Do homeschooled students have a tougher time getting into top universities?

The question is an interesting one, because it doesn’t ask who we are supposed to be comparing homeschool students to. I will assume that you are comparing homeschoolers to traditional, public schooled students. I will also assume that by “top universities” you mean the Harvards and Stanfords of the world. I’ll also assume that you are comparing homeschoolers with no admissions hooks (e.g., development, legacy, faculty children, recruited athletes) to public schoolers with no admissions hooks.

In that case, no, homeschoolers do not have a tougher time getting into top universities. In fact, they have an easier time getting in. Let me explain. Getting into these schools from a traditional public school is extremely difficult. After you take out all of the admits from private schools, the select top public schools that only those who live in very affluent areas can attend, and the elite public magnet schools, you have a minority of spots left in each class. Then you should also discount international admits (~10%). Yet, the overwhelming majority of students who aspire to go to the Harvards and Stanfords go to regular public schools which rarely send even one student to a top school in any given year.

So which students from these no-name public schools are going to fill out the rest of the class? Discount first, the recruited athletes, a sizable segment of the public school admits. Discount, as well, diversity cases, those applicants that fill unique demographic buckets (e.g., students from the North Slope of Alaska). The number of slots left in these classes for typical public school students is tiny, and the competition is intense. Those who are competing for the remaining slots are all those valedictorians with perfect GPAs and 1600 SATs that are going to get rejected. (75 percent of the high-school valedictorians who apply to Harvard don’t get in [2010]; 69 percent of Stanford’s applicants over the past five years with SATs of 2400—the highest score possible—don’t get in [2013]) Standing out in that crowd requires a level of neurotic dedication to academics and extracurriculars that leaves the applicants burnt out, often times hating their educational experiences, and with an unwillingness to experiment or take risks in life because they can’t afford to slip up – not a single quiz can be anything less than an A+.

These people who can rise to the top and get an acceptance from a top school are a tiny sliver of a huge, overcrowded public school population. Compare a very good student in this cohort to what they would be if they were homeschooled, and it becomes apparent that the chances that they would be accepted increase substantially as a homeschool applicant.

Let’s first ignore the typical stereotypes. Public schooled kids are horribly socialized, and homeschool kids will more often look you in the eyes when talking to you. And the kids who are homeschooled for the purpose of convincing them that the world is only 6,000 years old are not often the ones who are applying to Harvard or Stanford.

As a homeschooler, the adolescent who would have been a “very good” student in a public school is now freed from the arbitrary time sink of school. No longer are they required to be at a particular building for seven hours a day, 180 days a year, for 13 years of their lives. No longer do they have to spend hundreds of hours, collectively, each year in homeroom, study hall, physical education, lunch, or walking between classes or waiting at a desk for class to start. All that time can instead be transferred to engaging in amazing learning experiences that allow the learner to become an expert, or to develop a skill that allows them to stand out in society, or to start a business, or to travel, or to start a social enterprise, or to engage in research.

Additionally, without being restricted to a set course catalog which caters to the needs of politicians, bureaucrats and administrators, homeschool students are free to engage in the learning that is most meaningful to them. Not only does that allow for amazing learning experiences as referenced before, but it also allows the homeschooler to feel as though they are in control of their education, that they have autonomy (assuming the parents are not bringing traditional schooling tactics such as required classes or worksheets into the home). That autonomy results in higher levels of intrinsic motivation to learn and a stronger love for learning.

Such a learning mindset is not invisible to admissions committees. They need to sort through tens of thousands of applications. With so many people applying for so few spots, they cannot rely on GPAs and SATs to cull the herd. They need to identify those rare individuals who love to learn, who will increase the intellectual environment of the university, and who have the type of learning mindset that will allow them to be successful post-university, no matter what path they decide to go down. For those students who go to public high schools, they may try to demonstrate that mindset through taking the most difficult course load available, getting a 4.0, and taking a bunch of AP or SAT II tests. But none of those actions actually demonstrate intellectual vitality. Homeschoolers, meanwhile, can demonstrate that mindset every day. They choose what they study, they identify where they want to dive deep, and they have the opportunity to create outputs that are far more advanced than that of a high school student who spends 35 hours a week at school and another 35 hours a week doing homework or extracurricular activities.

And the crazy thing is that homeschoolers who have control over their education have less stress and they enjoy their learning much more than their public schooled peers.

What blows my mind is that so many parents continue to send their kids to conventional, public [or private] schools.

Note: this was originally posted seven years ago on Quora as a response to the question that is the title of this essay. Minor edits made for word choice, grammar, or spelling; or to bring the post current to 2023.

