When you are deciding what’s right for your kids, you probably seek out some trusted people to listen to. That’s how I started homeschooling. (And every trusted source told me to forget about curricula, but that’s another story.) Something I’ve noticed is that all the people who are telling us about education reform actually have a vested interest in the status quo. Which creates a chronic problem of intellectual dishonesty among school reform advocates.

1. Journalists can’t get their work done if they homeschool. So they don’t tell other people to.
This month’s issue of Wired magazine has a great article about school reform in Mexico. Letting kids teach themselves and how great it’s been for them. But is this an article telling people to homeschool? No. That would be heresy! How would the Wired editors get any work done?

This article epitomizes everything I hate about journalists who write about school reform: They yammer on and on about big ideas but don’t touch the biggest idea, which is that kids should be home, learning on their own.

2. School reformers want to be big-time voices of the people, which means they can’t advocate homeschool because they’d be stuck home with their kids.
Will Richardson is so eloquent when it come to making very good arguments for why school is stupid. Yet he sends his kids to school. I did a little research on the topic of Will Richardson’s kids and it turns out he thinks their school is just like all other schools in so far as school is stupid.

So why does he send his kids to school? I think it’s probably the same reason that Seth Godin sends his kids to school.

Seth Godin writes bestselling books about online marketing and he makes tons of money speaking. Recently he has made a foray into school reform. He writes that kids should be self-directed and passion-driven learners. But kids can have that only in a homeschool environment, so why doesn’t he write that?

Because then he’d have to homeschool. And he doesn’t want that. He wants to believe that educating kids requires an expert, because then he’s off the hook since he’s an online marketer.

Will Richardson doesn’t homeschool his kids because he thinks his time is too valuable as a school reform advocate for him to stay home all day making sure his kids are following their passions. So he tells people whose time isn’t so valuable that they should do it.

I want to say how I don’t get it. But I do get it. People who are BIG VOICES in school reform would never want to homeschool their kids because then they couldn’t be BIG VOICES. School is a systematic justification for all parents to do something instead of raising their kids. School reform is a systematic way to do that with more self-righteousness than others.

3. Child advocates do intellectual gymnastics to avoid telling you to take your kid out of school.
The American Medical Association recommends that kids have very limited computer time because kids are too sedentary. But why are kids sedentary? We know that boys are so unable to sit still that they have to be medicated to sit still in grade school. So most certainly it is not in kids’ nature to be sedentary. And what is more sedentary than school?

What the AMA is really saying is that if you have to be in school for eight hours a day, then kids should not choose their own fun after school, but rather they should make up for the sedentary time they were there.

Here’s another way to think about it: Kids sit in school for 8 hours a day Monday- Friday. Does the AMA recommend sitting at the computer for 8 hours a day on Saturday? Is that okay? No. Of course not. Because being sedentary for eight hours a day is not good for kids.

Parents are ignoring all the research because it’s too challenging.
What if the AMA did say that kids shouldn’t be in school? Parents would say they have no way to keep their kids home. Parents would say “How will kids learn math?” (Did you know that basic math skills are innate? Kids will learn them on their own because counting is like reading – you get the urge to do it to be part of society. Yes, reading is something kids teach themselves as long as there are books in the house.)

My point here is that parents who listen to the experts holding up the status quo feel comforted, because they do not have to face reality. So they listen.

Curriculum is the fallback for parents who can’t handle change.
There is no evidence that kids need to learn chemistry in order to have a good life. There is no evidence that you can teach someone to be a good writer. There is no evidence that boys should go to school before they are eight. But parents continue to force curriculum down kids’ throats. Parents want to get a gold star for parenting. They want to say they taught their kids something. But the real gold star for parenting comes from being able to turn your back on self-interested experts whose lack of vision and intellectual honesty is stifling your ability to do what is best for your kids.

28 replies
  1. Cheryl Lewis-McCarren
    Cheryl Lewis-McCarren says:

    Really enjoyed this post Ms. P. I just wrote a post on my blog about how frustrated I am as a parent and home educating wing nut. I home educated my two oldest (30 & 25 now), and have 2 boys 10 & 7 that I am TRYING desperately to “teach” also. My biggest issue is listening to all the “experts” and finding myself having several anxiety attacks a day because my boys don’t “learn” so well….and I’m afraid I am not going to make that “window” of brain development and all will be lost. **sigh**

    So finding this post and re-reading several others you have written thus far……I feel somewhat relieved that I am not a total idiot and that my gut feelings about how I am going about doing this home school thing a second time around is maybe going to turn out ok at some point.

