Homeschooling in the city

When dad’s a part-time professor  and editor and mom’s a laid-off journalist, there’s no money for private school and no motivation to schlep the kids from Brooklyn to Manhattan for a public school with a “gifted” class. Paul Elie writes about the joys of homeschooling in the city in The Atlantic.

Homeschooling isn’t just for “religious traditionalists and off-the-grid homesteaders,” Elie writes. For middle-class parents — with a stay-at-home mom or dad — it’s “a practical alternative to New York’s notoriously inadequate education system.”

The city’s public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, and perpetually in turnaround. District boundaries governing enrollment change from one year to the next, as do standards for admission to gifted programs and “citywide” schools, accept­ance to which is determined by children’s scores on tests whose educational relevance is questionable.

. . . Some of the parents in our (homeschooling) circle are “unschoolers,” convinced that early education should follow a child’s interests and initiatives rather than shape them. Some of us aspire to offer something like a classical education: logic and rhetoric, mythology, Latin. Most of us are put off by the public schools’ emphasis on standardized tests and their scant attention to the visual arts, music, religion, and foreign languages.

New York City offers a “gorgeous mosaic of intellectual and cultural offerings,” Elite writes.

On a normal day in our Brooklyn apartment, I teach math first thing, then go to an office space in a different neighborhood. Lenora picks up from there, teaching American and world history, language arts, geography, and penmanship, depending on the day. She and the boys then set out into the city for science at the Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; history at the Queens County Farm Museum or the Wyckoff Farmhouse, in Brooklyn; or art at the Metropolitan Museum.

Homeschoolers can find free programs or affordable classes, such as one that “teaches children the history of a place—­medieval Europe, Federal-era New York—through its architecture.”  He pays $5 a week for a homeschool soccer program led by a coach who can’t find other work during regular school hours.

About Joanne


  1. Bostonian says:

    Some homeschoolers may scoff at standardized tests, but those tests are what make homeschooling feasible, especially in later grades. How would homeschoolers get into selective colleges without standardized tests such as the SAT reasoning and subject tests and Advanced Placement exams?

    Your performance on standardized test depends on what you know and how well you can apply your knowledge, not on whether you attended a class. Homeschoolers should appreciate this.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      Many homeschoolers I know have their kids do community college at 16 and then transfer to a 4 year school after getting an associate’s degree, bypassing the need to take the SAT/ACT at all.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      The author doesn’t say that the homeschools scoff at standardized tests. The author says that “most of us are put off by the public schools’ *EMPHASIS* on standardized tests.”

      Not quite the same thing.

  2. Bostonian has a good point — but what I assumed the author of the article was referring to was the 3rd-8th grade testing that dominates elementary and middle school instruction. No college is going to have any interest on how you performed on the 3rd grade NY State exam. The SATs, APs, etc., aren’t perfect but at least offer some consistency over a long period of time, so colleges can at least have a sense of what a given score refers to. The state exams are often poorly written, change radically (in my state, within the 7 years I’ve been teaching tested grades, the test’s form, content and/or scoring system has changed in a significant way at least 4 times, and is set to radically change again with Common Core), and the scores change politically rather than academically (need to show that schools are failing? raise the cutoff! need to show improvement? bump that cutoff score down again!). Furthermore, the intense pressure some schools face to do well means that the content and format of daily lessons is often shaped to reflect what will be on the test more than what the curriculum says or what the kids need.

    Homeschoolers get no benefit from state tests, though they may well benefit from national standardized exams at the high school level.

  3. I have the impression that many homeschoolers do use standardized tests, such as the ITBS or other high-quality ones, on a regular basis, if not annually. If I were homeschooling, which I would seriously consider if I had young kids, I would do so, but I have the same low opinion of state tests. Politics plays far too large a role in their composition and scoring and they are useless for kids at the upper end of the scale, because the ed world is uninterested in that group.