Cover image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

To stave off the terrible loneliness

WHEN ASKED “What do we need to learn this for?” any high-school teacher can confidently answer that, regardless of the subject, the knowledge will come in handy once the student hits middle age and starts working crossword puzzles in order to stave off the terrible loneliness.

~ David Sedaris

I love this line from David Sedaris. 

Not gonna lie, being able to solve the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle is an impressive trick to show off. One does not need to spend 15,000 hours in school to get there though. Simply reading and being engaged in the world is a great, often better alternative.

But it is the end of the line that packs the punch. “To stave off the terrible loneliness.” We certainly have a loneliness problem in the US. One report suggests that 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children feel “serious loneliness.” 

Such widespread loneliness is not a feature of human existence, it is a feature of modern, schooled society, where young people are segregated from life and forced to compete against their peers on almost entirely useless tasks for 15,000 hours of their young lives, so that they can then compete against others in college, and then against more people in the workplace. 

Very few young people get to experience what community feels like, where the existence of others allows us to support and be supported. When young people are exposed to such environments they begin to value themselves and others simply for being, not for how they perform against others. And those young people are more likely to grow into adults who commit to cultivating communities of care. 

Community is an antidote to terrible loneliness. Schooling is not.

Cover photo by micheile henderson on Unsplash

Friday, March 6, 2020.

Three years ago, today, Abrome broke for spring break not knowing if we would return when spring break was scheduled to end on March 23rd. News of a dangerous novel coronavirus left us debating what our options were given the responsibility we had to support the young people in our learning community, and the duty we had to protect them, their households, and the staff at Abrome. When it became clear that we would not be able to safely come back together, we extended spring break to three weeks. On March 30th we came back together remotely and stayed remote through the end of that first pandacademic year. 

It was a challenging time. We needed to find ways to get some Abromies reliable internet connections and devices to log in to our remote gatherings. And connecting with each other over video was difficult when we were used to meeting in person. We struggled financially because some families pulled their kids when we went remote. We worked hard to maintain a sense of calm assurance that we would all come through it together.

It was a scary time. There were people in our immediate community who were at high risk. There were elderly grandparents, two people living with cancer, multiple immunocompromised folks, uninsured people and others without access to quality health care, frontline essential workers, and members who were at risk of losing their homes if they could not work. We wanted to protect and support them, and while we could protect them in part by not meeting in person, could we really support them against the conditions of society that put them at increased risk?

It was also a hopeful time. We saw people staying home to protect others from disease. We saw people coming together to support one another through mutual aid efforts. Against the backdrop of illness and death, for a moment we saw people focused less on getting ahead by leaving others behind, and more on considering how they could help others survive. We saw people questioning the practices and structures of not only schooling, but of society, and some began to believe that they could alter or abolish those practices and structures. 

In that moment, when no one knew how the pandemic would play out, Abrome made a choice that was clear ethically, but murky from a business perspective. We reaffirmed our commitment to community care. Community care means centering the needs of those who would be most impacted by our decisions and actions, and leveraging our privilege to support them. It is easy to talk about centering the needs of others when the costs are low, or when it causes only a temporary inconvenience. It is another thing to do so when society demands that we turn away from those most impacted for our own benefit. Unfortunately, the moment of societal solidarity soon began to fall apart as the demands to turn away grew strong. We chose not to turn away. 

It is not preordained that “everyone will get it eventually.” We do not need to “learn to live with COVID.” Institutions are not powerless to stop the spread. We chose people over profits, and solidarity over enrollment. We chose to embrace a multi-layered approach to preventing the spread of COVID-19 that includes masking, physical distancing, filtration and ventilation, testing, and vaccination. Because of those efforts, and some luck, we have not had a single case of spread within our learning community. And our culture is stronger for it, even if our community is smaller—74% of lost enrollment since the pandemic began has due to our pandemic policies. 

Three years in, the pandemic continues. And we will continue to take it seriously because we are committed to community care.

Cover photo by Deborah Jackson from Pixabay

Will liberated youth choose to do nothing?

There is a belief among too many adults that young people, if given the opportunity to do nothing, will do nothing. It is based on an ageist, anti-youth, and often ableist mindset that children are flawed creatures and must be forced to work to overcome their inborn sloth. It is also untrue. No one is more eager to explore and learn than the youth.

A young Abromie facing away from the camera sits curled up on a yellow chair reading a graphic novel she checked out from the library. 

First, they are biologically wired to try to engage with the world and learn. The best thing adults can do is stop interfering in that natural inclination.

Two masked Abromies hanging out in the lounge playing a game of Uno. 

Second, they have less life experience so they are much more likely to find their experiences novel, and hence more likely to be excited to engage in it. Except when adults ruin it by mandating it, gamifying it, or testing it.

