The college test: does homeschooling work?

Daniel Petter-Lipstein’s guest post from this blog got featured on Forbes! How cool is that? I feel famous by proxy.


“I don’t think homeschooling was great,” my brother Jake was saying. He’s twenty-one, at conservatory, about to audition for a major orchestral position (I’m sorry, I can’t help it. I brag every time I talk about either one of my brothers).

“You get used to knowing things.”

He was talking about college courses.

He said, “You come in knowing the basics, and then you don’t listen in class, because it’s boring. And then later, they get to the hard stuff, and the school kids were following along the whole time, but you weren’t.”

It was honestly the first time I’d heard anything like that. It’s supposed to be homeschoolers who don’t learn the basics, right? That’s what everyone is afraid of, anyway.

“You don’t learn how to memorize things,” he said. “You learn to learn things. It’s different. It’s a problem. That’s why homeschooling doesn’t work.”

In college, I was a bundle of anxiety. I was trying to prove myself 24/7. It’s embarrassing in retrospect. (Also, I can’t believe I dated the same guy for so long. What was I thinking?) Both of my brothers are handling college a lot better. They have a thousand friends. They join groups and do things with them. And their grades are not as good as mine were. So sometimes my parents use me as an example. Parents do that occasionally. It’s probably not a fantastic idea, but it happens.

“Give him some advice,” my mom’s always saying, trying to get me to call one of my brothers with study tips.

“OK,” I say to my brother. “First of all, get rid of your friends.”

It’s complicated.

When I went to college, I felt like everyone who knew me took a breath and held it, waiting to see how I’d perform. In reality, they probably cared a lot less than I suspected. But when I reported that I was doing well, they were a little surprised and a little impressed. “I guess homeschooling works! Look at that!”

Let me just clarify something: Whether or not homeschooling works has nothing to do with college. College is full of arbitrary measures of success and intelligence, even though it can be fun and you might happen to learn a lot. Also, “does homeschooling work?” is a question that doesn’t make any sense in the first place (no offense, Jake. I really get where you’re coming from). Does school work? What about being alive? Well, sometimes, I guess.

I made college “work” in a very particular way because I wanted to prove that homeschooling “worked” in a very particular way. My brothers seem to be a little smarter than me. Probably a lot.

One of my best friends is TAing a class at my favorite Ivy League school now. She came over my place, baffled and a little shell-shocked. She began to read aloud from her first stack of student papers. “Since the dawn of civilization,” one started, “man has needed to have believe in things.” We stared at each other. She read it again, slowly.

“F!” I said. “Oh my god. F.” This kid hadn’t read the assignment. He hadn’t bothered with punctuation. His quotes didn’t have quotation marks. He hadn’t cited anything. I remembered myself in college, flicking endlessly through the MLA website. Stringing endless bibliographies together. Checking. Double checking.  I was stunned.

“I can’t,” she said. “Nothing below a B minus.”

Welcome to grade inflation.

And guess what? It wasn’t just one student. It was most of them. It was as though they had never learned to write. They had somehow never learned basic grammar. They had never learned how to make a logical argument. What happened to thesis statements and lead-ins and introductory sentences at the start of each paragraph? The stuff I’d had to learn my freshman year or be forever left behind. The stuff that seemed a little self-explanatory most of the time.

How did these kids make it to the Ivy League? How did they get into college at all? And more importantly, how did they never learn how to figure out something as basic as arguing a point in writing?

(My friend, the next day, still grading papers after sleeping on my air mattress)

“Maybe,” I said, “They never had to learn how to write. Maybe they just had to learn how to write individual papers. Maybe they don’t really get a chance to read.”

And sure enough, their midterms, the next paper they handed in, were much better.

“If only they read,” said my friend. “They’d know how to write.”

“I don’t think they had time,” I said.

I spent my teenage years in a pretty affluent town. I remember my twelve year old students, back when I was fifteen and started tutoring. They were doing five hundred things every day. They had already taken practice SAT tests four times. I hadn’t even thought of the SAT yet.  Who has time to learn how to write? Who has time to learn how to think?

I’m sorry. That was harsh.

“They do better, in the end,” said Jake. “They don’t know the basics, but they know how to do well.”

But no one can play like you, Jake. I don’t care who they are.

And he knows exactly what he wants.

16 comments to The college test: does homeschooling work?

  • I say good luck to Jake and his career aspiration as a flutist. No matter how well he plays the odds are extremely slim that he will be able to get an orchestral job. I know. I have been there.

    I’m sure that Jake will find the benefits of his home schooling will come in handy throughout his adulthood.

    • I believe my comment above (made in haste–before teaching a class) might come off a little bit offputting. I’m sure that Jake has his eyes wide open to what he can expect. The benefits of homeschooling, like being self motivated and having to be self reliant, will help him to go far. I have found that it is the extra-musical skills that really make the impossible possible in music. Being able to write is one advantage, and being able to organize everything necessary to promote your own career is another.

