As a product of the American public school system, it has been hard to reimagine my children’s education. Despite many reservations, I am homeschooling my young children. For nearly 3 years now I have persisted with teaching my children at home. When I worked in national philanthropy supporting policies for healthy children, I came across a lot of research that showed how schools were generally unhealthy environments — socially, emotionally, physically, many schools lacked a core sense of community. Many schools — even the Islamic schools — are less “faithful” than secular spaces.
In this post, when I say school I am referring to public school education. I graduated from elite public schools in New York City. I think our PTO at Stuyvesant HS raised at least half a million dollars each year. There were some 150 different clubs to choose from, and 30 kids that went to Harvard in my graduating class of 800 students. Of course, I cannot speak to public school everywhere, and my experience does not reflect anything except my own experience– though I may try to generalize, it is not really applicable. In the suburbs where I live now, the public schools all seem to be well resourced, but the students may not all be as driven or self-motivated. I would argue that the kids I went to school with were mostly the children of immigrants, and there was some intrinsic motivation they had to excel. There are few schools that cultivate that inner desire to succeed.
The following post explains the wins, and the lingering doubts I have about homeschooling beyond the age of 7 and my reflection on my education journey.
I also should mention my toddlers are 6 and 3. Maybe my opinions will evolve.
Questions that keep me up at night
Do I worry that my husband and I are forgoing a path that was tried and true for both of us?
Yes. We both loved school. I loved having things to do at school and I feel like my kids are totally missing out. I feel like there will be even more they will miss out on as they get older. School plays. Math club. Math competitions. Spelling Bees. Art shows. My husband was valedictorian for middle school and high school, and exercised leadership throughout his young life. He excelled at school in all the ways he was supposed to. It makes me sad that my children will never get to earn these titles, and in fact, we do not even subscribe to these accolades as anything desirable.
Do I worry that my kids won’t be able to perform on tests when the time comes for test taking? Sure.
Do I feel that tests are adequate measures of a student’s mastery of a subject? Yes. (More on this below).
Do I worry my kids are “behind” their peers who are in public or private school? Sometimes.
Being “average” or meeting these standards is important to me. I care less if the measurement is in comparison to other kids, but also tests by virtue of tests, are about comparison with others. If we’re talking about self mastery, then testing is also super helpful for a child to understand how they are improving or growing compared to how they performed in the past. This is fundamentally routinized in schools. There’s no thinking necessary.
Do I want to homeschool forever? Nope.
Do I think homeschooling is right for every family? No.
Hard no, in fact. Some kids (and parents) are not meant to be together all the time. It is neither good for the child nor the parent. The temperament of the parent must be considered because she is literally everything for the kids — the teacher, the cook, the cleaner, the organizer, the nurse, the entertainer, and so many other things at the same time. The very fact that there are multiple, disparate roles that she plays in a single hour, it creates undue pressure on the mother to take on yet another role that she might reason can be outsourced. There is truth in the claim that most parents want some time away from their children to do what they need or want to do.
Let’s Rethink Assumptions About School
As an immigrant, I believe getting a free public education is the cornerstone of American democracy. My parents never questioned that they would send their children to school, and school opened up my world in ways they could never imagine. “Public” in their home countries (in my case Bangladesh) was not to be trusted. Everyone pays for private tutoring — even the lower class– because no one could trust the public institutions to do a good enough job. In New Jersey, quality of education is determined by zip code, but mostly free, public education is the foundation for citizenship and democracy. Big, important ideas in my mind. Do I agree with all the state standards? No. But do I think there is a point to learning math, science, art, and music? Yes. Do I think kids need more time in nature and with the arts? Yes. I think all the subjects in school are necessary, and I worry that it is impossible to do it all at home, even if I had a child who wants to learn.
Purpose of school: technical proficiency
From my personal experience I see that school was mostly a place to do something, and mostly be with other people while my parents worked. In terms of technical knowledge, very little really stuck from K-12. School was less about the technical proficiency — though I think I scored in the top 1% on all my state exams from 3rd grade to 12th grade. But really, why cares?! It helped my self-esteem to have tests, but not all kids perform like that.
