When I talk to strangers about homeschooling, here’s what really shocks them:
No one is watching us.
In the state of California, we’re not required to tell the government much of anything about what we’re doing. We fill out an electronic document that generally describes the school (name, mailing address, number of students). We press send. And we’re done.
We don’t have to submit records to the state. We don’t have to follow state standards. We don’t have to keep a grade book. We don’t have to take standardized tests.
“070305” by COCOEN Daily Photos via Flicker using a Creative Commons license
We don’t have to prove to anyone but ourselves that what we’re doing is working.
I went through public school, I’ve even taught (one class!) and I hear the siren call of “accountability” every election year, so I know how crazy this sounds. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, shirking, and low standards.
But the longer I homeschool, the less crazy it seems.
Because I’m starting to think that all that accountability, standards, and oversight is a poor substitute for what really matters in education.
But before I unpack that statement, let me share a big regret with you.
I got a Masters degree a few years ago. Once I was accepted to the program, I read through the requirements of the degree, got a handle on how many classes I’d need to accrue the required credits, and how long it all would take. I’ve always been a good student–extra-motivated, I’d say. It was fun to have such clear-cut requirements of me after being in the less-clear real world for a few years.
As I registered, I was delighted to find a kind of independent study that required very little commuting to campus (I lived an hour away), fulfilled a check box on the list of required classes, and wasn’t going to be much work. I could add an extra three credits that semester and complete my program that much faster. I felt brilliant.
It wasn’t until I was about halfway through the semester that I realized I could have gotten an internship with our local public radio using that requirement. Which was something I have always wanted to do. But–even being a highly motivated student–my attitude towards school was to quickly figure out ways to check off boxes, not intentionally seek ways to get the most out of every credit.
It still makes me feel a little ill to remember the opportunity I breezed past.
That moment stopped me. I realized I was paying thousands of dollars for access to the university. Why was I treating the whole thing like a pesky to-do list, to be finished as effortlessly as possible?
What does that have to do with state requirements for homeschoolers?
Even the most well-meaning standards, requirements, oversight and tests are at best a stand-in for the accountability that really matters: the student’s. If the student is half-hearted, he or she will get a half-hearted education. Period.
At worst, the standards can make it hard for the student to cultivate self-motivated learning. If good grades are the reward, not the joy of discovery and new experiences, you might lose sight of the joy. Not always, or completely—but it happens.
Somehow, the power of self-motivation doesn’t shock us outside of education. No one is surprised when entrepreneurs report working much harder when they start their own business. No one is surprised when the hours fly by when they’re pursuing a beloved hobby or project. Not having to be accountable to someone can make you more accountable to yourself.
You might think that not every kid can be self-motivated. I can’t argue individual cases, but I think we all might be surprised by the drive for learning hidden in the human heart. At how compelling knowledge is. Because I’m shocked by it—every day—when I witness it in my kids.
That’s why I don’t think you should be worried about the wing-nut homeschoolers, educating our kids without anyone looking over our shoulders. No, we’re not perfect. Yes, there are homeschoolers out there doing a disservice to their kids. But believe me—the accountability that is there is more powerful than anything that can be run through a Scan-Tron.