      I really do wish him all the best for his audition. I shouldn’t have used the “luck” word because it implies that success in music has more to do with luck than skill. I will amend that phrase to read “good skill.”


      • kate

        It’s so nice of you to stop by again and clarify!

        You’re so right about music. We’ve had some big disappointments already, with competitions and auditions. There are definitely no guarantees and it’s almost ridiculously competitive.
        And Jake definitely is aware of what goes on. He’s also remarkably good at schmoozing. That will probably help.

        I know what you’re saying, about writing. I deal with that every day!

        Your blog is awesome, by the way.

  • Marina

    Most homeschoolers I know had a bit of a learning curve their first couple college classes, doing exactly what Jake mentioned. We go in expecting to learn and end up needing to memorize. But, I mean, it doesn’t take that long to learn how to memorize things. It’s only a problem if we think of memorizing as more important than learning, if we think of a failure to memorize as failure, period.

  • Alexandra

    I’m currently a home-schooling high school student and everything in this post resonated with me. I take a full course load online in addition to a few classes with tutors, and the writing level of my peers is appalling. We often have “discussion” assignments where the instructor asks a question and each student has to respond on a forum, generally in one or two paragraphs. I am always elated to find a student who has answered the question, stated a thesis, written in complete sentences, and spelled everything correctly. However, this does not happen often.

    It’s not only in the English department that education is slipping, it’s everywhere. It seems like the basics are being taught quickly and shoddily so the students can be moved in more specialized directions, god knows why. For example, why are high schools in my county offering nuclear physics, psychology, and Latin American literature classes? I would be delighted in such diverse opportunities for my friends, if it weren’t for the fact that these courses are considered “core” courses, not electives. From what I’ve come to understand these courses are being offered as core curriculum because there are too many students to supply teachers (in the current economic situation) for everyone to have the basic, building-block courses. This is going to be incredibly harmful to future college students. Their foundations will be brittle in many areas. I have a good friend that I’m tutoring in Calculus who is struggling because she does not understand how to factor. How to factor! How have her math professors missed this central building block in the past four years of her schooling? Something is very wrong with the educational system.

    There is also far too much pressure on students at all grade levels. Unfortunately the problem runs deeper than just the educational system. There is something terribly disconcerting in a society where childhood is something to be embarrassed about and rushed through. I think standardized tests are laughable, grouping children by grade is socially impairing, and homework is generally redundant. Learning should be eye-opening and miraculous, it should be a fun experience for everyone involved. It shouldn’t be associated with being locked in a cinderblock, artificially lit building for eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year. That sounds like a punishment to me.

    Your brother is right. Regardless of home schooling or not, if you are not taught how to memorize information, transitioning into college will probably be more difficult for you. Having said that, in my opinion, all levels of education should be about learning, not memorizing. Of course there are situations where you need to know your unit circle off hand, or the composition of amino acids, or the Transcendentalist authors; but that should be a part of learning as a whole, not the means of learning.

    I sound very bitter, but I’m not at all. I have many, many fantastic and intelligent friends who have come out of both public and private schools. I attended a wonderful preschool, and two different Montessori schools for elementary school and freshman year of high school. I am just increasingly disappointed in the school system and infuriated for my friends who haven’t read the classics, or studied world history in depth, or have missed out on because topics were covered too quickly.

    • kate

      Can I just say that I love how opinionated you are? It’s fantastic. I had a lot of the same thoughts as a homeschooled teenager and in college.

      While I don’t think that learning “the basics” is always crucial (after all, they’re a little random themselves) for intelligence and progress, I’m always surprised that so many schooled students don’t acquire the skills that the school system most prides itself on. And like you said, this doesn’t go for everyone. Most of my current close friends went to school (usually public school), and most of them are better at math than me.

      But your points definitely still stand.

      And I’m interested the fact that you’re studying with tutors. I want to know more about that!

      • Alexandra

        Hi! Thank you for responding to my post haha, I got a little carried away. Educational systems are a common topic between my friends and me.

        I do agree with your point about the basics, they are, after all, arbitrarily agreed upon building blocks. Nonetheless it helps to know Algebra if you want to move on to Calculus; and it helps to have read George Orwell and Walt Whitman before reading Ayn Rand. That’s what I really meant by the “basics”, just that it seems foundational concepts are being ignored in favor of more advanced ones.

        I take Calculus, English III, United States History, Economics and Latin II online; and then I have a tutor for ACT/SAT math and general math assistance, and a tutor for French and Spanish. I also have guitar, piano, and art tutors. I sound spectacularly grandiose, don’t I? I feel like the person I just described wears white frilly dresses and has a delicate singing voice. Also, possibly a father with a mustache. None of that is true about me, I just take a lot of classes because I like learning new things. Both of my brothers are home schooled as well and they have a similar class schedule.

