Study: Most College Students Lack Skills

WASHINGTON (AP) — Although nearing a diploma, most college students cannot handle many complex but common tasks, from understanding credit card offers to comparing the cost per ounce of food. Those are the sobering findings of a study of literacy on college campuses, the first to target the skills of students as they approach the start of their careers.

The study found that more than 50% of students at four-year schools and more than 75% at two-year colleges lacked the skills to perform complex literacy tasks. That means they could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school. The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.

“It is kind of disturbing that a lot of folks are graduating with a degree and they’re not going to be able to do those things,” said Stephane Baldi, the study’s director at the American Institutes for Research, a behavioral and social science research organization.
Most students at community colleges and four-year schools showed intermediate skills, meaning they could perform moderately challenging tasks. Examples include identifying a location on a map, calculating the cost of ordering office supplies or consulting a reference guide to figure out which foods contain a particular vitamin.

There was brighter news, though. Overall, the average literacy of college students is significantly higher than that of adults across the nation. Study leaders said that was encouraging but not surprising, given that the spectrum of adults includes those with much less education. Also, compared with all adults with similar levels of education, college students had superior skills in searching and using information from texts and documents.

“But do they do well enough for a highly educated population? For a knowledge-based economy? The answer is no,” said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an independent and non-partisan group.
“This sends a message that we should be monitoring this as a nation, and we don’t do it,” Finney said. “States have no idea about the knowledge and skills of their college graduates.”

The survey examined college and university students nearing the end of their degree programs. The students did the worst on matters involving math, according to the study.
Almost 20% of students pursuing four-year degrees had only basic quantitative skills. For example, the students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the service station. About 30% of two-year students had only basic math skills. Baldi and Finney said the survey should be used as a tool. They hope state leaders, educators and university trustees will examine the rigor of courses required of all students.

The survey also showed a strong relationship between analytic coursework and literacy. Students in two-year and four-year schools scored higher when they took classes that challenged them to apply theories to practical problems or weigh competing arguments.
The college survey used the same test as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the government’s examination of English literacy among adults. The results of that study were released in December, showing about one in 20 adults is not literate in English.
On campus, the tests were given in 2003 to a representative sample of 1,827 students at public and private schools. The Pew Charitable Trusts funded the survey.

NOTE: This study had a margin of sampling error of +3/-3 percentage points.

For Education, There’s Still No Place Like Home

Homeschooling is legal and thriving in all 50 states.  In Hawaii, any parent can homeschool and no permission is needed.  The parent is responsible for what to teach and how to measure progress.  We need only notify our school principal of our intent to homeschool and send in a report at the end of the year of what we did.  The Department of Education is  very supportive of this alternative, even referring families to us so they can find out more about what it involves.

How one goes about homeschooling depends upon one’s resources, philosophy, interests, and the learning style of the children involved.  Some families buy a ready-made curriculum and school their children at home on a set schedule.  Some use a curriculum but are more flexible about following it and about the hours.  Some develop their own curriculum and others allow life and their interests to provide the next learning experience.  Some parents do virtually all the teaching, some use tutors, some organize small classes in which parents take turns teaching.  Most families participate in community activities: drama, art and music classes, sports, festivals, and such.  This is one of the greatest appeals of homeschooling — you can do it in a way that suits your family.  Most will do a combination of approaches over the years.

Another advantage of homeschooling is the quality it provides — quality of education and quality of family time.  In a family setting, with few students and few distractions, children have time to read, learn math, do art, be outdoors, do hobbies, relax and all the rest and without rushing to bed at night or rushing to school in the morning.  The family works and lives as a unit and this gives the highest quality experiences in socialization, community responsibility and feelings of self-worth. Studies uniformly demonstrate the excellence of homeschooled children both academically and socially.

We homeschoolers find that the more we are with our children, the more we enjoy them.  Just as we thrilled to their first words and first steps, we now take joy in seeing them learning to read, learning more fully the skills of homelife,  and  growing in character traits.  And with their growing ability to help with the running of the family comes more free time for the family to spend enjoying each other and socializing with other homeschoolers.
If school isn’t  providing your child with the education or good influences you wish or if you feel that life might be less hectic and if you’d like more time to enjoy your children and your family life, contact one of these groups and find out how homeschooling might work for you.

