Friday, September 05, 2008

Homeschooling goes upscale

Once upon a time, homeschooling was viewed as something only freakishly religious or hippie parents did. In the past 15 years or so, though, it's gone mainstream. Estimates very wildly, but a 2003 National Household Education Survey found that more than a million US kids met the homeschooled definition.

There are a number of reasons for this, both on the push side (dissatisfaction with schools) and on the pull side (the internet makes finding curricular materials or even whole courses much easier; online communities offer support for what can sometimes be an isolated undertaking). In our wired world, we are less inclined to see sharp dividing lines between places where we do things -- an office for income generation, school for learning, home for leisure. I met a family in Texas not long ago in which the father was working from home and the mom was homeschooling their kids. In other words, no one ever really had to leave the place!

Homeschooling offers certain natural advantages. There's a low pupil to teacher ratio, which some people think is important. The hours can be flexible, and so can the curriculum, which is good for kids with special needs. When I was helping Jan and Bob Davidson write Genius Denied, they told me that a huge chunk of their profoundly gifted Young Scholars try homeschooling at some point.

But of course it's not for everyone. One major barrier has always been that homeschooling seems to require one parent to teach the kids, which is pretty much a full-time job. Not every family has a parent who feels qualified to do this, or wants to.

Then, yesterday, I found the most fascinating press release in my in-box. A new New York City education consultancy called QED (Quality Education by Design) is promising to offer parents an alternative to traditional homeschooling. How? They hire certified teachers/tutors in different subjects, piece together a curriculum for your children, and handle all the paperwork with the Board of Education. It's somewhat like retaining an agency to hire a governess, though with more of a focus on subject matter experts and experiential learning (one example they cite is going to the Galapagos to study Darwin). Hey, if you've got the money, why not?

Clearly, the market for this service is limited. The vast majority of American families do not have the resources to hire the equivalent of a full-time teacher, though in crazy Manhattan, it's probably a bargain compared to paying private school tuition for three kids. I'm hoping to write more about this topic for some of the publications I write for, and will update this blog once I (hopefully) get interviews set up.

But in the meantime, I wanted to throw this idea out there to Gifted Exchange readers. What do you think of the idea of outsourcing homeschooling, but retaining the customization homeschooling allows? While it's easy to dismiss the idea as yet another example of the strangeness of some parts of this country (what, the private schools now aren't good enough?) I tend to think that there's a good idea here. Over the past few decades we've seen again and again how ideas and products that catch on among the rich and/or famous trickle down to the rest of us. Once, back-up generators existed only in mansions housing extremely rare fish requiring aerated water. Now, they're becoming relatively standard in high-end, but not uber-high-end construction. If more people considered it normal to customize their children's education, I can't help thinking this would benefit education overall.


Anonymous said...

We essentially outsourced homeschooling for 2 years.

My daughter took courses from Northwestern's CTD, Johns Hopkins CTY, Nebraska's Online Highschool, University of Missouri's Center for Distance Education, and Oklahoma State University's K-12 Distance Learning Academy.

We (the parents) both worked full-time, although we had flexible schedules so we were each home some of the time. However, we did little more teaching than we would have if she had been in school.

In addition to the schools I mentioned, there are many more -- EPGY, BYU, Texas Tech, k12, eIMACS, and a bunch of virtual schools. Some offer classes for K-12th grade, some 6th-12th grade, and some 9th-12th grade. Some have entrance requirements (talent search testing or other qualifying tests). Others have none. Prices range all over the place, too.

The places I mentioned are all accredited. If you're not worried about accreditation, then things like Art of Problem Solving (best math instruction for serious math kids), Lukeion Project, PA Homeschoolers, Merlin Academy, and BraveWriter all provide distance learning.

On a different level, curriculum like VideoText math courses provide the instruction via DVD and ThinkWell does the same (plus problem sets) via the web for a range of courses. Aleks doesn't provide video or animation, just simple text explanations, but lets you move through a math course at a high (customized) rate of speed.

Teaching Company courses (aimed at adults, but popular among gifted families) let people dig into favorite topics at an earlier age than they could handle a full class OR at a deeper level than is available to them.

The best thing about homeschooling was letting my daughter get the challenge she was ready for, without having to fight for access to those courses in a school environment. As a pleasant side effect, she learned a lot about planning, scheduling, and personal responsibility because many of her courses were self-paced.

atxteacher said...

I see this as the facilitation that gifted kids really need for their instruction. It's how I envision a school for highly gifted kids providing educational services. I'd love to see us offer this as part of public school.

Jeremy said...

We're just starting homeschooling this week, and I'm sure the initial buzz will wear off...but the experience we had this morning illustrates why we've chosen this path.

I brought both girls in to the office for the "home learner's program" so the teacher could test them -- getting them to read to her, do some quick worksheets, some math exercises -- so she could see what level they should be working at. Then she designs a custom curriculum for each of them, mostly ignoring their age and expected grade level.

So Ella, who would be starting Kindergarten in a regular school, but reads like a kid who's finished Grade 1, gets a more advanced language arts and math curriculum that most kids would get in Grade 1 and 2. She's not even identified as gifted or on an IEP -- they just want to make sure she's challenged.

My older daughter is gifted (in the district's gifted pull-out program, with an IEP), and she'd be going into Grade 2 this year. But after doing the testing this morning, it was clear that she was reading at more like a Grade 6 level, so we'll get her going on studying novels rather than boring her with basic readers. In math, she's not as far ahead, so we'll start with the Grade 3 program and see how it goes. Science and social studies are pretty general, so we thought we'd stick with the regular Grade 2 stuff.

