Fix public schools by homeschooling your kids

The U. S. Department of Education is trying out extended school years. The three-year pilot project will affect about 20,000 students in 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee.

I was reading about the new initiative, thinking that I would make some comment about how extending the school year is only for the low performers who do not benefit from summer vacation;  we already know that.

But, guess what? The Department of Education said it themselves! In a much more dramatic way.

Charles Ballinger, executive director emeritus of the National Association for Year-Round School  says, “The research is very clear about that the only ones who don’t lose are the upper 10 to 15 percent of the student body. Those tend to be gifted, college-bound, they’re natural learners who will learn wherever they are.”

So look, if kids can learn just fine over the summer, then they can learn just fine during the school year. This is what I’ve been saying all along, that the highest performing 15% of kids should be homeschooled. If parents have enough money to replicate self-directed, customized learning in a private school, then fine. But US schools cannot educate the top performers and everyone else in the same school system.

People like educator Jessica Smock ask what would happen if everyone took their kids out of public school? I’ll tell you: a better education for lower performing kids. We could spend all those resources going to lacrosse teams and golf teams and put them toward summer school. Because lower performers benefit from summer school much more than varsity golf.

Private schools have already announced their passion for social consciousness. Which means that any kid who falls through the cracks and is a high performer in the public schools, will be able to move to a private school with free tuition. We have been doing that anyway, really, just not in a systemic way.

The problem of creating an appropriate education for all kids is too big for a disparate school system. Kids in rural communities have two-hour bus rides. Some kids are depending on school for their only meal of the day. These are clear cut problems: we do not think it’s right. We just don’t have capacity to solve the problem.

If you take the top 15% of performers out of the classroom, everyone will get a better education. The top 15% will learn just fine – school administrators even are saying that – and the rest of the kids will have more appropriate services and more funding for those services, because we won’t pull the tax base out from under them.

Is your kid in the top 15% of US school children? It’s hard to believe your answer would not be yes. I mean, you self-selected by reading a homeschooling blog that challenges all of our assumptions about school – even mine, and I’m writing it. So you’re probably in the top 15% too – intelligence is genetic. So do the world a favor, and take your kid out of school.

37 replies
    • Jenn
      Jenn says:

      I wish I could say that I find myself at the same crossroads of what doesn’t feel right and what is right. I have no problem with the choice of doing what is right for the top 15% performers. Society tells me that I should have these irrational feelings of guilt toward the plight of everyone’s individual circumstances, but I don’t.
      Education in this country is like being on a sinking ship without enough life boats to save everyone. We have a choice of who to put on the boats and who to let sink. Is it an ethical dilemma? Yes. But not one that is as difficult as one might think. In the past 20 or so years we have been conditioned to feel guilty about not going down with the ship.
      It is a fact that the smarter people further our society, or we wouldn’t even be having the conversation about how to save them. They should get the lifeboats instead of standing around with their fingers in the leaking holes waiting for the ship to slowly sink.

      • CA
        CA says:

        I hear what you’re saying, Jenn, but I wasn’t thinking of the good of the “others” but the good of MY children (in the top 5%). I do think forced exposure to kids and families of differing abilities and class (and race and religion and etc) is good for MY kids and I don’t want them to lose it. For one thing (among many others) learning to survive and thrive in an environment that is not created for and directly catering to you is great practice for success in the workplace. Not to mention being exposed to heterogeneous viewpoints, knowledge, experiences, etc. this is why public school is worth saving for the upper class/ intellectually elite.

        • Jan
          Jan says:

          What I see, working as an instructional assistant in a strong school district in CA is a huge divide between the haves and the have-nots. The apartment kids don’t have the support at home and are overall on the low end.

          The smart kids get cocky when it comes to how smart the are. They are not mixing with the poor kids. So if you are keeping your kids in school so they can be exposed to all classes of people, this is a poor argument and in my opinion just widens the gap.

          Yes, I’m sure there are those few super-smart poor kids that will jump the divide but kids know ecocomic status at a pretty young age.