He Doesn’t Want to Study

Dear Gail,
I wrote to you a few months ago with questions about homeschooling in Maui County.  I’m running into some issues, and I was wondering if you had some advice.

We homeschooled last spring semester, took a long break for summer and then started back the last 2 weeks.  After the “honeymoon” period was over last spring, my oldest son started running into some problems.  He’s very bright, a 2nd grader reading at 4th or 5th grade level.  He loves to learn, and I’ve watched him in both public and private classrooms, where he has thrived.  (We began homeschooling for more family time, and more quality one-on-one time, and educational opportunities.)  Instead of thriving now, he is miserable.  He takes 45 min. to do a simple language page, has a melt-down if I give him even slightly corrective feedback, complains and whines much of the school day.  This is totally out of character for him.  I am not that picky about his work, and constantly encouraging him.  He is normally (and the rest of the day is) a happy kid who loves others and behaves very well.  I have tried adding work to stimulate him, taking work away to take the pressure off.  I’ve tried positive and negative reinforcement (time-outs to stickers, etc.) when he behaves like this.  Now, I’m totally out of ideas.  We don’t have alot of options here, and this really needs to work, but this cannot go on.  My other son is normally the distracted one, and he has been an angel – working hard and excelling every day.

I’ve searched on-line for help and I have 5-6 books at home on homeschooling, and no real solutions.  Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you for your time,

Dear Meredith,

Gosh, I’d love to come meet your family and see for myself what’s happening!  But on the basis of what you’ve written, I’ll tell you what I think.  But what I think is based on my assumptions about kids and learning and I can appear pretty extreme in my views sometimes and if they are too out there, I hope they don’t offend.

First, I don’t believe in homeschooling in a hierarchical way.  When the parent has too much say about what is learned, when or how, then I feel the child has all the disadvantages of school (being controlled) and none of the advantages (lots of kids around).  So I am a believer in responding to the child and his call for knowledge.

I also don’t believe in grade levels.  Adults are all over the place in their knowledge and nobody worries about their grade levels.  A child might be reading books most adults couldn’t begin to comprehend (on computers, for example) and yet seem slow on other things….like math maybe.  The only two times grade levels were important to us were:

  1. when our son wanted to go to school and wanted to be placed at grade level.  Because he wanted to reach grade level, he ended up cracking the whip on me to work with him more!  He needed no coaxing from me.  When he took the tests, after about 3 months of study, he scored grade 12 +, and:
  2. when he got his GED, which is a high school diploma in Hawaii, he wanted to score in the “Elite 300 Club”  (it’s scored differently now so the numbers don’t have meanings but it’s the idea).   He could only miss one or two questions on each section to do that — an incredibly difficult goal.  He was fanatical about studying and spent like 8 hours a day at it.  I’d be trying to convince him to take breaks and he wouldn’t.  This from a kid who had only wanted to skate and bodyboard!  He scored 322.

Conclusion:  when it was important to him, he needed no external motivation.

Along these lines, there is a book, “Punished by Rewards.”  I haven’t read it myself but the title tells it all and I believe that, too.  I don’t believe there is any reason to study anything except if one wants to learn about that subject for ones own use.  Similarly, don’t the right thing.  I always told him we do this (be generous or kind or whatever) because it’s the right thing to do.  Not because of any gain we’d get for doing it or consequence from not doing it.

Your son might also enjoy the competition of a school setting.  Mine was like that.  He would ask for check lists so he could mark off what he’d done and feel he’d accomplished something.  But what went on the lists to do were his idea, not mine.  Our son didn’t (and still doesn’t) like to be taught or corrected.  When he asks me how to spell a word,  he just wants the spelling and gets really irritated if I try to give him a rule so he’ll do better the next time.  But his spelling has improved greatly doing it his way and is now near perfect.  And he’s a wonderful writer.

What I’d suggest is that you sit down with your son and ask him what he thinks is going on and what he thinks would work and what he wants to learn about and when and where he wants to study.  We mostly studied on days of no surf.  Or rainy days.  Sometimes outside in the woods.

I hope this helps.  At very least, it’ll be food for thought.


