How will I get into college? How will my family pay for college? How will I find something to do with my life that really matters to me?
These questions have become increasingly stressful for teens and families in the past decades as the college application process has become more competitive, the cost of college has skyrocketed out of control, and the economy seems to inspire little confidence that decent jobs exist even for the vast majority of those succeed at these first two challenges. The worry depicted in the movie Race to Nowhere personalizes these concerns, showing how they warp the process of schooling from a focus on learning and personal growth into a focus on earning the best grades and test scores. Ironically, one simple solution exists to address all of these worries, albeit highly counterintuitive: stop attending school.
I discovered this odd reality after a highly successful school and college career involving Shaker Heights High School, Amherst College, and Brown University. I enjoyed school, and chose to become a teacher based on my own positive experiences. The experience of teaching, however, is what led me to question the entire process and realize there is a highly functional and accessible alternative. As a teacher, I saw myself contributing more stress than inspiration to my middle-school students, and I began to wonder whether I could create another way to interact with them. My colleague introduced me to the concept of homeschooling, and I was immediately exhilarated! Here was a system to allow teens (and their families) to identify their interests, direct their own learning, use college at their own pace, and mature into talented and appealing young adults. They could bypass the normal college admissions process entirely, and by utilizing community colleges during their high school years, cut their undergraduate college bill in half.
Further, as I investigated homeschooling, I realized that the stereotypes and fears I had as a teacher about homeschoolers were all wrong. These teens are informed, well-socialized, involved in their communities, and all-around mature beyond their years.
When a teen opts out of school, the future becomes both open and uncertain. The years from ages 14 to 22 become unscripted. Instead of assuming the standard track of "high school, gap year, college," we begin talking about nonschool-based classes, tutoring, internships, paid work, travel, and college as appropriate to that child. The pursuit of an interest or passion, and the desire to excel in one area, can direct the process. Using adolescence as a time to explore the world breeds self-awareness, expertise, and confidence in ways that are different from managing, and even excelling in school.
However, talking up the benefits of homeschooling as part of education reform is a fairly dead-on-arrival project in our current culture. Most families are not in a position to choose homeschooling, no matter how much they may accept its advantages. Certainly, most of the teens I was teaching in middle school were not in any position to use this alternative. The reality is that most teens and families need support to consider these ideas effectively. Happily, this non-family support already exists, and could be extended from sources such as community centers, after-school programs, summer youth programs, existing homeschooling co-ops, religious institutions, and even public schools.
When teens experience schooling as more stressful than helpful, we can do better than simply telling them, "Make the best of it until you graduate." We can offer information and support for a different way to grow up. Instead of forcing teens to remain in the "race" to win college admissions, scholarships, and a place for oneself in the world, we might provide teens with a coherent perspective that encourages them to set their own pace toward these same goals. Many families are already doing so. What we need now is a social commitment to make this option widely available.
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