Bryan Caplan  

Why I'm Homeschooling

The future is soon... Shocking Quote from Buchanan...
I'm homeschooling my elder sons for middle school.  On the surface, this makes sense: Homeschooling has been in the libertarian penumbra for decades. If you know my books, however, you should be puzzled.

1. In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I argue that the power of nurture is vastly overrated.  Genetics, not upbringing, explains almost all of the observed similarity between parent and child.  It's not reasonable, then, for me to expect my efforts to durably boost my kids' IQs, educational success, income, or even their political views.

2. In The Case Against Education, I argue that signaling, not human capital, explains most of the effect of education on earnings.  Without an established school's seal of approval, learning has little selfish payoff.  So even if the Caplan Family School manages to build stellar cognitive skills, the Real World won't reward them. 

Of course, it would be deeply out of character for me to homeschool without replies to both objections.  Here they are:

1'. While the power of nurture to change kids' adult outcomes is indeed vastly overrated, it is well within my power to give my sons a better childhood.  My kids prefer a challenging academic curriculum.  I can give them that.  My kids hate music, dance, art, and group projects.  I can spare them these indignities.  My kids don't want to wake up at 5:45 AM every morning.  In the Caplan Family School, we start at a civilized hour.  Homeschooling gives my sons plenty of time for math, reading, and history, but leaves them ample free time for hobbies and travel

More speculative: I suspect - though I'm far from sure - that the Caplan Family School is such an exceptional experience that ordinary twin and adoption evidence isn't relevant.  For example, my sons are plausibly the only 12-year-olds in the nation taking a college class in labor economics.  Perhaps it really will forever rock their worlds.  More obviously, their peer group now includes Robin Hanson, Alex Tabarrok, Tyler Cowen, Garett Jones, and Nathaniel Bechhofer.  That's plausibly four standard deviations above whatever peer group they'd have in a conventional middle school.

2'. While education is mostly signaling, there are cracks in the system.  As far as I can tell, the Real World pays zero attention to what students do in middle school.  The Caplan Family School won't keep my kids out of good high schools; they can re-enter Fairfax County Public School in 9th grade.  It won't keep my kids out of good colleges; colleges don't know what applicants did in middle school.  And it won't keep my kids from getting good jobs; there probably isn't an employer in the country who asks how applicants did in 7th grade.  So while homeschooling feels risky for high school, our next two years look like clear sailing.

If my reasoning sounds familiar, it should.  I'm a strategic non-conformist.  When I can bend stupid rules with impunity, I bend them.

COMMENTS (27 to date)
miglio writes:

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Jim writes:

Reflecting back on my middle school years that is when the indoctrination occurs. Collective ideas, discipline, security guards (HISD), statist American history, rigid curriculum, 1 hr classes with 'specialist' teachers to give feeling of inferiority, homeroom only for a roll call & pledge of allegiance, all team sports and no individual comps, 2" thick textbooks.

But I still thought the 3 kids homeschooled on my block where the weird ones.

We are born. It's all nature. Remember getting in debate whether tax free church should be allowed to burn to ground.

Robert H. writes:

I homeschooled my cats and now they are both naked bird murderers. Tread carefully here, Bryan.

Studies which find no family social environment component to children's later success achieve this result by controlling (i.e., holding constant) factors which responsible parents will vary.
I recommend that you homeschool through high school (and college, if possible). Treating a group of children (or adults) as a "class" means hobbling students who might advance faster than the bottom 1/3 of the class.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

"My kids hate music, dance, art, and group projects. I can spare them these indignities."

That's unfortunate. Those are not indignities; they are opportunities. You should not spare your kids those.

One of my regrets is not having had some formal instruction in music which I think would have contributed to a richer enjoyment in life, particularly if it was the type of instruction that would have allowed me to collaborate musically with others (a "group project" if you will). There is a very basic human communicative connection possible there that I doubt economists (at least in their professional roles) are able to measure, value or appreciate. Education should not merely pander to children's immediate likes or prepare them for "careers".

Your kids might not think they like art or music; however, you can't love what you don't know.

Andrew Wallen writes:

We tried homeschool, private school, and public school at different times with our kids. Homeschooling was the best learning experience, but that may not be true for all families. There are cooperatives that can be helpful if you don't have proper skills or equipment. Colleges seem to be more open to homeschoolers than they were in the past, but my experience is only anecdotal. In the genetics vs. nurture literature, have they tried using a binary variable for homeschooled children? When you give kids the same general experience (public school), the parents' influence declines significantly.

