Bryan Caplan  

7th Grade: The Homeschooling Experience

Uncertain about uncertainty... Free, good and happy...
My sons and I have finished our first year of homeschooling.  It was a great success by all vital measures.  My two students were vocally much happier than they were in regular school.  They also learned vastly more, covering over two years of advanced math in a single year.  Our most impressive achievement: My 13-year-old sons both took the Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) Exam, normally taken by advanced high school students for college credit.  Caplan Family School's average score was 5, the maximum.  Ex ante, I only gave this a 10% probability.

How did we spend our year?  While I respect my unschooling brethren, neither I, my wife, nor my sons felt any affinity for that approach.  What we're after is demanding intellectual training, free of all pap.  I'm tempted to call it an "old-school" approach, but I don't know of any school, however old, that embodies it.

Here was our normal weekly schedule in the Fall: Seven and a half hours of Algebra a week, my GMU Labor Economics class Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, four hours of reading and flash cards on U.S. history, four hours of essay writing on U.S. history, and about five hours to work on their own research projects. 

Friday was test day, followed by two enrichment classes: "Life Skills" and "Something Different."  I often outsourced these special classes to my colleagues or advanced students.  In Life Skills, for example, I enlisted socially adept students to teach my sons the social graces.  For Something Different, we once got Tyler Cowen to guide us through his art collection.  During the commute, we listened through the history of classical music.

How did I teach?  I spent hours on curriculum design and textbook selection.  Once that was done, my sons scrupulously followed the schedule.  There were virtually no lectures.  In math, they read the textbook and solved the problems.  If puzzled, they overcome it by sequentially (a) asking each other for help, (b) googling, and finally (c) asking me.  In history, I carefully critiqued their essays for content and style, and made them rewrite until the essays were very good.  My sons also often asked me broader historical questions outside of class - questions like, "What would have happened if the United States stayed out of World War I?"  Fun stuff.

While testing is helpful for learning, all in-house tests were low-pressure.  I gave no formal grades.  If my students performed poorly (or, more often, I designed a poor test), I just assigned more practice wherever they were weak.  The goal: To get clear feedback about what we knew and what we didn't, then systematically close the gaps in our knowledge. 

For external tests, in contrast, we drilled for a full month, taking roughly fifteen practice APUSH tests, and strove to mimic the official grading system.  I also gave my sons formal grades for my undergraduate Public Choice class, trying to minimize subconscious nepotism by putting their exams at the bottom of the stack.

How do I justify all the stuff I didn't teach?  A few "Something Different" sessions aside, we covered no natural science.  My reasoning: There's little point in studying natural science until you've at least mastered algebra and geometry.  We didn't do English literature because (a) we did tons of reading and writing for APUSH, and (b) my sons didn't have a passion for it.  I'm not even slightly scared my omissions will hurt them later on; in fact, I think they're far better-prepared for advanced science and literature courses than their peers because they'll have rock-solid foundational knowledge.

Well-wishers often ask me, "How can you get any research done when you're homeschooling?"  With my students, it's child's play: I write the curriculum, and they follow it diligently, day after day.  Truthfully, I complete more research than ever, because my kids' presence keeps me working longer and more regular hours than I'd do on my own.

The hardest thing about homeschooling is the realization that it will end.  My sons are so content at Caplan Family School that the thought of sending them back to regular school saddens me.  In coming months, I'll be researching the effects of high school homeschooling on elite college admission, hoping to find a credible way to beat the system.  Fingers crossed.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (30 to date)
Mr. Econotarian writes:

Glad that it is working for you & your kids!

It looks like you are basically "taking your kids to work", which is nice assuming they can keep on task themselves.

Joao writes:

Think you would like knowing about this school:

Anon. writes:

Have you looked into IB?

Luis writes:

This is fascinating however sounds Utopian. All peaches and cream. Too good to be true?

Please tell us what went wrong and how you corrected. What challenges did you face?

You wrote: "With my students, it's child's play: I write the curriculum, and they follow it diligently, day after day." How did you get them back on-track when they strayed?

Was it just you teaching or did your life partner assist? How did he/she contribute to the education of the children?