    I found the comments on the linked Atlantic article interesting, particularly the one that said homeschooling “embodies a sort of individualistic, somewhat elitist perspective that I find unsettling” – because families who might otherwise be advocating for and supporting their public schools opt out. I find the idea of parents choosing to send their kids to a school that doesn’t meet their educational needs,and may be chaotic or unsafe, in order to further some social-engineering agenda, even more unsettling. In my book, doing what is best for their kids is good parenting. Public schools and politicians need to recognize and accept that not all kids have the same educational needs, so their one-size-fits-all approach is seriously flawed.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      That noblesse oblige argument gets very tiresome, particularly since it seems that wealthy parents who have their kids in private schools get a free pass on it. Exactly why is it okay for parents who are rich enough to afford $25+k for private elementary and $35+k for private high school to shirk their “responsibility” to spend their time and energy trying to fix the mediocre government-run schools, but middle-class parents who homeschool are singled out for a guilt trip?

      • Because the point of mediocre public schools is to maintain the barriers the upper class erects against upwardly-mobile children from lower classes (and keep their own children on top).

        • Crimson Wife says:

          But it’s primarily other middle-class individuals who are the ones doing the guilt tripping. I’m not hearing it from the wealthy folks whose kids or grandkids attend private schools. Their attitude is, “well, *OF COURSE* you don’t have your kids in public school.”

          • The wealthy don’t need to homeschool.  Other middle-class people don’t want the implication that they’re not doing enough for their children, which is the implication of someone else taking education into their own hands because the public schools aren’t adequate.

      • Rich parents aren’t tediously smug about sending their kids to private school. There is nothing more offputting in this world than a stay at home mother who homeschools and brags about putting her kids’ financial future at some risk simply to pretend she’s got a few snowflake children.

        And seriously, that’s why people hate homeschoolers, and it’s why they are so anxious to point out the downsides of their actions. Because they are high up on the list of self-congratulating moralists who will be taken out and shot when the revolution comes.

        • J. D. Salinger says:

          Feel better now, Cal?

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            So, it’s OK to go on and on about how your child is in public school to uplift the masses, and to focus all your energy on fundraisers and PTA and cupcakes, but NOT to educate her at home. Got it.

            Most of the home schoolers I know aren’t smug. They’re just trying to get the best education for their kids with the resources they have. And in many areas, the public schools aren’t great, there are no affordable private school options, and the cost of moving to an area with better schools would mean bankruptcy.

            For instance, I know some people who homeschool because their once-good district switched to Everyday Math, cut out spelling, cursive, and grammar, and has recently(??) moved to whole language reading instruction. What do you want someone whose family is making 45K a year to do? In this economy, homeschooling makes a lot of sense. It’s not like mom would be making 60K if she managed to find a full time job. She’d be making 20—not enough to send her kids to private school, especially after taxes. So why not homeschool? How is that putting her kids finances at risk?

            It seems to me, Cal, that you frequently make the mistake of thinking everyone’s location is like California, and that every family faces the same risks and challenges.

        • Bostonian says:

          I’m not a homeschooler but have participated in their forums, and Cal’s slander of them has no basis in reality.

        • Cal just jumped the shark.

          • Crimson Wife says:

            Well, the ONLY kids I know who has gotten in Ivies recently are members of our local homeschool support group, and I know a whole bunch of public and private school students who got shut out of all their top choices despite excellent class ranks, GPA’s, test scores, and extracurriculars. So I hardly think it is the homeschoolers who are putting their children’s futures at risk. Not to say that attending Harvard rather than Cal State will automatically lead to more financial stability but the odds are certainly better.

        • Yes, there is something more offputting; those parents who choose to send their kids to a low-performing-but-diverse urban public school and brag about their commitment to diversity, their moral superiority and the uplifting nature of their kids’ presence in such a school. Even more off-putting, those same parents rarely stick to it; most move to a good suburban district or a private school while slamming others for making the same choice. The WaPo has had several recent stories about those in gentrifying areas where the schools have remained awful and the comments have been distinctly sanctimonious.

