About My Homeschool Success Story . . .

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Illinois Springfield.

Editorial note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. It was originally published on February 24, 2016.

I posted earlier this week about David McGrath, a college professor who used to be anti-homeschooling but became avidly and uncritically pro-homeschooling after having a homeschool graduate in his class who impressed him with her academic work and interest. Here is the relevant quote from his article:

All that changed when I started teaching at the college level, on an evening when I came home from work, slipped off my shoes, collapsed into the recliner and announced to my wife that the best student in my college composition class had been home-schooled.

An 18-year-old only child, who had been educated by her parents for all 12 grades, chose a seat in the front row on the first day of class.

The following 16 weeks, she maintained eye contact throughout lectures and discussions, listened intently to me and her classmates, raised her hand to offer an observation, an answer or to ask a question when no one else would, followed instructions to the letter, communicated verbally and in writing more clearly than everyone else and received the highest grade on every assignment.

She was the first student to arrive, had perfect attendance the entire semester and was a catalyst for every lesson I ventured.

In his piece McGrath goes on to praise homeschooling up and down, and to argue that homeschooling de facto provides a better education. In my response, I noted that the student he is describing could have been me as an undergraduate ten years ago, and that I am not okay with homeschool success stories like mine being used to erase the many stories of homeschool educational neglect that I saw growing up or have heard from other homeschool alumni since.

Homeschooling does not de facto provide a better education. Homeschooling is only as good as the parents who use it and the resources they have access to.

But there’s another point that needs to be made as well. The comment section on my post filled up with statements like this:

It’s also possible to be a “homeschool success story” while having experienced educational neglect. I had great SAT scores, was offered lots of scholarships, and graduated college with a perfect GPA. I got used to presenting myself as a poster child for the homeschooling movement. But now, looking back, I think my success was in spite of my home education, not because of it.

I was expected to teach myself most subjects – with absolutely no guidance, little supervision, and inadequate materials. As in, my parents handed me an outdated college-level science textbook when I was 15 and expected me to teach myself the material.

But if a homeschooler is successful in her studies and in her future career, that must mean that her parents did an amazing job and that homeschooling is the best educational option, right? I mean, what other explanation could there possibly be?

In comment after comment after comment after comment, other homeschool alumni who had also been “homeschool success stories” shared tales of educational neglect or the inability to fit in socially. “I didn’t take the subjects I was under prepared in,” explained one while another described her college experience as “so crushingly lonely that at times I couldn’t breathe.” I had left this side of things out of my post because I was focusing on the problem of using homeschool success stories to erase stories of debilitating homeschool neglect, but this too—the frequent surface-level nature of many homeschool success stories—is a tale that needs to be told.

One thing I wondered when reading McGrath’s piece was whether he ever asked the girl he described whether she had liked being homeschooled, or whether she considered herself better off for having been homeschooled, or whether in her estimation there were any inadequacies in her education. I have seen so many people go on and on about how wonderful homeschooling is without ever asking a single homeschool alumni for their thoughts. But then I remembered that, given that many if not most homeschooled students are raised to defend homeschooling to the teeth, asking is unlikely to get a straight answer.

I spent my entire college experience praising my homeschool upbringing. I was a model student with a perfect GPA. I believed homeschooling had gotten me there and fully intended to homeschool my children too. I believed that homeschooling was a better educational method than any other (and also that sending your children to school every day was akin to abandoning them and handing them over to teachers to be raised, of course). But then, one day, Sean (my then-boyfriend, now-husband) put a question to me that stopped me up short.

“Well yes, Libby, but don’t you think, given your parents’ educational backgrounds, the value they put on education, and your drive and motivation level, that you’d have done just as well academically if you’d attended public school?”

I had never once considered that, but in that moment I realized that he was right. I succeeded not because I was homeschooled but rather because I had parents who cared about education, who promoted academic learning, and who expected me to succeed. I excelled academically not because I was homeschooled but rather because I was a motivated and driven learner, ready to consume any knowledge I could put my hands on. And if I’d attended public school, I’d have had actual math teachers during high school, rather than be left struggling through textbooks teaching myself, alone.