Luis Viera

Arnold Kling writes:

1. My guess is that a home-schooled student with a bundle of AP credits can get into a fine college.

2. My guess is that if you cannot get into a fine college as a freshman, you can easily transfer in as a sophomore.

3. I am not sure why you would want your kids to go to an elite school. I am not convinced that the net effect of elite schools on my own children was positive. A lot of silly leftist ideas sank in, even with my pushback.

peter maier writes:

I'd like to do that with my children when i get them but it's hard to find a
wife who would allow that here in europe. ;-)
Anyway, i think you're wrong about your statement about science especially
if you're a critic of current school curricula. Scientific understanding
drives your intuitional understanding of the world in the right direction.
Helping you to make the right judgements even in everyday life. As a former
science student and long time tinkerer i see people all the time making
wrong decisions based on their false understanding of their surrounding.
There's no math needed.

Martin writes:

Do you plan to put your kids ahead in certain classes for their high school education? Will they repeat what was covered in math and history? What would this look like in their later HS years - part time high school, part time college enrollment? Do you fear this may dissociate them from their same-age classmates?

Jack PQ writes:

I've no doubt about academics, but as some have mentioned, it would be interesting to learn how you are giving your kids a chance to socialize with kids their own age.

The thing is, I think it does more harm than good. I'm of the Ron Swanson school, "two to four friends is sufficient", and I think socialization is overrated, since most high school kids act terribly. (What are they going to miss out on? Hazing and gossip?)

Phil writes:

Congrats on it going as well as it did,

that sounds like a great educational opportunity for them

thanks for keeping us updated on how it went

mike davis writes:

How much was the experience improved by the fact that you have two evenly matched kids? (The boys are identical twins, right?) Those of us who teach understand that the best way to learn something is to teach something and it sounds like you set up a system that encouraged them to teach each other.

(I'm asking for a selfish reason. I'd be tempted to try something like this when my kid is older but it might be tough finding a compatible cohort.)

Charlie writes:

I'm curious what books are on the US History reading list (last year and the coming year). Did you use a textbook or other books?

RPLong writes:

Regarding high school options, you might look into your local "alternative high school" system. Although it is typically used for making up the credits missed by problem students, its curriculum is organized into pods and can be worked through at a self-directed pace. Hard-working students can work through a lot of traditional high school material much faster this way.

Just one option among many that might supplement whatever else you might have in mind for high school.

Matt Skene writes:

You may try to find out if actually attending a high school for the entire time is important, or just having a diploma from one matters. If it's the latter, you could home school them until they're juniors or seniors. Some places have dual credit courses at a local community college you could fill those last two years with as well.

SeanV writes:

Interesting approach. Keep up with updates.

Another possibility I suppose would be to do some language tapes in the car.

Keith K. writes:

Would it be too much to ask for you to share your curriculum and book selections? This is an extremely interesting topic and I love to know the reasoning for ones particular curriculum.

Glad it worked out well for you.

ChrisA writes:

Reference your comment about no natural sciences yet - I have often wondered about whether parallel teaching or sequential teaching is better. At the moment we have a basically parallel teaching system in most schools - the pupils may have as many as 12 or 13 different subjects going on at once. My personal learning style however is to imerse myself as deeply as possible. I believe this is actually much more efficient. Taking languages for instance, my 13 year old is currently learning two languages, each one he takes for a couple of hours a week, with maybe an hour each week of homework. Wouldn't it be more efficient to just study one language intensely, say for 10 to 20 hours a week, for a shorter period of time. Then move onto the second language and do the same?

Alex writes:

Great post. I would be interested read more about the enrichment classes and what specifically they entailed.

mhowell writes:

My youngest son was in public school as a 13yo and having a typically miserable time. The brightest point in his school day, by far, was wood shop. The program has since been cut along with several other "nonessential" extracurricular activities. If you're inclined to home school ages 13 to 15 are definitely the time to do it.

austrartsua writes:

Sounds like a great way to do it with one exception I can think of. While I'm sure you've heard it before, here goes: How do you ensure your kids are getting enough social contact with peers. ? To me my most vivid memories of 7th grade are not what we studied in algebra but what my friends and I got up to - the politics, fights, games, girls, gossip etc. To deprive your sons of this seems, well, cruel, and may have developmental consequences. But maybe not, I don't know for sure.

