First of all, let me make clear my background. This is a bit long and personal, so I've put a bold text heading down below so you can skip to the part where I lay out my views. Still, this is going to be relevant background.
I have been the beneficiary of both public and private schools, as well as parents who really cared about my education at all stages. Both my parents worked. I went to preschool as a young child, then went to early school in Auburn, Alabama until about fourth grade. After that, we moved to Santa Fe, where I was in private school until high school age -- about four years. Then I commuted from Santa Fe to Los Alamos, where I went to LAHS for all four years, taking a number of AP classes before ultimately getting accepted into the UC college system. In my family, it was never really a question of whether I would go to college or not; the only question was where. My parents are both Ph.D's, and they were really active in keeping an eye on my school performance.
Obviously, in many ways I had an atypical public school environment. Los Alamos High has a reputation as a truly excellent high school. I don't remember what my school in Auburn (Cary Woods Elementary) was like academically, but I do remember liking most of my teachers and having good memories. And of course, I got to spend the junior high years in private school, which I hear are pretty bad years for some people, including my sister.
Like many kids, I was picked on sometimes, at every stage, including private schools. At the time it seemed like I was picked on a lot. Looking back, it may have been relatively mild treatment, especially considering my status as an outspoken atheist. I remember being punched on more than one occasion, but I never got into any major fights. I particularly remember that when I was a teenager at summer camp, and during my first year of high school, a lot of people made it clear that they really didn't like me. I had to do a lot of self-reflection, centered around whether I really cared if people liked me, and I decided that I did. I made an effort to change the way I approached people.
You can see this effort gradually paying off if you read my high school yearbooks. In freshman year, I didn't even bother to get a yearbook. In sophomore year, I had a smattering of signatures on mostly lonely pages, some of the comments not particularly flattering. In junior year, I had a lot more signatures, and one senior girl even left a sloppy lipstick kiss on one page. My senior yearbook is crammed with signatures, many of them saying that they'll miss me a lot, and some younger students saying they considered me an inspiration. It was a warm feeling, because it was something I struggled to accomplish. I also remember a seminal moment, which I think occurred during the All-State chorus trip, where I made up with someone I had once considered a nemesis as a freshmen (a particularly snarky girl named Kim Coulter). Kim and I hugged, I was sorry for being such a dork to her, she was sorry for being rude to me, and we were kind-of friends right up to graduation day.
I can't say I was ever really a popular kid, even in college, and perhaps also to this day. But still, social skills ARE something that I came to grips with as a result of being in public school. I learned some things about how to talk so that people will listen, and listen so people will talk. I learned the value of getting involved in community activities, which at the time meant things like the debate team and French club. I learned how to make people laugh with me instead of at me (most of the time) and how to stand up for myself and make sure I got noticed.
Besides that, I had a number of teachers I liked. I also had a number of teachers I didn't like. But the ones I didn't like are growing dimmer in my memory, and the ones I liked are among the important people who shaped the way I am today.
And now, finally, thoughts on home schooling
I'm of two minds about home schooling. On the one hand, I don't see anything especially wrong with the concept, if it is done right. Engage your kids, get them a curriculum, work with them every day, and teach them what they need to know. I don't see why you, as a dedicated parent, should be worse at it than professional teachers. If nothing else, you've got an unusually small class size on your side. That's a huge benefit.
But education is something I take very seriously. The world is a huge, complicated place, full of scientific ideas and confusing technology that didn't exist a hundred years ago. The goal of an effective education is to get you up to speed with correct information on subjects you need to know about. That also includes understanding history and literature, how to construct a personal essay or an original argument, and how to read anything from a few paragraphs to a novel and extract meaning and value out of it.
Being a teacher is a hard job. A good teacher is someone who understands their subject, not just a little better than his or her students, but so much better that they understand both the subject and the best way to get it across. Of course not all teachers are good teachers, but I both know personally and have been the beneficiary of many good teachers, and I can say that their value in kids' lives as both mentors and role models cannot be overstated.
