Caitlin T.: “In New Jersey, things fell apart”

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“In New Jersey, things fell apart. Without oversight, there was no need to think about compiling a portfolio. Without state standards, there was no benchmark for my progress. We still tried to follow the Pennsylvania guidelines for high school (3 years of math, 3 of science, 4 of English, etc.), but no one was there to check up on us or offer help as I entered harder subjects.” 

I was homeschooled from kindergarten through twelfth grade, from 1991 through 2005. I’ve experienced both regulated and unregulated homeschooling, and the differences are profound. From kindergarten through eighth grade, I lived in Pennsylvania and was subject to state regulations: annual reviews by an evaluator, periodic standardized tests, and basic curriculum standards. In 9th grade, however, my family moved to New Jersey. There were no formal requirements for homeschoolers. As far as the state was concerned, we didn’t exist.

My kindergarten through eighth grade experience provided me a mostly balanced, interesting, and engaging homeschool program. We switched math books until we found one that suited me, and I learned verbal skills through voracious reading and daily writing. Every year, we submitted a portfolio to our licensed evaluator and she interviewed me. She was a retired schoolteacher, so she was able to compare my progress with her former students realistically. The portfolio consisted of tests (graded by my mother), samples of my written work, and photos of field trips. There was no question of falling behind in grade level, because homeschooling produced competitiveness in most families I knew. We were all obsessed with being ahead of public schooled kids, and the best measure of that was taking on material meant for older kids. In every subject but math, I frequently studied a year (sometimes two) ahead of my grade level. We interpreted the state standards as minimums that we had to beat.

In New Jersey, things fell apart. Without oversight, there was no need to think about compiling a portfolio. Without state standards, there was no benchmark for my progress. We still tried to follow the Pennsylvania guidelines for high school (3 years of math, 3 of science, 4 of English, etc.), but no one was there to check up on us or offer help as I entered harder subjects. I spent one entire academic year with my geometry book propped up on my dresser, open to the same page. By this time, our homeschooling friends had sucked us into a culture that told us girls’ education wasn’t valuable anyway, that I should be learning homemaking skills and preparing for a life of obedience to my husband. (We would never have been exposed to these ideas if we hadn’t joined a homeschooling group—we were ordinary, moderate Christians when I was in kindergarten.) Homeschooling had become a moral mission for my mother, such that putting me in public or private school was no longer an option—even if it meant I did nothing instead. My expected graduation date passed and I became suicidal. I was convinced that I was stupid and a failure for not being able to teach myself geometry or chemistry out of a book.

My break came when my mother decided to have me enroll in community college for the last credits of high school. I thrived on the classroom environment. It was almost comical how eagerly I approached the remedial math class the college taught out of a trailer in the parking lot. I took philosophy, psychology, earth science, American literature, and that remedial math, and, with those credits, graduated the following summer (a year late, which embarrassed me for many years).

The basic regulations in Pennsylvania gave my mother and me a yardstick for measuring our progress and a sense that we weren’t going it alone. I looked forward to visiting my evaluator and being praised for working above my grade level. The state framework fostered ambition and provided rewards. The absence of regulation in New Jersey, however, meant that I was cut adrift. There was no one to ask for help with geometry, no one to give my mother realistic warnings about my declining performance. Had we stayed with the evaluator, she might have helped us find a solution so I didn’t spend a year paralyzed in fear and depression about my inability to tackle difficult subjects.

More profoundly still, oversight might have kept me thinking about the rewards of performing well in school. Between ninth grade and my year in community college, I received no encouragement to pursue further education or a career—every single adult in my homeschooling group worked against the idea that women should be full participants in society. When my mother mentioned something I’d done in school, I watched other women bristle and talk over her about their sons’ achievements. It wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I started to believe I was actually smart, that my ideas mattered.

I am the only girl in my circle of friends who has graduated from a four-year college. Most have never worked and are now married with several children whom they are also homeschooling. They are raising their daughters to be homemakers, to believe their education only matters as practice for homeschooling the next generation. This is not what a revolutionary, high-achieving population looks like. Groups like HSLDA convince parents that government regulation holds children back from their full potential. From what I’ve seen, the absence of regulation does that far more effectively. It was only under the supervision of my evaluator, regular testing, and the close mentorship of my professors in college that I realized I had any potential at all.


Caitlin T. was homeschooled in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.

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