Father Against Homeschooling

From a Father:
A lot has been going on with me emotionally lately – where to start?  I guess it’s started with my renewed desire to consider homeschooling again.  I get so frustrated trying to go through Jason’s homework with him late at night (which seems to be the only time we can manage to sit down and do it, because I want him to be able to decompress when he gets home, then it’s dinnertime).  I know it could be different.  It makes me ache inside to know that he is developing an intense dislike of learning and reading because it’s things we (through school) “make” him do.  I have visions (Al calls them fantasies) of Jason working one-on-one with me and opening up that eagerness to learn that I get a glimpse of every now and then (and usually it is when we are talking about something completely unrelated to what he’s doing in school).  I finally managed to have a conversation with Al about his concerns.  It was so hard for me to just listen without saying “But…” to each thing he said (and I didn’t always refrain).  I thought financial would be the only major one, but it wasn’t.  He says he thinks Jason can learn better from a teacher than from a Mom (which made me scream inside) because of the attitude thing, that he doesn’t listen to me as well as he listens to his teacher. (It’s true Jason has more of a fear of disrespecting the teacher than he does of disrespecting me, but I always thought the positive side of that is that he knows he can be himself with me and I won’t stop loving him).  Al feels Jason needs to learn to function in the “real world” and not be “sheltered’ at home.  He feels what I call real-life learning (an example I gave was for Al to teach Jason how to manage his own bank account or buy and follow a stock) isn’t a “real education”.  He says Jason is unfocussed and it would just be frustrating for me to try to get him to do what he needed to do (which of course my response is that the reason he is unfocussed and frustrated with school now is because he’s locked into a box in the way he is taught).  As says he thinks I would be more fulfilled doing what I’m doing (which also made me seethe – who is he to say what would fulfill me?). Al knows he doesn’t have the patience to teach, and when I said he has misconceptions about teaching – it’s not just sitting with a book – he can take him fishing to teach him fish anatomy instead of looking at a picture in a book! – he said that’s not “real education” (I can feel your feelings even as you read this because they’re probably the same as mine….).  He also worried about socialization (which is the least of my worries), and that if Jason is having trouble with other kids at school (he is a little – he feels he gets left out a lot) then he just needs to learn to deal with it because he’ll have to when he’s an adult.  Anyway, you can imagine how the conversation went, and I’m not sure I want to talk to him at all about it anymore.  He’s got his mind so made up (and so do I!).  If you have any stats about how well homeschoolers do academically (I know I’ve seen them but don’t have them handy), and that they do just fine (or better) in the “real world” (ironically, homeschooling is more in the real world than sitting in a classroom, but Al doesn’t see it that way), I’d appreciate it.  The thing that is so frustrating though, is that I think I can talk til I’m blue in the face (and believe me, I have), but Al seems un-moveable.  I even said I’d wait until Jason graduated from 6th grade but he still isn’t open to it.  And in our relationship, Al usually wins.  My heart aches for Jason and I feel powerless.  I feel I have a responsibility to Jason, but having an intact marriage is also beneficial to him. Maybe I need to just find a way to “homeschool” in between his school hours – the thing is there just isn’t much time.

My Response:
Oh, I feel for you.   I know the truth of everything you are trying to get Al to see and he is so stuck in society’s party line.  It’s like he’s 20 years behind the times because what he’s saying is what people said here.  I had similar dire warnings from my parents and brothers, especially Rusty, who was a history teacher, even our son’s friends — but I didn’t have to live with them so could do it my way.  He’d never have any friends and never get a job, they warned.  The more they saw the results, the more they came around and in the end, each said in so many words that home schooling was the right way for us.

I can get you some articles on socialization, how peers socializing each other is exactly the wrong way to go about it and is what makes schools so anti-social.  Teasing, over-sexed, violent, crude language, consumerism, competition, anti-adult attitudes, cliques, gossip, rampant drugs — that’s socialization in the schools, even good private schools, Catholic schools, etc.  At home?  Cooperation, love, working together, all-in-it-together, compassion, lots of real communication, respect, adults and kids enjoying each other, adventures out in the world with lots of different kinds of people, but guided by a loving mother or father.  Thumper gets along with and feels comfortable with everyone, any age, sex, good kids, bad kids, homeless and people with altitude.  Comes from spending his school days with such a wide variety of people.

