Is the Perfect Curriculum Out There?

On Tuesday night, my local homeschool association hosted its annual curriculum fair. This is one of my favorite events of the year, as it gives me an opportunity to touch base with some local friends and acquaintances and to encourage new and prospective homeschoolers at the same time. And, last year as well as this, I also had the privilege of being the featured speaker for the second half of the event. I know many would consider it odd, but I really enjoy public speaking, so that made a great event even better for me!

When I give a talk, I often first write it out as an essay. I certainly don't read it to my audience during the actual talk - how boring would that be! - but thinking through a topic enough to put it into a logical written form helps me solidify and organize the ideas I want to share. To give the talk, I print out the essay and highlight a main point or two in each paragraph to serve as reminders, and then deliver it in a manner that turns out to seem pretty extemporaneous and natural.

And the added bonus of this approach is that I also get a blog piece out of the essay! Thus, this post is the text I wrote to prepare for my talk, "Is the Perfect Curriculum Out There?" Though some of it is specific to my state, I hope it will encourage you wherever you happen to live.

My name is Tina Hollenbeck, and I've homeschooled my two daughters "from the beginning." Now, whether that means from the moment each was born, or when I started doing purposeful preschool activities with them, or when I filed my first PI-1206 is a matter of perspective. But, given that my older daughter is 10, this is our fifth year on the DPI's "radar screen," and, so, it's our fifth year of feeling the need to pay attention to this notion of "curriculum."

I chose to call this talk "Is the Perfect Curriculum Out There?" for two reasons. First, I wanted to pique your interest! Second, I've been asked that question - or a variation thereof - so many times over the years (and, in fact, I wondered the same thing when I was first starting out) that I know it's a huge concern among new and prospective homeschoolers.

So to answer the question in a word: no. There really is no "perfect curriculum" - meaning no one program or resource is guaranteed to meet every educational need for every homeschooled child. There is not even one curriculum that anyone can truly, objectively say is "better for everyone" than another. If someone says that about a resource, it probably means they're being paid by the publisher!

But don't let that discourage you. In fact, there is actually an abundance of material out there from which to choose - think about the dozens of possibilities you saw out at the fair tonight and take a look at this fat (1,358-page!) Rainbow Resource catalog! - such that it's exceedingly possible to find a very good fit for every child in any circumstance. But, given the vast amount of choice with which we are blessed, the trick for each of us becomes winnowing down the choices to find those best fits for our particular children and our family situations. And that's what I'd like to help you begin to think about tonight.

And the starting point really has to be the legal requirements according to Wisconsin state law for homeschoolers. Now, we in Wisconsin are actually blessed with an exceedingly reasonable homeschool law - for which we owe a debt of gratitude to the state's pioneers of the modern homeschooling movement, who secured our law back in 1984. As such, we want to make sure we comply with it so as not to give any bureaucrat any legitimate cause to try regulating us more.

But what exactly does the law say?

Well, it requires that - beginning the year a child turns six by September 1 - we annually provide at least 875 hours of "instruction" in a "progressively sequential" program in six basic areas (parenthetically described by me for clarification, though the law itself does not contain such detail):
  • reading (phonics, literature)
  • language arts (handwriting, spelling, grammar and usage, vocabulary, composition)
  • math
  • social studies (history, geography)
  • science (biology, geology, astronomy, physical science, etc.)
  • health (nutrition, fire safety, fitness/physical education, etc.)

The law doesn't tell us how many hours we need to devote to each subject every year or what materials we need to use - just that we need to somehow address each area every year. We're also free to incorporate other subject matter - art, music, foreign language, and religious studies, for example - all of which can be included in the annual 875 hours. And we can accrue those hours in a wide variety of ways - not just through having our kids sit at desks doing "bookwork."

The law also doesn't tell us a particular "sequence" or order in which we need teach various topics within each subject area. In other words, we explicitly do not need to follow the scope and sequence used in Green Bay just because it's the "biggest kid on the block." And you don't have to follow DePere's scope and sequence if you happen to live in that district. Each district and private school actually has the legal freedom to establish its own preferred scope and sequence based on what its leaders feel is "best" for its students. However, there is nothing special about the order of instruction a school or district has chosen, and they sometimes vary greatly from each other. Thus, as legally operating schools in Wisconsin, we also have the freedom to choose the order and pace of instruction that best suits the needs of each of our students without regard to what any other school does. For example, my daughters are now learning ancient history even though I'm sure such studies are not included in any scope and sequence for nine and 10 year olds in the public schools. And we use a mastery approach to math even though many public schools favor the spiral approach.