And of course, many parents are also potentially good teachers. And if those parents are willing to dedicate the kind of hours that teachers put in, then that's great for them. But some parents have other interests outside of their kids. There is nothing wrong with that. I didn't pick a career in teaching, and I'd much rather go to work with adults every day than spend twelve years focusing primarily on passing on knowledge to a single student. One reason is that it seems like an inefficient use of my time. I can understand a stay-at-home parent finding it enjoyable to put in the time and effort. But even stay-at-home parents don't always find it stimulating to spend three to six hours a day teaching arithmetic and simple reading. (I've guessed at that range because school lasts six hours, but home schoolers are quick to point out that not all of those hours consist of productive learning time. I've heard many argue that much less than half the time is spent learning; all I can say is that this has never remotely matched my own experience.)
Let me stress that there is nothing wrong with not wanting to put in the time. If I enjoy doing something else that helps me grow as a person, then I shouldn't be forced to spend that time on what I've already said is a difficult and sometimes tedious task. That's one important reason why I appreciate the fact that the state has thoughtfully set up a massive infrastructure, for which we all share the costs, and which provides trained professionals to do the work if I haven't got the time. Frankly, it would seem a little silly for me to feel trapped into doing something I don't want to do if I've already paid for somebody else to do that thing for me.
Public schools receive a lot of criticism, and some of it is justified. I've felt for several years that the public school system has been systematically underfunded. In addition, at least since Bush took office, a lot of ineffective programs have been put in place, such as standardized testing, which has the effect of forcing even good teachers to move towards rote memorization of concepts instead of exposing kids to the exciting parts of absorbing new materials.
Yet as a self-avowed liberal, I do not regard this as the inevitable result of state funding. People who have a more libertarian bent than I do often casually denigrate public schools as "government schools," as if invoking the big, bad boogeyman of government should automatically make it obvious what the problem is.
I reject this completely. I think I can't do much better here than to repeat a point in a post I wrote last year, entitled Why I Am Not a Libertarian:
"...libertarians argue that we should do away with our public school system because it's broken. But what are they comparing it to? Which are the countries that outperform us in math and science? Countries like Japan, Canada, and Germany. Do these countries model the libertarian ideal? Of course not. Like us, they have public schools with national standards. They do the same thing we do, but better. Are there ANY examples around the world of the voucher program being successful?"
It is worth noting that in response to that post, I received a number of examples of countries that had non-traditional school systems, but none of them were what I'd describe as a desirable role models. Instead, I heard a lot about third world countries where poor kids got a bare minimum education.
This post isn't about school vouchers and poor kids; this is about home schooling and YOUR kids. The thing is, though, it's hard for me to take seriously that "government" is what's wrong with all the schools, when I got what I consider to be a damn fine government education at several stages. I didn't get the creativity beaten out of me. I got some bad teachers, and they made me dislike certain subjects, but even in those cases I often had enough appreciation for learning that I later went on to revisit those same subjects and understand them.
Home schooling advocates argue that it's important for parents to be actively involved in their kids' education, and to keep an eye on what they're learning, and I agree. But of course, having this approach to parenting does not exclude also letting your kids learn elsewhere, even if their teachers might get paid by "the government." By all means, keep tabs on your child's homework. Engage in discussion with him or her. Find out how homework is going, and which subjects are interesting. If you're not willing to put in that much effort -- an hour in the evenings each day -- then you certainly aren't ready to be a full time teacher.
Besides the defense of traditional schools that I've just tried to lay out, I have a few more specific concerns about home schooling. I will lay these out briefly in the remainder of this post.
First, there's the issue of getting different perspectives from different people. The simple fact is that no one person knows everything. I certainly don't. Neither, of course, does any one teacher. But if your kid is going to school for twelve years, he or she will be meeting a lot of different teachers who know a lot of different subjects -- some of them (believe it or not) quite well. Now some home schoolers join communities where the kids work with many different parents, in their neighborhood or elsewhere, and that seems like a good move to me. But others do not. If you are your child's only teacher for the vast majority of the time, they'll only be getting one person's perspective throughout most of their education. If there are areas where your own knowledge is weak and you don't realize it, you risk passing on bad information throughout your child's education. If you are bad at (for example) art, your child is never going to get new perspectives from a teacher who is good at art.