Academically it’s a bit harder as there’s really no way to test it.  Our son studied hard for less than a year and took an entrance test to high school and tested as a graduate.  He went in to school and got all A’s (one B — because he was sloppy on some really stupid busy work in auto shop).  But it was so easy for him to get those grades he was bored.  And so what if he got all A’s — what is the point of education?  To pass tests or to assist in living a meaningful, authentic life?

Love of learning?  I don’t know any of our son’s schooled friends who read anything they don’t have to.  He reads fiction and non-fiction and is a life-long-learner.

Real world?  What is real world about spending your days going from room to room each hour with all people of your  exact age?  Only prison is like that.

But no matter how many facts we give Al, I don’t think it’ll nudge him one bit.  There’s a maxim that “If the problem won’t resolve, that’s not the actual problem.”  And in a book on raising teens, “When attitudes are hostile, facts are unconvincing.”  He is so stuck in a false view of home schooling, a subject in which he has no personal experience and just isn’t open to the facts.

Here’s what I suggest we try:

* let him spend some time with our son when we visit in June (more about our itinerary later).
*  ask Al about what sort of future does he want for Jason.  Does he want him working for someone else in a job (school is good at preparing kids to be followers).  Does he want him to pursue financial goals at the expense of personal fulfillment?  (school can be better for that, too.  How many stories do we hear of lawyers and business people etc. realizing they had been wasting their lives in meaningless work so they quit and do what they’d always wanted to do)  Or would he like Jason to be doing what he loved and happy, if not wealthy.
*  ask Al about his own dreams for himself as a kid — is he “following his bliss?”  (If not, why not?  How does school fit into this?)
* ask him what he is afraid will happen if Jason is home schooled.  What does he think bad will happen to Jason?  To Al?  To the family?  To his marriage?  To his image with his peers.  Why does he think this will happen.

Ask these out of curiosity, without any hint of trying to change his mind about any of this, really, honestly trying to just understand his views and why he has them,   Reflective listen (“If I get you right, you are saying _____.  Is that right?”).  Really listen carefully, like he’s a patient with a mysterious disease and you’re looking for clues.   It may be some kind of power thing, it may be that he feels his lifestyle is being threatened..  It may be that he’s scared he will have to go do a job he doesn’t want to do.  Maybe he has the same fears my family had about friends and jobs.  Maybe it has to do with his views of men and women in society.  Or fears his son will become a sissy being with his mother so much.  (I wouldn’t suggest any of these to him though you might ask questions that lead to these answers)  But I think he needs to feel really, really safe to express how he really feels.   Then maybe we can find the real problem and figure out what to do about it.  It may have nothing whatsoever to do with school or Jason.

The real trick is to put zero of your own opinions or objections into it.  If he says something really off the wall like home schooled kids grow up to be social misfits, rather than try to counter it, say something like, “Do you really believe that?”  and “How did you come to that conclusion?”  Try to understand why he thinks this way.

Should you decide to accept this mission (ha, ha, a bit of a joke on that old TV program, “Mission Impossible” — remember that?), your job would be to come away with a lot of his ideas and having given him none of yours.  Take a few days to sort out what he’s said.  Clarify what you find you still don’t understand.  Don’t challenge him at all.  Make sure he feels safe enough to say what he really feels.  Then let’s see what you find out.  Maybe go into the conversation with a mantra like “He’s my patient.  I will be patient.  I will do everything I can to understand him.”  Then just think “Patient” when you are tempted to make a point.  Something like that.  Take a break if you find yourself riled up at all.  This will work best if you can stay detached and have no agenda except to understand him.  It’s ok if he knows what you are trying to do.  After all, you are trying to get to a win-win and this is the first step:  seeing what “win” or goal he’s going towards and why he feels home schooling thwarts that.

Try to understand rather than be understood.  For now.

So Many Interesting Things

Last year, our son and I used a GED prep book for our homeschooling curriculum, focusing on the reading, social studies and science book.  In it we read a hodgepodge of excerpts from books and poems and covered a wide variety of facts.  He wanted to get a broad background of knowledge that school kids get and we felt this would be a good way to make sure that we didn’t miss anything.
The problem was that it was all excruciatingly boring.  It didn’t seem to have any connection to anything else and while perhaps “nice to know,” we had no use for any of it.  Even the math, which we started and quickly dropped, seemed more like irrelevant trivia than useful tools.  After all, he could already do in his head all the math calculations he needed faster than anyone I know.  No, he can’t do algebra,  and neither can I anymore, having aced it in school and never had any further use for it since.

