When public education was established in the U.S. back in the 19th century, cost efficiency was undoubtedly a primary concern and a main motivating factor. A dozen children could be educated by a single well-qualified teacher for far less than the cost of hiring a private tutor for each family. Today the average cost of education in U.S. public schools is about $12,300 per student per school year. Private school can cost anywhere from $6,000-$50,000 per student per school year. Much of this money goes toward overhead, administration, transportation, insurance, and fringe benefits, not toward teachers’ salaries. In 2014, over 50 percent of families with children in public school were classified as “low income,” e.g. under $37,000 for family of four, under $24,000 for family of two. If the average U.S. family has two children, the cost of educating these children is more than half the family’s entire income.
I have been homeschooling my 11-year-old son for almost four years now. Although I’m a great believer in the potential good of public education, I found that he was not getting an adequate education for the $17,000 per year that it was costing our upstate New York town. His time at public school was spent listening to one-size-fits-all lectures, being reprimanded for talking in class, taking tests and practicing for tests, and lining up for the next activity. He was allowed only 15 minutes reading time during the school day and only 20 minutes for free play. He came home exhausted, with homework, hours of time-wasting busywork memorizing vocabulary words or practicing simple arithmetic. Including the bus ride to school, he was away from home about seven hours a day. This left him little or no time to pursue his individual interests in music, art, reading or science.
During the summer, I had noticed that he spent at least two hours every day reading. He loved watching science shows on PBS, and he even liked to watch recreational math videos by popular YouTuber Vi Hart. But when he returned to school in the fall, this self-directed learning came to an abrupt halt, and he went back to filling in worksheets and being told to keep quiet. One day, he asked if he could call in sick, so that he could stay home to finish a Harry Potter book. I decided to take him out of school so that he could get some reading done. I don’t fault the teachers. It is just that public school is not designed for individualized learning.
Now that he is a homeschooler, he spends about two to three hours per day on academic subjects, and he has the rest of the day free to read, play music, and visit with friends. He is happier and learning more. I, and the other homeschooling parents I’ve come to know, have found that self-directed learning is simply more efficient time-wise and economical than institutionalized learning. I provide occasional guidance; I read to him and discuss things or help him learn a new skill, but altogether this takes not more than one or two hours per day. I spend about as much time on his education now as I did when he attended school.
Home schooling goes mainstream
Many families across the nation are making similar discoveries about their children’s educations. Homeschooling in the United States is increasing at a rate of about 8% per year. About 3.4 percent of school-aged kids are now educated at home. Compare this to 10 percent of children who attend private schools.
In our rural town, where the cost of education is high and academic performance is unusually low, there is a higher percentage of homeschooling families. We get together several times a week at the library, community center, park or café, and we sometimes share the responsibility of watching the kids. When other people in the community learn that our children are homeschooled, they often ask, with concern, whether or not they get proper “socialization,” as if there were something normal about forcing children to shut up and listen in an institutionalized setting. We are also asked if our children fulfill the set “standards” for their age groups. They do not. Homeschoolers tend to work at their own paces and enthusiastically follow their own interests. They are usually a grade ahead in several subjects.
In 1999 Stanford University reported that they were accepting 27 percent of homeschooled applicants, about double the average rate for public and private school applicants. Since that time more top universities have realized that students who learn at home have benefited from individualized instruction. They find that the homeschool experience better prepares students for the real world since they tend to interact with people of all ages and are more comfortable in a variety of social situations. Princeton University admission website encouragingly notes that
Princeton welcomes applications from home schooled students…. Among the home schooled students admitted in recent years was a student who graduated as valedictorian of the Class of 2002.
Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference whether or not the homeschooling parents are themselves well educated. According to a 2009 study, homeschoolers whose parents don’t have a high school diploma do almost as well as those whose parents have college degrees. The amount of family income does not matter either. It also doesn’t seem to matter much what kind of educational approach the parents use. Across the board, all homeschooled children tend to test 34-39 percent better, on average, than public and private school children. I suspect that this is because the homeschooling experience is more about self-directed learning than about being taught a set of facts to memorize for tests.
As homeschooling goes mainstream, the old stereotype of the homeschooling parent as religiously motivated is falling away. According to a recent survey, only about 16 percent of parents gave “to provide religious instruction” as their number one reason to homeschool. Most parents seek to provide a better learning environment. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the demographics of homeschoolers is more or less consistent with the average population in the U.S.. The only significant difference is found among blacks who homeschool slightly less often than other groups.
A new kind of public education for the future
The world has changed drastically since the 19th century when our public schooling approach was established. Our children’s educational needs can now be met in a variety of ways. Every student with access to a computer, a library, museums, parks and a community center has the opportunity to learn. There is an unlimited number of excellent free online educational websites, such as the extremely popular Khan Academy, available to anyone with an Internet connection.
I still believe that public education should be top priority in the U.S.. I believe that teaching should be among the most respected and well-paid professions in our country, on par with the medical and legal professions. I also think that access to education should be compulsory; that is, all parents and guardians should be required by law to make sure that their children have ample opportunity to learn. But I don’t think sending children to school to study the exact same thing with twenty children in a similar age group is an efficient way to educate them. There has got to be a better way, and parents who are unwillingly to wait another decade or two — while the government throws more good money after bad for its next misguided strategy, like “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” or its current core-curriculum craze — should take their children’s education into their own hands.
Currently there is a trend among political Progressives to get families to send their children to school earlier than the required five or six years of age. There are many well-intended advocates of government subsidized full-time pre-school that would enable both parents or single parents to work full time. (Shouldn’t civilized societies strive toward allowing people to spend less time at work, more time with their families and friends?) It may be that some children’s home environments are such that they would be better off at school than at home. This is sadly the case in my rural community where illiteracy, poverty and substance abuse are frightfully common. But sometimes I wonder if these problems aren’t by-products of generations of institutionalized schooling. The unexpected and wonderful side effect of homeschooling is that the parents also learn and see the need to increase their knowledge of the world. With homeschooling, education becomes a life-long, on-going process that involves the entire family and community.
For the future I dream of schools turned into community learning centers, where children and adults gather to use the facilities, art supplies, science labs, join discussion groups, watch documentaries, get one-on-one instruction, and listen to lectures by visiting experts. Children are born learners; they are curious about the world and they question everything. If children are allowed to work at their own paces and follow their own interests in any subject, they will not only learn more, they will be happier as adults whose learning experiences do not end with school.
So don’t wait for the government to fix our educational system. Do it yourself with homeschooling.
Follow Victoria N. Alexander so you don’t miss an article on DiY political change. Alexander is the author of Locus Amoenus, a satirical 9/11 novel about the decline of American education.