Unschooling: Our Results

My friend Mary’s article on LewRockwell.com spurred this post. We met Mary via my original blog when we first moved to Costa Rica back in 2006. Mary and her three boys came to our house and hung out for a spell. They live an hour from our town, so we didn’t see each other often. But they did get out to our yard sale and we got to say hasta luego, amigos!

When our boys, Mo and Ryan, became school age, we decided to homeschool. Our friends were aghast. “What about their socialization?” they’d ask, all worried. And, truth be told, threatened, because we were going to work our lives around doing what we thought best for our kids. Most parents won’t even investigate home/unschooling because it’s truly hard to do, especially in today’s economy. One of you has to stay home to teach, and, gasp, raise your own children. It might even require moving to a cheaper place to live and finding a new job. Fortunately, we started right as the real estate bubble got lit up and I was making plenty of money.

I apologize if I’m offending anyone. My anger is not toward parents who choose public education. I understand completely. My anger is with an ineffectual government that has so burdened us with taxes — to pay not just for Pensions for Bureaucrats, but for unending wars, murdering millions of peasants around the world — that one parent has to work, or make drastic changes (like moving) in order to be successful at raising your own children, without being so poor you live in your car. Although, that is preferable. (Having never lived in my car, I can pretend I know that.) Yeah, I’m an extremist sometimes.

Re. “socialization”: that is the very thing we were trying to avoid. Boy, that answer leaves folks speechless! They figure we are hopeless and our kids will be social misfits. Well, they aren’t, as anyone who has met them knows. They are smart, witty, personable and nice (Mary will attest to this!)

Our reasoning was simple: we didn’t want them raised in an institutional setting, raised by 25+ of their same-aged peers and one or two bureaucrats for more hours in a day than they would be with us. Plus, we wanted them to learn something. Ok, that was a dig. But every study and a half-hearted glance at today’s statistics proves beyond a shadow of a doubt — with some notable exceptions — that public education is an unprecedented failure. A failure which no amount of money can fix.

Many of my friends have succeeded with public schooling. These are friends who Pay Attention to their kids, to their schooling and participate every step of the way. Too many parents figure the kids are being raised like all the other kids and that should be good enough. After all, you are paying good money — really, really good money for which you work long hours — for that education. Why do you have to pay $ and attention? I mean, isn’t that what you are paying for? Besides, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to work and parent. It’s truly a catch 22. But, if you haven’t been paying attention, take a look at your kid’s and your kid’s friends’ health and values to see whether or not you might make the time.

OK, [/rant] meaning end of rant. I think.

Somewhere along the way, we ended up unschooling. Even though we’d read Holt* and Gatto, agreed with every word, it was hard to let go of our decades-long indoctrination that structure was essential for schooling. Turns out, we didn’t have to “let go”: it just evaporated. We have also completely let go of college as a necessity — that was difficult. But having no money helped that along. We couldn’t afford it and had to start talking about it, lol!

The boys are 17 and 18 now, soon to be 18 and 19. They are getting their GEDs so they can get jobs and go on to some higher education (one is going to mechanic’s school, the other will take some classes at UK, figuring out what he wants to do).

For the GED, they did a short pre-placement test, then a 4-hour placement test and did so well on them — even though they have not been “schooled” for almost 3 years — that they can go right to the practice test without any classes. I admit to being worried, but they are both in the 98th percentile! Even if they have to take a class in something between the practice test and the GED test, I am so pleased they’ve done so well so far. A personal testament to the home/unschooling theory.

Mo, who will not read unless he has a gun to his head (he’s going to mechanic’s school — loves taking things apart and putting them back together, also plays four instruments by ear) got a low score on spelling. He has never been a great speller. (Uh oh, is speller even a word?) He spells phonetically, which was great in Costa Rica: Spanish is spelled phonetically! But not so great for English. We saved some of his early writings. Hysterical. There is definitely a talent in spelling all words phonetically!

But on the GED placement test, there were words Mo had never seen before. Ryan, who is never without a book, got 100 on the spelling. So it’s just a matter of Mo being exposed to more words. He is studying for the spelling part of the practice test now. Clearly, he doesn’t need to be a great speller to be an excellent human being. Plus, he and his brother lived in another culture for five years and speak and spell darn near perfect Spanish. You don’t get that in public school.

The other thing to note is that my boys’ heads are not crammed full of useless facts like publicly schooled kids. Completely useless facts that can be found in a minute with an internet search. Why spend your critical formative years in an institution learning how to memorize stupid stuff to pass a test?

I did not teach them, by the way, because not all of us would have lived through that experience. Seriously. My husband taught them while I was the breadwinner.

“Breadwinner.” What a concept. Getting back to those roots right now.

*Both of these authors write about homeschooling, but the principles apply to unschooling for the most part. We started with Holt’s How Children Learn and his Homeschooling Guide, and Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down. Good choices for us!