At the end of the school year, we decided that we wouldn’t mourn over a year wasted on pursuing someone elses idea of a rounded education, but would just chalk the experience up as a lesson learned.  We went back to our serendipitous approach to learning, a method that had worked so well for us in the past.
Now we’re back to reading good literature that piques our interest — The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller right now, Lord of the Flies before that.  We stumble across interesting articles in the news magazines, like Space takes its toll, an article about the physiological effects of lack of gravity,  “Chinese ‘hacktivists’ spin a Web of trouble”  about using the Internet to further the aims of democracy in a country where one could be jailed for such activity or “A blow-by-blow look at impeachment”.   We learn about physiology through doctor’s visits for his various skating injuries (3 fractures, many sprains) and through his training regime.  We’ve found time to play Scrabble and to listen to self-betterment tapes and to learn carpentry by building a 80 foot long skating ramp in our yard.  We are both board members of the Maui Skate Association.

He now has time to work on his journal and his book, both of which he is very involved in. He writes many e-mails to his sponsors and friends who have moved away.   And we don’t worry about “falling behind” when we go bodyboarding or hiking or camping.

The funny thing is, all this effortless learning turns out to produce a quite excellent education.  We spend a good deal of time around school kids and schooled adults and find that  his knowledge and understanding is generally at least as good as theirs, often better.  In fact, they have made comments about his vocabulary and knowledge.  Not to say that he doesn’t have holes in his education or weak points, but don’t we all?  Are we concerned about college?  Not particularly.  Should the time come when that’s his interest, he’ll pursue that as naturally as he’s pursuing his current interests.   The point is that there are so many interesting and useful things to know about and while nobody will ever know but a tiny fraction of them all, we’re glad we’re free to focus on those we choose.

Dyslexic Child Can’t Keep Up

A distressed mother wrote:

Hope this letter finds you well. I’m writing concerning my little daughter Holly. She is 8 years old and is of the age to be in 2nd grade. I pulled her out of school last year because, at the end of 1st grade, she was unable to read. Although the school she attended wasn’t standards based, she wasn’t ready to go on with her age group and I didn’t want her to fail.

I’ve worked with her this year (since September) and she has made some progress in her reading. I’m concerned tho’ because it isn’t what would be considered an entire year of school work. I would say that we have finished about a half years worth of what would be considered 1st grade work….and its been a struggle every day. In addition, her writing is very primitive. Most of her letters are reversed, poorly formed, and she has trouble distinguishing between b, d, u, a, m, and n. Math is difficult, too. We’ve made about the same amount of progress in the 1st grade math book. My first reaction is that she has dyslexia and I want to have her tested and send her to Assets School. $15,000. a year now…ugggg. But, maybe she just is a bit immature.

I remembered you told me that your son didn’t read until he was 12. How did you teach him when he couldn’t read? How did you comply with the DOE’s request for a report/testing. Do you wish you would have been more traditional in your teaching method or are you happy? Do you think I should have her tested for dyslexia? Is it possible to get a false positive? Does immaturity test as dyslexia, and with the right learning style/ time it corrects itself? If she is dyslexic is it possible to homeschool her?
One of my friends, who is a traditionalist, insists I get help for her–she says that without help she will only grow more resistant and fall farther and farther behind. I don’t know….even if she is dyslexic, the Assets remedy seems almost worse that the problem.
Thanks so much for listening.

Ah, how many phone calls I get each year with questions similar to yours.

The answer to your first question, “How did I teach him when he couldn’t read?” is perhaps the answer to all your questions. Check out my book, Homeschooling: Why and How at Amazon or in your state library as many states have copies. The section ”Our Bodyboarding and Rollerblading Curriculum” is the answer to that question but I’ll address the others specifically.

Regarding “learning disabilities,” read the blog on my website The Child Who Hates Math. Besides what Ms. Vos Savant says, there is a book, The Magic Feather, that I’ve only scanned but seems right on. My personal view on all this is that we all reverse letters, confuse the mirror image letters and have other problems at the start of reading. And I’ve observed these tend to just take care of themselves with time and enough exposure to books. Kind of like remembering someone’s name — some people remember the name after hearing it once, some people have to have repeated contact with the person. But if we see them really often, we remember.