Third, to the extent that they do act “lazy” when given the freedom to play and learn, it is more often an inability of the adults to understand how young people learn outside of schools settings.

Finally, if they are truly slothful and want to do nothing, it is usually because they have expended too many cognitive resources performing for adults.

If adults want the young people to grow into grownups who are eager to engage with the world, to be lifelong learners, they would be wise to let the young people be free to play and learn, today.   

An Abromie, facing away, working with the Scratch programming platform for the first time.

A masked Abromie standing at a whiteboard working through some multiplication problems. 

Two masked Abromies in the kitchen working some flour for a cooking creation. 

Two masked Abromies facing the camera after they created a new dessert together. 

Why families choose the schools they choose

Families who have the means to do so will choose where to send their kids to school (public or private) based on a variety of factors such as price, proximity to home, average class size, education philosophy, clubs and extracurricular activities, and the colleges the school’s graduates get into. Families rarely get everything they want out of a school because many of their wants cannot coexist in a school setting. So, families are forced to prioritize their wants.  

But there is more to the decision process than where various schools land on each of the preferred factors. There is the motive behind sending a child to school in the first place. And that motive, for the great majority of people, almost always revolves around, “what school is going to do to make my child ‘successful’?” And success as measured by schools means testing and academic performance and sometimes college placement; and by society it generally means the prestige of the colleges and jobs the students end up gaining access to, as well as their potential future earnings. 

And because most families are members of dominant society, and are enculturated by it, their motivations and prioritized wants become a response to their own anxieties and notions of scarcity. They think in individual rather than collective terms. They focus on the “best” schools for their kids, choosing security over liberation, and what helps their kids get ahead even if it is at the expense of other kids or society. And the schools give them the assurances they need to keep the kids enrolled. And then, too often, the families bemoan the state of society. The same society their kids will grow old in.

Our recommendation: be different. 

“Even our supposedly “best” schools—maybe especially these most resourced, largely white schools—fail to give young people a chance to teach and learn the meaning, the responsibilities, and the demands of freedom. Schools serving the wealthy do the most extraordinary job teaching children to define success in individual rather than collective terms—to get ahead rather than to struggle alongside, to step on rather than to lift up. On any serious measure of practicing freedom, these would be the “failing” schools.”
~ Carla Shalaby 

Is it too late to pull my kid out of high school?

A one-step guide for anxious parents and guardians. 

Every year, I hear from parents who are considering pulling their kids out of school because their children are not thriving.

The best option for the vast majority of them, and the one that I encourage for most of them, is to focus less on changing their kids, and more on changing the context. For most of them, the first step is to withdraw the young person from a school setting that is not working for them.[1][2] And in the majority of those cases, the parents struggle with the idea of giving up midyear, and begin a drawn out process of kicking the can down the road. The delayed response to remove a child from a bad fit environment does not serve the young person, and guardians of school children of all ages do this. But the failure to act can be particularly damaging when the children are in high school—when there is the least time to take necessary action. This guide is intended to help accelerate the process of deciding how best to support a young person who is not doing well in school.

The only step: Identify what matters most 

When a child is not doing well, families should first ask, “what really matters most?” To do so they should list out what they would like for their child or their school. Then, they should begin striking everything that is secondary. What matters most is the one thing that you would want if everything else was stripped away; the one thing that remains after all items but one are taken off the list as nice-to-haves.

For example, if the young person has attempted suicide, then what matters most could be (for the child) proactively reducing suicide risk factors and bolstering protective factors. In such a scenario, focusing on their chances of admission into Harvard University is a dangerous distraction.

Or, if the young person is being bullied at school, then what matters most could be (for the school) an environment that prioritizes inclusion and psychological safety. What probably does not matter most is whether the school has a robotics team, the number of AP courses available, or the manner in which GPA is calculated.

What matters most does not have to be the elimination of a harmful condition or situation, although that is usually the case for those who are considering pulling their children out of high school mid-year. If what matters most can readily be accomplished within their current school environment, then pulling the child out of school is probably not necessary. However, if what matters most cannot readily be accomplished within their current school environment, then the child should be withdrawn from school as soon as possible. In that case, school is a barrier to what matters most.

In a future essay we will discuss some of the practical reasons why pulling kids out of a high school where they are not thriving should be the preferred option, not a last resort. We will also discuss considerations for the next steps.

[1] Because schooling is often a source of harm, it makes sense that the immediate response would be to eliminate the harm. The second second step is often finding them therapeutic care, and with very rare exception, schools are not therapeutically oriented.

[2] School “not working” for the young person can range from very immediate threats to their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being (e.g., bullying, depression, internalized stigma) to being a waste of their time because they see it as nothing more than the place they are forced to be at for 15,000 hours of their life.

