Homeschool or Public School – What’s Worse?

Homeschool or Public School – What’s Worse? March 6, 2013

by Becoming Worldly

I was talking with a homeschooled friend the other day who was raised fairly similar to how I was, with a more structured and less impoverished environment, and we were sharing stories. This and a few other things got me thinking. We both went on to higher education, got our masters degrees. The conversation between us turned to whether homeschooling was preferable to public schooling. While the homeschooling environment was very oppressive and abusive for us both, we each had access to classic literature and read voraciously as a coping mechanism. Favorite books would be read 3, 4, 5, sometimes 6 times over. I think this intensive, almost obsessive consumption of the written word is one reason why a number of former homeschoolers who have had neglectful educational environments can often write eloquently, in an almost old-fashioned way.

Still, I am sure there are many more who did not get into reading like this and whose voices are not being heard. I knew a homeschooled kid who could barely read or write when he was a preteen, but could repair everything from lawnmowers to electronics just by self-taught tinkering. I often wonder what became of him. I would like to find some of those people too, and feel that those of us who write stories should help them write theirs, share theirs. (Then maybe they can help us fix that jammed door or the broken old-school Nintendo game set in the basement.)

Anyway, so my homeschooled friend and I discovered that despite the problems and the loneliness, we both cherished certain aspects of what we learned as homeschoolers, largely left to our own devices, and we both felt that if we had been sent to public school as little kids, we would not be who we are today, that we wouldn’t value the same things. He was homeschooled the whole way through, so he also expressed concern that he would have been bullied for a health condition in a public school. I told him that I was bullied when I started high school initially, not for any health condition, just for being socially backwards. A few aspects of the bullying I experienced were rather bad (like someone putting gum in my hair once), but most of it was just incredibly awkward. There were many gaps where I tried to connect and failed painfully, many awkward and lonely times before I found friends to eat lunch with and learned social norms. (See Lindsay Lohan’s movie Mean Girls, which accurately captures the feeling on homeschool to high school culture shock.) It lasted almost a year and by then I was seen as properly integrated so it stopped.

So I told my friend that I thought the bullying would have been a bearable phase for him and that the main risk I saw from public school was absorbing the lack of enthusiasm about learning and knowledge endemic to a typical middle-of-the-road public school. He would have learned a lot of different things, but he wouldn’t have likely read all those books that have informed his hopes and dreams because they would not have been assigned, and if they had, depending on what kind of school he went to, by then he might have already been trained into not caring.

Most people I knew in public school only did the assigned work and the bare minimum at that. I guess this is normal, but it was shocking to me – I fought so hard to get an education, then ran into others’ lethargy about learning, an expressed desire for good grades without putting in the work, and widespread dependence on the grade book and teachers’ expectations for self-worth. I think it was much more a problem with the system than the people, although some people certainly stood out in both good and bad ways.

I took honors and advanced placement classes because I had the drive and ability to, so I met and became close with friends who felt similarly about the value of knowledge as I did. I had some good teachers who taught me a lot and who I still love and respect, and a principal and an assistant principle who supported me and tried to integrate me as much as they were able. I also had a terrible guidance counselor, one who knew I grew up poor, and after I’d taken the ACT and made a 25 (a good score), crisply noted that being on the B+ honor roll didn’t mean I was in the top of my class, and then she told me “college isn’t for everyone. There’s community college and trade schools.”

I sent my guidance counselor’s negative comments into the same mental trash bin I reserved for my parents’, so I naturally assumed other people wouldn’t take her seriously either, only later realizing they might not have had a lovable old military grandfather talking to them about degrees and high-powered careers, counteracting her negative message.

Maybe it should not have surprised me back then that certain classmates of mine who also grew up poor but were by all standard metrics very good students (certainly better students than me), went on to work at Wal-Mart, or Waffle House, or enlist in the military, and forgo college altogether. It did come as a pretty big shock to me though, as I’d absorbed the idea of a “meritocracy,” the idea that your skills and abilities are what set you apart. Whenever I see it being something else that sets people apart it still sucks. It just plain and simple sucks.

It also makes me angry when I reflect that I wasn’t the only one who heard this not-so-subtle tune of low expectations while in the guidance counselor’s office. I feel that my fellow students from low-income families deserved better. The truth is maybe she was right though, since the statistics indicate that only 11% of students who grow up below the poverty line complete college. However, the fact is I am now one of that 11%, and I expect that if I’d been in public school the whole way through, absorbed more of the social values on what being poor meant, perhaps the bar for my own dreams would have been set a bit lower.

Overall I am really glad I got to have my Grandad’s intensive tutoring (a form of homeschooling) and I am glad I got to attend public school. Attending public school helped me to familiarize myself with social norms, connect with classmates and makes friends (a number of whom I still have), and do all those lovely things like go to prom and have an awkward 10 year class reunion. I have good memories of passing notes in class, volunteering in the concession stand, and cheering my high school football team as they won the state championships.

