When my parents moved to New Jersey, they wanted the best possible education for my older brother and me, so they bought a house in a town with a strong public school system. And because they wanted the best possible education, when they made friends with other families and found out that there was a parochial school for our religion with an even better reputation than the district’s public schools, they sent my brother and me there, despite the financial hardship it put them through. And at first, my brother and I were both happy and challenged at our school.
But by seventh grade, it wasn’t working for me anymore. I was bored in all of my classes and bullied by my classmates. My parents were concerned about me: I was concerned about me. And so I came up with the perfect solution: I should be homeschooled.
My parents disagreed, and took that option entirely off the table.
After several months of arguing with the parochial school’s administration and trying to find a solution, meeting with teachers and administrators at the local public school, and a week’s trial at the public school, my parents and I agreed to enroll me in the public middle school and then high school. I excelled there, eventually taking 10 AP classes (and 11 AP tests) and winning a merit scholarship to the University of Chicago, where I graduated with honors.
Today, I look back at my educational history, and I admit that my parents were completely, absolutely, 100% right not to homeschool me.
Before I go into the reasons for why my parents were right and I was wrong (something I wouldn’t have ever admitted for any reason when I was twelve), I don’t want this essay to be seen as prescriptive: each family has its own story about why homeschooling is or is not right for them and their children. This is only my family’s story. Maybe you’ll recognize yourselves in it: maybe you won’t.
I wanted to be homeschooled for the wrong reasons. I got the idea to be homeschooled from my friend Peter, who was homeschooled via a virtual curriculum where he had to be online for several hours a day to complete his work. For twelve-year-old me, being on the computer all day sounded like a dream come true. My parents feared that if given free rein, I would spend all day chatting with friends or working on my website. That was indeed my plan, and they thwarted it.
I was afraid of public school. I had been having such a terrible experience with my peers at my parochial school that I was deeply afraid of other kids my own age. I wanted to avoid public school, or contact with anyone new. I pushed for homeschooling because it was a way to avoid my biggest fears. Had I been homeschooled as I’d hoped, I could have completely escaped having to interact with people my own age. As it turned out, on my very first day of public school, I met someone who has become a life-long best friend and even had a role in my wedding. This is clearly a best-case scenario—but if I’d been homeschooled, I would have never faced these fears, and I would have had fewer opportunities to make friends.
Some of my fears about public school were internal, and some of them had been planted in me. The parochial school I had attended informed all of its students—and all of its students’ parents—that going to public school would result in your child smoking, drinking, and having sex by the age of 16. I was a good kid, and I was petrified of any of those kinds of shenanigans. In reality, I was never offered so much as a puff on a cigarette at my public school. My parents now also regret that they trusted the parochial school’s line that they were the most academically rigorous school around, as we later found out that the public high school offered a much better academic experience.
My parents didn’t have support. No one in my parents’ circle of friends homeschooled—why would they, with such great local schools? My parents would have had to start completely from scratch. Perhaps if they had planned to be homeschooling parents, they would have been able to find a community or support. But as it was, with me mid-school-year, they prioritized my need for stability over their learning curve.
My parents understood their limitations. My parents are brilliant, hard-working people—my father is a computer engineer, my mother is a registered nurse—and I love them deeply. But they are not temperamentally suited toward teaching, especially not at the middle or high school level, and they understood this. By age twelve, I was also developing a strong preference for reading and writing over anything science or math-related, and they were not confident in their ability to engage my passions or teach me subjects I didn’t want to learn. They knew it would be best for me to be in a school where I would be required to take classes in math and science — and indeed, I ended up getting a statistics-heavy Masters degree, something I would have never done if not for a particularly influential high school class.
Back then, I didn’t really understand their reluctance to homeschool. But recently, prompted by my work for CRHE, I asked my parents again why they didn’t homeschool me.
My dad replied, “I don’t think we could have homeschooled you. Yes, I could teach you math through calculus, but that would be about it. Yes, I made fun of some of the silly phrases your bio teacher taught you, but you learned a lot more biology in that class than Mom and I could teach you. Also we had no way to give you bio, chem, and physics labs. Social studies: you were lucky to have such a great teacher there; we could never have come close to what he taught you. One further thing: your having to write compositions for a variety of teachers was training in writing and thinking that we could not have given you.”
My mom chimed in, “I was scared about homeschooling you. I did not think that I had the knowledge to teach you, and you would be done with whatever projects I could have given you, and then you would be on the computer talking to your friends all day.”