    So yes – I’m in total agreement with you on the “experts”…..I observe quit often that what they espouse from their lips is quite different in their own personal lives and when that happens I roll my eyes in disgust and eat chocolate while pouring myself another cup of “stress relief” tea because I am still confused about what the hell I SHOULD be doing to edumecate my kids!!!!

    Reply
  2. mh
    mh says:

    My son got a 2-hour geology lesson today from an amateur expert. This guy patiently looked at every rock (well, probably only *half*) in my kid’s “special rock bucket,” helped my son figure out which rocks were jasper, quartz, flourite, iron pyrite, granite, sandstone, river rocks, volcanic rocks… on and on they talked. About comets and meteorites and sunspots and Northern lights and rock polishing equipment and petrified wood and fossils. While the amateur-expert worked. Painting the baseboards in my house.

    And my son carried a tray of rocks and a rock-identification chart around, and asked hundreds of questions.

    This patient painter shared all this time, answered all these questions, made my son’s day.

    Great, excellent teachers are absolutely everywhere. Very few of them work in schools.

    Thank you for this post — homseschooling my family (a decision which was anxiety-provoking when we began) has been the best, most life-affirming and joy-bringing decision we’ve made as a family. We appreciate one another so much more, and we are much more alive to the possibilities for learning.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The idea that everyone is a teacher is so empowering. It reminds us that we are each special in our knowledge of the world – we just need to frame it that way. And it reminds us that we each have something to give.

      Once we start saying that teachers are somehow the only qualified ones to teach we undermine the very traits that make us human – universal curiosity and generosity.

      Penelope

      Reply
  3. Taylor
    Taylor says:

    I want to say how I don’t get it. But I do get it. People who are BIG VOICES in school reform would never want to homeschool their kids because then they couldn’t be BIG VOICES. School is a systematic justification for all parents to do something instead of raising their kids. School reform is a systematic way to do that with more self-righteousness than others.

    Perfectly stated. Thank you for writing this.

    Reply
  4. christy
    christy says:

    Penelope, you said, “Did you know that basic math skills are innate?”

    I discovered the truth of this quite accidentally two days ago.

    I wanted to juggle some balls for my 2 1/2 year old daughter. I had two and told her I needed three to juggle.

    She said, “If you need three, then you need one more ball.”

    I mentioned this to my partner, and she informed me that L can also do subtraction. I was amazed.

    Innate math skills. Who knew?

    Reply
    • Rebecca F
      Rebecca F says:

      Of course even small kids can do subtraction, just try taking a favorite food from their plate when they aren’t looking. They can tell you exactly how much they had and how many you took away! :)

      Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      So profound! And you make me realize that I should write more about babysitting, because that’s really the core issue. For example, I work a lot of hours, and one of the reasons I do that is that I definitely want babysitting, and I definitely want to homeschool, so I need to make enough money to have great babysitting — working just a few hours won’t allow me to do that.

      Also, unschooling sort of frees me up to get a wider range of babysitters. Curriculum-based schooling is very restrictive because if you think you need teachers for your kids then you probably need teaching/babysitting instead of just babysitting.

      Thank you for making me think more about this with such a simple single sentence.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • CB
        CB says:

        Penelope,
        I think it’s interesting to consider the choices we make in terms of what’s best for our kids and ourselves, but also flipping that concept to consider it in terms of least-worst. They imply two different realities (what you wish for and what you get).
        -Caroline

        Reply
  5. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I’m still unsure, and disagree, as for why you think that an “unschooling school” is a bad idea. For many children it could be a break from a less than positive home environment and for the majority it could mean a much richer environment and exposure to a much wider variety of people than home.
    The o ly example I have is the school you linked you that Suri Cruise goes to and one I learned about in psychology today. Perhaps the time requirement is ridiculous. 8 hours is too much. I’m playing. Game at the office to do, most days, a whole days work in 5 hrs. School shouldn’t be for so long.
    But a major concern about homeschooling my kid is that I just won’t be enough variety. That my blind spots and my life philosophy won’t offer enough range.
    Maybe they don’t need it? But having grown up in an essentially a “tribal community” I can see the difference. And I want that for my child as much as possible.