I’m also reminded of the book, The Child Under Six. He talks about behaviors that are “naughty but nice.” These are the age-appropriate behaviors like how a 2 year old won’t share that whether you try to teach, cajole, coerce, bribe, or punish, the behavior changes when the child grows older. Parents take credit for the change but it would have happened anyway. I feel this is the same with the “professionals” who work with “learning disabled” kids — they take credit for changing what the child simply matured out of. I put “learning disabled” in quotes because I don’t believe in the term nor in “dyslexic” as a label. We don’t label adults when they get a name wrong. Why do we insist on labeling children? Some kids are good at math, some are artists, some are athletes, some are poets. Some are not good at these things….just like adults. We expect children to conform to some adult-created standard of when they are supposed to be good at certain things. It’s our fears, that our children will be doomed if they don’t catch up on this or that by a particular grade in school. I’ll bet I know a lot more about nutrition than you do but you aren’t worried about catching up with me. (And I learned everything I know about nutrition since graduating from college).

As for the testing rule in the homeschool laws, read the article on-line about the laws at the above site. For 3rd grade, I submitted a video of things we did. For reading, I showed me reading to our son and the intelligent questions he asked. (I taped us for about 3 hours and edited it down to the parts that showed he was involved). I think for 5th grade I submitted some letters from people who knew him. He never took any kind of test until he was 15 and wanted to try out school and had to take a placement test. I had never pushed academics on him and he was far behind his peers. But when he decided he himself wanted to take the test and do well, he pushed me! He studied hard for about 4 months and when he took the test (math and reading), he tested grade 12.5! So Holly has lots of time to catch up. And in high school, he took hard classes like 11th grade history and Japanese and he got all A’s except a B in auto shop because his notebook was sloppy. He couldn’t see the sense of copying stuff like sizes of bolts into a notebook when he could just look it up in a book, so he didn’t take the notebook seriously.

As for our satisfaction with our approach, yes, we are very glad we took the approach we did. Our son is an excellent writer, a decent speller (better than his dad who was one semester short of graduating UH), enjoys reading, mostly non-fiction (unlike his peers who seem to have an aversion to reading). The dire warnings of him “never getting a job” have somewhat come true — he is self employed and makes very good money as owner of HI Focused Cinematography.
Of course, we all have times of doubting our approaches. Only the most arrogant never doubt themselves. Another piece I wrote might be helpful on this, I, too, Cry in the Night. But as time goes by, I doubt less and less. He is somewhat driven to succeed but I know that I am still not God of his destiny. I can’t say this or that about him is because I did this or that. I just know that I am proud of the person he is and have 100% confidence in his ability to pursue and achieve most of his goals.

Your friend who cautions about Holly becoming “more resistant” is so typical of adults in our society. We have this arrogant view that we know best for our children (and maybe for everyone else, too). We try to make our kids learn what we feel they need to know when how can we know what the world they will eventually live in will be like? And what about the child’s inner gifts, her, for lack of a better word, destiny? It’s by finding out what the child is inner-driven to do that we discover that child’s unique gifts, those things that will give her fulfillment and pleasure in life and will be the biggest contribution to the world.

I feel that so much of my homeschooling and parenting was as much a lesson for me — to unlearn the false lessons passed on in our society. Things like how if you listen to and respond to a child’s communication, you will “spoil” her. If they don’t learn such and such by such and such grade, they’ll never catch up to their peers. We all must be good at everything. Children should live away from their parents when they are adults. So many things we’ve been instilled with just turn out to be false.

I hope this helps.

The Child Who Hates Math (or any other subject)

A common problem among homeschoolers is what to do about subjects the child doesn’t like or doesn’t want to study. This tends to be more of an issue when the child had been in school for a number of years before becoming a homeschooler. Concerns about “keeping up” are part of this and math is the most frequently problematic subject, so I’ll use that throughout this article, but you could substitute any other subject.

Almost without exception, we parents have been “educated” (indoctrinated) by the system. From birth we have been taught that there are certain subjects that we all must know to a certain level at certain ages. We were told that children should know how to read well by 3rd grade and how to do algebra by 7th or 8th grade. We believed that it would be threatening to our future success to be “behind” our age-mates. It was humiliating to be in the “slow” class or to get below average grades.