So, as you can see, we have tons of freedom...which is great, but also daunting! As such, it's no wonder we'd want some sort of guidance. And I really think our best resource for that is Cathy Duffy's 100 Best Picks for Homeschool Curriculum (and, once you've read the book, the other reviews on her website). In fact, from here on out, I'm going to summarize the first portion of Cathy's amazing book to give you an idea of the decision-making process you should pursue. And I hope that gives you a sense that, "Yes, I can conquer the 'Curriculum Monster!'" But, really, you each need to get a copy of the book in order to really get solid direction; in fact, though our public library carries it, I'm sure you'll want to invest in your own copy.

Okay, so...knowing what basic subjects we need to think about, we next need to ask some questions in order to narrow our choices. And, if we do that - with the help of Cathy's book - we'll be able to consider all the possibilities and make wise choices.

What questions?

1. Do I want FAITH-BASED or SECULAR materials?
Next to following the law, I think this is the most important thing because it speaks to the type of worldview you want to communicate to your children. And deciding whether you want secular or faith-based materials will go a long way toward eliminating a lot of curriculum that you would not find suitable. For example, my husband and I knew from the start that our homeschool would be faith-based, from a Protestant and evangelical perspective. As a result, I've been able to eliminate from consideration secular science and history materials - many of which might be very good for some people but simply don't suit our needs. And that tightens the focus of our curriculum search.

2. Do I want to choose materials for each INDIVIDUAL SUBJECT or go with a COMPLETE PACKAGE?
It's up to you, but, as a new homeschooler, I would suggest that it's probably easier to start with a complete package - a curriculum that offers plans for all or at least most of the required areas. And there are many such options in that regard. As you gain experience, you may find yourself moving away from packages toward choosing materials from different companies for different subjects, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking the security of a complete package as you begin. In fact, a lot of people go that route for their entire homeschooling "career," and that's fine, too, if it works for your family. In my case, I went with complete packages as my base for the first four years of our "official" journey. Starting in our third and fourth years, I began tweaking, but it has only been this year - after all that experience - that I went completely "eclectic," choosing resources for each subject area from wholly different companies.

3. Should I aim for FAMILY-INTEGRATED studies or teach EACH CHILD SEPARATELY?
Some people choose to keep each child in a family at a separate "grade level" for every subject (see my Addendum below for my thoughts on the concept of "grade level") - meaning that they need to find separate material (whether via a package or picking from different companies) for each child. In those cases, the family operates rather like a one-room schoolhouse of old, where a teacher juggled multiple "grade levels" at one time. That can work if you're very organized, and there are a lot different types of curricula that offer this type of learning: Abeka, Bob Jones, Sonlight, LifePacs, for example.

However, a lot of homeschoolers prefer family-integrated studies. Generally, that means all (or most) of the children in a family study the same social studies and science concepts together each year - but the difficulty level of assigned tasks varies to suit each child's abilities. Math, reading, and language arts are still all done at each child's separate ability level, but the integration of social studies and science lends itself to family unity and an easier time for the homeschooling parent (because he or she need only think about one science topic a day, for example - not three or four). And many curricula - both packages such as Heart of Dakota or My Father's World and publishers of individual subjects (Apologia Science, The Mystery of History) - cater to family-integrated studies.

Of course, as with the other questions, if you decide which track you want to follow, you'll eliminate the programs that run counter to your preference.

I've put these ideas together because they do kind of go hand in hand. That is, some educational philosophies or teaching styles work well with particular learning styles and others just do not (i.e., a highly kinesthetic child just won't do well with a textbook-based program like Abeka or a reading-heavy program like Sonlight). And, as Cathy Duffy says, it's important to consider our personal preferences as the teacher, but, when there is a difference between a child's learning style and a parent's teaching preference, we have to lean toward the child's needs. After all, homeschooling is about educating them, not making life easiest for us.

So, what I generally suggest is taking some time to determine each child's preferred learning style - Cathy does a great job of categorizing kids into four general groups (Wiggly Willies, Sociable Sues, Competent Carls, and Perfect Paulas) and then showing how kids in each group would best learn. Once you figure that out, you can look at the different philosophies of homeschool education (also described in the book) to see which one(s) will be the best overall match for you and your kids. From there, you can find curricula that will support your children's learning styles and your philosophy of education. And the really beautiful thing is that Cathy's book not only explains all of this quite well, but it shows how all the curricula she reviews matches with each learning style. So, if you read the book, you'll feel more at ease about this whole idea.

For example, though I personally learned just fine from textbooks when I was growing up, I've seen that my children would not do well with curricula that had them sitting by themselves working through such books all day long. Some kids really do thrive with that type of material - and my girls do have some such tasks each day - but mine would not like homeschooling very much if I did what was most comfortable for me. So I've set things up in our home to best meet my kids' needs, even though that puts me out of my own comfort zone at times.

