Bryan Caplan  

Home Schooling Questions: Economists vs. the Public

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Questions non-economists ask when I tell them I'm homeschooling my sons:

1. What makes you think you're qualified to teach them?
2. Who are you to decide what your kids should study?
3. What about socialization?
4. How come you're not teaching [insert pet subject here]?
5. Won't this hurt your kids later in life?
6. Aren't you hurting your kids' development right now?
7. When will they interact with girls?
8. Isn't there more to life than academics?
9. Aren't you undermining social cohesion?
10. Why are you turning your kids into brainwashed freaks?

Questions economists ask when I tell them I'm homeschooling my sons:

1. Doesn't it take a lot of time?


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COMMENTS (38 to date)
Andy writes:

I'm an economist (who studies parents and kids, to boot) and I wonder about most of the questions in the first part. The second part is kind of boring because the answer is obviously yes.

I would also include:

How do you know the bubble that you like is the same as the bubble your children will like? How can you tell?

How are you prepared for the development of your children's non-cognitive skills in general? This is much broader than "socialization" or "peer interactions".

What papers or studies can I read about when homeschooling is a good idea versus a bad idea? How do your observables compare with the ones in those studies?

Peter St. Onge writes:

Andy,

I hope you'd ask the same questions to a parent who decided to put their kids in a formal school. Especially who decides the bubble.

JBob writes:

That's funny. I'm no economist, but the time question was the one I've been most curious to hear more about.

ChrisA writes:

You don't address the question which I asked over at MR - you are providing your children with a privileged education as both you, your spouse and your friends that are helping are highly educated, well connected and well off people. Even if your children attended a regular school they are likely to have many advantages in life. This experience will provide them with even more advantages. What is your ethical justification therefore for this approach? Are you OK with people prioritizing the welfare of those genetically similar to themselves ahead of others? If so, how does this square with your advocacy of open borders?

Just to note that personally I don't make ethical judgments based on reason, I make them based on my ethical intuition, which actually tells me to admire what you are doing. So this isn't an argument that you should not home-school, just asking for rigor in your ethical reasoning.

DougT writes:

No one has asked if it is legal? That's what I get. Question 2 is usually framed as, "What curriculum do you use?" Are people really so rude where you live to be so challenging?

Many people also say something like, "We thought hard about that ...." I'm just thankful I live in a time and place where homeschooling is safe, legal, and increasingly common. Between coops, sports, jobs, and outside studies, there's not much of a bubble.

Congrats! Who does the teaching? (11.)

Lee Moore writes:

The answers to ChrisA's questions are pretty straightforward :

"Are you OK with people prioritizing the welfare of those genetically similar to themselves ahead of others? If so, how does this square with your advocacy of open borders?"

Prioritising the welfare of those you like better (including genetically related folk) is more efficient than failing to prioritise. People who attempt to / pretend to love humanity in general, don't in fact love any actual humans. If everyone lavishes care on his own garden, gardens as a whole will be better cared for than if the local Soviet requires everyone to work on a collective garden.

As for open borders, I believe that those who advocate them allege that open borders are in the interests of the natives as well as the immigrants. Their assessment may be wrong in fact, but if they believe it, there's nothing inconsistent with the ethics of helping kith and kin.

RPLong writes:

Some of those first 10 questions are absolutely ridiculous. But a couple of them are valid and interesting questions that I, for one, am keen to hear about. My child is not yet school-aged, and a good argument could influence how I choose to educate her.

The question about time is surprising because, as noted above, its answer is obvious.

Njnnja writes:

Related to the time question is the opportunity cost question. Wouldn't you be better off doing market-remunerated work and then moving to a better school district or enroll the kids in a better private school (for whatever definition of "better" you like), or even hire a bunch of grad students as tutors?

The benefits of the kind of home schooling you are doing only seems to be greater than the benefits of a traditional education as a replacement for college. I could see getting direct classes from the kind of "guest speakers" you are putting them in contact with would build a far superior network than college could provide, and potentially at lower cost.

