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In Defense of Public Schools

I was recently asked to give some reasons why I thought that public schooling was a better choice than home schooling. I took a shot at an extemporaneous answer, but would like to provide a more formal response for this subject.

First, some history about myself. I am a product of the public school system. My kindergarten and first grade years were spent in a one room schoolhouse with one teacher. There were two other students the first year and three other students the second year. I then finished my pre-college education in the public school system of Casper, Wyoming. I graduated as the valedictorian of my high school class of 589. I then went on to double major in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at a private university. This was many, many years ago.

These are some of the reasons I feel public schooling is a better choice here, in Casper, Wyoming. I don't make any claims that the public school system here is representative of public school systems around the country or around the world. In some ways it is better (good quality teachers and facilities) and in some ways it is worse (shrinking enrollment adding pressure to shrink budgets). If I lived in some cities, I would definitely be looking at private schools or home schooling for my children. But since I live in Casper, I will present arguments that relate to our situation.

These arguments also assume that the choice is home schooling K-12 as opposed to K-6. I am less opposed to home schooling in the early years than in the junior and senior high school years. I think some of the arguments I make against home schooling do have some merit even at the K-6 level.

  1. To be successful at home schooling, you need to be able to teach your kids. Your kids need to be able to learn from you.

    These are two very different things. You can be a fantastic teacher, but if your kids aren't able to learn from you, they will suffer. A child in the public school system may encounter one or two poor teachers over the course of 13 years of education in varying subjects. Maybe the teacher is truly abysmal, or maybe your kid just doesn't relate to the teacher's methods and isn't understanding the material. Generally, once you are through that grade or out of that particular class, you don't have to worry about the teacher again. In extreme situations, you might even be able to swing a transfer to a different teacher in the middle of the year.

    Home schooled children don't have that option. If their parent isn't a good teacher, or if they just aren't able to learn from their parent, they are at a disadvantage. Perhaps the inability for the teacher to teach or the child to learn lies in just one or two subjects, so the child will only be at a disadvantage there. If the problems are more broad based, the child will drop behind in all subjects. Here, pride on the part of the parent and determination to make home schooling work can multiply the difficulties. Once started, it is difficult to admit that it just isn't working in many home school situations.

  2. To be a successful home school teacher, you need to have a mastery of, or have a high degree of proficiency with, the subject(s) you are going to be teaching.

    In the public school system, the lower K-6 grades are taught by people who have to be broad based in their knowledge of many subjects. But the depth in each subject isn't as important since the kids are learning fundamentals they will need the rest of their lives.

    At the junior and senior high school level, teachers generally specialize in subjects. They frequently teach in the subject they specialized in in college, although there are exceptions. They are focused on that subject and generally enthusiastic about it. In that subject, they may teach a wide range of classes and kids, but they aren't expected to cover different subjects at the same time. They typically continue to take continuing education to stay abreast of the latest ideas and methods of teaching their subject. They also typically teach the same basic classes year after year, becoming even more familiar with the subject matter and what teaching methods work in presenting the subject matter best to each level of student they may encounter.

    As a home school teacher of a single child, you will basically need to cover a very wide range of subjects every year. You will have to get a teaching plan together for each subject and try your best to teach the materials you have purchased. If you have multiple children, then later kids may benefit from your experiences teaching the oldest. If the same teaching techniques don't happen to work for each child you have, you may be stuck buying different types of materials to meet the curricula requirements laid down by the state for each child and have to start basically from scratch with each one.

  3. The number of subjects in which a home school teacher must be proficient is growing.

    Every year, the number of subjects a public school student is exposed to grows. Do you have the time and resources to keep up? Can you teach Computer Programming? How are you at Music and Art? Do you teach Dance? How about Physical Education? Are you good at teaching Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus? How about Biology, Chemistry, or Physics? Are you fluent in German, Spanish, French, Latin, Russian, Japanese?

    One of my basic concerns with home schooling is that it doesn't generally push the kids hard enough and in enough different directions.

    It is true that there are champion spellers who are home schooled. There are occasional champions who are home schooled in geography bees and almost any other subject you would care to mention. Some are accepted into the finest colleges in the land, along with a host of private schooled and public schooled peers. But I have serious problems with holding these kids up as shining examples of home schooling at work. I have the same problem holding up a similar child who came from a public school as a validation of a public school system. Public school teachers are often accused of teaching to the test to make a particular outcome happen, yet if parents focus on geography or spelling, they don't get the same criticism.

    In all cases, the child was successful and won the competition or was accepted into the college. The child might have been just as successful if he or she was in the opposite environment and might have won just as easily. Just because someone excels at something says their system worked for them that time. It doesn't say that another system wouldn't have worked just as well (or perhaps even better) for them.

  4. You need to be able to enthusiastically teach and pursue a wide range of subjects.

    Does every kid need to be exposed to all of the above subjects? Absolutely. They also deserve to be taught by teachers who understand each and every subject and are good at teaching it. If they are like me, they may not remember a great deal about most of the subjects after 30+ years, but they need to be exposed to them just the same. Some of those subjects are being refreshed as I have to help with homework.