In some ways, I could have put this one right after worldview...because the reality is that we all live within a budget. However, if you're totally new to curriculum shopping, it might be hard to set a budget without first exploring the options. So you can instead use finances to help you decide between the few programs you'll end up with after going through everything else. For example, when I first started homeschooling, I was drawn to Sonlight. I've since discovered that I prefer family-integrated studies, and Sonlight is more toward keeping each child separate. But when I was considering Sonlight, finances became my deciding factor. That is, as good as it sounded, I just couldn't afford it. So I went with something similar instead (which turned out to be family-integrated) which fit our pocketbook better.
If you take the time to think through these questions and read the information in Cathy's book, I'm confident you'll choose a curriculum that will be a really good fit for you and your children. But I also want to let you know that choosing homeschool curriculum - even when you do so rather systematically - is kind of like learning to drive.

In other words, going through this process and making a choice so you can start homeschooling is like the in-class portion of driver's ed. But you don't really learn to drive until you're actually behind the wheel! So, too, once you get going - with your very good fit - you'll see things over time that you'll want to change. And that is totally okay! More than that, it's one of the biggest blessings of home learning - i.e., you're not stuck (as the institutional schools are) using a curriculum when it ceases to serve its intended purpose. In fact, when you do make changes, it won't be because you've failed in your first choice; it's just that you'll have matured as a homeschool parent and you'll have learned even more about your kids and how you and they function together as a team. You will not hurt them by changing as you see needs to do so; in fact, it's just the opposite. You'll actually help them maximize their learning by making changes as their needs change. And that is, truly, one of the "secrets" of homeschooling's success.


ADDENDUM: What About "Grade Level?"

Even bigger than the myth of public schools having some kind of corner on the ideal scope and sequence is the fallacy that the concept of "grade level" has any objective merit. In reality, "grade levels" only exist in institutional schooling because grouping children according to age is most convenient for the adults. But that doesn't mean it's best for kids. In fact, in regards to learning, the reality (which each of us knows in our gut if we're honest with ourselves) is that there is a vast range of readiness and ability among any given group of same-aged kids at any "grade level." Thus, you'll see kids in "4th grade" who can comprehend and enjoy books at a much higher reading level, and others who still struggle with phonics. And you'll notice a wide range in terms of those kids' abilities to understand whatever math is being taught in the "4th grade" classroom as well; in fact, some of the "high" readers might be the ones who struggle most with math! It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with any child; it just means that each is an individual whose abilities and needed pace of learning differ from that of other children and across the various academic areas of study.

The system of institutional schooling has to deal with that in one way or another. Tragically, in most cases the sad truth is that the "powers that be" simply insist on standardization (i.e., all kids in a certain "grade level" are taught the same things...at the same time...in the same way...at the same rate). Of course, that doesn't mean the children are all engaged in the process (the ones who function at higher levels are bored out of their heads!) or are all learning (the ones who have slower natural rates of learning are being dragged along but still don't "get it"). But - beyond a few teachers who try to make allowances to some degree within the constraints of the system - that's just the way it is.

In contrast, though, with homeschooling we have the freedom to actually teach our children at each one's ability level and pace - without regard to what the system says is a certain "grade level." In practical terms, what that means is this: Even if you choose to go with a traditional (i.e., textbook-based) curriculum and use separate materials for each child, you do not need to - in fact, you should not - simply go with one "grade level" for every subject. If you do that, you're probably not truly meeting the child's needs, and that would be a shame considering that individualization is one of the main blessings of home learning

Thus, don't use the default "grade level" label based on your child's chronological age when choosing curriculum. Instead, evaluate where your child really is in terms of what he really knows and is able to do - many companies provide placement tests to help in that process - and start there. If that means he's six but using a "5th grade" math book (I met a child this spring for whom that would likely be true!), meet his needs. And, if that means he's 10 and needs "2nd grade" reading, meet his needs. Start from where your child really is on Day 1 of your home learning program and be diligent about making regular progress...but go at your child's real pace of learning, whatever that is.

In the end, your child will be just where she needs to be upon high school graduation. She won't have gone through the cookie-cutter, assembly line schooling offered by the institutions; instead, she'll have been given an individualized program of study that took her real needs into account in every facet of learning. As such, she'll be able to soar in her particular areas of giftedness while still being more than competent in other areas. She'll also be much more emotionally healthy than her institutionally-schooled peers...and will come out of her educational experience with a love for learning and a desire to continue learning throughout her life. And isn't that what education should really be about?


Lisa said...

Tina, this is awesome. I'm so proud of you!

Maureen said...

This is really well written. You covered all the key topics a new homeschooler would be curious about. I will be passing on to my new hsing friends!

Anonymous said...

What a great article!!! I, especially, like the part about figuring out your child's needs before choosing a curriculum...that is sooo important!

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