          • Gareth
            Gareth says:

            If you want your kid to develop prejudices, just send him to a school where all the middle-class kids are white and all the poor kids are black. All the ritual genuflection to Martin Luther King the curriculum can muster won’t fix that impression.

        • Jenn
          Jenn says:

          I’m with you here. I am looking out for my kids too.
          There are so many opportunities to force experiences on your children that provide for the diversity that you desire that doesn’t involve sticking it out in public school. Many people of the “new” homeschool movement are doing this diversity training all the time. I call it the “new” movement, because these people are not the stereotypical home schoolers of twenty years ago. You know who I’m talking about.
          This diversity training is comprised mostly of charity work or service projects in the community. This is real exposure to diversity in a way that is fostered through meaningful work. So many people think that being “exposed” or “forced” to be in diverse situations makes kids give a shit. It doesn’t. Knowing that people of other races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds exist and sitting next to them in English class does not foster empathy or understanding to their differences. I think using public school as an avenue to promote diversity in children is a cop-out by passing the real responsibility of teaching these lessons onto “the system.”
          There are so many ways to be exposed to real diversity that do not take place in a laboratory for the simulation of real-life experiences; school.

          • channa
            channa says:

            Speaking for myself, exposing my children to diversity via charity work won’t do the job because the point isn’t to foster noblesse oblige in my children the point is to make them into culturally competent people who can be comfortable and welcomed in any group. This one is important to me. I’ve known way too many super high achievers who can’t hold a conversation with a janitor to save their lives.

          • Jenn
            Jenn says:


            WOW! The comment about not fostering noblesse oblige in your children is so incredibly condescending toward the people that you claim to want your children to be exposed. The people that need the help in the community are the parents of the children that you want your children to go to school with to get this so-called valuable diversity training.
            Dropping your children in the middle of a convention of janitors wouldn’t make any difference, because attitudes about the class and station of people is taught at home and being that you think teaching kindness and service to others is below you and has no legitimate real world value, then I will have to assume that your children will be just like you in their attitudes about “lesser” groups of people and exposing them to structured diversity experiences is a waste of their time.

        • Misty
          Misty says:

          Having a child with sensory issues, I have learned that it is most important for him to learn how to learn and accomplish the task at hand in an ideal environment for him first, then teach him how to do it in the less than ideal environments. He has to know what success feels like first before he can learn how to recreate it in more difficult environments. When someone learns to ski, they don’t just go down the most advanced hill on the first run. They start out on the beginner hills and move up as they become more comfortable.

      • Heather
        Heather says:

        Let’s not behave as if schools have always been funded “per occupied seat”, or as if local school always received federal dollars, or as if dollars in and of themselves solve everything.

        If dollars alone solved problems, no one would be homeschooling.

        To teach and learn requires a relationship, a means to communicate, and a means to record the results of the exchange. Period. Full stop. The teacher need not a human, paid to hover about the student.

        The funding rules have been written to make schools keep children in seats to produce the magic numbers known as “enrollment” and “graduation rate”.

        When we are talking about kids who aren’t in the top 15%, what on earth do you need all the funding for? It isn’t a smartboard that will work magic. It isn’t the over-promoted marching band program. They need stable adults who are invested in the relative success of each child.

        The kids who will learn anywhere need to go be there. The kids who need more structure and guidance need to go be there. If your children aren’t seeing a variety of people in their everyday life and it is important to you, then it seems to me that your circle of friends needs to be widened. Do not treat the school like a zoo for your children to look at the Other.

        Being able to talk to anybody politely is good manners. Being friendly is a personality trait. Respecting other people’s humanity no matter what their occupation is taught at home.

  1. Gareth
    Gareth says:

    One of the reasons I keep coming back is I like the way Penelope throws the bombs.

    So public school should be like educational food stamps?

    An anti-poverty measure targeted at a specific population?