    Reply
    • Sheela Clary
      Sheela Clary says:

      Did you see the comment above about the amateur geologist/ painter? I love that. I am good at anything to do with language, volunteering, singing, cooking and running or yoga. for the rest, outsource, outsource,, outsource. No matter where you live you can seek out experts. People love to share what they are good at. for the rest, there is the school of the internet.

      Reply
      • mh
        mh says:

        p.s. to that story,

        If my child had been at school, he never would have met the painter. The painter would have come to my house in th emorning, quietly done his work, and gone on his way while my child sat at school.

        The child at school would have been told that his interest in geology would have to wait until the class got to that unit; the painter would have been quietly competent.

        Instead, they had this rich interaction of questions and advice and demonstrations. It was serendipity.

        It happens all the time. Homeschool is freedom. We’re free to learn — opportunities are everywhere.

        Furthermore, the painter is this interesting Swiss-Turkish man who talked about travels and immigration and tried out languages with my kids and was generally agreeable. But if he had been a painter at a school, he would have been painting after hours and certainly not interacting with students. You know? Because he isn’t credentialled.

        Reply
  6. Daphne Gray-Grant
    Daphne Gray-Grant says:

    You need to add one word to the post, above. The word is MOST. As in “reading is something MOST kids teach themselves.”

    As the mother of grown triplets whom I homeschooled until university, I can tell you this was true for 2/3 of my kids. But my son was severely dyslexic.

    The good news was that his dyslexia strengthened our homeschooling resolve. But there is no way he would have learned to read without the major and intensive tutoring we arranged for him for about four years.

    I’m always wary of absolutist statements relating to kids. Just about nothing is true of ALL kids.

    Reply
    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I love your last sentence. Nothing is true of all kids. And kids are people. So nothing is true of all people.

      But it’s hard to deal with a world where categories don’t delineate perfectly so it’s very easy to be black and white. It’s comforting.

      Reply
  7. redrock
    redrock says:

    I was fascinated by the article in Wires, not because I have kids that age, but because it brought a very fresh approach in a seemingly hopeless situation. And I don’t think it is comparable to the situation of middle class US families. You say it yourself:”Yes, reading is something kids teach themselves as long as there are books in the house” – in many poor households there are no books in the house, there is no music being played on a regular basis and there are no conversations about intellectually stimulating topics because of the crushing pressure to get food on the table, or repair the leaking roof. If all families would homeschool the chasm between rich and poor (and I know that many families who are economically poor will provide a rich environment for their kids, and many who are rich do not – but those who are rich can at least pay for these services if they don’t provide it themselves) would widen dramatically in a generation.

    Reply
    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      I agree redrock.

      ‘The poor’ conjures up a group of people who’s only obstacle is lack of money, but in my experience their lack of money is due to other hurdles. The biggest hurdle being a fear of higher-class people, which prevents them from travelling at all. They are scared they are going to run into people who can see they clearly do not measure up to the rest of the herd.

      This has huge ramifications.

      Reply
  8. MG
    MG says:

    Thanks for this excellent post. Just a quick question: Your link about boys being kept out of school until age 8 went to your post about video games (which didn’t bring this matter up), and I came up empty-handed when I turned to Google. Would you mind providing the correct link?

    Reply
  9. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    I agree with all of your points, Penelope.
    These so called “experts” love to dance around the issue of homeschooling. It’s because if they agreed with it, they would have to change, sacrifice.
    These new education reforms are a great way to sound like something’s changing when nothing is.
    Yes, the real gold medal is being able to go against the grain of political correctness and truly educate your child.
    Most of these reformers are simply trying to soothe the guilty conscious of people who are simply looking for a way to brag about their child’s success in school (i.e. ability to play the game) rather than churning out successful, productive children.

    Reply
  10. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    The question is do the reformers see their own hypocrisy or is it willful ignorance? They like to take old failed ideas and repackage them as new great ideas and the herd of reformers all clink their wine glasses and pat each other on the back…. You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.

