There is a seven-page article in Harper’s about why algebra is not necessary, and in fact, the author (Nicholson Baker, for all you literary minimalist afficionados) concludes that in most cases, forcing kids to learn alegebra is torture.

This is not controversial. The New York Times has also suggested that algebra requirements are deulusional and we don’t need them. And the Washington Post has published a diatribe against forced high-school math as well.

So it’s pretty safe to say that among the intellengentia who do not make a living related to standardized teaching, the conclusion is that forced algebra is unnecessary. Which makes it ironic that the parents who are most enthusiastic about forcing their kids to learn algebra are the parents who want their kids to be part of the intelligentsia.

This got me thinking: I think it’s actually the smart parents who are homeschooling because they don’t want to be tied to crazy, irrelevant standards. And it’s the parents who doubt their own intellectual judgement who most push the standard curriculum on their kids.

I had no way to prove this, though. But then I did. I came across some statistics that showed that most parents homeschool because they want their kids to get a better education than school offers. And most parents who homeschool have college degrees. I did a bunch of number crunching and found this: about 8% of college educated parents homeschool their kids.

You are looking for a link, right? First, listen to this. It makes sense to me that educated parents would be the first to have the confidence to say that the school’s seal of approval for education is worth nothing. But it also makes sense to me that the homeschool statistics for couples who both have college degrees are shocking as well, because so few divorce.

But still, I am skeptical, so I’m publishing my research so you can analyze it for yourself, and tell me what you think about my hypothesis that 20% of parents with college degrees are homeschooling their kids.

Here’s my math: iIn the US, 2,040,000 kids are homeschooled, in families with a median of 3.1 children (Top Masters in Education), so that’s about 658,064 (total kids divided by the median number of kids per family) families homeschooling.

90 percent of homeschooled kids have two parents with college degrees (Top Masters in Education) so this means 592,258 homeschooling families have two college educated parents.

In the US, 47,905,659 adults have college degree (US census data)

Among college graduates, 51% are married. (US census data)

This means there are 24,431,886 adults with college degree who are married.

Let’s assume they all marry each other. This is actually not a sure thing. It’s more likely that only about 70% of college grads marry other college grads. So we’ll split the difference since we are considering this over a long period of time and say that 85% marry each other, giving us about this many couples: 10,383,557

And 25% of college educated couples are childless (Wikipedia)

So the number of couples who both have college degrees and who have kids is 7,787,668.

Which means 7.6 % of couples with two bachelors degrees are homeschooling. (I divided homeschooling families by mutually educated couples with kids, multiplied by 100%.)

It doesn’t really matter if you believe me, though. Because whatever the statistics are, it’s clear to me that it takes intellectually secure parents to pull their kids out of school. You have to believe your kids are innately bright, no matter what they learn, and you get that belief in your kids by having it in yourself.

In my local homeschool groups I have noticed that the homeschool parents without college degrees more often use canned curricula and tend to replicate the conventional school experience at home.

yes I notice this as well. the ones who are basically recreating public education at home (complete with shelves and shelves of textbooks and videos organized by subject) are not the college educated.

I think that a lot of us who are “educated” secretly think that college was a bit of a scam, so we have the confidence to reject formal school.

I had someone tell me last week that education means “being well rounded” – he doesn’t have a degree but he wants his kids to have one. So they are forced into the best public schools he can afford.

I have to just keep my comments to myself sometimes. Some people are so set in their thinking that there’s not much hope.

I just met a former public school teacher who decided to homeschool.

And it’s… I mean… it’s proper school at home. With text books. With practice tests and desks and… uh, I didn’t know what to say.

Time… well, time changes a lot.

So, you use algebra to reason that algebra is unnecessary?

Symbolic reasoning is a powerful, vastly useful tool.

Without it, you have no spreadsheets,no pprogramming, no logic. ..

You are reduced to the bombast and blowhard rhetoric that is polluting our media.

My kids are going to learn algebra, logic and any other tool I can find to give them an edge.

At home or school.

Homeschooling just gives me the opportunity and challenge to make these tools interesting and no one else to blame.