  2. liza bennett
    liza bennett says:

    Penelope, I think you are underestimating the summer’s impact for higher SES kids. I remember reading that chart over and over when Outliers first came out. It seemed to me then that one plausible way to interpret the chart was that school was holding high SES kids BACK. They made all their intellectual gains in the summer time.
    Gladwell may have been interested in comparing rich and poor kids, but comparing rich kids to themselves yields evidence that rich kids benefit more from summer than from school.
    I gave the book away after reading it, so I can’t look easily now,
    but I suspect your point is even better than you write. A rich intellectual home life is more stimulating than school. We can admit the chart shows poor kids lose ground in the summer, maybe we should admit that rich kids lose ground in school?

  3. Emily VA
    Emily VA says:

    I strongly question this assumption:

    “the rest of the kids will have more appropriate services and more funding for those services, because we won’t pull the tax base out from under them”

    Why _wouldn’t_ self-interested parents start challenging public funding of school if their kids aren’t going? Parents who have opted out of public schools have been the driving force for voucher-type systems (essentially pulling the tax base from under public schools) for years. Why would choosing to homeschool be different than choosing to send your student to a parochial or charter school? Both have a cost to the parent that they might well think should be offset by lower taxes.

    Also, I think you underestimate how much the non-special ed students subsidize the extra cost of educating students with IEPs, and (your family to the contrary) students with special needs are generally more strongly incented to stay in the public school system than leave it. If you drain out the least-resource intensive kids, there will be less money to subsidize the most resource-intensive kids.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The special needs kids only earn the schools money if the parents are well behaved and don’t ask for teachers that are not already on staff.

      In order to get what a child needs, and not just what is good for the school, the parents generally have to sue. In Los Angeles’s public school system it is almost above board that the school won’t give special needs kids extra services unless the parent sues. In other districts, like my Madison WI school district, there is not an explicit policy, but there didn’t need to be — I was the only parent who got a lawyer. In NYC the parents get lawyers so fast that the services are excellent and cost a huge amount of money for each school.

      My point is that if kids really got what they have a legal right to it would kill the school’s budget and that’s why there is a huge legal system set up around IEPs.


  4. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    Having that having the top 15% in public schools raises the bar for the bottom 85%, because they’re competing to rise to a higher standard. If there’s less demand for higher-level classes because most of the top 15% has left, those classes won’t be available to the high performers who remain, or to the highest performing among the 85%. It also provides an example of a world outside the world some of the kids are living in, that they can aspire to. Also, having the top 15% of kids’ parents involved in the public school raises the quality of the school for all the kids (or I hope it does, otherwise I’m wasting a lot of time). It *is* possible for public schools to be good, regardless of income level. My middle-class kids go to a Title 1 school that’s doing a fabulous job educating all comers.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      There is no way in hell rich, smart kids benefit from being in a Title I school.

      (Background: Title I schools are not organized economically, but they end up being disproportionately full of poor kids.)

      So, first of all, we have solid data that rich smart kids don’t need to learn to read in school. (This comes from Bank Street College.) They would learn to read just from being in the world. Kids with poor, uneducated parents need to learn to read in school. So the reading classes are waste of time for the 15%.

      Second, we know that poor kids slip over the summer and rich kids don’t. So the top 15% spend September waiting while the other kids catch up to them again.

      Third, all the Title I funding from the government goes to help the kids who are not up to class level. Title I schools are distracted by the non-educational effects of poverty, and they get federal money to make sure the teachers still have time to focus on keeping kids from falling behind. In this scenario no one is paying attention to the top 15%. And why should they? There are kids in that school who are not getting food at home, and some don’t even have a home. They don’t have parents who can help them in school. We should be helping them. They need our help more than the 15%.


      • Lauren
        Lauren says:

        I concede that my public school district isn’t “normal”. All the schools in my county are Title I because we’re a weird county with a very high poverty rate (highest in the US for a county our size), but also a University town with a lot of very well-educated people, many of whom haven’t yet “white fled” to the surrounding counties, and many of which are highly committed to making sure our schools work. They’re not perfect, but they’re very good.

        You said further down that you didn’t think homeschooling families would pull their tax money out of public schools. That is, in fact, what happens. Schools receive funding per bottom in a seat. If your kids’ bottoms are not in seats, the school’s funding is reduced by that much. From what I’ve read about your kids and the school they would go to, I think you’re right to homeschool them, but I also think it’s possible and necessary to keep working to improve the public schools, and you can’t do that by leaving.