Jesse C writes:

We hear questions similar to those in the first list. But we definitely hear "what curriculum do you use?"

The questions in the first list are often asked as leading an argument more than of actual curiosity. The problem I have is that there is a counterfactual argument lurking. Nobody would question what the alternatives would be if our children attended Chicago public schools. But most of those questions would still be valid, I addition to some others.

rtd writes:

11) how will you be able to recreate the threat of a school shooting without compromising your children's trust in you as a parent?

akh writes:

ChrisA/Lee Moore: It's also important to note that in the case of open borders, Bryan rails against _standing in the way of people helping themselves._ I have a hard time believing (in fact, I think he's stated otherwise before) that Bryan would advocate a system where employers were required to hire immigrants, no matter how much more that would help them than hiring a non-immigrant would help the non-immigrant.

In the case of homeschooling, he's not standing in anybody's way. He's simply helping his children. I see no conflict here.

Floccina writes:

@Andy
You wrote:

How do you know the bubble that you like is the same as the bubble your children will like? How can you tell?

That question is easy. He asked them if they wanted to be home schooled.

Andy writes:

(different Andy here...)

-Who will they smoke pot with?

-How will they learn to feel ashamed of their imperfections and physical appearance?

-How will they focus on their studies when there are no pretty girls around to flirt with?

-How will they learn to cope in the "real world"? Doesn't every adult job require sitting in a class room all day with 20 other people of the exact same age?

-Who is going to ask them whether they'd prefer to identify as women?

-Doesn't the school need privileged kids there making good grades on standardized tests, to keep the money flowing? What do you expect them to do now - actually TEACH all those other kids?

[commenting later in the thread as "other Andy"--Econlib Ed.]

other Andy writes:

On a serious note, Mr. Caplan, I see a bit of defensiveness in your prior writings on this topic. I also started out very eager to explain myself to friends and family. As we went along, I became far less interested in others' criticism. We have the answers, but we don't feel the need to apologize. As I see it, we are paying our taxes and declining an entitlement. We should be thanked, not interrogated. If you do decide to return them to school in a couple of years, that's just fine. If you decide you love the home school lifestyle and keep them through high school, that's also just fine. (They will still have excellent college prospects.) Either way, enjoy your boys while it lasts!

Levi Russell writes:

"(different Andy here...)

-Who will they smoke pot with?

-How will they learn to feel ashamed of their imperfections and physical appearance?

-How will they focus on their studies when there are no pretty girls around to flirt with?

-How will they learn to cope in the "real world"? Doesn't every adult job require sitting in a class room all day with 20 other people of the exact same age?

-Who is going to ask them whether they'd prefer to identify as women?

-Doesn't the school need privileged kids there making good grades on standardized tests, to keep the money flowing? What do you expect them to do now - actually TEACH all those other kids?"

Spot on.

My son is just getting to "school age" (whatever that means) and my wife and I plan to home school all our children. They're going to have enormous opportunities to experience the real world, on their own, with us, and with their peers.

Homeschool communities are everywhere. If there isn't one where you are, it's probably either almost illegal to homeschool in your state or someone hasn't thought to do so yet. In our small city, the homeschool group provides sports (football, cheerleading, and basketball), field trips, a spring formal, and other events. I'd wager that any city with 40k or more people could pull off something similar.

CayleyGraph writes:

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Tom West writes:

Well, if we're going to talk economics...

Almost every I've met who home schooled their children (and yes, in all case, the vast majority was done by the wife), were intelligent, educated, organized and diligent.

The sort of person one might easily expect to be making 6 figures if they weren't busy home schooling the children. In other words, probably millions of dollars of lost income (since one rarely gets heavily back into the work force after being removed for 5-10 years).

Are the benefits of home schooling one's children worth, for example, giving up the ability to provide them with substantial help buying a house or whatever else that wealth might have purchased on their behalf?