Now our kids are being homeschooled and we are responsible for their education. We worry about them and their futures. We want them to get “good educations,” to be able to go to college if they want, to end up with good jobs. Our son was told by his schooled third grade peers that he’d never get a job. I always told him “Probably not. But you’ll have a great career.” And in fact, the only “job” he’s had was two weeks helping get Camp Woodward ready for the season. And he is a very successful entrepreneur (

Often this fear leads to children doing school at home — they have to keep to a schedule and do similar work to that done in school. For many kids, especially active ones who enjoyed the intense, if rather negative, social scene of school, it seems to them that they’ve gotten all the disadvantages of school and none of the advantages. They often start pushing to go back to school even when they had hated it when they went there. Parents don’t like the struggle of forcing their kids to stay home and do schoolwork so they start thinking maybe they should enroll their kids in school.

But there is another alternative. While the parents many recognize that it doesn’t work to try to make their kids do something unusual like homeschool, they might look at the possibility that it also doesn’t usually work to try to make their kids do something usual like math.

Yes, knowing math can be a useful thing, as can knowing how to cook or take care of our car or sew. We’d mostly agree that we would all do well to know at least the fundamentals: how to balance our checkbook, make a sandwich, change a tire, or sew back on a button. We may have an easy time accepting that our kids don’t want to learn how to make Hollandaise sauce or tune up their cars or make their own prom dresses or tuxedos, but when they don’t want to memorize their multiplication tables or learn how to divide fractions parents may set to fretting.

It’s helpful to recognize is that we don’t have to be good at everything. Just as we can buy our produce and clothes at a store or take our car to a mechanic, so, too, can we use calculators and have CPAs do our taxes. When we let others do those things in which, for now, we have no interest or for which we have no talent, we have time to pursue our own unique talents and interests.

The child’s interest may seem to have no obvious and immediate value to the parent. As one mother said, “All she wants to do is her little drawings.” Picasso’s mother might have felt that way, too.

The other thing to realize is that we each have our entire lifetime for learning. The child who hates math now may choose to be a doctor later and be willing to master any prerequisites. The child who does nothing but play sports may later apply the same concentration to academic subjects. Whatever happens in the future, however, putting off a hated subject for a few months or years isn’t going to ruin anyone’s life and may, in fact, release the dread of the subject. Our son spent about 4 months intensely studying for placement tests to try out high school when he was 15 (he’d never been to school before) and ended up testing twelfth grade plus in math and English. So a motivated student can catch up in a short time.

It is never an easy thing to step out of the mainstream. Many of us have been criticized by our relatives and viewed as weird for our lifestyle choices such as to homebirth, be vegetarians, live simply, or to homeschool. We are able to pursue these alternatives because we have freed ourselves from the propaganda of the medical establishment, the dairy industry or a materialistic society. But the largest bureaucracy in the United States is the Department of Education and freeing ourselves from the limiting beliefs it has instilled in us is a very big challenge.

Marilyn vos Savant discussed this in her weekly column in Parade Magazine, 15 February 1998. (Used with permission) (She is listed in the “Guinness Book of World Records” Hall of Fame for “Highest IQ.”):

Question: My 14-year-old son just does not get math. We have tried everything, including tutoring. He is a very visual and hands-on learner and is great on the computer. He also does well in English. But even when he really applies himself, he just cannot do math. Any suggestions? — J. Buchanan, Phoenix, Ariz.

Answer: If I were you, I’d forget about the math and concentrate on what your son can do well. Success is achieved by development of our strengths, not by elimination of our weaknesses. Name any successful person. Does this person have any weaknesses? You bet!”

Why not give it a try? Find out what your child’s passion is and support that in any way you can. Don’t bother for now with the subjects he or she hates. If she just wants to draw, get her lots of pens and paper. If he just wants to fish, get him fishing gear and transportation to the beach. If he just wants to play music, get him an instrument and computer program teaching it. Keep in touch with your child and any new interests and support those. Enjoy your own interests and share with your child any of those that he or she finds interesting.

After a few months, re-evaluate your approach. I’d like to hear how it worked out for you.