Even without being homeschooling parents, my parents were able to educate me in a variety of different ways. I gained a love of reading and writing and history from my father, who also typed up my very first short stories when I was four. My mother grounded me in religious texts and thought and gave me a strong sense of civics, social justice, and how they combine. They took the whole family to museums regularly, bought educational computer games, and always let me get as many books as I could carry from the library or bookstores. Parents teach their children lessons in many ways, even when the relationship isn’t formalized as teacher and student.
And the most important lesson they taught me?
Each child is different. Throughout all of the turmoil over whether or not I would transfer to public school, my brother was a tenth grader at the same parochial school. Other parents in their situation might have insisted that he change schools when I did to make life easier for them—not only would our schedules have been far more coordinated, it would have meant that our parents could stop running into the same administration they’d been battling for the last six months. Instead, he stayed there for his junior and senior years, where he was valedictorian, a starting athlete, and editor of the school paper. It was the right school for him, just as public school was the right school for me.
I can’t tell you what would have happened to me if I had been homeschooled as I’d wanted, or if I’d stayed in parochial school through twelfth grade as my parents had initially hoped. And I don’t think there’s a single right way or path that a parent can choose that results in 100% good things. But ten years after I graduated from public high school, I am very happy with the place I’m in, and the success that I have had—and so much of it depends on my parents’ involvement in my education.
There was a period of time where I thought homeschooling could save me from everything that might possibly hurt me. Now that I’m older, I realize that this was a dream. Homeschooling is a tool used to educate, not a savior in and of itself. Homeschooling can be a wonderful experience for many children when parents are responsible and responsive to their children’s needs—but when parents aren’t involved, are negligent, or outright abusive, then homeschooling can be a nightmare.
Less than a year after I enrolled in public school, New Jersey changed its homeschooling law after being heavily lobbied by a coalition of (mostly religious) homeschooling groups. Under current state guidelines, homeschooling parents don’t have to inform anyone when they withdraw their children from schools. Local school boards are not allowed to examine homeschool curricula and determine educational equivalence with local districts. Most damning, homeschooled children are not required to receive regular medical check-ups—even though there have been multiple cases of homeschooled children being abused, starved, and even found dead.
Inevitably, the defenders of the status quo will say that these deaths have nothing to do with homeschooling: they’re just bad apples and not true homeschoolers. It’s true that the majority of homeschoolers would never think of abusing their children, and that many are very involved with their children’s educational process. But when mainstream homeschooling groups have repeatedly lobbied against even the most basic forms of oversight that could catch abusive parents, homeschooling parents are enabling the abusers already existing within their midst.
But it’s not just the outright abuse that has consequences on homeschooled children. The homeschooling laws in each state have effects on how parents act. In a laissez-faire system like New Jersey, parents face no legal consequences when they do not educate their children. Failing your children only results in, well, failing your children.
I’ve seen the impact of parents’ apathy and refusal to educate in my own life. Two of my friends from my public middle school were “homeschooled” during high school. One friend, “Janet”, asked to be homeschooled. Her parents let her choose her own curriculum and were not involved in her education. The other friend, “Sadie”, was pulled out of school by her mother and was not educated for a period of several months before eventually moving out of state. To the best of my knowledge neither Janet nor Sadie completed high school, and both have had difficulties personally and professionally. Meanwhile, my homeschooled friend Peter who lived in a different state, where his parents were required to report standardized test scores, is about to graduate from a top-tier law school.
Now obviously I don’t believe that homeschooling alone is to blame for Janet and Sadie’s struggles, nor do I think that homeschooling alone is to be credited with Peter’s successes. But I do think Peter had a boost from his parents’ legally-mandated high level of involvement and I think that Janet and Sadie were hurt by their parents’ legally-allowed zero involvement.
When parents aren’t involved in their children’s education, children’s outcomes are inevitably worse. When homeschooling parents are legally let off the hook by a coalition of lobbying interests, that’s a perversion of the intent of the homeschooling law as it stands. I’m sure that these lax laws make it easier and more convenient for homeschoolers to do as they wish. But what my parents taught me, through their words and deeds, is never to do something because it’s easy, but only to do something because it’s right.
Homeschooling shouldn’t be done out of ease or convenience. It should be done because it is in the children’s best interests. And if I homeschool my future children, I won’t be homeschooling because it’s what’s easiest for me, or because it works best with my beliefs — I’ll be doing it because it’s what’s right for my children’s education.