Nathan W writes:

First, I basically buy your logic that removing them from the public system for only middle school and then returning them to the public school system for high school will likely have an exceedingly small impact on their actual outcomes, at most (small positive effect perhaps on additional materials you might provide, and perhaps a small negative effect on socialization stuff). And that anyways, if there is anything missing in the socialization factor they will pick up on that in high school.

But I'm curious whether you're more driven by a motivation to spend time with your kids (sort of selfish interest, but I don't mean it in any bad way - there's no shame in wanting to spend time with your kids), or out of a belief that they will enjoy it more. Perhaps I misunderstand you, but it appears to me that it's mostly something like "hey, wouldn't it be cool to do this" and so you're doing it.

Richard H writes:

I'm a philosopher/theologian type, not an economist, but saw many of these questions when we home-schooled our children. We home-schooled each of our three children for some part of their education (3 years at the most, 1 year at the least). Our initial reason was that our local public school was not meeting their needs and we had no other options. Our two kids who aren't intellectually disabled both managed to graduate as valedictorians at their high school, so what we did didn't impair them too much.

Robbbbbb writes:

My wife homeschools our kids. In order:

1. What makes you think you're qualified to teach them?

My wife has a PhD in piano pedagogy, and has taught piano for twenty-five years. She has taught at all levels, from pre-K, to college students, to adults. She is amazingly qualified. (This can be shortened to "she is amazing," but that's a topic for another time.)

But beyond that, we know a lot of homeschooling families who are less-qualified than she is. Their children's education does not suffer for being performed by someone who has not been certified by a degree-granting institution.

Also: The student-teacher ratio in our school is unlikely to ever exceed 4:1. Most schools sit at 28:1. Our children aren't ever going to get that kind of personal attention in school.

2. Who are you to decide what your kids should study?

Why not? What special power does our local school board have that makes them much better at choosing curriculum than us? Yeah, yeah, ed degrees, blah blah blah. I find the average teacher to be less engaged and intellectually curious than my wife and I.

Additionally, we can choose curricula that engage our kids. They can read about materials they're interested in and want to learn. We tap into a special power: The desire to be educated.

This is not a value that is fostered in the public school system.

3. What about socialization?

Who would you rather have socializing your kids? You, or a bunch of teenagers who are all thrust together and try to figure it out on their own? I don't remember the social system of junior high school as some sort of paradise. I remember it as a dim exercise in zero-sum status games. (Or the rest of my public schooling career, for that matter.)

(Full disclosure: Our kids are 7, 5, 4, and 1. We're not to the teenage years yet.)

4. How come you're not teaching [insert pet subject here]?

Because my wife is more busy teaching my kid [insert pet subject here.] Piano, in our case. My seven year old is intensely interested in music, and my wife has the unique opportunity to provide him a fantastic start on a music education. And my second son, who turns 6 later this month, loves math, and works on it every chance he can get. He's going to blow past his older brother in about six months.

5. Won't this hurt your kids later in life?

If we thought so, we wouldn't be doing it.

6. Aren't you hurting your kids' development right now?

No.

7. When will they interact with girls?

Well, my three boys have a sister, who they are learning to treat with kindness. And vice versa.

More to the point, there's a PE class that my wife takes the kids to once a week. They learn how to deal with members of the opposite sex there. And at church. And a lot of other places. Plus, they learn how to be graceful and polite, because we emphasize that. This is a skill I find sorely lacking in public school educated children.

In other words, they're learning to treat girls with respect and grace, and that dating is a way to find out if you're willing to settle down for the rest of your life with that girl.

Was that a high priority in your public school system? (In reality; not what the administrators claimed.)

8. Isn't there more to life than academics?

Yes, which is why we don't have them in a stifling bureaucracy for six and a half hours a day.

9. Aren't you undermining social cohesion?

I'd be more interested in this if the people promoting "social cohesion" weren't using it as a mask to drive indoctrination of their own warped beliefs in the public schools.

