Most new parents entertain, at least for a moment, the idea of homeschooling their children. The idea of having maximum control over what your child learns is powerfully attractive. In my case, however, the thought lasted only a nanosecond. Two major roadblocks kept me from really exploring homeschooling.
First, the prospect of trying to teach your child “everything” is daunting. I can get comfortable with teaching my children math up through calculus and maybe U.S. history. I have high standards, and beyond those two subjects, I feel I might be more of a liability than help. And the effort required for me not to be a liability seems a very inefficient, if not ridiculous, use of time.
Second, and more importantly, I consider social development a critical ingredient to educating my children. It is hard to learn about the world around you if you don’t understand the people around you. And you don’t develop that understanding in the seclusion of your home.
But technology is quickly tearing down these two roadblocks. In fact, had my wife and I been thinking about homeschooling today rather than 5 years ago, our decision might have been different.
The Internet has opened up a world of information for teachers. Access to almost unlimited content has made teachers’ jobs easier and holds the potential for them to become better teachers. The effect on the K-12 system has been profound; but the effect on homeschooling is game-changing. It has put homeschooling on equal footing with the K-12 system in terms of access to content.
Access to a wide array of quality online courses is an equally important recent change to the homeschooling market. My son or daughter could now select from a dizzying array of electives not currently available at the local high school. If I want my children to learn Arabic, a quick search shows me that there are 7 to 8 good online options. In fact, some states reimburse homeschoolers when they take online classes at a state online academy. As you would expect, these states are where homeschooling is growing the fastest.
We already live in a world where K-12 teachers supplement their income by tutoring after school. Imagine those same teachers making their entire living by finding kids and teaching a group together outside of the system. By making it easier for teachers to find students and students to find great teachers, the Internet now makes it possible for a teacher to earn a good living outside of the K-12 school system. Crazy idea? Maybe not. The tutoring industry in South Korea is full of teachers making high six figure incomes. The best teachers can charge the highest rate. Imagine a flourishing marketplace of widely available classes with best-in-class local teachers.
Given the access to online courses, great tutors, and unlimited information, the daunting part of homeschooling—trying to teach your kids everything—isn’t quite as daunting anymore. The art of homeschooling is now more about thinking through what you want your child to learn, researching it, and then organizing the curriculum. There are websites to help you do that, too.
The Internet also makes the socialization deficiencies of homeschooling easier to overcome. As parents become more comfortable using the Internet to connect with their local community, homeschooled students and their parents can self-organize field trips, dances, and team-based curricula in ways not possible only a few years ago. As the number of homeschooling students continues to grow, it becomes even easier to find and organize a critical mass of students in most locations. (The “network effects” of homeschooling are compelling. With each family that decides to homeschool their children, the socialization options for homeschoolers get better.)
Furthermore, after-school activities in our schools are being cut because of state budget crunches. This appears to be our new reality. In athletics, club sports are picking up the slack when after school sports are cut. In California, the number of choices for club sports, competitive and recreational, is impressive. I haven’t researched the non-sport activities, but children’s community theater and the local music teacher have been around forever. These will expand and evolve if the demand is there. I realize that these after-school activities cost money, but if they are being cut from schools anyway, then we are no further behind.
Now, it is hard for me to imagine a high school experience without Friday night football, pep rallies, school auditoriums packed for the school play, and student council. That was my public school experience, and it was a great one. But that was 25 years ago, when U.S. secondary school test scores were the envy of the rest of the world. The world has changed. And I hate to think that football games, pep rallies, and school plays are the primary reasons for keeping the current school model in place.
As is often noted, our K-12 schools operate like early 20th century factories; the system was designed and developed at the beginning of the industrial revolution. In a relatively short period of time (roughly 30 years), the U.S. educational system evolved from educating a small percentage of children in one-room schoolhouses to educating a large majority of the population in large schools with age-based classrooms. This system worked well for the greater part of a century, but it is clearly near the end of its useful life.
Now in the midst of an information revolution and at a point in time where our schools are in crisis, we have the responsibility to think carefully through what model we want for our children’s children. I think some form of what today is called “homeschooling” might be that model.
I realize that the term “homeschooling” carries with it a lot of baggage—historically it has been the province of the religiously fervent, for example. But leave alone where homeschooling has been and think about its potential in a highly connected world where everyone has access to great content, great courses, and great teachers. I think it has the potential to get us back close to where our educational system started.
Local control of our schools is driven by the same basic notion that drove the formation of our country. People have the freedom to live where they want, live in communities of their own choosing, and educate their children in the manner they see fit. When the country formed, three out of four children were educated at home; the fourth child was educated at the local one-room schoolhouse.
Moreover, that fourth child was educated with other kids in the local community where many traditions and customs were shared. That community’s economy was based entirely on agriculture and maybe one other industry that employed the majority of population. Mobility was low. Shared dreams for children were many. Education at the local schoolhouse reflected those shared objectives. If the schoolhouse didn’t deliver on its purpose, parents would remove their children and educate them at home.
Our communities have since changed. We are now more likely to live in communities based on a common socio-economic status than a common religion or immigrant heritage. Many families have two working parents. A lot of us commute from our communities into cities where multiple industries thrive. Population mobility is high. Competition is global. Our shared objectives within the community are fewer—and likely to be only economic.
So how do we find our way back? Without ignoring the realities of the modern world or giving up the benefits of living in a diverse environment, how do we get back to a point where we are educating our kids with other families that share similar hopes and dreams for their future? I mean the stuff beyond just finding a good job: modes of behavior, arts, languages, and non-academic skills. How do we get back to a point where parents control and retain the responsibility for the content and quality of their child’s education?
I think the answer could be found in homeschooling. Let’s call it “Blended Homeschooling.” Take what is homeschooling today, and add to it all the possibility that the Internet allows: a broad and deep selection of content and classes, and the ability to find and organize with like-minded parents who want similar things for their children. By partnering with those like-minded parents, families could enter into co-operatives to rotate where students are educated during the week so that families with two working parents can continue to provide for their families and enjoy the benefits of this arrangement. All this promises to make the act of taking control of your child’s education imminently possible.