For all that I was a model student, there were some important things missing from my homeschool experience. I have no criticism of my early years—my mother worked hard to teach me and siblings and I learned reading, grammar, math, history, and science thoroughly and in ways that were interactive and fun. But my high school years I was mostly on my own. I had an instructor I met with once a week for languages—Latin and Greek—and I attended a weekly homeschool co-op that covered choir, band, and art. I also attended speech and debate club, and two homeschool moms served as our coaches. But other than that, I taught myself. I was self-motivated and driven, so this wasn’t entirely a bad thing, but there are a number of areas where I would benefited from having an instructor or a more structured class.

Government? My parents counted my volunteer work on various political campaigns as government, along with reading the Federalist Papers on my own. Economics? My parents had me read Whatever Happened to Penny Candy and complete some consumer economics workbooks, once again on my own. Actually, I’m pretty sure my parents counted the anti-government summer camp I attended as government and economics credit as well. History? My mom counted my independent reading as history, which she figured was okay because I was a bit of a history nut. In college I lapped up the history survey courses like I’d never tasted water before, even as most of the students around me were bored because they’d already had history survey courses in high school. I hadn’t. Much (if not most) of what I was learning was new.

Once in college I avoided the subjects I wasn’t good at (as another commenter noted), and that meant staying the hell away from math. In high school, I had been expected to teach myself out of math textbooks. Because I’m a quick learner, this worked for a while, but then I hit calculus. I finished the book and we put it on my transcript, but I had completely lost track of what was going on. If I had majored in math, I would have started out behind. I’m a quick learner, and hadn’t had an instructor for math since grade school, so it’s possible I might have caught up quickly, but I preferred not to try. I chose to stick with subjects I knew I could handle.

But actually, we need to talk about English too. I never had an English class the way you would in a public high school. Most of the books everyone read because they were required for high school English classes I never even touched. I never analyzed themes in literature or studied the history of literature. And critically, I never learned how to do footnotes or write a research paper. My freshman year, I had my college friends read every single one of my papers before I turned them in, and I found myself at the writing center asking desperately for someone to please show me how to do footnotes. Do you know how confusing it is to have to figure out how to write a research paper for the first time ever, completely by yourself? I’d done timed essays, sure, and I knew basic grammar. But this? Nope. This was new.

Let me tell you a dirty little secret: Some homeschool graduates excel in college because they are intelligent and driven and college is the first time they’ve had access to instructors and education. They drink up education because they’re starved for it.

And then there’s the social element. Early on in college I formed a sort of community for myself with a number of other highly motivated and academically inclined students who shared my evangelical beliefs—everyone else thought I was weird, and I had trouble fitting in with other groups socially. Going to college felt like moving to another country. I didn’t understand the culture, but I also didn’t know the language. It wasn’t just that the other students were different from me—though they were—it was also that I literally did not know how to behave in social situations. I mean I could be in those situations, I just didn’t know any of the rules. And so I would sit in class surrounded by strangers I didn’t know how to interact with—and was in some sense afraid to interact with—and then return to the safety of my small circle of friends to study or hang out. If I hadn’t made these close friends quickly, my social experience would have been completely different.

But let’s talk about those friends for a moment. My friends were, like me, model students. And yet, they had graduated from public schools. It wasn’t until after Sean’s question about how well I thought I would have done in public school that I really thought about this. My college friends were just as driven and prepared as I was—if not more so—and they had attended public school. And if I’m honest with myself, a number of them were more prepared and more well-rounded than I was. Indeed, their high school education was objectively better than mine.

And yet, I would never once have criticized homeschooling during my college years. I was raised on such a strong strong dose of homeschool supremacism (I’m honestly not sure what else to call it) that I could not easily shake my belief that homeschooling was superior and public schooling was always sub-par. It’s all to easy for a homeschooling parent to see any criticism of homeschooling as criticism of them, but it was more than that. Having been homeschooled was part of my identity, too, and to admit flaws in that experience was simply out of the question. It was years—years—before I was able to reach a place where I didn’t feel like I had to homeschool my own future children. Actually, my oldest was two or three before I was able to reach that point—the point where it felt like an option, not a mandate.

