Until Then: When Homeschooling and Free Markets Are Not (yet) a Viable Option.

Many folks claim to “agree in principle” with home education, genuinely free-market schools, co-op schools, and complete separation of school and state, but also claim that “it isn’t politically feasible yet.” They said that about marijuana legalization and other positions too.

Suppose you want to do better for your children, and cannot yet see how to get them out of government schools. Perhaps you can’t afford private education, and can’t see how to home school your children. You might even be mandated to leave them in public schools – as sometimes happens in custody cases.

What can you do? Quite a lot, actually. There is more than a little research about the influence of parents on the educational success of children who attend government schools. Before we begin, be mindful of Euclid’s advice: “There is no royal road to geometry” – or, more generally speaking, to education.

Search for the “two book case rule” and “30 million words” for my first point: talk with your children early and often. Read to them often. Hart and Risley discovered that children of parents who engage in interactive conversation early and often, hear 30 million more words in their first three years than those whose parents speak little, and only in the form of directives. (do this, stop that, come here.) These children test markedly higher in IQ, have larger vocabularies, and do much better in school. The “two book case” research found that children from homes with two or more book cases do significantly better – about 2 or 3 grade levels – than their peers.

With respect to math, children who learn early to count and to group and regroup numbers – basic “number sense” – have an advantage in math all the way through the elementary years and beyond. (search for Geary early math development).

I have not found anything comparable to the 30 million word research for math, but my personal experience and that of many others leads me to believe that math-literate children come from families which talk a lot about ordinary household math, along the same lines. Counting games, kitchen math, dice games, and some video games promote a variety of math skills. I concur with Geary; the basics – “number sense” – are the foundations upon which solid math skills can be built.

I think it is a mistake to start with flash cards and number facts; this is too far along the development sequence. Before children can appreciate the formal manipulation of numerals, they need to appreciate the simpler ideas of counting and adding and subtracting and regrouping concrete sets of things – blocks, pips on a die, spoons, forks, beads on an abacus, and so forth. They learn by manipulation of physical objects to appreciate the concepts of addition, subtraction, grouping and regrouping, place value, (tens, carrying, borrowing, etc), commutativity. This begins early – 2, 3, 4 years of age.

So, in short, read to your child, read with your child, converse with your child, play number games of various sorts – these lay the foundation for educational success.

The thing is, if you do this, you’re essentially doing all that is required of home educators – an hour or two per day. Sneaks up on you, eh?

If you don’t do this, don’t expect schools to cover for you. They’re swamped, and the institutional structure rarely permits schools to adapt to your child as only you can.

For those of you who have expertise in early child development – if you are aware of math research in the 0-3 years, I’d love to hear. There is a “reply” button at the top of this post. Thanks!

Now, what about the older child? Children don’t come with “do over” buttons – what next? You may want to help with their homework. The temptation is to solve every problem for them. Don’t do that. If possible, find  a competent tutor – your neighborhood math whiz, perhaps. When you work with your child, you’ll have to think a little deeper. How can you help your child to discover better ways to solve problems, and internalize these ideas?

I sometimes ask people to “think out loud” for me. Then I try to think of how to suggest a slightly better way to solve the problem. The suggestion has to be accessible; I can’t ask a person who stumbles over simple math to “get” algebra in a day. So I take a detour. Work on multiplication of small integers for a bit, for example. As above, start with the concrete, then the formal. Lay sound foundations and build up.


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