Scott Harmon writes:

it took me a while to come around to the idea of homeschooling my kids. It actually took meeting other homeschoolers and seeing what their kids were like.

We now homeschool our 6 kids. Government run schools and most private schools are pseudo environments. As a therapist I am required to attend continuing education courses where I have to sit in a classroom environment. It is all I can do to sit in a chair all day and listen to a lecture. Every therapist there has their phone out halfway paying attention. Should we expect energetic kids to fair better?

I am not saying homeschooling is for everyone but I do think it is for more families now than it ever has been. The argument I get is that they could never do that. Parents get hung up thinking they have to replicate what public school does.
If you found a school that offered one on one teaching most of the day wouldn't you be interested?

The social aspect also hangs a lot of parents up too. This is exactly what sold me on homeschooling. Knowing a little about the psychological aspects of peer pressure influence and the power of herd mentally and let's not forget authority influence in the form of a teacher I wanted my kids to be influenced by adult social norms not their peers who have learned their social cues from TV, YouTube and WWE.

Ben writes:

It's an interesting experiment. I hope you blog about it as it proceeds; I am very curious to hear how it works out in practice. I have two concerns, however.

One, I quite agree with Vivian above regarding music, art, dance, etc. Middle school is far too early to start isolating oneself from such huge swathes of culture and human endeavor. There are so many things in life that one learns to love from repeated exposure, from coffee to opera to broccoli. If you don't get that repeated exposure, you don't learn to love difficult things, and you live a narrow and closed life. Indeed, I think one of the most important skills to learn as a human is to embrace such acquired tastes; they are often the greatest sources of happiness in life, in the end. As to group projects, I always hated them too, but they build social/teamwork skills; if your children never collaborate with other children to achieve a common goal, will they be able to do that later in life? Letting children avoid everything they don't want to do/learn is not, I think, a good educational strategy.

Two, I find it very hard to imagine your kids re-entering the mainline school system in 9th grade after having had this experience. They will be so far ahead of their peers in some respects – college-level labor economics?? – and so far behind them in other respects – point one, above – that I think it will be extraordinarily hard for them to fit in, both socially and intellectually. It makes me sad to say it, but I suspect you might be setting your kids up here for a high school experience of being bullied and excluded. High school kids can be extremely cruel towards those who they perceive to be the outgroup. I think that if you do this, you ought to do it all the way through high school; college is much kinder toward those who differ from the norm.

Jesse writes:


Please take the following questions as genuine curiousity and not critique. My wife and I have considered the possibility of home schooling down the line.

-I would love to hear your view on social intelligence and whether you perceive a benefit to traditional school in this regard. I see tremendous value to exposing children to their true peers especially during middle school years and allowing them the opportunity to navigate a variety of attitudes, both good and bad.

-How do your children generally relate to other kids? Was this a factor in your decision?



RPLong writes:

What's striking to me about this decision is not that it contradicts Caplan's views on signalling or behavioral genetics, but that his views on non-conformity seem to be selectively motivated.

Here's Caplan in 2006:

But why does school have to go on for years? Simple: Even a lazy weirdo can pretend to be hard-working and conformist for a few months. Now suppose an employer wants people at the 90th percentile of conscientiousness and conformity. He's got to set the educational bar high enough that 89% of people give up despite the rewards. Especially in an environment where government heavily subsidizes education, that could easily mean you have to get years and years of school to distinguish yourself from the pack... I hasten to add that I don't mean to disparage my self-taught readers. I'd probably really enjoy meeting you. But I'd be lying if I said I'd be eager to hire you. No offense intended - if I were running a business, I wouldn't hire myself either!
Fair enough, but would he hire his own children? He states that he can find no evidence that being home-schooled in middle school leaves a lasting demerit, but the downside risk here is that Caplan's children get socialized into a world (a "bubble," if you will) of non-conformity that leaves them with limited options. I hope they like academia!

Federico writes:

"their peer group now includes Robin Hanson, Alex Tabarrok, Tyler Cowen". That's amazing. Is there a way the rest of us can join that class?