However, there are a lot of things that do make me want to hold my nose when I consider the entire public school system across our nation, with all the inequality, discrimination, busywork, and reinforced social stratification it brings. That’s why people like John Holt advocated homeschooling as an “underground railroad” away from it in the first place. He saw this and he felt that highly structured authoritarian classrooms were generally not the best learning space and I think in many ways he is right.

Considering where I am today, a person with a master’s degree who is kicking around the idea of going for a PhD, I also realize I need to take a fuller view beyond my own experience. I could say “oh, it turned out fine for me. No harm no foul.” However, although I can speak to what educational neglect is like, ultimately my experience has not been that of the average educationally neglected homeschool kid. My trajectory drastically changed. If I had been left there without outside help, I doubt I’d be writing here today, plain and simple. It would be beyond my sphere of knowing. I would be keeping my head down, working a low-wage job somewhere. That’s what too many kids from poorly run, under-resourced, low-performing public schools also do. The neglected homeschool kids and the neglected public school kids are both neglected kids. They are ultimately the same group.

So this debate of public school versus homeschool that keeps cropping up seems really silly and often rather irritating to me. Homeschool,and public school are both options, chicken and fish, apples and oranges, paper and plastic. Sometimes, given the circumstances or personal preference, one option is obviously better than the other, sometimes it isn’t. It is important to have the best versions you can available so people can make the most of the choices.

So why do people keep talking about homeschool or public school being better or worse when the real question is “how do we get kids, including kids from families living in poverty, to reach their full potential?” I don’t know but I think we need to think about why we do it and then think how we can fix it.

Like I said in my recent guest post for Libby Anne (which I am pleased to say was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for the whole Patheos website), I think it ultimately comes down to children’s rights. If the needs of children are seen as being important and the voices of children are seen as being important than both homeschooling and public schooling must work to improve the experience of kids who struggle, live with few resources, and who have seen and dealt with hardship beyond their years. There are cracks in both systems and there should be no “throwaway” children in either. Pointing fingers does nothing to erase what is going on for these kids.

So if you want to pick a dichotomy, if you really need one, then think about the “haves versus the have-nots,” the kids who have people in their lives who truly care about their education and wellbeing and have high expectations for them versus the ones who don’t. Those groups exist in both homeschool and public school and they are pretty serious problems in both worlds. That is the variable that educational success is dependent on, not whether you are sitting in a classroom or a living room.

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Becoming Worldly blogs at

Becoming Worldly was raised Fundamentalist Evangelical in South Louisiana until she was 13. At that tender age she was introduced to the world at large and starting her journey away from home schooling environment.

Her blog is primarily about Quiverfull lifestyle, homeschooling culture and politics, child welfare, PTSD, education, poverty, big families, gender issues, and maybe a few bits of south Louisiana or New England culture and a recipe or craft project or two thrown in, just for fun.

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  • Anonymous

    Id say that neither is worse than the other-it just depends on the child and the teacher.

    Some parents just arent cut out for homeschooling, or are using a curriculum that isnt very good, which means their child isnt getting the education they deserve-but there are other parents who are involved and giving their child a really good education.

    Just like schools. Some schools arent very good, or have teachers which arent doing their jobs right (Im sure most people have had a teacher who didnt seem to like their job, or taught everything in the most boring possible way), or have problems with bullies and bad behavior, but there are others which are really good, with teachers who love kids and make learning interesting and fun.

    Some kids have learning styles which are more difficult to accomodate in schools, or are at a different level to their peers, so would benefit from homeschooling, but there are other kids who really thrive in the social atmosphere of school, and wouldnt really enjoy homeschooling as much.

  • Tori

    I was at boarding schools (Christian) for most of my schooling, my last school was a Military school. I have to say, apart from the daily HOUR of church, the tutoring was excellent. My daughter however, I pulled out of school due to indoctrination (I am very orientated toward her making up her own mind on this issue and being educated on all religions equally). Although she had tutors, and two regular teachers, she loved homeschooling, and still complains she would rather be homeschooled than in a regular school (she is very social, and is doing very well indeed in regular school). As I’ve explained to her, I am simply not qualified to teach at the level she is at now, and I would be doing her a disservice by pulling her out of regular school.

  • I went to public or private school most of my education. My parents decided to homeschool when I was in high school. It was awful even though I had been bullied and didn’t fit in, I no longer had a place to escape my dad’s controlling behaviors. I missed being in school, around people. I left home with a bad break between my parents and I at seventeen without finishing and got a GED a few months later. I am lucky I left.

    I’m the only one of my siblings who has a good normal, marriage, the only one with a good education (MA in linguistics) the only one who has traveled anywhere, the only one who escaped poverty, and sadly, the only one who is not a complete socially awkward mess. So I count myself as lucky in that respect.