For an extreme example, consider the home schooling scenes in Jesus Camp. Levi's mother is feeding her son all kinds of bad information about science, but she has no idea that this is the case because she doesn't understand science and only speaks to other people who don't understand science. She isn't trying to deliberately subvert Levi's knowledge, but she simply isn't in a position to explain something that she doesn't know.
Which brings me to my second major concern about home schooling: The tendency to put your kids in a bubble. The Jesus Camp parents do it on purpose, and of course many well-meaning parents do not. Despite this, I think that the effect can easily be the same whether you intend it or not. Being your child's main teacher is a great way to make sure that he gets your point of view almost exclusively. While this sounds like a good idea in the short term, in the long term it has the potential to be harmful.
What I said earlier about teachers also applies to people in general. People are social animals. We gain knowledge and experience by being around each other. Coming in contact with a lot of people broadens your chance of meeting more really great folks who will influence your life positively. And the ones who aren't so great... well, life is full of those anyway. If you don't learn how to deal with them when you're a kid, it will be that much harder to learn when you're an adult.
It might help to think of it like inoculation to diseases. If you are afraid of germs, then you might want to spend your life in a literal bubble, using sanitary wipes all the time and avoiding direct contact with anyone who might be carrying a disease. The problem is that if you start using that as a way to stay healthy, then you pretty much have to adopt that strategy for the rest of your life. Once you step out of that bubble, all the diseases that you never built up an immunity to will be there, just waiting to get you. On the other hand, if you get those diseases early, under safer conditions, then later on you won't have to worry about those diseases doing more serious damage.
I don't mean to say that people are diseases, of course. I just want to make the point that the more people you meet, the more you figure out how to approach them. You learn that some situations call for a friendly, diplomatic approach to gain trust, while other situations call for caution to avoid being taken advantage of. Again, you either learn this early or you learn it late.
In summary, there are several things that schools provide, and these should not be taken lightly. They provide exposure to a wide variety of people, both students and teachers, many of whom are potentially positive people who will expand your children's horizons. They provide an early chance to deal with challenges, whether they are social or academic, in an environment that is generally more forgiving of mistakes than real life. They provide years of access to dozens of paid professionals who have been doing the job of teaching for a long time and are familiar with the issues of students from all walks of life.
None of this should be taken as an indication that I am fundamentally opposed to home schooling. I believe that there are ways of doing it correctly, which can provide all of the above advantages while strengthening the parent-child relationship. But I wish to repeat, one last time, that teaching is hard work. It is easy to be an armchair quarterback and believe that "government schools" are messing up your kids, if you're not already getting involved with the school and the work yourself.
Thomas Edison is often tossed out as an example of a child who thrived in a home schooling environment. While this is true, the example is somewhat misleading. Edison's mother had been a professional teacher already, and was already especially qualified to teach her son. That doesn't mean that you need strong credentials in order to be a successful teacher, but knowledge and experience shouldn't be scoffed at as valuable tools.
Of course public schools aren't perfect. But they're not perfectly awful, either. In Fiery Ewok's thread, some people were damning school with faint praise by saying: Maybe school helps you by making your life so miserable that your scars make you a stronger person. And that may be consistent with what I've said in this post, but only in a glass-is-half-empty kind of way. There are a lot of things we do in life when we'd rather be doing something else: practice a musical instrument, work out at the gym, take proficiency exams. Sometimes those activities are not so fun, but we do them anyway. Do we do them because we are proud of our ability to withstand unpleasantness and accept scars? No, we do them because they make us better at things we want to be able to do. We do those things because we are smart people who can delay gratification in order improve our lives in the future.
School isn't just bad times for everybody. We meet new people, we learn new information. That's a big part of why I went back to graduate school. When I finished my Bachelor's degree, I felt at the time like I never wanted to go to school again. But after years of not going to school, I had nostalgic feelings about sitting in a room full of people who were discovering information that they never new before, from somebody who knows the subject and is dedicated to passing it on. I don't go to school because I love taking tests and pulling Frappucino-fueled all-nighters and having nightmares when I finally go to sleep; I go because going through the rigors of studying and taking tests and doing homework help me reach new levels of self-actualization.
That's what education means to me, and I hope that you home schoolers out there are working hard to give your kids the experiences they deserve.