running at the beach, but I’m as likely to become an independent homeschooler as I am to revisit my youth of winning cross country races.

And I’m fine with that…most of the time!

Posted in Parenting.

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