    Reply
  11. mh
    mh says:

    I mean, OF COURSE institutional reform doesn’t start with, “eliminate the institution.”

    Come on.

    That would be like prison reformers saying, “the first thing we’re going to do is send all these prisoners home.”

    Or like Congressional reformers saying, “you know, we have plenty of laws on the books already. Let’s adjourn. See you next year.”

    No, no, no.

    The POINT Is to feel good about being for “reform” while keeping the structure and bureaucracy of the institution EXACTLY THE SAME.

    I look at the education bureaucracy as operating primarily as a tax-funded jobs program, and quite often as an affirmative action spoils system. (That’s why “school reform” is so often met with cries of “racism.” Schools provide safe government jobs with secure benefits for middle-class minorities in the cities.)

    When you understand that schools operate for the comfort and convenience of the adults, it clarifies your view of what goes on there all day.

    Reply
  12. Jen
    Jen says:

    The truth is that homeschooling is huge sacrifice On the part of the homeschooling parent or parents. (Although I tell people that ask me for advice it’s not, it really is.) It’s all about running around preparing, thinking about what the kids are going to do, what their going to do next, how you get them what they need to learn, how you help them follow their passions. Even the outsourcing takes preparation. I think it may be easier when they’re older because they can be more self-directed, but when they’re younger it’s all about teaching them to be self-directed learners. Which is exhausting in the beginning! But then the light at the end of the tunnel starts to show up and you can see progress and initiative on their own. My kids are turning five and eight and it’s starting now the five-year-old is learning from the eight-year-old in the eight-year-old has learned over time that she can do things on her own. I think I may even have time for a hobby here at some point! All this being said it’s the best decision our family has ever made. I’m closer with my kids and I ever knew I could be in they’re closer with each other than I thought possible. We love the freedom of homeschooling. In fact were on a month-long trip together right now! Hooray FREEDOM!

    Reply
  13. J.E.
    J.E. says:

    I’m wondering what’s the best option for kids who, to be blunt, have crap parents? What’s the best option for a child who has a parent(s) who doesn’t care, but isn’t so horrible that it warrants the child being taken out of the home by social services? These would be homes where the parents don’t care what their child is or isn’t doing in school all day, they’re just wanting them gone and out of their hair for those hours. Even if the child was at home there wouldn’t be any type of schooling going on. Homeschooling works for kids who have good, invested parents, but sadly there’s more crap parents out there than I wish were true. How do these kids get educated and passionate about learning when it’s not something they see valued and modeled at home?

    Reply
  14. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve written here. To your point on counting and reading being innate and kids will want to learn to do it because it’s what society does, don’t most kids (unfortunately) also want to go to school (or at least express drop curiousity about school) because it’s what most kids in our society do? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. We’ve always homeschooled for many of the reasons you write about but this year our 10-year-old adamantly wanted to go to school. He’s now enrolled in our local public school and I cringe at what he does there all day (and what he doesn’t do anymore, like spend time writing his novel, studying Greek Mythology, and learning computer programming, all of which he was doing because he wanted to before we finally let him enroll). He says he wants to be a normal kid like all of the other kids in our neighborhood and on his sports teams who go to the same school.

    I’d love to read your thoughts on this. We are still homeschooling our younger son, who has no desire to go to school.

    Reply
  15. Benny
    Benny says:

    Very good summary of the way people dodge the issue of schooling in general. I’d never thought of how blatantly people admit that school isn’t good for you, but then avoid really facing that conclusion.

    There’s another aspect of this that deserves to be addressed, too, which is that school “reform” is just a lucrative career and that improving the lives of students has never, ever been its goal.

    Whether their ideas work has never been the point; the point has always been to dismantle public education so that more private education companies can receive more of the piece of the government pie.

    Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, it’s important to acknowledge that that is the ONLY real goal of the education reform movement. Any benefit to students, parents, or society, is entirely accidental.

    Reply
    • mh
      mh says:

      Benny, I agree that school “reform” is about money and prestige for “reformers” and not about results for students.

      Following the idea that education is least-best administered in a compulsory-factory setting, why wouldn’t it be better for the public school bureaucracy and facilities to be dismantled and a new approach for customized education be pursued?

      If we were creating education in America from the ground up, would we recreate the buildings and the bureaucracy as they are today?

      Reply

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