Grant writes:

I was homeschooled until high school and looking back at it, I very much agree with this assessment. It was easier for my elementary and middle school aged self as well as my parents to wake up when we choose, rather than whenever the bus came by. Additionally, the vacations that I got to go on with my family during the school year were a great experience. Some of the vacations were in part educational. We toured New England and what better way to learn early American history than to see where it began. For the pure pleasure vacations, it is much more fun to go to Disney World in the winter when everyone else is in school than in the middle of summer.

In high school, I spent two years in private school and two years in Fairfax County public schools. Contrasting between the all three experiences, the great flexibility at younger ages was good for me and the greater structure and social interaction proved better in high school.

Colombo writes:

"My kids hate music, dance, art, and group projects. I can spare them these indignities."

You are just doing that to secure their eternal love and admiration. So selfish!

I'm sure thousands of pedagogues are gasping in awe after reading this post.

Seriously now, it is very sad that so many kids have to put up with adults obsessions, so that every kid is forced to attend classes he or she finds absurd and uninteresting. They are forced to waste time and energy in things they hate. As if they were working the worst job in the world, but they cannot quit.

People understand easily that it is wrong to ridicule a girl who wants to attend shop class, but few understand that it is also wrong to force a kid to attend P.E. class.

guilherme writes:

Isn't the lack of socialization a potential problem?

"Isn't the lack of socialization a potential problem?"

Roland Meighan
"Home-based Education Effectiveness Research and Some of its Implications"
__Educational Review__, Vol. 47, No.3, 1995.
"The issue of social skills. One edition of Home School Researcher, Volume 8, Number 3, contains two research reports on the issue of social skills. The first finding of the study by Larry Shyers (1992) was that home-schooled students received significantly lower problem behavior scores than schooled children. His next finding was that home-schooled children are socially well adjusted, but schooled children are not so well adjusted. Shyers concludes that we are asking the wrong question when we ask about the social adjustment of home-schooled children. The real question is why is the social; adjustment of schooled children of such poor quality?"
"The second study, by Thomas Smedley (1992), used different test instruments but comes to the same conclusion, that home-educated children are more mature and better socialized than those attending school."
"So-called 'school phobia' is actually more likely to be a sign of mental health, whereas school dependency is a largely unrecognized mental health problem"....p.281

Linda Darling-Hammond
__American School Board Journal__(September 1999)

"...(M)any well-known adolescent difficulties are not intrinsic to the teenage years but are related to the mismatch between adolescents' developmental needs and the kinds of experiences most junior high and high schools provide. When students need close affiliation, they experience large depersonalized schools; when they need to develop autonomy, they experience few opportunities for choice and punitive approaches to discipline..."--
Hyman and Penroe,
__Journal of School Psychology__
"Several studies of maltreatment by teachers suggest that school children report traumatic symptoms that are similar whether the traumatic event was physical or verbal abuse (Hyman,,1988; Krugman & Krugman, 1984; Lambert, 1990). Extrapolation from these studies suggests that psychological maltreatment of school children, especially those who are poor, is fairly widespread in the United States...."
"In the early 1980s, while the senior author was involved in a school violence project, an informal survey of a random group of inner city high school students was conducted. When asked why they misbehaved in school, the most common response was that they wanted to get back at teachers who put them down, did not care about them, or showed disrespect for them, their families, or their culture...."
"...schools do not encourage research
regarding possible emotional maltreatment of students by staff or investigation into how this behavior might affect student misbehavior...."
"...Since these studies focused on teacher-induced PTSD and explored all types of teacher maltreatment, some of the aggressive feelings were also caused by physical or sexual abuse. There was no attempt to separate actual aggression from feelings of aggression. The results indicated that at least 1% to 2% of the respondents' symptoms were sufficient for a diagnosis of PTSD. It is known that when this disorder develops as a result of interpersonal violence, externalizing symptoms are often the result (American Psychiatric Association, 1994)."
"While 1% to 2% might not seem to be a large percentage of a school-aged population, in a system like New York City, this would be about 10,000 children so traumatized by educators that they may suffer serious, and sometimes lifelong
emotional problems (Hyman, 1990; Hyman, Zelikoff & Clarke, 1988). A good percentage of these students develop angry and aggressive responses as a result. Yet, emotional abuse and its relation to misbehavior in schools receives little pedagogical, psychological, or legal attention and is rarely mentioned in textbooks on school discipline (Pokalo & Hyman, 1993, Sarno, 1992)."
"As with corporal punishment, the frequency of emotional maltreatment in schools is too often a function of the socioeconomic status (SES) of the student population (Hyman, 1990)."

