As the school year is set in motion, many parents are questioning the public school system for their children. Is “teaching to the test” working? Is society too secular? Is this the best education we can offer our children? There is a trend to homeschool. But how do you know if homeschooling is the answer? We recently asked Adam Lockridge, the Director of the St. Raphael School, an Orthodox and classic Good and Great Books online school, to get an insight to the homeschool experience.
Why are many Orthodox families turning towards homeschooling their children?
As the Director of an online school for homeschooling families, I talk with many parents of homeschoolers, and I also work directly with their children, so I have a unique window into the lives of these families.
It’s important to recognize that families across the nation and the world choose homeschooling for a multitude of reasons.
Military families that regularly move may desire more consistency in their children’s schooling, and homeschooling offers an attractive way to stabilize their educational program.
Parents with children who have special needs often find that school districts simply can’t or won’t accommodate their unique needs.
Children who are gifted in a particular way–musically, academically, artistically, or athletically–may need a more flexible educational schedule in order to advance to their highest potential.
Some schools are unsafe of feel threatening to the child. Students who can’t escape a threatening situation at school, such as bullying, may find escape by learning in the peace and quiet of their own home.
Religious families–and this is an increasingly common reason–often feel that the public schools have broken their trust by training their children in ways that overtly contradict the core values of the family.
There are probably some homeschool families who reject the idea of institutionalized schooling altogether, but I’ve never heard that cited as a reason to homeschool. The common denominator in the homeschooling movement, as I see it, seems to be a highly responsible, independent, do-it-yourself attitude. Abuses exists, as they do in schools. The overwhelming majority of families, however, seek customization, choice, and quality which can only be obtained by setting upon the task themselves. Most do not see this arrangement as ideal, but it is often the only acceptable choice that families have available.
As an Orthodox school, you probably see many families who are choosing homeschooling for religious reasons. Can you tell me more about what motivates them in particular?
I do hear from many Orthodox families who feel that public schools are no longer a viable option. Although I can’t speak for all of them, I do observe patterns.
From the perspective of many religious families, public schools have become functionally atheistic. While parents may not use this language to describe their dilemma, I think the phrase gives a name to a specific and widespread concern. Schools may not openly advocate for atheism as a philosophy (although many do exactly that), but it is undeniable that the adults who spend the most time with our children–teachers, coaches, and other school faculty–engage in a systematic omission by neglecting the everyday spiritual and moral needs of children. Under the banner of inclusiveness and pluralism, this unbreakable code of silence in moral and spiritual matters amounts to child neglect in the core facets of their being.
Children learn by imitation. In public schools, students daily observe and imitate adults who are required by the state to act as if God does not exist. Public school teachers may “love” children with a kind of natural affection, but functionally they are forced to neglect them. Teachers and faculty must refrain from prayer, eliminate all displays of religious piety, and strictly avoid advocating moral or spiritual principles. This is particularly unacceptable in the humanities, such as history and literature, but this functional atheism extends into science, art, music, and even athletics.
Children spend vast amounts of time at school. Longer school hours, demanding extracurricular activities, huge homework loads, and the looming threat of competitive college admissions, have conspired to pressure parents to relinquish opportunities to meet the spiritual and moral needs of their own children.
The overextension on the part of schools, combined with pervasive functional atheism, forces many religious families, including Orthodox Christians, to opt out of the system entirely.
What do parents need to homeschool their children?
The resources available for homeschooling are vast, and parents will find no lack of options for creating a plan that works for their kids. Free online resources abound, and many high quality products–online courses, curricula, and books–can be purchased at a tiny fraction of the price of private school.
The largest obstacle for most families is making choices within the vast arena of options. Connecting with other families who are homeschooling through friendships, churches, and co-ops can be an important source of experience and encouragement.
Finally, it is worth noting that parents do not need to be experts on any given subject to successfully homeschool. Any skillful and experienced teacher will tell you that the most important skill in teaching is relational rather than intellectual. Getting to know your child and intentionally cultivating a good relationship with him or her is the only required discipline of a homeschool parent. Fortunately, on the job training will happen naturally with the attentive and engaged adult.
Are kids isolated when they aren’t in public school?
I speak with homeschooling students every day, and I am constantly amazed at their ability to engage in thoughtful discussions and interact with one another and adults. I’ve taught in school environments, and by and large the students were far less mature and socially adjusted.
One reason for this, I believe, is that homeschool students often spend significantly more time with a wider variety of relationships. They learn not only how to be peers, but also how to interact with children of other ages; they constantly speak one-on-one with adults (impossible for teachers with twenty, or thirty, or even more students); and they face fewer pressures to conform to passing fads and fashions.
Isolation can happen in a crowd probably more easily than in a smaller group of family and friends. In this respect I would say that social isolation could possibly be a bigger problem in the crowded public schools than in the more personal and intimate society of family and friends found in homeschools across the country.
Are homeschooling students successful?
The most well-documented fact, and the one most often ignored, is that homeschooling students perform significantly better than their public school peers in academics, including standardized testing. But performance and perceived performance are not the same thing. Some schools and even employers look with skepticism on a homeschool diploma. As homeschooling becomes more widely accepted and understood, the risk of being denied opportunities as a result of homeschooling has faded, and now homeschooled students are sometimes preferred to their public school counterparts.
But academic metrics miss the most important motivator for many homeschooling families. Families who choose to homeschool almost always have a different measure of success than economic incentives such as college admissions and career advancement. Success for these families would include practical concerns such as getting a good job, but they would also consider less objective but equally important emotional, moral, and spiritual measures of success. On this level, it is not even possible to compare the success of public school and homeschooling as they differ in their aims.
Are there any drawbacks or common pitfalls of homeschooling?
The most common drawback, which is true of any counter-cultural do-it-yourself option, is an inevitable periodic crisis of confidence that homeschool parents face–mothers in particular. Many of us who were raised in a different educational system face worries that we will fail. This desire to succeed is a healthy concern, but it needs to be managed by frequent intentional reminders of the motivation for homeschooling and a balanced perspective on expected outcomes. This long view of homeschooling is difficult to maintain, but it is absolutely essential.
Another drawback is the financial sacrifice. Most homeschooling families must be or become single-income families, as one parent must stay at home and teach the children. States offer huge incentives to enroll in public schools by funding tuition through taxes, so families are also leaving on the table a monetary value of sometimes $10,000 or even $15,000 per year in schooling expenses. This economic loss could total hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of the family, and this is a price many families are unable or unwilling to pay.
One common mistake I see homeschooling families make is modeling their homeschool on the curriculum of the public school system. The public school is structured to treat all students the same, which means that variety and customization are impossible in most cases. It is the “fast-food” schooling option. Homeschool families have an opportunity to create a beautiful, homemade, and fully customized curriculum, but they often resort to trying to replicate what is being done in the local public schools. Families who do this are still likely better off than their peers in public schools, but this pitfall is a lost opportunity for more.
What is the most common fear of families who are considering homeschooling as an option?
The fear of failure. When it comes to children, none of us feel like we can afford to fail.
I try to remind parents that the joy of homeschooling comes through learning alongside the students. The best teachers are the ones who always want to know more about the topic or improve their own skill. As a parent, your kids will learn by watching you. Be curious. Be attentive. Show reverence for classic literature and revel in the beauty of the natural world. If you do so in sincerity of heart and not in a spirit of control or manipulation, your love of learning will be contagious, and your kids will begin to feel that inner compulsion to learn all that they can about God’s glorious world. This makes learning not only easy, but it becomes a natural by-product of a healthy sense of wonder and a confidence that understanding is the true reward of sustained independent learning.