        My parents work from home, so they organize our curriculum and work a lot with my younger brothers. I, being a rebellious teenager, cloister myself away and glare at those unfortunate souls that dare cross my path whilst I am trying to understand why someone thought trigonometry was a necessary idea.

        • Mere

          I love your views on world issues as well (in this case school systems). It’s kids like you that will think up better options and make positive changes because you will see that as it is, the system is not working so well.
          I am crossing my fingers that my daughters will grow up to be “rebellious teenagers” such as yourself. :-)

        • kate

          Are you SURE your father doesn’t have a mustache?


          You’re right, it does help to know algebra before attempting calculus. But I don’t think that everyone needs to learn algebra at the same time, or that everyone will want to learn calculus.

          And I’m not trying to be contrary and pick a fight– I just couldn’t resist making that point.

          Personal question: are you religious? Does your family homeschool for religious reasons? Not trying to lump you into a group, just curious.

          • Alexandra


            Thank you! That’s very kind of you to say!

            Hahaha right now, no. Last summer he tried for a while but it was voted down unanimously. >:D

            I agree with you completely, not everyone should have to learn any subject. Learning should, at least in my opinion, be tailored to an individual. And certainly not everyone should have to learn things at the exact same time. It’s ridiculous that children get labeled “slow” or “ADD” simply because at age eight they can’t read as fast or speak as fluently as other kids. People develop at different paces. It’s just that, in a system where children ARE learning (or at least are taught) things at the same time, and do have to meet certain markers, it’s ridiculous that they are missing basic ideas through no fault of their own.

            I know you’re not! I hope I didn’t come off aggressively, you just made an excellent point so I wanted to clarify my argument a little bit.

            I get that question a lot :D, it’s one of the first things that occurs to people when they hear “home schooling”, isn’t it? No, we’re not at all really. My parents have tried to expose us to many different religions and they are both very spiritual but we don’t associate with any particular religious organization. We started home schooling back when I was in elementary school because we travel a lot. My parents give us the choice every year to go back to a school or continue home schooling, and I plan to finish my senior year home schooling.

  • rachel

    It’s not harsh to say that they haven’t learned how to think. That’s the truth. Teaching college writing has taught me that learning how to think, how to form an argument is the biggest hurdle for student writers. Specifically, the challenges each new course (but especially for first year students) is learning how to think about specific subjects.

    But don’t despair. If everyone entered college already able to make complex arguments about their discipline(s) of interest, there wouldn’t really be a point to them being there.

  • Kent

    I home schooled both my boys. The oldest became a Director in Standing at the local community theater at the age of 15. He is currently a theater tech student in his first year of college and he is thriving (he is dyslexic)

    My youngest 10th grade a skilled and classically trained actor, and a member of a large city equity theater company. The 10th grader is in the top 3 in language arts. You guess it he is an avid reader. I would read aloud C. S. Lewis, Tolkien to both my boys during lunch, often asking the youngest (6) how to pronounce the words that Tolkien and Lewis created. I would show him the word the youngest would read the word and tell me how to pronounce it.

    I encourage any parent considering home schooling / un-schooling to go for it. It also helps if you like being with your kids. I know coming to the end of schooling my boys that they are both great people, and I have a great relationship with my kids. What a blessing.

  • Kira

    What your brother said, about drifting off in class because you know it all, until it’s too late, is true and not just for home-schoolers. I was old for my grade level and my parents tried to get the school to skip me ahead, but they wouldn’t. So I was used to sitting in class, nodding my head through all the basics, only to find at some point they had inserted something new between all the review, and I had missed it.

    I plan on unschooling my kids, and I’d like to think that they’ll go on to college, but at this point, I’m so upset with the university system that I’m not sure I’d want to save them from public school just to usher them into another institution I don’t agree with.

  • […] Is he alluding to the fact that public and private schools teach gamesmanship? Please visit Skipping School, meet Kate’s brother Jake, and read his take on whether homeschooling works.   […]

  • Marim

    Another anecdote regarding the hazards of over-preparedness, i.e. having problems related to covering old material again:

    I was private-schooled for my whole life and took lots of honors and AP classes through high school. I scored not quite high enough on the AP tests to skip most of the college classes they were supposed to replace, and so went over a lot of the same material again in my first two years of classes. In my case, I tended to focus pretty well in class, but that was easily enough of a review to do fine on all the tests.

    You’d think it would be a good thing — but then I suffered in my junior year, because in the first two easy years, I’d built up the habit of maybe reviewing material for only a couple hours the night before a test. Now all of a sudden I was studying all-new material and trying to get by with the same patterns. I had trouble even sitting down to read textbooks, because I’d never had to do it for the past couple of years.

    So, there’s another counterexample for the idea that formal schooling would always solve the (over)preparedness problem.

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