    • When you homeschool your child you know where your child is in reading, math, science and all the subjects you teach. I’ve given Standardized testing in the past and they offered little insight because I knew their strengths and weaknesses already. Also, I buy homeschool curriculum every year and I know strengths and weaknesses of those also and which ones are academically challenging thus I have a real good idea where we are all the time.

      Standardized tests are for parents and teachers who need more information or are dealing with a learning disability. If you child is schooled in a group of 20-30 children every day then they will need to be tested because no one really knows where they are day to day. Most teachers I’ve spoken to say they have to teach to the middle of the class. This means there is a basic set of information that needs to be learned in those classes. The homeschool Mothers who I’m friends with care more that their children are learning and retaining information every day. We have a very different perspectives.

      The “only the rich can afford to homeschool” is a joke. I think only the rich can afford to put children in ineffective learning situations where the children do not learn the basic skills needed to become independent thinking adults.

      The math and reading literacy in this country is the biggest crisis of our times. Most of the public school teachers I’ve met don’t want my help as a homeschool teacher and mother. I don’t know how I can help if they don’t want to know what works. Throwing my child and money into the mix doesn’t help the problem. If schools want to attract homeschool families they need to provide attractive education opportunities.

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Most state tests set such a low threshhold for achievement that they’re a waste of time. If my kid wasn’t able to kick the Istep’s butt, we wouldn’t be homeschooling. The Terra Nova Battery was very helpful, however. It showed me where we had gaps, and gave me ideas on how to construct my curriculum for the following year. We’ll be doing that one every year, I think.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Well, for most academically strong kids, whether homeschooled or in an institutional setting, state standardized tests are a waste of time. But, they’re also inappropriate for some kids who stuggle. My 13 year old Aspie could ace the language arts portion of the the NJASK test but would bomb the math and writing portion. He was homeschooled k-7 but is in a private school for 8th. The test are best viewed as a tool. For some homeschoolers they’re helpful but not necessary.

  5. The reformers’ dream:

    The city’s public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, and perpetually in turnaround.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      New York City public schools seem to be both underfunded and overcrowded, and yet still manage to be near the top of the US in spending per pupil!

      992,663 students, and spending of $19.597B (*) in 2010. Which works out to a bit under $20K per student per year. If we assume overcrowded classrooms containing 25 students each, then the district is trying to get by on only $500K per classroom per year.

      I don’t know if this is anyone’s dream. Very high levels of spending (and, I assume, taxation to support it) combined with low levels of funding and poor conditions.

      (*) From here:, “Public Education Finances: 2010” by the US Census Bureau. I pulled the data for New York City from page 104

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Why do anti-charter, pro-union folks always focus on some aspect of underfunding when there are ample examples of districts that are generously funded – have been for some time – but still manage to fail their students rather abysmally? Example: the Abbott districts in New Jersey.

      Oh, wait, I know. They don’t fit your narrative so you choose denial. Yawn.

      • Well Stacy, let’s see the numbers.

      • Because if they don’t focus on “some aspect” their defense of the status quo becomes an indictment. You don’t have to go to Google, this blog, within the past week, ran a piece on the ampleness of funding and the not-so-ample results – – funding up, a bunch, results stagnant.

        So Mike and Caroline and all the usual suspects have to try to control the focus of the discussion steering it away from irrefutable evidence of the failure of the public education system.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Let’s pretend for a minute. Let’s start out with reality. Lots of kids learn to read and write and do math in public schools. Lots don’t. If our standard for success is “no child left behind,” then the public education system is a failure.

        Now pretend that there were no legal barriers to starting a charter, and that it was easy to invoke a parental trigger to close an existing school and reopen it with new management and employees. Pretend that we have gone back to FDR and made teachers unions illegal.

        Would the new system be more or less a failure than the one we have now? Perhaps I just lack imagination but a large part of me thinks it wouldn’t be too different. We are trying to turn most of our K-12ers into pre-college students when a good many of them don’t have the ability and even fewer have the interest.

        Both reformers and anti-reformers overestimate the power of schools and teachers.