That languageyou use: “giving kids an edge”. That’s exactly what I’m talking about here. Have some faith in your kids that they don’t need you giving them an edge. They were born with a perfect amount of everything to add up to being their best selves. They are curious and smart and driven in their own without you telling them that who they are is not enough and high need to tell them what to learn because of that.PenelopeIt’s so odd that people think you can’t learn logic via any other means besides being force fed algebra at a young age. I hated algebra and cried nightly over my homework in 8th grade because I felt so incredibly frustrated by it. By the time I got to college I cruised through my philosophy logic class because the material was so…logical. I never took trig in high school and avoided math in college since I thought I was terrible at it because of my childhood math experience. I wonder now if I would have been better at math and even enjoyed it at an older age and if I had come to the subject from a place of intrinsic motivation.

I had a very similar experience. I nearly failed honors algebra in high school and spilled many tears over it, but I loved taking logic in college. It was such a relief being told why the formulas worked the way they did. Also, unlike algebra, we use logic to reason daily, which makes it all the more interesting.

The useless algebra reminded me of my second least favorite high school subject after math – history.

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen describes the many factual errors in common US history texts. In addition, they are written with a eurocentric and racist viewpoint.

History isn’t dates and facts the way it is taught in schools but an inquiry and dialogue, often controversial. This is what homeschoolers find out when exploring topics they are interested in.

Oh my goodness yes!

That is a huge problem with history in schools! they’ll only teach a certain angle of the story.

When I was in Mexico one of the presidents was portrayed as a hero because of the “Expropiacion Petrolera.” And once I studied that in high school in the US it was portrayed as so evil and even criminal.

In Mexico it was portrayed as “we took back what belonged to us and what the US stole!” and here it was to the tune of “oooh! they stole our business and our money and our machines just because we were drilling oil in their land!”

Self directed learning may not be the most conductive to patriotism because you can learn what really happened rather than getting the romanticized version in the history books.

I totally hated history in school but I find that I absolutely love it now that I am homeschooling. The kids love it, too.Of course, our approach is totally different from the way it was presented in school, starting with the lack of an actual text book.

Yes, this!

I would love for one of your kids to want to become computer programmers (because of all the video games they play) or engineers. I wonder how your attitude would change if they actually needed and wanted to learn math.

You seem like a person I would never want to talk to.

If the kids wanted to be programmers or engineers then they would want to learn the math. And it’s not like they don’t do math. They are musicians. And they have a thing for doing business. And they are alive. It’s not like they don’t do math. You do math just being alive!

They are also little kids. No one learns the math that will prepare you to be an engineer when they are in grade school. Unless you’re a genius but we’ve gone through that topic already.

That is arithmetic, not math. Math starts with algebra where you have to learn relationships expressed as formulas and enough logic to know how to use those formulas to solve problems.

All the anti-algebra arguments people are making here could be said about writing. Most people will never write for a living or even using writing in their jobs. So why force kids to learn to write essays? It’s just as much “torture” for the kids who aren’t good at it. But most of you would consider a child to be seriously handicapped by an inability to write essays.

In my experience, most adults retain very little of their education, since they have never used most of it. If higher math is “torture”, why should we make them study science or history or read hard books.

This idea that somehow the kid will just pick up programming or algebra because they are interested, without ever being exposed to it, strikes me as bizarre. I don’t think you’d take that attitude with other fields.

I expect kids who never get taught any real math will just regard it as bizarre crap they don’t understand (like science generally) and avoid it because it is hard. They are not going to be able to suddenly make up that skills deficit later if someone says “hey, engineering jobs pay really well!”

Who says kids need to learn how to write essays? If you’re a professional writer of any kind, you have to unlearn the 5 paragraph essay, because it’s so useless. In journalism, you learn the inverted triangle. In blogging, you probably need some memoir training. And in business, you practice the art of persuasion.

no, you don’t learn exactly that math in high school but learning math is a process. If you learn a language you also don’t start with the most complex stuff first but the simple sentences and words. Same with math.

I think part of the point is that we learn things like languages through experience and a strong desire to communicate. If we are compelled to learn mathematical concepts we will and if there is no pressing need or strong desire, then why not save that time and energy for something more useful?

there is a reason humans left the caves: they don’t always stick to what is useful…. and if you look at your everyday gadgets, devices, things you use you would be surprised how much math goes into running them. Take a 4-way street light for example, or the bus timetable….