  5. Julie
    Julie says:

    I agree that schools can’t be all things for all people without tracking, which is going to separate, to a large degree, kids by class. That is how the AP classes work at our high school. And parents know it and want their kids in them both for academic and social reasons. So I don’t think putting diverse groups of kids together means that they won’t segregate themselves by class. They do. All you have to do is check out the lunch room.

    What about kids who are gifted in one area and average, or even struggling in others? They might not land in the top fifteen percent. Would schools meet their needs? The gifted program at our local university recognizes these kids as gifted. Our local school district does not.

  6. Jenn-ski
    Jenn-ski says:

    This is already happening in Baltimore city schools. No parent with any means is sending their kids to the public school, leaving the public schools with a pretty homogeneous population. But they still can’t figure out how to educate those kids well.

  7. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    Your last paragraph made me laugh. Yes, I do feel validated now that I’m intelligent and therefore so are my children because I read your blog, and yes, we home school.

    However, wouldn’t almost *everyone* answer ‘yes’ to the question, “Is your child intelligent?” because of how we perceive our own kids over other children? I know I am biased.

    Sarah M

    • MoniqueWS
      MoniqueWS says:

      OK. Here is how I *know* my kids aren’t in the top 15%. After 15, 12, 9 years they still can not remember to put their milky cereal bowls in the dishwasher instead of leaving them *where they lay*. :-)

  8. Erin
    Erin says:

    Lauren, I was one of those top 15% kids. trust me, there was nothing gained by the rest of my classmates by having me in their classes, except for someone to pick on and make feel awkward. Which I was, because all I really wanted to be doing was reading a book (which I did under my desk) while my teacher tried to create order in the classroom. My parents, both working full time, had not the time nor the inclination to help out in our public school, which was horribly inconvenient for a working parent to do anyway. We were all much better off when my parents decided to move my sister and I to a private school. I’m not saying private school is always the solution, but being one of the smartest kids in a public school classroom wasn’t much of a treat for me. Both the education and the social environment were much better at the private school.

    • Lauren
      Lauren says:

      Erin, you just described most of my school experience to a T. I basically had 3 friends between birth and age 14. I finally landed in the city I still live in for my freshman year of high school, and it was so much better. It’s a college town, so there were lots of other kids in my “category” (professor’s kids, etc.). That made a huge, huge difference, and it’s one reason I chose to stay here and raise my children here. Also, the place I lived when I was in elementary school was pretty homogeneous, and I grew up uncomfortable with “others”, so I’m glad my children are being exposed to a lot of diversity, both racial and economic. And I’m REALLY glad that my public school system is as progressive as it is.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I showed your comment to my husband, who also read a book under his desk the whole time he was in school. He went to a rural school (the district we are in now, actually) where there were tests all the time. He would race through the test and finish them a half-hour before the other kids just so he could have peace and quiet to read his books because it was the only time things were quiet taking the test.


      • Jan
        Jan says:

        Nt son used to read under the table too(4th grade). When the teacher called on him, he was still able to answer the questions. He was a good kid so she let it slide. I started homeschooling the next year. Best decision ever!

  9. Jessica Smock
    Jessica Smock says:

    Penelope, Thank you for responding to my post about home schooling on my blog, School of Smock. This has been such an interesting conversation. I’ve really learned a lot about how parents make educational choices, about changes in how they do this, and about home schooling itself.