We're not pushy parents hoping to get our kids into college earlier or whatever. We just don't want them to be bored, and our oldest daughter was already somewhat disengaged in school last year (never mind having to study ABCs all through Kindergarten the year before when she had been reading for a year). I wonder how many parents of gifted kids homeschool for this reason alone?

Anyway, I love the program so far. It's publicly funded through the school district, the kids can go to class one day a week, we get $2000 to spend on outside lessons and materials, there's a teacher available all week, and we love having them at home with us during the day. I know it's not for everyone, but for families like us, it's a dream.

SwitchedOnMom said...

Holy Canoli, Jeremy! Where do you live!!

As the first poster noted, at a certain point/learning level it makes sense to "outsource" in the way described. It's what we did too.

Because the "authorities" are so insistant on seeing "proof" of "work" (aka tests, grades, etc.) the pressure is there for parents to tap into these kinds of resources, especially as kids get older. I suspect the willingness to accept unschooling types of activities diminishes.

And contrary to popular belief, homeschooling isn't cheap--not if you want it done well. Typically one parent's salary is sacrificed or curtailed...that often is overlooked when comparing costs of public/private/homeschooling. Quality homeschooling can easily match the cost of private school.

Angie said...

I am betting my future on the fact that homeschooling (especially the gifted child) is on the up rise. I'm hoping to begin a PhD in Ed. Psy. with an emphasis in gifted and ed. tech. so I can be better prepared to deliver quality curriculum to those families that are looking for the program that best fits their child's needs. I have taught in the traditional classroom both in a public and private gifted setting and I follow several homeschooling forums online. The need is there! I'm looking for a good angle in which to approach this topic for my thesis. Any suggestions.

Jeremy said...

switchedonmom, we're in British Columbia, Canada's westernmost province. Unschooling is a valid (legal) option here too, but of course you don't get the funding or support of any kind then.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Glad to see so much discussion of this. My USA Today editor turns out to be interested in a piece on the topic (with an emphasis on how regular parents can customize a kid's education). If anyone with experience with this wants to talk to me on the record, please email lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Angie --

I think many experienced homeschooling families of gifted want more of a Chinese restaurant menu approach -- one of column A, two of column B, none of column C, etc.

You also have to remember that one or both parents are probably gifted, too. Sometimes the parents' school experiences affect how they want to homeschool.

Are you interested in elementary school kids, middle school kids, or high school kids for your thesis?

There's a lot of stuff available for elementary school. High school can be AP courses, concurrent/dual enrollment, MIT Open Courseware, etc. It seems like a real trouble period is middle school.

University of Missouri has a few gifted classes for middle schoolers. CTD, CTY, and EPGY obviously target everything to middle schoolers.

Traditional middle school classes are too slow or lack rigor (or both!).

What are the options? Do you take high school classes early? If so, do you put them on the high school transcript? Do you request high school credit for those courses and thus graduate high school early? If so, how early?

Are there ways to do something in the middle school years that challenges your mind, yet still keeps you eligible for the big middle school competitions (spelling bee, math counts, AMC-8, and geography bee)?

Anonymous said...

I said "CTD, CTY, and EPGY obviously target everything to middle schoolers."

I MEANT to say "CTD, CTY, and EPGY obviously target everything to gifted kids."

Anonymous said...

Laura, I just posted a comment and it didn't appear. Could it be lurking in your in box, I wonder? Silly me. Didn't make a copy.


Anonymous said...

Most fascinating re. the governess NYC thing; my husband and I last night were speculating about hiring actual teachers for our daughter for high-school; there are some great private schools in the Balt. area but we aren't sure she will thrive best in one of them--some kind of governess situation, esp. if it involved educational travel, would be perfect. Does anyone have sources for this NYC model/program?

Megan said...

We're doing a version of this with our 10yo son. DH and I both work in academia, which makes it easy-- lots of access to books and other resources, college student tutors/mentors, subject experts, etc. Not cheap, but still less expensive than the private school that was making our son frustrated and anxious. We're finding it to be an ideal way of customizing his education. Like most gifted kids, he's way ahead in certain areas, not so much in others. And he has a few subjects that he's intensely interested in and wants to explore in depth. We're starting our second year of partially outsourced homeschooling, and we love it!

Anonymous said...

If you live in a rural or semi-rural area where public schools have limited resources, it becomes pretty much a necessity. Our high school offers AP classes but frequently schedules them either once every two years or in conflict with another AP course. If only one section of an Honors course is offered (Physics, this past year) and you have nine town's worth of students in the school, it's going to be difficult.

I find the more I talk to parents or teenagers about homeschooling and the other projects we're involved in, the more I feel like some sort of Pied Piper. People are really receptive to the idea that students will learn in modes that suit them, that they will be able to schedule their work (learning) in conjunction with other passions, and that the academic competition will consist of doing your personal best. Class rank is just not a concern, yet students at our high school try to start calculating it in freshman year.

And yes, our high schooler will have official transcripts from four different institutions by the end of sophomore year. Think about the organizational requirements for assembling all this evidence for college applications.

Stephanie said...

Traditional school simply does not work for every child. I fully support a parent's right to choose from a variety of educational options. Of course, more money often gives one more options. As more and more parents explore homeschooling, virtual schools and educational outsourcing, traditional public and private schools will be forced to become more innovative in order to become competitive.