Nowhere on this blog did Penelope say her children weren’t going to learn algebra, you inferred that on your own. She was talking about brick and mortar schools deciding across the board for all students to learn algebra and how foolish that is.

Having read most of Penelope’s posts on homeschooling I can say that she would be proud of her children no matter what they decide to do with their lives whether it be a computer programmer or an engineer or an entrepreneur or a musician. They will probably be experts at whatever they do.

I never implied she wouldn’t be proud of her children (you don’t have to jump to the worst possible interpretation!) And they may eventually learn algebra — I just don’t think they are going to learn it from her.

If they get interested in it (not clear how they would), she’ll have to find a tutor or send them to a school. There are online resources, including online tutors, but it would be tough for a kid to work through that all on their own.

More generally, Penelope talks about letting the kids learn what they are interested in, but then makes sure they learn an instrument, even if it takes hours of driving every week. And I think she’s been making them study some history and languages as well.

So it’s not quite as “learn what you like” as she makes it sound. And it would all be a lot tougher if the kids were interested in something she has no connection to and can’t understand.

That’s why you outsource for the things that they are interested in but that you have no skill in at all.

And I always read and understood that P’s kids wanted to learn instruments, she wasn’t forcing them to play, she forces them to practice which technically is different. (She can’t help that her farm town she lives in doesn’t have a decent cello instructor.)

I’m an engineer (ME), but I was a horrible math student and hated math when I was in the lower grades. The reason I am now an engineer? Because I was homeschooled in junior high, and I sat down with a book called “Algebra 1/2” by Saxon math. Over 6 months it walked me through the most simple, basic math concepts all the way through complex functions. One lesson at a time. My mom was a high school graduate who couldn’t balance the checkbook – I didn’t need her or anyone else.

I sucked at math, but once I found a book that laid it out logically and simply, I flew through it. I decided to go back to public high school, where I was finally “caught up with the smart math kids” and could hold my own. After that I had some really horrendous math teachers who almost destroyed my confidence again, but that’s another story.

Point being: I wanted to see if I liked math outside of school. Turns out I did. It turns out I’m pretty good at it when I don’t have a crap teacher standing in my way, too. One of my worst calculus teachers told my mother that I’d never be good enough at math to do much with it. That teacher was an idiot.

When I was growing up my dad was against the grain in so many things. But we were poor. And he didn’t have a college degree. Just a hunger to be a lifelong learner (I think I got it from him). Books were precious and a splurge because the money was so limited.

The thing was, to me my dad seemed strange and hard to love because we were poor and so it was hard to be approved by the masses of our style of going against the grain. But he was so secure that he didn’t need anyone else’s validation to plunge forward.

And here I am, an immigrant, not 30 yet, and with a predilection for picking up what’s at the fringe of my new culture.

I hope I can translate that to my child.

Thanks Penelope for talking so much about Unlearning. It has been a theme that has gotten me to discover so much and forge myself into someone I admire. I think I kickass and I don’t need other’s validation for it. So we’re homeschooling. Or unschooling. Whatever.

Forcing all students to learn algebra may have been necessary when there were tons of factory jobs available right out of high school. You actually used it back then; and most of us know that the industries were the ones setting what they wanted their compliant workers to learn so that they would be ready to be effective workers.

Well, we live in a technology age now and most of our factory jobs have been shipped overseas. I’m not going to debate bringing factory jobs back or anything like that as it is useless for this debate, but I would say that forcing algebra on all students is irrelevant now. Unless one WANTS to enter the STEM field then clearly the child will be learning all sorts of math to fuel that, but for regular joe schmoe and hey I’ll just say it… ME, we don’t use algebra in our daily lives.

Yes algebra is necessary for the technology age but one can’t just graduate high school and go work as an engineer, whereas in the past all you needed was a high school degree to work in a factory and live a decent life. That isn’t true anymore. In a city of 1 million people there are less than 5 true factories where I live, and these are less than 100 workers.

I don’t know what the future holds, but it is so clear to me that the current model of education, brick and mortar schools, and test based curriculum grow more irrelevant with each passing year.

With that being said, my children show an extremely high aptitude for math and it comes easy to them, so they will probably learn algebra way before high school. With homeschool we can tailor our children’s education for each child. We don’t need to wait for high school or third grade, we learn what we want, when we want to.