16 comments to Unschooling: Our Results

  • james

    Good on ya and your boys! My kid is 17 and in public school because I don’t have any alternatives and that is my call, no one else’s but I applaud you and your husband.
    I don’t worry about college. I have yet to meet anyone with a diploma who can differentiate himself from most people I know who do NOT a diploma. University is just a business with a service/product they have to sell for public consumption. Like any other product or service, it exists mostly to produce revenue for the universities. I suspect most kids go these days because most other kids do.

    Most jobs do not require a general university education and that’s a good thing because most university grads are as ignorant as they were when they went in. This is more than just my opinion, it is based on studies I have read. I am sure you have seen them too. College students are asked, for example, to find the general area of Paris on a blank world map and most cannot do it. They are asked to name one American author form the last two centuries and they cannot do it. They can’t compose a simple paragraph without making numerous grammatical errors and faulty syntax.

  • Ginnee

    Good post Sally. You did a great job, Hal too.

  • Manrique Molina

    Isn’t it ironic that in Costa Rica home schooling exists but mainly for juvenile misfits and incarcerated ones who are “so dangerous” to have around “normal” kids at school?

    Isn’t also ironic that most of the home schooled “threats” graduate from the program without a hitch, get and build values “by themselves” and go back to society with a sense of doing good and being independent?

  • Well said and there was never any doubt that the boys would do well for themselves. They are terrific and you should be proud – as I know you and Hal are.
    My Kayleigh jumped the public school ship just before her senior year of high school, got a fab score on the GED and got on with her life. High school tried to tell her the GED was the kiss of death, and leaving HS would be a great mistake – they just wanted the money that her butt in a seat that year would have brought the school. She has a great job, will graduate with her AA this spring, and is doing fabulously.
    {we were very involved in the kids’ educations}
    My granddaughter has 2 more years before she begins Kindergarten; I hate the thought of them ruining that precious little girl. :(

  • Dan

    Wait..I dont understand something. You said you unschooled but then said that Hal taught them. I though Unschooling was when you let the kids do/learn/not learn whatever they want with no structure. If Hal is teaching them isn’t that homeschooling? What am I missing here?

  • Ditto, James!

    Thank you, Ginnee <3 (that’s supposed to be a heart… we’ll see if it works)

    Manrique: love that testament. perfect!

    Robin, I don’t think they have a chance at ruining that little girl with you around, lol!

    Dan, we sorta did a combo: started out homeschooling with a schedule that looked like public school at home. SO MUCH WORK and the boys hated it. One of the reasons we wanted to homeschool was so that we wouldn’t ruin the boys’ love of learning and discovery. But that’s exactly what we were accomplishing. Over the years, little by little, we gave up the schedule and teaching the useless facts subjects and pretty much just hung out with them. The only real subject continuity was math: Hal taught them that all along, until, three years ago when we dropped that, too. BUT they continue to learn, because Hal is a smart guy and remembers everything he reads. The boys are with us 24/7 still — although that will change soon as they move out into the world — as imperfect as we are (ok, just kidding), they continue to learn all the time. The best thing about it is our being together all the time. We are a unit. That is way cool. Wouldn’t have happened with them gone all day everyday.

    Thanks, Kevin, I’ll check them out. We have a great library here and open carry, so maybe they will actually have them. A couple of years ago, he found a series of books about a 16 year old spy kid and he devoured those books. So I know he can read and enjoy and retain, lol! And of course he has the Boston Gun Bible memorized! These should fit the bill… you know him so well!

  • janet s

    i have to say, you are leaving out the fact that in costa rica a child is only required to attend school till 7th grade.sooooo, you are not required to school/unschool or whatever them after that age.

  • Janet, this post is not about schooling in Costa Rica. I’ve heard conflicting reports on the age at which ticos get to quit, but it’s somewhere around 6th grade/age 11. Never have researched the laws and not about to take anyone’s word for it, but I know it is at a blessedly young age when they are released from prison. I mean public school.

  • Dana

    I don’t agree that taxes are what make us poor. I think it is a combination of everything being privatized plus a lack of life skills plus a lack of financial savvy. I would explain but I don’t want to leave a textwall here. If you think about it you know what I’m talking about.

    There are so many tax credits for people with kids, especially lower-earning people with kids, that “we pay too much in taxes” is not an excuse for setting up a dual-income household–you get all the income taxes back at the end of the year. And people who earn much more have the money for one parent to stay home anyway.

    I think most of the problem is in lack of life skills, such that we *must* purchase nearly every necessity we use, and a lack of financial savvy, such that people spend money unnecessarily so that they think they must earn more. That’s been my experience, anyway. Admittedly I should have been much wiser with my money all along than I have been, and I’m paying the price now.

    But I still refuse to put my daughter into someone else’s care, even a school’s. Besides, if you do the math on that second wage-earner, nine times out of ten it’s not worth it–after daycare or school costs (which you have even in public schools), work-related costs and transportation, you’re not left with much. It makes more sense to cut spending on what the other parent is earning.