10. Why are you turning your kids into brainwashed freaks?

Better me (or, really, my wife; have I mentioned how awesome she is?) than some public school teacher whose only claim to my kids is that she could pass the least-difficult degree in a third-rate four year university.

And really, who cares more about my kids? That ed-degree graduate for whom those kids are just a means to a paycheck? Or the woman who gave birth to them?

-----------

Counter-question: Why are you so interested in getting my kids away from me, and what values are you trying to install in them when I'm not looking?

Colin Barnard writes:

We home school our three boys.

I always like getting asked #3. It shows the amount of inertia in the status quo. I respond with "Do You remember middle school? Do you really think that the 'socialization' skills in middle school were useful and helped you succeed?"

One The following is just anecdote. We live in a semi-rural area with quite a few homeschoolers. My wife used to hire quite a few teenagers both homeschooled and not. Almost to a tee, the homeschooled kids were much less awkward with anyone not in their peer group. As a middle aged man I find most teenagers annoying, but not the homeschooled kids.

Andrew writes:

Robbbbb sums up my homeschooling decision quite well. My family has a much lower standard of living than the Caplan clan but yet it wasn't that difficult of a decision to homeschool our children.

Tom Crispin writes:

If you're not already familiar with "unschooling" as opposed to "homeschooling"; google that term or John Holt.

We unschooled our daughter until she went to college, successfully I might add. We certainly did not experience a time problem. No need to deal with getting her to/from school. No stupid PTA. No dealing with the education bureaucracy. No need to conform to the school district's schedule.

It was a pleasure, not a chore.

We have since hosted foreign exchange students who were required to attend the local high school. The time "cost" for them was greater than with our daughter.

Greg A writes:

In what other ways do you (personally) disregard comparative advantage and the work of David Ricardo?

Suppose, at age 18, your kid comes to you and says the following: "Dad, this home schooling thing really worked. I really love economics, but college is just about signalling. I'd rather just hang out at lunch with you and Alex and Tyler and Robin, drop in on their classes, and skip the degree altogether. You're a talented economist and I'll learn a lot hanging around GMU even without a degree. Teach me everything you know instead." Will you take him up on this offer?

Todd Kreider writes:

Robbbb responds to:


7. When will they interact with girls?

Well, my three boys have a sister, who they are learning to treat with kindness. And vice versa.

----
OK, this is the first time I saw a reason not to home school. Send in the marines and get them out of that home school environment, pronto!

But everything else seems good :)

Thomas Sewell writes:

I won't rehash the non-economist questions, because they've been discussed very well above, but after many years of home schooling experience, I think the answer to this one isn't as obvious as some suggest:

1. Doesn't it take a lot of time?

If you're raising autodidacts, rather than doing "school at home", then the answer is no, it doesn't take as much time as you might think.

About 30 contact hours to teach a child to read, then with all the resources available online and in books, about 30 minutes a day per student of mentoring, guidance and review seems to work perfectly. That's less than many parents do "helping" with their kids homework from district schools.

Many new homeschooling parents seem to have a tendency to want to create a structure of "school at home" where they make a block schedule of time, try to teach like the teachers they had in school, etc... Over time most figure out that less imposed structure can be much better.

I'd suggest a goal of teaching your children how to learn, then supporting them in learning what they are interested in while guiding them to learn the tools (math, writing, etc...) which will give them the ability to do more advanced work in the areas they're interested in.

If you do, you may find yourself with "students" who graduate from HS years early and get 4.0s in college before they are 18, who learn things like Russian, Greek, Japanese, Computer animation, economics, Home Decor, various instruments, etc... because they want to, not because someone made them. You can do it with a lot less parent time than you think, if you'll just focus on opening the doors rather than doing things for them. Our kids create their own rubrics for their subjects and then evaluate their new rubric with our agreed upon rubric for rubrics. Last night my 14 year old son created a "Sleight of Hand Rubic" to evaluate what he wants to learn in that area, so it's not always as dry as you may imagine it to be. :)

Kids are learning machines, if you don't destroy their love of it by sending them into a regular public school environment.

