In the most recent issue of the Where What When, Devora Schor wrote an article about homeschooling entitled “Life is our Classroom.” The piece concludes with the statement, “When you homeschool, life is your classroom.” I appreciated Mrs. Schor writing about homeschooling and enjoyed reading about the different homeschooled children within our community. That said, I was bothered by both the title and the conclusion. “Life is our classroom” is a beautiful idea for anyone, student or otherwise, but to think that it succinctly sums up homeschooling is simply inaccurate. Once beyond elementary age, the child who is being schooled by “life” will be uneducated. What are the chances that a child will encounter calculus, physics, and numerous other academic disciplines through “life”? Even high school-aged homeschoolers who are following what is termed the “unschooling” learning philosophy would question whether “life is our classroom.” For high school students, homeschooled or otherwise, you need much more.”
Homeschooling Yesterday vs. Today
In the 1970s, it was uncommon to encounter children who were homeschooled. In general, homeschooled children were considered to be “strange.” Many had social issues. Some had been bullied at their local school. Many were children of religious Christians who wanted to spare them exposure to things that typical American children got in school. Some were children of counterculture hippies, along with numerous other examples. In the vast majority of cases, these homeschoolers were stigmatized and ostracized. Often, as much as these children wanted to be separated from society, society wanted to be separated from them. Painting with admittedly broad brushstrokes, this was homeschooling in the 1970s.
To think that homeschooling is the same in 2016 as it was in 1970 is akin to thinking that television is the same in 2016 as it was in 1970. In the 1970s, there were just a few channels. If you watched these on your 28-inch television, you thought you were living like a king. But if you weren’t sitting in front of a TV at 8:30 on a Thursday night, you were going to miss that episode of Laverne and Shirley, and odds were good that you would never see that episode in your lifetime. At that time, we thought television was amazing, but in hindsight, we can see that there were limitations to our television watching experience.
Similarly, a picture of the homeschooling experience in the 1970s generally consisted of a young man or woman sitting at the kitchen table doing algebra while a mother looked over his or her shoulder. In 2016, the world of homeschooling is dramatically different. Staying with our television metaphor, in 2016, the number of television channels is seemingly infinite. There are hundreds on cable and satellite, as well as other digital media providers, and viewers have access to programs any time, day or night.
Today, a seemingly infinite amount of digital content can be accessed about most every subject in the universe, and more is being added daily. This includes access to educational sites, like Khan Academy and a plethora of others, large and small. You can watch this content on your 85-inch TV, your laptop, phone, watch, and more. In 2016, you have access to programming where the production value is much more sophisticated than what was offered 40 years ago, and you can watch as many or as few episodes as you want and whenever and wherever you prefer. More than this, the content you are watching is interactive, so that you can engage in two-way communication with the content provider.
While there are homeschoolers in 2016 who choose to homeschool much as homeschoolers did in the 1970s, they are in the minority. Homeschoolers today are learning with others at cooperatives, coffee shops, workspaces, parks, museums, libraries, or surrounded by entrepreneurs, and more. Students are watching webisodes about Jewish history on their laptops, responding to digital prompts throughout, and talking with a Jewish history college professor via videophone in the corner of their screen. Yet we still call this “homeschooling.” Students are being educated with a spectrum of specific teaching methods and styles – whether face-to-face, digitally, interactively, or with a hybrid of all them. There is great variety and choice as to who is teaching, what is being learned, when and where classes occur, the student’s relationship to the work, and more. But no difference may be more beneficial to the homeschooler than the level of personalization now possible.
If you were a mother in the 1970s teaching your tenth-grade son, you were limited in your ability to personalize his education both in terms of materials and teaching ability. Schools and yeshivas have more educational resources but are also limited in that they are not organized by individual students but by classrooms. Schools are able to provide some level of a personalized education to their students, but it pales in comparison to what is happening within the world of homeschooling. With the advent of the internet and the digital technology associated with it, the buzzword within the world of education is one-on-one learning – that is, the ability for a young man or woman to study with a teacher, who provides this level of individualized education at a competitive cost. Within the world of homeschooling, this vision is currently being realized.
If a frum ninth-grade young man chooses to homeschool, he can, with help, create a curriculum that is 100% personalized to his goals, needs, and tastes. Admittedly, the state of Maryland has certain restrictions over the curriculum. But these restrictions are extremely pliable. The greatest restriction for this young man will not be from the state of Maryland but will be dictated by the homeschooler’s long-term goals and by the yeshiva or university that he hopes to attend upon completing high school. The student can choose which academic disciplines he wants to learn, what texts he wants to study, at what pace he wants to progress, and more. More than this, at any point, if a student wants to change classes, materials, or pace, he can. To most students and parents, the level of personalization possible with a homeschool education is astonishing.
Students in school are often required to read antiquated history books, dull English titles, and more. For homeschoolers, this is not an issue. With the help of adults, the child reads and engages with material that peaks his or her interest. Admittedly, there are required books and other materials that are less appreciated by students. But even when homeschooled students encounter these, he is aware that there is, so to speak, a light at the end of the tunnel, that while this work is not to their taste, something more appetizing is following behind it. Similarly, students often express interest in an academic discipline that a traditional school is unable to coordinate or simply does not offer. For homeschoolers, this is not an issue. If a homeschooler wants to study psychology, biomedical engineering, or Nesivos Shalom, he is able to.
A Free Market in Teachers
There was an algebra teacher in Atlanta who was good at his job. During the day, he taught high school algebra, trigonometry, calculus and other mathematics courses, and during non-school hours, to supplement his income, he did some tutoring. Over time, his tutoring evolved into teaching local homeschoolers, which evolved into teaching non-local homeschoolers. Today, this high school math teacher has a thriving high school mathematics business. His lectures, communications, quizzes, tests, and other methodologies are designed to ensure that each student is engaged and is demonstrating his competency. Through turnkey technology that is both efficient and cost-effective, talented educators throughout the world are able to offer their services to an enormous number of students. Although the Khan Academy is able to teach for free, no one should be surprised that a talented educator is able to create a thriving business of this nature.
Unfortunately, a significant number of teachers within traditional schools are ineffective but cannot be fired due to teachers’ unions and other factors. This is not an issue for homeschoolers. An incompetent educator drowns in the free market. And even if an educator is highly praised but your child disagrees, you can easily replace the educator. Undeniably, capitalism and a free market economy have greatly benefited the education industry. The best teachers and educators rise to the top, while the ineffective ones sink. And, more than this, the ultimate judge of whether an educator is effective is each individual student. Stating the obvious, the consequences of the free market are as true for rebbeim as it is for teachers.
Homeschoolers are not necessarily learning at home and are not necessarily engaged in learning processes that mirror a traditional school. Neither the words “home” nor “school” are appropriate to accurately describe homeschooling, yet we continue to call these exciting developments in education by that name. For whatever reason, we have yet to create a better name. Homeschooling in 2016 is simply a cost-effective way to garner a first-class education. It is only a matter of time before every traditional school will be “homeschooling.”
Matt Bernstein may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.