7th Grade: The Homeschooling Experience
By Bryan Caplan
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.
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.