Thanks for this post Penelope. I’m not sure about your statistics, but I love how you used algebra to show how we don’t need algebra… I like you a lot! And you make me laugh which is good.

Why do you need more algebra standing at an assembly line then nowadays when programming, spreadsheets, etc. are everywhere? And this notion that the companies decided school is needed to make compliant workers just does not hold historically, at least not for Europe. Learning to read and write does not narrow but broaden your horizon and thus makes you at some point less rather then more compliant. The illiterate worker is a lot easier to control. And by the way, in rural regions in Europe there was a large resistance against schooling with the argument that a farmer does not need it and the kids can learn everything on the farm, reading and writing were considered unnecessary.

Just checking the math:

The “90% of homeschooled kids have two parents with college degrees” is almost certainly inaccurate. The website you cite is blocked on my work computer, but this 2009 study from HSLDA:

http://www.hslda.org/docs/study/ray2009/default.asp

shows only 66% of homeschool fathers with a degree, and about 63% of mothers. Even if they all married each other, that’s way below 90%, and those numbers jibe more with my experience. Anecdotally, the one-degree and two-degree families seem about equal in number.

Unless I’m misunderstanding, your denominator of “College-educated couples who are married and have kids” does not seem to exclude people well beyond the age when they would have kids under 18 (like my parents).

You put your finger right on what was bothering me about the numbers Penelope is using. You have to exclude the married couples who are too young and too old to have children in the right age group for homeschooling – say age 5-17. I was married for 10 years before my first child turned 5 and will hopefully be married for several more decades after my youngest leaves home.

I do not think you can rely on 2009 numbers (which were probably for the 2007-2008 school year) as being current. The move for educated parents to embrace more alternative paths to education is on the rise. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the proportion of the homeschooling pool that includes two college educated adults is increasing every year.

In order to go from a maximum of 63% of homeschoolers being two-degree parents in 2009 (itself probably an overestimation) to 90% today, assuming 0% change in the non-double-degree homeschool population (highly unlikely), you would have to see the total number of homeschoolers multiply by 3.7 times in the last four years. Homeschool is growing, but not nearly that fast. Even if the number of homeschoolers had doubled since 2009, and ALL of the increase were two-degree families, that would leave you with about 81% having two degrees. The stat is just incorrect.

You referenced 8% twice but then you also wrote that “…20% of parents with college degrees are homeschooling their kids” which must be a typo.

Your math mostly works out but I get 8.45% – here is your formula in Excel:

=(2040000/3.1)/(((47905659*0.51)*0.85/2)*0.75)

I forgot to * by 90%

It’s kind of ironic to spend all that effort proving that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to do the right thing by your children by protecting them from the education you got…which is precisely what this holder of a useless Masters degree intends to do. Has the value/significance of a college degree ever been more in doubt?

I think this is more of an economic security issue as opposed to an intellectual security issue. Homeschooling is only an option for two parent families who can afford to have one parent stay home. Since parents with college degrees have higher incomes and are more likely to be married, it makes sense to me that most parents who homeschool have college degrees.

Parents who are rich and feel uneducated (whatever that means to them) are nuts about gaining intellectual confidence and credibility from there kids.The best example of this is members of the Mob. But also parents who are surrounded by Ivy League graduates (at work, maybe) and worry that they’re not are as smart.

So my point is wanting to use your kids to prove to people that you’re smart happens in all socioeconomic arenas.

PenelopeI am highly suspicious of white elites telling people that they should stop teaching algebra in the public schools. It sounds like another of their schemes to widen the divide between the haves and have nots.

How about this for an idea: When Choate, Dalton, Spence, Trinity, and the rest of those training grounds for the America aristocracy stop teaching algebra, then we can talk about the rest of the country.

I think this is what’s happening: the elites are obsessed with education as a status marker, and think their kids should have as much as they can handle.

Unfortunately, the public schools pretty much have to rely on memorization and tests, since it’s the cheapest way to show some progress with 1 teacher per 25 kids.

You can get through most subjects with pure memorization. History, science, literature, etc. For most of the high school curriculum, if you just memorize and repeat on a test or in some crappy essay, you can get a B.