When I put my oldest in public school, my mother cried. Wept. Please, next time you talk about homeschool graduates, remember that many if not most of us are in a position where our parents will see any criticism we may have of homeschooling as a direct attack on them. And I didn’t even criticize homeschooling, I simply put my kids in public school—but that was enough. Even now, I think carefully before mentioning any of my children’s school activities or accomplishments to my mother, because I never know how she’ll react—or whether such mentions will cause her further pain.  Those who use successful homeschool graduates as evidence of how awesome homeschooling is never stop to think about the tightrope we must walk.

I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school, and I went on to excel in college and now graduate school. I am to all accounts a homeschool success story. But that is not all of my story. My story is also one of flaws and struggles. Would I have been better off if I had attended public school? I don’t know. Homeschooling gave me some opportunities I would not have had had I attended public school, even as it removed others. Do I wish I had not been homeschooled? At this point, no. I have walked through a lot of crap, but having been homeschooled is part of what makes me me, and I like where I am today, and who I am.

But I can say that there were things about my homeschool experience that were subpar, and that while I must have seemed like a model student to every one of my professors, there was something about that that was only skin-deep.

8 comments

  • It is wonderful you are thinking this through. As a university student in the field of education I had to write my philosophy of education. You are doing something of the sort here. I went on to teach in the public schools for 4 years in 2 different school districts (we moved). When we had children we homeschooled. Because I taught special education at the middle school level, I taught a lot of students who had fallen through the cracks. I saw first hand the defects in the reading instruction in the elementary school.This contributed to the reason we decided to homeschool.

    As you have said, you were highly motivated. Your parents valued education. If you would have gone to public school (or for that matter, a private school) your parents would have been supportive, making sure you did your homework etc. Over the years I’ve spoken to many parents of children in our local public school. They have generally complained about the quality of education. These are highly educated parents who want the best for their children. Our children grew up together in 4-H and we helped each other with 4-H projects. We all have an interest in kids and learning. Of course these parents have worked hard to supplement their children’s education and have some even served on the local school board.

    I am still homeschooling the youngest three. I have conversations with my graduates about the weak points in our homeschool; how we can improve. Please consider that no matter how education is accomplished, that people have varying amounts of “crap” they deal with. For some students, getting to public school is a life saver for them as teachers notice the possibility of abuse and get social services involved. For others, they deal with “crap” at their mediocre public school. Still other students are mistreated at home through lack of adequate education, care or are abused.

  • Reblogged this on christianagnostic and commented:
    Very interesting point of view about homeschooling.

  • My homeschool experience felt to me very similar to yours. Unfortunately, instead of going on to college after high school though, I wound up married and with 2 kids by the time I was 22. I love my kids, but as a 33 year old I am finally realizing that I never stopped trying to behave like a miniature adult long enough to actually allow myself the freedom needed to grow up. I did not even allow myself to consider the possibility that any other form of school was acceptable for my own children until I was in a very poor mental and emotional state after the birth of my 4th when I was 26. Even then, as I realized that I would have to explore other options for them if I would preserve my sanity, I struggled with intense guilt and self loathing that still smarts a little today. I am now a freshman in college, but it is excruciating to even think about how differently things might have gone, how much more I might have accomplished, and the agonies that could have been avoided, had I just known what a high school counselor was when I was in the 11th grade.

  • There are as many homeschooling stories as there are families, and clearly the investment of the parents is key.

    I briefly tutored a 20-something who had been “homeschooled.” The poor thing was trying to get her GED but since her parents had really never taught her anything, she was so very, very behind that she was told she would need to study on her own before she could come back to GED class (a whole different problem!). After working together for a bit, we found out that her math education had stopped before she got to fractions (typically learned in late elementary/early middle school), and that was where we needed to begin. It was a struggle!

  • Every homeschool is so different. Therefore, the child’s experiences are different. As I homeschooled my 3 out of 4 children starting in Middle and High School, I work extremely hard at getting them exposure to kids who attend traditional school and some who do not. They have ownership in their education and future career goals. But all of this comes to them from my desire to give them the best experience ever, even though I am a parent that works outside the home. It has made my kids dig into homeschooling, turn away from going back to traditional education. I even require that they go to college, join clubs, play sports, study abroad as part of their homeschool high school experience. Through this, I have seen my kids grow to love life and learning.