    I do have to question your basic assumption that the schooling of the rest of kids left in poorly performing schools would improve if the top 15% left their public schools for home schooling (or for private schools or anywhere else, for that matter). Achievement, “intelligence” test scores, and “success” in school and college (however you measure it) are so closely correlated to social class, the educational background of parents, income, and race in this country that if the top achievers exited the schools, the composition of any particular school on average would probably not change much. In other words, segregation and isolation by class and race already dominate American schools and neighborhoods.
    The educational research is so mixed on this. There just aren’t large-scale studies that “prove” anything, no matter what people on both sides of school choice tell you. But there is a strong argument that “cream-skimming,” or the result of taking the top 15% out of the schools, would take away parents with access to valuable social and cultural capital (or, in other words, to cultural knowledge and important social networks). In addition, there would be fewer opportunities for the most disadvantaged to capitalize on the positive effects of advantaged and academically motivated peers and peer groups.
    I do have one question… Can anyone point to resources that explain exactly how home schooling affects funding for local school districts? I have read so much conflicting information. My understanding was that funding for any particular school or district is tied to the enrollment numbers for that school or district. Thus, home schooling kids would have an adverse effect on local schools because their enrollment numbers would drop. I’m not sure where those funds go, since the total amount of available funds is based on property taxes.
    Thanks so much for the continued conversation!

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      You are correct that the school district receives funds based on enrollment. I remember reading an article about homeschooling in AZ and the author had calculated how much money it saves the state. So I assume the money that isn’t going to the schools from the state stays in their general fund. Property taxes, I believe, stay in the municipality and are used for other purposes (roads, parks, government employee salaries…).

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hi, Jessica. When I talk about the top 15% I assume they are the rich, overprivileged kids and not necessarily the brightest. But whatever. They are sucking up public resources that other kids need more than they do.

      And when I talk about everyone taking their kids out and homeschooing them, I assume we will all vote to keep our tax dollars in the schools because it feels like such an incredibly moral imperative to me to make sure poor kids are educated well that I am not even willing to engage in the discussion of homeschoolers taking their money out of the school. I think it’s BS. I support public school education for all kids who need it. My kids don’t need it. Thank goodness.


  10. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    The problem is public schools are largely a state run rather than federally run deal. The feds do give money to state and local education entities. That money is run/managed/tied to federal education and laws. Most of the money schools get is from state and local education entities. very state has its own ideas about funding.

    In Oregon each local education district gets about $16K in funds for instruction and capital improvement for each backside in a seat/behind a desk. The number is almost three times that for special education students.

    The money our family sends to the state of Oregon in taxes which doesn’t go to the local school district because my kids are at home simply stays in the general fund.

    I can tell you I can educate my three kiddos for much less than $16K each though if we were to take into account my choice of unemployment/no income it would look a lot higher.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Monique, that is a really big “even though” isn’t it? I mean, it pretty much shows that your kids are being educated at a cost that is double what public school kids receive.

      It’s like saying men who have stay-at-home wives have self-cleaning houses. They don’t. They have wives who are doing the job that people get paid to do.


      • MoniqueWS
        MoniqueWS says:

        If I stayed in the public sector as an engineer we would just about break even. If I worked for a private firm I *may* be way on the losing end of salary and benefits.

        I own my own children’s book business. I work very part time. We are comfortable. The kids swim competitively, Jr roller derby, take several kinds of music lessons, camp and do Scouts and we have with money on the side for family trips and museum/aquarium/zoo memberships.

        I get to spend the best part of all of their days with my kiddos. Priceless. I think I am definitely on the winning end of this deal!

  11. Lyndap
    Lyndap says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while and you almost have me convinced that my kids don’t need public school.

  12. Priswell
    Priswell says:

    I don’t know if homeschooling our own kids has much effect on the public schools at all. Schools are going to do whatever they are going to do.

    When homeschooling became popular in my area, they started opening charter schools and the idea was that parents would still be able to homeschool the way they wanted. As time went by, though, the schools pretty much reinvented their programs to be “public school, but at home”. Parents have little input as to what or how is taught during school time, and are even strongly admonished that the Bible is to not be used or referenced during school time.

    So, the homeschoolers didn’t change the public schools. The schools changed homeschooling and how it is done for some.

    It seems to me that homeschooling isn’t about fixing the schools as much as meeting the needs of our own children and hopefully, improving the prospects for their own futures.

  13. Ernie Dunne
    Ernie Dunne says:

    The general meaning of ethics: rational, optimal (regarded as the best solution of the given options) and appropriate decision brought on the basis of common sense. This does not exclude the possibility of destruction if it is necessary and if it does not take place as the result of intentional malice.””

    Our new blog

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