    As for public school, I was awkward mostly because my dad was extremely awkward and insisted we be “in the world and not of the world” in school. The clothes I wore, the music, movies etc I was banned from, etc. all made me much more awkward than I would have been. My desires were always squashed “you shouldn’t be involved in worldly volleyball” or soccer only in church events. But I loved soccer, despite being a girl and desperately missed it when they pulled me out of school. Or family events would interfere with things I wanted to do – I never remember being allowed to invite anyone over except preapproved church people whom I usually didn’t like. But I wasn’t allowed to choise my wn friends, the ones I liked weren’t godly enough. Even the food I ate – my lunches were always weird because we were poor, so they were thrown together – yet I wasn’t allowed to get the free lunch “help” (which would have tasted better and been more healthy) because we “wouldn’t be dependent on the government for anything.” I was extremely awkward, but much of it wasn’t my choosing.

    I had some great teachers who made a huge difference in my life. I was encouraged academically and was an honor roll, straight A student. My siblings, who were so much younger and pulled out sooner were never granted this opportunity, but it made a huge difference to me. Those teachers gave me a love for math, science, and writing even though I was the awkward kid with the highly regulated home life. Without them I never would have excelled academically.

    I wish I could say it depended on the person and circumstance, but I haven’t seen homeschooling produce any well rounded people. For those who later become well-adjusted it is usually a battle to get there. That is my experience though. Others may have different ones.

  • Ophelia

    The very fact that homeschooling isn’t very well regulated is a bad sign because some states require very little from the child/parents to prove they are actually progressing academically and as a result you have children who can’t read or write and have parents with little to no qualifications teaching a child subjects that may be completely out of their range. Some people do trot out the numbers of homeschooled children who took the SAT/ACT and scored somewhat better than the public (or private for that matter) is a very self-selecting number as no homeschooler has to take said tests. If a parent chooses to use course materials provided by homeschooling companies, the actual academic rigors of materials may be highly questionable especially since most are Christian oriented. I have homeschooled myself the last year of high school and I have a neighbor who would have qualified for quiverful (if it weren’t for the fact that she just simply wanted a large family); her oldest two actually went to college because they had the benefit of learning to read and write from a public school but her younger children can’t.

  • kittens

    I just wanted to put in that I was entirely public schooled and I picked up and read classics voraciously as well, sometimes 5, 6, 7 times, and my favorite, over 15 times. So, I don’t think it has anything to do with being homeschooled.

  • Emily

    I was never homeschooled, but I did K to mid grade 11 at a private Christian school. Then I went to a public school. I think that, similarly to the under-supervised Christian School I went to, homeschooling might be good emotionally or motivation-ally, but I would give nearly anything to wipe the slate clean on the AWFUL education I got there. We learned heavily inaccurate Science, never got any form of Health education beyond nutrition and a single class on abstinence, memorized a completely false version of ancient history, etc.

    High school was an amazing experience for me because of the diversity of viewpoints, and the fact that there was less pressure for academic students like me to o mental backflips to stick with the rhetoric.

  • Saraquill

    I think it’s safe to say that no one form of schooling is inherently better than the other. A lot has to be taken on a case by case basis.

  • Sarah

    “So if you want to pick a dichotomy, if you really need one, then think about the “haves versus the have-nots,” the kids who have people in their lives who truly care about their education and wellbeing and have high expectations for them versus the ones who don’t. Those groups exist in both homeschool and public school and they are pretty serious problems in both worlds. That is the variable that educational success is dependent on, not whether you are sitting in a classroom or a living room.”

    Yes, this! I’ve been saying for a while now that the kids I saw do well in my own public school were the ones who had good and involved parents, regardless of their politics or religious affiliation and the ones who did poorly had parents who couldn’t or just wouldn’t get involved with them. And now as a homeschooling mom, I’m seeing the same thing.

  • SAO

    I went to public school and I read and re-read plenty of classics — mostly in my free time, because they were long and the required reading in school were all short books. I was uninterested in schoolwork and did the bare minimum of reading the boring, miserable books assigned in English class. I never called reading all of Jane Austen or War and Peace schoolwork or educational.

    What makes someone a reader? I don’t know. My daughter reads far more than my son and they have the same parents and the same school. Whatever the school, kids need to be held to standards, so if they aren’t learning what they need to learn, something is done about it.

  • I’d say that with uninvolved parents, public school will probably be superior.

  • madame

    My first 9 years of school were Catholic. High school was public.
    I also read voraciously. I know that not having a TV did wonders for my knowledge of language (my first language is Spanish), even though it added to my social awkwardness.
    As a parent, it’s hard to do everything right by our children and often, the things we do in their best interest, will only be appreciated later on.