anon writes:

I'd push back against Arnold's point about elite schools. My experience, and my impression of my classmates at an Ivy League institution, suggests that -- modulo certain factors like choice of major -- the concern about leftist indoctrination is overblown. Granted, I graduated several years ago, but I don't think things have changed that much since then. The biggest downside might be that good comedians are now more reluctant to perform at elite private universities / liberal arts colleges because they fear leftist backlash, while I expect they're still willing to give shows at large public universities. This is a shame because I thought one of the best perks (in terms of non-academic stuff) of attending an elite university was the high caliber of people who come from outside to give lectures, guest courses, concerts, etc. So far I don't think this has been substantially diminished *except* in the most overtly political domains (comedians, public intellectuals, etc.).

Peter writes:

Richard Feynmans father had a great impact on him and Richard talks a lot about the way he educated him and the way he tried to influence his children. It's a little scattered in his books and interviews but very interesting and he certainly would advocate a more practical approach for curricula. For example he advocated a math curricula that would actually help students in everyday life. You might also look into feynman lectures of physics. They rely on a minimum usage of math. There are a couple of formulas in his book but it still covors most of classical and modern physics.

peter writes:

Barry Cotter writes:

David D. Friedman's children from his second marriage were unschooled and I think both of them went to Oberlin. I don't know anything about home schooled children going to US elite colleges but if they were to go to European universities no one will care about anything but academic prerequisites. Just continue accumulating AP credit and they can go to Oxford, Cambridge or LSE. They can also do A level exams. I'm sure they could do A levels if they can do AP courses. There's no one sitting per lifetime for A levels either, they could do four every year until they get admitted into an elite college.

Cal Newport has written a great deal on how to get into an excellent college.

SamChevre writes:

Neither my wife nor I attended high school (she was home schooled; I just read a lot and learned a trade), and we both attended highly selective colleges. It is definitely possible.

The email address works: I'm happy to give plenty of details, but in short, SAT, SAT II scores and a GED worked for me.

pgbh writes:

"In Life Skills, for example, I enlisted socially adept students to teach my sons the social graces."

I would like to hear what exactly this entailed.

Colombo writes:

Adage: A ship in a harbour is safe, but this is not what a ship is built for.

By now, most people would regard Caplan as an enemy of the State. Basically, he is raising uncitizens.

Brad Hobbs writes:

I think Arnold Kling is spot on with respect to elites. They call them elite for a reason and the elite narrative today is far too hubristic, nihilist and/or deconstructionist, "morally right, you idiot" and interestingly self-loathing to provide a "rock solid foundation" in the characters that aid and abet human flourishing. With strong enough pre-elite foundations perhaps your children would be impervious but perhaps not. Adolescence and young adult maturity inevitably encompass distancing oneself from parental orbits. Most kids are not impervious to these forces and I'd worry if they were.

David Friedman writes:

On the college admissions problem ...

One thing my daughter did was to compile a list of all the books she had read, about four hundred of them, and include it with her application. The admissions officer at St. Olaf, which accepted her and offered her money, said that was what blew them away.

Bill Seitz writes:

Michael Strong has interesting ideas on schooling and college admissions.

Tom West writes:

No educational program can be successful without good students, and there's no doubt that that was the case here.

But I am curious as to what the cost would be to offer comparable opportunity to other students unrelated to Bryan (if parents were outsourcing the whole educational experience).

My guess? Well over $100K to get someone as knowledgeable as Bryan to devote the same level of care and dedication as well as line up the impressive resources (tours of art collections, hand picked students from elite schools, etc.)

In other words, as far as education goes, very little can beat an interested, well-educated parent, with substantial resources (and those resource need not be wealth - connections to other interesting and interested people probably mean even more.)

One other point - Arnold Kling seemed quite concerned that his children failed to share his politics (and presumable world view). Considering how few of us cleave closely to our parents world-view, I'd consider it almost a requirement of adulthood that my children would significantly differ from me in matters of politics and life. If I don't see my children being "wrong" about how life works, it probably means they're still children (which I'd say is true for one, but not for the other).

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