Except math. In that subject, you have to be able to understand and apply what you’ve learned. And as you get to algebra, trigonometry, geometry and calculus, it gets harder and harder for schools. There are objective measures of competence, and kids trained in “memorize and test” just start failing.

That gets parents upset and makes teachers and school districts look bad. So the answer is: get rid of the math. But before you do that, you have to badmouth it as some obscure specialized knowledge that only engineers will ever use.

You can be sure the private schools will continue to teach it even after the public schools no longer do. And that will be fine with the elites who are driving the whole push for more education in the first place.

Don’t get rid of the subjects. Just don’t force it as a once size fits all that every person has to take. Have the students choose to take algebra because they want to, when they want to, in the setting they want to and take as long as they want or need to learn it with other kids of any age. This goes with any of the subjects. Most kids want to learn because that’s what humans do, we want to learn and teach ourselves. Yes there are outlyers who don’t want to learn anything or do anything, but forcing them to learn and do doesn’t do any good because as soon as they’ve been tested on the subject they will forget the information they were just forced to learn/memorize.

Same with essays, when was the last time you read a great book and said “Hey, I want to write a ten page essay about it.”? If there is no audience for your writing then there is no purpose to write. Learning to spell, read, and type get learned quickly, my 6 year old is doing all three and my 4 year old is teaching herself how to read, I just watch her do it and help when she asks.

who is “the elites”?

Who said anything about taking it out of the schools and not teaching it at all? The point is that maybe it should be made an elective and not a requirement for all students. The fact is that very few people need it or will use it so forcing everyone to take it is a huge waste of resources that could be used for other things. The vast majority of us would be way better off taking classes in managing personal finances (something totally ignored by most high schools) than algebra.

I lobe Nicholson Baker, though I tend to think of him as a maximalist, but I suppose his more well known stuff is minimal, isn’t it? Anyway, I’m an editor/proofreader, but I use algebra quite often. I love me some algebra. I also use geometry. Beyond that, I think kids would be better off learning to code (computers).

Love* That’s what I get for typing on my phone. Plus, mom and I say lobe instead of love on purpose. :-)

Penelope, this is OT but are you planning on rebutting the piece by Allison Benedikt in Slate? I think it’s called “People Who Send Their Kids To Private School are Bad”.

It’s rather horrible and echoes what a lot of the professional educators in my own family said to my parents when we were being homeschooled…I’d love to hear your take on it!

(sorry. but my husband is out of town and there’s no one else around here who can show me yet again how to embed a link in my comments…)

Here’s the link to the article:

http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/08/private_school_vs_public_school_only_bad_people_send_their_kids_to_private.html

Your math is off.

Also, algebra isn’t tricky. It’s covered in 3 classes in my kids’ russian math class. Other math areas are much much trickier but putting in a few hours to learn the basics of algebra is about the best intellectual ROI you can find

I totally love the post and agree with premise. And am a huge fan of the stats page. Huge. But you do have to read it carefully when looking at the graphs. I prefer the text shown below the graphs for clarification. And major props taking on the math in spite of dyscalculia!

I’m assuming that you took the 90% of HS parents have a college degree from the section that listed standardized test scores by parental education. Which are so awesome for showing that pretty much any ole parent can do a better job than schools and a teaching certificate doesn’t mean diddly.

Standardized achievement tests: On average, homeschoolers rank in at the 87th percentile. (Note: The 87th percentile is not the test score. It is the percent of students that scored lower… so, only 13% of students scored higher.)

Neither parent has a college degree: 83rd

Either parent has a college degree: 86th

Both parents have college degrees: 90th

Neither parent has a teaching certificate: 87th

Either Parent has a teaching certificate: 88th

(For those who put creed in standardized testing scores, that whole section is fantastic for showing how income is not much of a factor at all.)

The stats for parents’ education show that around 90% have some college, but not a degree.

No High School Degree: 1.4% / 0.5%

High School Degree: 8.4% / 7.5%

Some College: 15.4% / 18.7%

Associate’s Degree: 8.6% / 10.8%

Bachelor’s Degree: 37.6% / 48.4%

Master’s Degree: 20% / 11.6%

Doctorate Degree: 8.7% / 2.5%

I majored in English, so . . . keep that in mind, but I’m not sure how anyone could accurately factor in everything.