Duncan Frissell writes:

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robbbbbb writes:

guilherme: "Isn't the lack of socialization a potential problem?"

Do you remember middle school, and what the other kids were like? Who do you want socializing your kids? A bunch of 14 year olds who are playing status games, or the adults that love them best?

Tom West writes:

Indeed, I'd be very surprised if most children didn't strongly benefit from the services that would likely cost near 6 figures if provided externally.

I've always wondered how many billions of dollars the economy forgoes by being deprived of the work of driven, educated, intelligent, and organized parents who choose to use their formidable talents to educate their children instead of reap sizable gains from their contribution to the economy :-).

Anonymous writes:

Re: the people suggesting that Bryan's kids will suffer from missing out on music, art, and all the things that they don't want to learn and he isn't making them learn. Do you people really think that you can't learn things just as well as an adult as you can as a kid? Granted you have more time as a kid, but as an adult you're smarter and have more of an idea of what you want to learn and how to go about it.

Abraap writes:

Just to understand, how many kids do you have, Mr. Caplan?!

"Let's have a cup of tea" said Lord Kelvin, as we relaxed in his apartment after his well-attended lecture on thermodynamics. He filled the kettle from that tap and put it in the icebox.

Wait. What? Are you insane? Water will not boil in the icebox.

The fundamental material of Economics is human motivation. Economists consider how individual humans and aggregate measures of human activity will respond to changes in the incentives that institutions present to them. Some economists analyze experiments on rats and pigeons. Then, like the physicist who puts the tea kettle in the icebox, they send their children to attend a "class" in the largest remaining command economy on Earth, the US "public" school system.

Are you insane?

sourcreamus writes:

Is being an economics professor really so an easy gig that you can homeschool two kids at the same time?

(Creamus): "Is being an economics professor really so an easy gig that you can homeschool two kids at the same time?"

Statutes vary from State to State. Nothing in Hawaii Revised Statutes requires that homeschooling instruction occur between 0800 and 1430. You can extend daycare to age 18 and provide instruction after dinner.

Helen DeWitt writes:

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, my first novel, The Last Samurai, seems not only to be about a home-schooling project that works disastrously well, but to inspire emulation in its readers. It includes some Greek, Old Norse, and Japanese (as well as a smattering of Fourier analysis and thermodynamics); enterprising 14-year-olds sometimes write to explain that it inspired them to learn Greek (and so on), parents write the sort of email to which this is a typical response:

Oh dear, I'm sorry Nico made off with your daughter's Imagier Franco-Japonais. Still, I think we can agree you got him interested in the subject.

[The book has, obviously, no connection with the homonymous film starring Tom Cruise.]

There are also generous quotations from The Eskimo Book of Knowledge, and, erm, all sorts of things sensible editors considered gratuitous.

I believe it is currently available on Amazon for $.01 + P&P. Even people who hate the book admit they realized they could read Greek; seems as though this would be cheap at a steeper price.

Rochelle writes:

We are likewise homeschooling. While I am uncertain if homeschooling makes a difference in the long run (studies showing so have been sponsored by the HSLDA), I am certain it makes a difference in the short run. Like my husband, my son is dyslexic/ADHD and this makes learning to read very difficult. Not impossible, just difficult. Focus is difficult. Homeschooling enables us to give him a very individualized learning plan without him comparing himself with his peers.
It also means our kids have more time to learn their other languages: since they don't go to proper school, their Saturday morning language has no competition.
How long we homeschool (and whether we homeschool all our children) remains to be seen.

lemmy caution writes:

home schooling seems like a lot of work for the parents.

probably does not hurt the kids.

(lemmy): "Home schooling seems like a lot of work for the parents."

The amount of work that homeschooling requires of parents depends on statutes which vary between jurisdictions and on the age of the child. In Hawaii, five or so homeschooling families could hire a daycare operator to take their children into her house from 0700 to 1730 and they could (claim to) homeschool in the evening.

(Lemmy): "probably does not hurt the kids."

In Hawaii, juvenile arrests FALL in summer, when school is NOT in session. Juvenile hospitalizations for human-induced trauma FALL in summer, when school is NOT in session. Schools do not prevent crime, they cause it.

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