Image by tonodiaz on Freepik

Collective compassion over mé féinism

We were just informed of this article titled “Our children are at grave risk of COVID as State puts profit ahead of public health,” written by Irish journalist Tess Finch-Lees at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall. Doubly unfortunate is that pleas to protect children in schools continue to be ignored. In it she says:

“I’ve been scouring the web to see if any school has managed to prevent outbreaks. I found one – Abrome, in Texas. How did it do it? By ignoring politicians and following the science.

“Acknowledging Covid is airborne, mitigations included daily testing, mandatory FFP2/3 masks indoors and outdoors in close contact during surges, distancing, remote learning when cases were extremely high, outdoor learning options, and Hepa filtration in every classroom. If CO2 readings exceeded 800, rooms were evacuated and classes continued in sheltered outdoor spaces, also used for eating. Everyone is vaccinated.

“Abrome’s ethos is that of inclusion. A Covid-safe school is accessible to everyone. The sense of collective compassion over mé féinism.

“In the same way I would challenge institutional racism, I won’t participate in a system that discriminates against disabled, clinically vulnerable children and those with clinically vulnerable family.” 

1. we appreciate that some folks recognize that in a landscape where an extremely tiny minority of institutions are protecting people from COVID transmission, that Abrome’s COVID protocols provide an accessible alternative to school for those who are at risk of serious illness from COVID (although it should be noted that everyone is potentially at risk).

2. the sense of collective compassion over mé féinism extends beyond the walls of Abrome. We are members of adjacent and broader communities and we recognize our responsibility to not do harm to those communities.

3. we agree that people should seriously interrogate their participation in oppressive institutions.

Featured image by cartoonist Graeme Keyes from the online article.

Educators need to break some laws

Overtly political post here.

We need to learn how to navigate the world we live in, but we should also try to live in a way that allows for the creation of a better world. Laws are rarely enacted for ethical or moral reasons. They are most commonly enacted to take or preserve power. That is also why laws are arbitrarily, selectively, and disproportionately enforced; with the impact of that enforcement falling most heavily on the most historically marginalized and oppressed peoples.

Some laws need to be broken.

Delicious and clean

The last post talked about the struggle to clean up during and after the making of delectable treats. So on the final day before the holiday, we invited the Abromies into a sugar cookie making offering. But we decided that this offering would need to operate differently.

At breakfast (the name for our morning meeting) we noted that two of the Abromies had plans to open a bakery together someday. So we asked, what is necessary for a bakery to succeed? Yes, excellent baking. What else? Sanitary conditions. Yes. And what was needed to make great creations? Preparation. What else? A clean work area, which means cleaning as we go. And creativity! We decided to set a couple of temporary rules for those who wanted to participate: (1) one needed to participate throughout the entire cookie making process, from prep to final clean up, and (2) we would clean up along the way.

Because of time constraints, before the Abromies arrived that morning we helped out by first covering the table and scrubbing down the countertops. And we organized the ingredients for the cookies and icing mix. Then when it was time to begin, we took down the tape that was blocking entry into the kitchen for everyone to come in. The Abromies were eager to dive in, but we first had to wash our hands. The first of many times.

Then the Abromies went step by step. Steps such as pouring the ingredients into the mixing bowls. Softening butter, breaking eggs, and mixing ingredients. Cleaning the work area. Washing hands. Rolling and cutting the cookies. Cleaning the work area. Washing hands. Baking. Coloring the icing. Washing hands. Decorating the cookies. And cleaning some more. With plenty of breaks in between for taste testing outside.

It was a fun run. Importantly, the Abromies got to experience the joy of baking in a way that took care of other people and that took care of the space. Although cleaning up as we went slowed us down, it made the final experience better. And the Abromies will try to build off of it in their future bake sessions, even those that are impromptu.

A delicious mess

On Monday of last week, two of the younger Abromies who plan to open a bakery together someday decided that they wanted to experiment in the kitchen and make a new kind of dessert. They pulled out many of the standard ingredients such as flour, baking soda, sugar, and vanilla extract. They played around with the ratios based on the available amounts of each ingredient they had, but they felt the real opportunity was in the dessert syrup they could create.

During the excitement of the food making another young person asked if he could also participate. Together, the three of them created a new dish, and quite a mess. When the dessert was finished all the folks at Abrome were invited to taste the results, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. “This is actually really good!” “This is kinda delicious!”

The most challenging part of the day was the cleanup, everyone’s least favorite part. But it is our agreements (e.g., clean up after yourself and participate in end of day cleanup) and principles (e.g., take care of the space) that allow us to have the freedom to express ourselves without unduly burdening others in the community. At the end of the day reflection the question was posed, “what could make cleanup easier?” That question would be revisited later in the week.