P.S. For what it's worth, several of the local businesses in our town now give preference to hiring home schooled kids because they find they're much more hard-working, responsible and better able to interact with customers than typical teenagers.

yet other andy writes:

Because my wife is more busy teaching my kid [insert pet subject here.] Piano, in our case.

I know quite a lot of people who play (and teach) the instruments; none homeschools their children. They usually do practice with them at home, are totally willing to help them with anything, but they still send them to be taught by other teachers. This includes some high-profile teachers.

And this seems to me rather common, not the exception. I just wonder if it relates to homeschooling or if it is just a different area, as being a teacher for an instrument is just a fraction of time the child devotes to playing - which is quite the opposite to most other subjects.

Chris writes:

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Seth writes:

The non-economist questions have a common theme: I know what's best for your children.

Duncan Frissell writes:

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David Friedman writes:

The question I would ask is why home schooling instead of home unschooling.

Which is relevant to the time cost.

Arthur B. writes:

I'm not worried about the time, partly because I think unschooling can be a good substitute.

School is a form of daycare for children which are too young to stay at home on their own (or which are deemed to young by child services). In order to homeschool or unschool, one of the parent typically has to work from home. Hiring a full time nanny is economically efficient, but it's tax inefficient.

Rich K writes:

Actually, economists get this one wrong because they don't seem to consider the value of your sons' educations. It is perfectly valid to ask what makes you think you know what your sons should receive in their education. Home schooling seems to me to be a very undemocratic way to educate, in line with Locke's view that parents know what's best for their kids. But, I a democracy, we should give democratic perspective to who decides what is best Lin terms of education.

David Friedman writes:

Greg A. asks Bryan how he will respond if his son decides there are better things to do with his life than go to college.

When our son was a college freshman (Chicago), he showed us a story (long short story/novella) he had written. I would not have been surprised to have seen it in print. After his third year at Chicago he decided to take the next year off to see if he could write a publishable novel. He wrote a novel which I, his mother, and his sister think is of publishable quality, and is taking a second year off to try to publish it while writing more.

I told him some time back that if he could get a novel published there was no strong reason for him to go back for the final year of school.

So not quite your case, but in that direction.

Glen W Smith writes:

For a little more than 10 years, I worked on a project were a crucial feature was education (at the primary and secondary level). At the time, it was the largest data set on education available and did not show any signs of self-selection. As far as education, there were no evidence that the choice between traditional schooling and home schooling effected educational performance significantly either way. As far as socialization and social cohesion, at least for developing followers, traditional education was the best but do you want to create a bunch of good followers?

Tom West writes:

I told him some time back that if he could get a novel published there was no strong reason for him to go back for the final year of school.

If he sells it to a mainstream publisher, and it's moderately successful (slightly above the median), he can take that $5,000 he makes off the book and retire :-).

First rule of writing - don't quit your day job.

If you're lucky and end up at the 99th percentile of writers in the industry, you'll be earning a middle-class living.

Like most job in the arts, you want to be in the 99.9th percentile before you're buying a house on your earnings.

LD Bottorff writes:

Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people have been homeschooled or unschooled over the last forty years; more than enough to gather statistics to show how much damage the homeschool movement has done to the socialization of these poor victims.

I'm waiting for the statistics.

Stefano writes:

In my view the question an economist should ask is "Is it efficient ?"

For most activities, do-it-yourself is less efficient than having specialized division of work.

Perhaps the most efficient setup would be to have a market of many tutors specialized each in one topic, and have the parent and the student choose ad hoc the topics and the teachers.

As an aside, I note that most homeschooling is done to restrict the range of ideas and situations the pupil is exposed to, instead of increasing it. Some illuminated homeschooler excepted.

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