A Curriculum for All Ages

In Hawaii, we are required to have a curriculum (not present it) and at the end of the year, we write a report of what we did. This is mine for an early grade but I believe it works for any age.
From the first report we sent in, we have made it abundantly clear that we are emphasizing character traits and will not be pursuing formal studies to any degree until our son is clearly ready. To quote from my 1989 Year End Report, “We are basing our home-education program on the premise that children eagerly and easily learn those things for which they are developmentally ready.” Our main references for this approach are the works of five authors: John Holt, Raymond Moore, Jean Piaget, David Elkind, and Rudolph Steiner (also see John Dewey, Arthur Gates and E. Thorndike). Each in his own terms urges parents and teachers not to rush children into academic studies. Piaget labels the ages seven to eleven the “concrete-operational” period and finds that this is when academic pursuits can most successfully be begun….Their own research and that of others led Raymond Moore and his associates at the Hewitt Foundation to set an age of at least eight to ten as the point at which to begin academic work. If there’s any doubts, they urge waiting until even later.
David Elkind makes a good case for “growing up slowly” in his well known book, The Hurried Child.
In my 1990 School Year Report, I included 4 more pages of quotations supporting the educational approach of emphasizing character and happiness in the elementary school ages. As A. S. Neill of “Summerhill wrote, “I hold that if your emotions are free your intellect will look after itself.”
I also quoted Daniel Greenberg Free at Last, The Sudbury Valley School, “We felt that the only learning that ever counts in life happens when the learners have thrown themselves into a subject on their own, without coaxing, or bribing, or pressure….In order to be true to ourselves we had to get away from any notion of curriculum, or a school-inspired program. We had to let all the drive come from the students, with the school committed only to responding to this drive…We figured that everyone, with the help they could muster at school, could find out for themselves what was and what wasn’t necessary to know in order to get where they wanted in life.
“This tied in rather closely with the character traits we were hoping to foster. More than anything, we wanted people to experience the full meaning of responsibility. We wanted them to know what it is to be a responsible person — not just from books or lectures, or sermons, but from everyday experience.” Thus it has been clear from the start what our curriculum is and why we are pursuing these goals as the major emphasis of our curriculum:
Cares for the welfare of others and takes responsibility for their welfare; is friendly and kind; has good manners; contributes to the goals of groups to which he belongs; is fair and honest in his dealings with others; cares for plants and animals and helps preserve the environment; contributes to making this a better world especially by engaging in volunteer work without expectation of personal gain.
His natural curiosity, concentration, and love of learning is preserved; has a love of books and a wide vocabulary; understands that the purpose of reading, writing and talking is communication; math ability commensurate with his need; is extroverted and confident of his ability to find answers to his questions; has expanding knowledge of the world at large and of the various laws that govern its functions including political and physical.
Has a high level of integrity; is cooperative yet stands up for his own beliefs; knows he is a loved member of a fully functional family; is learning such important lessons as that strength does not need to mean aggression, that bad actions do not necessarily mean bad people, and that peace begins with each of us; is learning positive lessons from his father and other males what it is to be a male and a father; understands the interrelatedness of life; is free of prejudice and has the courage to stand up to peer pressure; is learning our religious beliefs and is respectful of the religious beliefs of others.
Is physically fit, knows and applies rules of good health such as proper nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep and fresh air. Cares for his body without catering to it unnecessarily, is aware of and can avoid dangers such as drugs, alcohol, and AIDS; enjoys participating in a variety of sports for the fun and exercise, not just because of the competition.
Understands the various machines and appliances in his environment and is achieving competence in their use; contributes to the family by doing chores commensurate with his ability, can take care of his own needs such as making his own meals, cleaning up after himself, entertaining himself without adults or TV or video games, and using his phone book to call up friends; understands from first-hand experience the relationship of work to the accomplishment of ones goals and has observed a wide variety of occupations and possible careers.
Is playful and has a good sense of humor and knows how to have fun without harm to himself a others; has observed and participated in disputes and learned how to negotiate to resolve them to a win-win end; is loved and loving; is learning how to deal with so-called negative emotions such as anger and grief; has his self-trust intact and is aware of the strength of the force for good in the world and energetically engages in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Enjoys numerous types of art, music and dancing both as a spectator and as a participant; enjoys the theater (as in plays, not movies); cares for his possessions, including taking care and pride in his appearance; appreciates the peace and beauty of nature; is creative.