Purpose of home school: love
In a home school, the purpose is love. We just want to show more love to each other and make time for the things that matter to our family. During Ramadan, that means Quran. During busy seasons, it means traveling or seeing new things. It feels like it is all over the place, and maybe I need to let go of what I had, and know that my children will just have something totally different. My kids will get more of me– the bad, ugly and the disorganization that is me.
This past month, I have had many conversations with homeschooling families to better understand their goals for their children. Some of the answers I’ve heard:
- We want our kids to be well-adjusted.
- We want our kids to be successful in the duniya and the aakirah.
- We want our kids to feel love and we don’t want to deal with the traumatizing effect of schools/teachers.
For whatever reason, these answers do not satisfy me. They are great answers, of course, but they do not fully satisfy me.
My third grade teacher
In elementary school, I had a fabulous teacher Ms. Pollack who helped me get glasses so I could see, both literally and metaphorically. She was my favorite teacher of all time. She always smelled amazing, wore colorful beautiful clothes, and loved to teach. She came to school with a bright beautiful smile, sparkly jewelry, and blow-dried straight hair. When I struggled with math facts, she got me a wipe-up book to do extra practice. She introduced literature from all around the world. She was the first teacher who saw something in me, and helped me excel. Because I spoke a different language at home, I had been in ESL since kindergarten. Ms. Pollack asked me to take the state-wide reading test.
Something very strange happened when I took that exam.
There were passages in which you had to fill in the blank. Even as an ESL student, learning new English words every day, I found myself intuitively knowing what words meant, words that I did not know how to pronounce. It was the strangest thing. I could remember what something meant having seen the word only once in a dictionary. I remember scoring in the 99% for that test, and making a commitment to myself that I would always want to be in that 99%. I think for Math, I was closer to the average, somewhere between 65- 90%, but reading comprehension and vocab, I was exceptional. Ms. Pollack moved me out of ESL because the test showed I did not need remedial English. This test expanded my sense of my American identity.
The teachers and friends opened up my world.
People like Ms. Pollack opened me to the arts, culture, literature, and history. Public school was the place where I encountered people from all over the world. For example, I had a proudly Jewish teacher named Mr. Sandler who had us explore New York City museums to learn American history. As a result of his influence, I rethought everything I know about Columbus Day, about nationalism, and American exceptionalism. I had Mr. Geller who loved math fiercely, though he scared me as a human being. I had another teacher Ms. Weinstein who introduced the Holocaust to us through literature and shared her Jewish culture in subtle ways. She helped me win my first book illustration award simply by the expectation that she set for me. I had another teacher who was from Guyana and told riveting stories about the Mayans, Incans, and ancient people of Central and South America. She spoke with a glorious accent, and loved teaching us Spanish but also taught history, art, and culture in the same breath. She was remarkable.
I had awful teachers, who were racist, xenophobic and dismissive. There were many teachers who didn’t seem to take their responsibility seriously. There was one teacher who talked about Disneyland for 45 minutes each class. There are dozens of teachers from elementary, not a single teacher in middle school I can recall who were pleasantly forgettable. But the good ones and the bad ones probably cancel each other out.
School was the place I learned American culture.
At our annual dance festival, I was exposed to the Beach Boys and songs that still put a smile on my face. In fact, I still have the Kokomo song in my iTunes library to this day. I remember the celebrations and fun things we would do, the field trips we would take towards the end of the school year. Yes, this culture can be taught at home but institutions pass their cultural values through education. There is a shared set of values that come through the institution of “school.”
I don’t think I would be where I am today if not for teachers like Ms. Pollack who had sparked my potential. After that decision to take me out of ESL, Ms. Pollack made sure I was in the gifted and talented program. There were many teachers who watched out for me, gave me extra work, or assignments. If I was an average student, maybe I would not get this kind of attention. This makes me reflect on some of the losses that my homeschooled kids will experience:
1 Loss for homeschooled kids: Fewer tests.
Homeschooling means my kids miss out on the challenge of tests, and that mastery you get when you take a state exam. I had testing every year since I was 8, and I looked forward to those exams each year. I was an excellent test taker, but I always remember asking God to help me with my exams. My kids might never get “measured” and assessed in this way if we keep them out of school. I just hate this. I believe there is a place for qualitative measures, but I REALLY like knowing where things are in terms of ranking. There’s no measure for homeschooling moms. It’s mostly a rough estimate on how things are going. I learned from a homeschooling mom of 10 years that her kids take the state exams, and she just has to enroll them in the exams. If I have to enroll the kids in the exams, I doubt I will get to it, and most likely my kids will miss all the academic milestones that are marked by exams.