Making some sweeping judgments based on unPC stereotypes, I would assume that the number of parents who have a 5+ children are more likely to be homeschooling for religious reasons and are, perhaps, less likely to have both parents holding degrees. I couldn’t begin to go into the difference between average number of kids and mean and how that would affect the numbers. But it has got to be ever changing since my understanding is that the fastest growing group entering the fray is uber-educated families for secular reasons. If that is the case, then the fact that:

From 2007- 2009 home-schoolers increased at a rate of 7%/year

From 2007- 2009 public-schoolers increased at a rate of 1%/year

means the likelihood of HS parents having a degree is only going up–fast, if it is still 7%/year.

Anecdotally, in my family not going to college wasn’t really an option, so my cousins and I are all 4th generation graduates. Out of 7, 3 of us have school aged children and all 7 of them are secularly homeschooled. I simply cannot imagine how horrified my grandmother would be were she still alive. FTR, the other 2 mothers are teachers. One homeschooled her three from the beginning. The other pulled her two younger ones when her daughter didn’t want to go to middle school. We are SOOOO trendy…

I’m not going to do the Math to check your statistics. ;)

I never question my kids’ intelligence. I work off the assumption that they are divinely created for a purpose, and my only true job is to love and encourage them toward that purpose. I am an intelligent person, and so is my husband (their father), and while I do not believe it validates our “smarts”, so to speak, we do have our BAs, and he has an MA degree.

I trust in who I am. I am a writer. I also work well in structure. I can organize the hell out of anything (which works for web design beautifully). I can look back and see that I’ve been this way since early childhood. It is who I am, have always been, and I learned to hone it into a craft that helps support my family. And? Algebra kicked my ever lovin’ ass in high school and college. It was excruciating, and in my opinion, unnecessary, as were many aspects of my education.

The Washington Post article on mandating certain courses was interesting. Personally, I didn’t have any problem with curriculum, taking tests, and doing well in school. However, the article, which mentions opportunity costs, made me think of how much more valuable my formal education may have been if it had been more project focused rather than based on curriculum. Then again, how much does schooling lend itself to project-based education on some individualized level when student/teacher ratios are 25/1 or more?

Your very first calculation assumes median equals average, which is false.

I agree that not everyone needs to take higher level math, but the ability to think algebraiclly can be useful in many aspects of life.

@Skeptical – I take your point. There are some groups who can get by without having certain skills whereas other groups would be considered deficient without those same skills. I think the point is that most people can do just fine in life, after school is completed, without having to take algebra. In many instances algebra is just a right of passage. Something to get through if you’re going to finish school. There is rarely any real world application introduced when teaching high school algebra.

It is always tricky to know what is useful in real life (whatever real life is – I doubt it is the same thing for everybody so it is actually a meaningless statement) – how do you know how the world will develop in 20 years time? 20 years ago few people needed to work with spreadsheets – nowadays most of us need to know them at some level. Who thought that Einstein’s theory of relativity has practical applications? In case you are wondering: all satellites including the ubiquitous GPS needs to correct for relativistic factors. So, despite being a fascinating theory, which nobody thought at the time is useful in daily life, it is one of the most frequently used theories to run something all of use nearly every day.

I think Penelope has proved you don’t need to study math to be a successful blogger.

Good grief.

I get the point, that TheCurriculum is used as a crutch by insecure people.

I’m in the opposite boat on math — I’ve got kids who can’t get enough math, who are always learning it and making up ways to get better and read “math trick” books and then learn the tricks. I can’t wait till they’re a little bigger and I can send them off on their bikes to the community college for math with professors.

I too had a terrible time with algebra and thought I would never graduate from college. I had almost 70 credits but could not get my AA because I could not pass algebra. I went to a well known local college, transfered in as a junior and had to take one statistics class to graduate. Other math was not required. So, I have a BA in Human Development from a great college, and I have never passed an algebra class in my life!!

I also pulled my son out of school in 6th grade because the school system was INSANE. He has aspberger’s and they were torturing him (they had a hard time believing the diagnosis because he was so gifted). He went back in 10th grade (because he said he wanted to beat them at their own game) and graduated with a regular diploma. Life is great. He is the father of a healthy, well adjusted 3 year old. Believe in yourself and your kids.