WORLD's article on homeschool co-ops in the Sept. 22 issue is receiving some attention and prompting debate. Jeffrey Lewis, a member of the board of directors of Illinois Christian Home Educators, is critical of co-ops. Karna Hoffman, a central Pennsylvania mother of six, likes them.
Here's a point-counterpoint:
Homeschooling is not just a different teaching method. It is a complete paradigm shift in the way we understand education. Homeschooling recognizes the parents as the primary educators of their own children. Parents, not hired teachers, drive the instruction process. The entire education is individualized to the child, rather than standardized to a class or an age. Homeschooling takes place primarily within the relationships of the family unit, not the artificial society of a classroom.
Granted, there is room for flexibility within this paradigm. A handful of families may bring their children together for a subject that works well with more students. Some families seek tutoring or private instruction for one or two subjects that require specialized skills or knowledge. However, at a point such variations render the original model unrecognizable, and what might have started as "home education" now looks much more like traditional "home work" assigned by teachers outside the home. Parents are relegated from actually educating to merely monitoring a learning process largely outside of their control.
Consider a scenario in which 100 to 150 families pool resources to provide for their children's education. To bring some reasonable structure to the group, the families elect a board of six or eight directors. They meet in a large building where children can attend classes in core subjects like math, foreign language, science, and electives like auto mechanics, graphic design, and fine arts. They evaluate and pay qualified instructors to teach in their areas of expertise. Gradually, the board implements a dress code, a disciplinary policy, a schedule of fees, and even a scholarship fund. Over a few short years, the group develops a few sports teams, a yearbook, an annual play, a formal dance, and a graduation ceremony. This is the reality of the newly developing institutions that call themselves "homeschool" coops. This is not homeschooling - it is just schooling.
Recognizing the proper distinction between educational co-ops and homeschooling is not to say that one is better than the other. This is not about which method is better, although that may be a healthy discussion to have. This is about consistently defining our terms and being intellectually honest about our methodology. The cooperative educational structure is modeled after the institutional school. Home education is entirely different. To collapse them into one another is to deny the uniqueness of home education and render the term meaningless. The paradigm of the co-op model is the paradigm of institutional education, and merely attaching "homeschool" to the name of the institution will not change its true identity.
Keen parents try to extend the lives of their homeschools. Since beginning homeschooling 25 years ago our family has been blessed with advantages offered through co-ops at many levels. At all ages my children have been involved in classes that met weekly for about an hour per subject. In our settings children have been taught new concepts and given assignments to carry them through the week. They have rubbed shoulders with some great parents who have encouraged them academically and spiritually. They want to rise to these challenges. My own capabilities have grown as I have taught and encouraged other children. Usually my own kids are in some of my classes. I continue to shape and hone their character, as any classroom teacher should. Co-oping has extended the life of our homeschool.
Instruction for elementary school children may be of lower academic quality in a homeschool where a mom is struggling to also educate her high school children. Properly designed co-oping can help fill those gaps. Conversely, a wise mom can give more attention to younger learners if the older children receive some outside instruction. Sports teams, choirs, band/orchestras, and other interest clubs are also important. We have found it a great blessing to allow our children to be accountable to other teachers. It's a delegation of our authority, one that we can orchestrate.
Homeschool parents have chosen this means to prepare their children for life - hoping to avoid the social and secular negatives found in traditional settings. The goal is to raise children with godly character who can also compute and communicate. Even the Bible speaks of the body of believers - a unit comprised of many functions: hands, feet, mouth, eyes, etc. We need each other. Capable grandparents, vibrant retirees, and proficient parents are all willing to pass along expertise to the next generation. Even older siblings can teach a class and often get great responses from young ones, building their portfolios along the way.
Home-educating once was young, with few resources and many obstacles. It has evolved to a higher level. Co-oping has taken some of the stress and burden off of these incredible families. There may be a cost to hire a teacher but we have found it an excellent alternative to private education fees. Younger children receive both quality and quantity time with mom. Older children are challenged, growing in the skills needed to graduate well. Mom may have more space to prepare tasty dinners. If family is the building block of society, then co-oping strengthens that block.