Sarah M.: “These assessments turned out to be easily avoided”

Although Pennsylvania had homeschooling oversight on the books, they failed to reliably enforce it. Even within my local school district I knew families with vastly different experiences with the district office”

I‘m the oldest of six children, raised in a conservative Christian family that homeschooled until I was sixteen. My home state of Pennsylvania was often described as “one of the worst states” in which to homeschool because of the accountability requirements. Looking back, I don’t think that “worst” was a fair way to describe it at all.

Like most homeschooling families I knew, education was my mother’s job. She stayed home and taught us, and when I was younger that worked fairly well. As my siblings and I grew older (and more numerous), she spent time with the younger kids while the older ones were mostly in charge of our own tasks. At times during my childhood and adolescence, my mom struggled with mental illness. Educating us became an additional stress for her, and our schoolwork inevitably suffered during these times.

Both of my parents are well educated and adept at subjects like literature and history, so my siblings and I were well off in that respect. The ability to be creative as we learned helped us to retain our enjoyment of learning; schoolwork was still “work” at times, but it could also be a lot of fun. The downside of this freedom was that structured learning skills like writing essays were not emphasized enough, and some subjects were neglected.

We participated in a homeschool co-op when I was a child; a monthly “class day” where we learned supplemental subjects like health and safety with other homeschooling families. When I was a teen, my family formed a smaller co-op with a few other families and we met weekly for biology labs, writing classes, and literature studies. All of these were beneficial, but they only accounted for a small part of my education.

I began to fall behind in math (and, to a lesser extent, science) when I reached high school age. I wasn’t particularly motivated to work on either subject, and my mom didn’t check in very often to make sure I was keeping up. Pennsylvania’s homeschool assessment requirements at the time included an annual portfolio review by a certified teacher and a daily log for high school students. The portfolio reviews were not rigorous, but they motivated us to keep some records and cover subjects that may have been neglected otherwise. Unfortunately, these assessments turned out to be easily avoided when they would have mattered most.

My parents enrolled us in a cyber charter school when I was in 9th grade. The material provided by the cyber school bored me and I had little contact with my teachers. There were few consequences when I failed to turn in my work; I may have had bad grades but I wasn’t familiar with the concept of a GPA. My education consisted mainly of reading books I liked as well as (sometimes) the textbooks and assignments provided by the cyber school.

When we switched back to homeschooling after a year or so at the cyber charter, my formal education (pre-college) essentially ended. My parents separated soon after and my younger siblings enrolled in public school. I was already sixteen and didn’t want to bother attending public school, so I didn’t. Part of my reluctance was influenced by other homeschooling parents in my life who told me I didn’t need to go to school. My fourteen year old sister was actively discouraged from enrolling, told by one homeschooling mom that she would “ruin her life” by going to public school. When I look back, I find this attitude towards public school to be seriously concerning. Neither of my parents was going to educate us during that time, and no one around us was offering to give us the consistent guidance and discipline we needed to finish high school. My sister did end up going to public school, and not only did she get an adequate high school education, but she (and my other siblings) also had many extracurricular opportunities that I never experienced.

At one point I visited the school district office to make sure I wasn’t showing up in their system as truant. The office staff seemed confused by my questions and were very unhelpful; I was sixteen, and old enough to drop out of school. I didn’t want to be considered a dropout, but if I was in their files at all, that’s probably how I ended up being classified at the time.

Despite that, I did go to college. My SAT scores were good, though my math and essay scores were average at best and could easily have been improved if I’d ever learned the material. I graduated with high honors, and most people I know consider me a homeschooling success story. What they don’t know, or would like to ignore perhaps, is that my college options were limited because I never officially graduated from high school – state schools would have asked for the homeschooling documentation I never submitted, so I only applied to private schools. Despite genuinely enjoying both math and science as an adult, I find myself lacking basic knowledge in both fields. As I prepare to take the GRE, I’m spending many of my precious study hours on high school level math that I’m encountering for the first time.

Although Pennsylvania had homeschooling oversight on the books, they failed to reliably enforce it. Even within my local school district I knew families with vastly different experiences with the district office – some were threatened with truancy charges for failing to turn in paperwork on time, while others never submitted a single page of documentation and experienced no consequences. If state education agencies properly trained their staff on homeschooling requirements, this type of inconsistency could be reduced.

I was lucky in many respects. Though some aspects of my education were very inadequate, other parts were excellent and helped to balance things out when I went to college. My parents, while not always perfect teachers, always encouraged my education. I didn’t have many friends growing up, but the internet allowed me to form and maintain close friendships with a few people, and my siblings and I are much closer than most families I know because of how much time we spent together as children.

Many homeschooled children aren’t as fortunate as I was. When a family homeschools, the children’s education is directly connected to the life of the family as a whole. Some homeschoolers consider this one of the best things about homeschooling, and it can be – but for children in unhealthy or disadvantaged situations, it can be extremely detrimental to their education.

Homeschoolers who do provide their children with a good education shouldn’t be content to stop there. If the homeschooling community is a community, they should take a moment to consider the welfare of children who aren’t so well off. If a homeschooled education is to be considered equal or better than one from a public school, then the state needs to fulfill its responsibility in ensuring that all children have access to a quality education.

Sarah M. was homeschooled in Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2008. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.

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