Counterpoint to 1: Timed tests are not an indication of anything meaningful.
The counter argument here is that these measures that I am obsessed with are arbitrary. There is well documented research on the bias of American testing, and the testing doesn’t really lead to greater knowledge, ability, or success. Read the futility of standardized testing in a crazy pandemic year for more.
The tests my homeschooled kids encounter are not in books. The tests we experience are more existential. Sadly, my kids can never find their notebooks, pencils, markers or toys. We have a house in which things disappear all the time. I have taught them, from an early age, I am not a keeper of your stuff, figure it out. The true test they experience each day is self-reliance, without the reference to Thoreau.
Addendum to 1: The tests my kids experience are emotional.
I constantly give them “new” experiences, but I do not gauge how they are able to handle the running around they do with me. I do not know if the incredible clutter and disorganization of our home life will result in more organization for them down the road. My mother was a type A personality about everything in her house, and always had what we needed before we needed it or we asked for it. She never knew anything sentimental out and managed to fit everything for everyone in a tiny NYC apartment. For me, my kids are asking me for the things they need without my ever knowing what the answer is. It wears me down. My hope is that they will pick up this responsibility for their stuff quickly.
One could also argue that the real tests of coping with loss and rejection and disappointment is what we need as adults– not aptitude tests of technical knowledge.
The only real gauge I have that the kids did anything meaningful is I ask them, “Did you have fun today?” Clearly that is a measure for fun, nothing else. I could ask, “Did you learn something today?” All of these self-reports are meaningless in the end. These are lame questions, but it is the only thing I ask them each day. Of course, as they get older and learn actual stuff, I want them to take online tests to see how much they can retain, but it is up to me to figure out what those tests are, and where to find and administer those tests.
Opportunity: Homeschooling moms must come up with new measures for meaningful moments
My mother always thought it was impractical to play hard when we could safely watch tv instead. Well, I try to hang from monkey bars and spend my time being as impractical as possible. I read as much as I want with my kids; get books I missed in my youth because I was studying; and write like that’s my only product. We make time for dancing, music and pretend play. When we want to paint, we paint. When we wants to run through the bamboo forest, we do it. Yeah my kid sings to the bunnies each morning. How would I measure these moments of creativity and play? Not without rethinking measures entirely.
2: Schools are different today from 20 years ago.
The most common thing we hear is that the education system is not the same as it was back then. Most of the homeschooling moms I talk to feel like public school has gone down the toilet, and neither the educators, administration or systems in place are to be trusted. Institutional trust is down overall for the millennial demographic. In particular, my research suggests to me that K-1 education in particular is not developmentally appropriate for children. Boys are expected to “sit” and learn, lunch and recess is reduced to 30 minutes, kids spend no time outside. Lots of research could be cited here, if I wanted to hyperlink to it.
3: Lack of diverse educators for homeschooled children
We are surrounded by an echo chamber, and while I adore the affinity I’ve had to people I’ve known since college I find it very sad for my children. Yes, our friends love my kids like their own, and I doubt any public school teacher could love them like my friends do. Yet, a part of me is sad that they will miss these experiences. Yes I can go out of my way to hire tutors and teachers who are diverse. As the primary educator for the kids, I feel like they will have a harder time adjusting to the real world when they go to college.
To be continued
There are so many things to consider in educating our children. Why do you homeschool? If your kids are in public school, how do you manage your expectations? In another post, I will explore more of the conversations I’ve had with homeschooling parents. Honestly, New Jersey is an awesome place because we have great public schools, great options for homeschooling cooperatives, and everything in between.