    Actually a lot of this crying about taxes I hear tends to come from people who spend too much anyway. If I point this out to them they say “That’s MY RIGHT, it’s MY MONEY”–yes, and it’s YOUR CONSEQUENCES when you have too much month at the end of your money and, if you did the math, you didn’t have to wind up that way. Anyone who’s got a huge flat-screen TV or a Hummer and is complaining about taxes has no room to talk.

    I hear ya about the bureaucrats though. There *is* a lot of fat to trim from the government. But until the government trims that fat, cutting taxes is counterproductive, just as reducing your work hours to part-time before you’ve paid off your debt is a dumb idea.

    • I agree with a lot of what you say, Dana, right up there till that last trimming thing. The gov will NEVER voluntarily cut the fat because it’s the fat off their own bodies! We have to DEMAND it. We must force them to cut taxes every chance we get. Starve the beast is the only way to reduce the beast. It’s fat and happy and not listening. After that last round of elections, perhaps they are perking up a little. More to be revealed…!

  • Chuck

    Hi Sally,

    I was catching up on some of your earlier posts (trying to remember what your new job is) and I ran across your “starve the beast” post of 11/11. Then I remember running across some news piece recently that talked about how “starve the beast” doesn’t actually work. Couldn’t find that particular piece but found two others (below). And it looks like this is confirmed by the latest tax deal: they’re “starving the beast” by extending the Bush tax cuts (and providing at least one new cut: Social Security taxes) while simultaneously increasing spending (extending unemployment benefits, etc.).



    In the first article, I think this section summed it up well:

    ———– quote —————
    In fact, “starving the beast” has never worked — if we’re talking about the federal government. For the last 30 years, tax cuts have always been followed by increased government spending. The reason why, as explained by Cato Institute’s William Niskinen, is simple. When you enjoy the benefit of services without paying their full cost, you end up consuming more services. If you, as an individual, are required to pay your credit card bill in full at the end of each month, you will consume only as much as you can pay for out of your real income. But if you can roll over the debt, and never pay the piper, you have no incentive to live within your means. The same principle works for government in general.

    ——- end quote ————

    In the second article, I thought this part particularly telling:

    ———— quote —————
    The Moore-Vedder article argues strenuously that tax increases must never be considered no matter how big the deficit is. The reason, based on research Vedder has been updating since the 1980s, is that tax increases always feed the beast, leading to spending increases larger than the tax increase. Originally, he said that spending would rise $1.58 for every dollar of tax increase, leading to an increase in the deficit rather than a reduction. Vedder now says that spending only rises $1.17 for every dollar of tax increase.

    By this logic, the tax increase enacted in 1993, which raised the top federal income tax rate to 39.6 percent from 31 percent, should have caused a massive increase in the federal budget deficit. In fact, it did not. Spending was 22.1 percent of GDP in 1992 and it fell every year of the Clinton administration, to 21.4 percent of GDP in 1993, 21 percent in 1994, 20.6 percent in 1995, 20.2 percent in 1996, 19.5 percent in 1997, 19.1 percent in 1998, 18.5 percent in 1999, and 18.2 percent in 2000.

    And contrary to another commonly-held Republican idea — that all tax increases reduce revenue via the Laffer Curve — revenues rose from 17.5 percent of GDP in 1992 to 20.6 percent in 2000.
    ———- end quote ————

  • Chuck

    Thought I left a post here earlier, but I guess I took too long to compose it. Here’s a shorter version.

    Regarding “starve the beast” there’s been some news lately on how it doesn’t work. Which I think is being confirmed by the latest tax deal: extending (and adding) tax cuts, while also increasing spending (extending unemployment benefits, etc.).

    Two good articles:

    Favorite section from second article:
    In fact, “starving the beast” has never worked — if we’re talking about the federal government. For the last 30 years, tax cuts have always been followed by increased government spending. The reason why, as explained by Cato Institute’s William Niskinen, is simple. When you enjoy the benefit of services without paying their full cost, you end up consuming more services. If you, as an individual, are required to pay your credit card bill in full at the end of each month, you will consume only as much as you can pay for out of your real income. But if you can roll over the debt, and never pay the piper, you have no incentive to live within your means. The same principle works for government in general.


  • Hi Chuck, when you put two or more links in a comment, they are held for moderation and I get an email to approve. I’m usually sitting right at my desk, so it happens quickly. No problem — thank you! I haven’t even read them so will do that now.

  • I love to read unschooling rants. Thanks for posting. With regard to school:

    1. I’ve never encountered anything so radical or perspective shifting as unschool.

    2. The timeline for industrial education is arbitrary.

  • THanks, Katherin. Loved your blog. If I were still in the schooling phase, I’d be a regular reader. If I had it to do over again, I’d do it on a farm!!!

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