    They also deserve to be taught by teachers who are passionate about their subject. It is very easy for a home school teacher to emphasize subjects they feel are important, to structure a curriculum to promote certain subjects to the detriment of others, or to teach subjects with an attitude that lets the student know that it isn't important. If the home school teacher had trouble learning a subject, it will be hard to be enthusiastic in teaching it to their kids.

    What are some advantages of a wide pursuit of subject matter? For one thing, being exposed to many different subjects in high school may give the students a clearer picture of what they want to do with their lives (or what they definitely don't want to do). The better idea they have about what they want to do, the more effective their college education can be (if that is the path they choose). If they decide they want to pursue a career that doesn't require college, they have a better background to use in their pursuit of that career and they won't waste four or more years in college just to say they have a degree in X, that isn't needed for their chosen profession.

    By taking honors and AP courses, they may be able to test out of some preliminary courses in college. Not spending money to rehash what you can learn in high school is also a good thing.

  5. Many subjects can be taught by books alone. Other subjects, particularly in the sciences, are better taught in conjunction with laboratory experiments. The home environment may not be suitable for these needs.

    What do you do in high school when you must teach chemistry, physics, and biology. These are traditional laboratory based courses. Textbooks are fine, but labs help reinforce the information. You can always sign your kids up to take these courses at high school or a local college. But are you really home schooling then? Certainly, with the security precautions these days teaching Chemistry at home is becoming more difficult.

  6. Teaching a single child at home might not be too bad. What happens if you have more than one child, and they are all in different grades?

    A big advantage of public schools whether K-6 or junior/senior high, is that each teacher a child has is prepared for his students. The child receives instruction from one or more teachers most of the time they are in school. A home schooling parent with multiple children must divide their time up among the children. The more children you have, the less time each child receives in dedicated instruction at his or her level. There is really no way around this problem short of extending the school day to the detriment of all other activities.

  7. Home schooling is a family effort. Do you have the support of all the kids and your husband or wife?

    Teachers teach for a living. Parents can only home school in a multi-tasking environment. If home schooling, you effectively have the same situation as two working parents. Is the working spouse willing to share the housework load and live with reduced time together due to the many chores that must be fit into the evening and weekend hours?

    If you have kids that are actively being home schooled and those who aren't yet old enough (toddlers, babies, and others that need constant attention), can you provide a distraction free environment for the home schooled child to learn in?

  8. Home schooling didn't work out, or I just wanted to teach my kids K-6. How do they get back into the public school system?

    If you don't plan to home school your kids for their complete K-12 education, or if things just don't work out, what happens then? Hopefully, you will have participated in standard testing to get some idea of how well your child is doing over the years. If the child is having problems, hopefully you have caught them up to about where their peers are. If not, or you haven't been able to get the key concepts across, are you and your child ready to repeat a grade in order to get caught up with his/her peers.

    The flip side of this equation also has risks. If you have to quit home schooling and your child is doing exceptionally well, can you get them back into the system in an enriched class setting? Remember that they are learning things at a different pace than the public school kids. If they are ahead in some subjects and on track with others, will they have to stay back with those they are on track with when they join? Will this lead to frustration and boredom as the public school kids work to learn many of the concepts that your children have already mastered?

    How easily does the public school system accept people into enriched programs which generally have a somewhat limited class size? Will the fact that your student hasn't proved him/herself over the years and not have a public school "track" record be a disadvantage to them?

  9. Home schooled kids do pay a cost in lost social interaction compared to public schooled kids.

    The traditional argument is that home schooled children get social interaction at church, with friends, or by associating with other home schooled kids. Well, yes they do. The problem with that limited interaction is that it is unlikely that they will get exposed to any social or religious concept that would stop and make them think about what they really believe.

    I would much rather have my children exposed to some of these things at an early age when I am around to talk with them about it, than to have them exposed when they are grown up and out of the house. You can make sure your kids are well grounded whether they attend public school, private school, religious school, or are home schooled. If you have done your work as parents, and allowed the church to do its part as well, you don't need to feel threatened by any ideas that might get flung their way, regardless of the source - school, TV, movies, music, books, magazines, et cetera.

    Home schooling won't solve any of the potential problems with ideas and situations that come up in life. It will merely delay them. Whether this is good or bad is a judgment call.

  10. Speaking of cost, home schooling is expensive!

    I'm all in favor of some sort of rebate system for people who are actively home schooling their children under the existing property tax system. There is no reason that they should have to support a system they don't agree with and still pay for their own kids education. I might even go so far as to suggest that tax assessments for education be levied only for people who have school children in the system. In order to handle renters, it would even be more appropriate and fairer to simply pay tuition as you go. For low income people, a subsidy could be provided regardless of what system you were under (home, private, religious, or public school).