  • Sorry, no name please.

    I LOVE your response in regards to homeschooling! I myself am home-schooled (in my senior year) and a lot of the things you said are very true. However, unlike you, I did go to public school in my elementary & middle school years and it was not until after transferring to homeschooling that I realized just how toxic it was. Public schools destroyed my passion and creativity and forced me to conform myself to the everyday expectations of adults, which I later realized was not good. Peer pressure caused me to take shame in my parents and to even be embarrassed of them- even though my parents are awesome. Having to undress in front of dozens of other girls in the locker rooms was bad enough, having to deal with the sheer amount of homework and stress even WORSE. I would be going to bed at 11 pm and waking up at 6 am just to be able to complete my homework in all my advanced classes- and that was just middle school.
    Thankfully, I was not bullied and did learn enough about public school to also realize its pros: guaranteed socialization and an “extensive education”. However, I realized that while I had learned how to dissect a chicken wing and different types of sound waves, I had completely missed out on REAL life lessons. After I started homeschooling, I learned how to cook (I would cook my own meals while my parents were at work) and how to legitimately manage finances (I was able to get a job after the age of sixteen and work during school hours). I also began volunteering at my local hospital and found my passion in the medical field. After homeschooling, my spectrum of friends widened. Instead of just hanging out with kids the same age, maturity and economic class as me, I now hang out with a lot of older med students and interact with many poor grandmas who routinely visit the hospital. I have learned so much! Sure, I may not be good at math and struggle with even the most basic of geometry, but nothing has compared to the amount of maturity that I have gleaned from being able to spend some time on my own. I still struggle with the many cons of homeschooling (like having to self learn) and my parents both have full time jobs so I spend quite a lot alone, but I would never be able to go back into public school. I know that if I went back, my wings of freedom would be cut.

    It is exactly what you said: ” Some home-school graduates excel in college because they are intelligent and driven and college is the first time they’ve had access to instructors and education. They drink up education because they’re starved for it.”

    And THAT is the exactly reason why I continue to home-school: I do not see the point in having my entire 18 years of life to revolve around some public school if either way I am going to be going to college and working my butt off studying for my entire time of being a young adult. Until I enter med school, I am going to enjoy every bit of time and freedom that I have right now. I will devote myself to meeting new people, both young and old and learn as much as I can about life!

    Thanks for reading. xD In case anybody reading this is curious, I home-school myself through a high school program in Liberty Univeristy. I will be graduating soon. The curriculum is pretty unique- very different than common core and I am able to do my classwork while on my couch listening to music. However, just a note, it is christian, so if you are not religious then you should look more into the program to see if you are comfortable with that. Both my parents work, so it really is the only curriculum that works with me because they have online teachers would grade your work and everything.

  • Oh my, the part about trying to write a research paper with footnotes was literally myself this spring. I was graduating college and ten percent of my final grade rested on a well written, correctly formated paper. The agonies I went through trying to get it right were vast. Thank goodness for a friend who’d written oodles of papers and walked me though it. But it would have been nice to have been taught it while still in high school that and math. I screamed at my Mom freshman year because I was so frustrated over not knowing the lower level math. Her reply (I’m an older college student) “you would have forgotten it anyway” but it doesn’t matter, the basic foundation wasn’t there. The struggle to learn concepts I should have been taught in grade and high-school was agonizing and painful. As well as time consuming and expensive.

  • I think one thing not taken into account is how school affects your ability to learn. I started out loving education, and am a very bright student. However, I was teased and bullied so badly that at one point I almost dropped out of school. I have self esteem issues from other students putting me down constantly and had absolutely no friends in college. Not one person I knew. So what if you were not homeschooled but instead, went to public school and were bullied to the point of wanting to drop out? You would not of exceeded academically whatsoever, nor socially. Public school is way more than having access to teachers. I also had some horrible and I mean horrible teachers that did not help my education but hurt it really bad. I believe that I would have done far better academically and socially if I were homeschooled. Even if I had to teach myself out of a book.

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