How can you possibly think you can give your children an education to match what the local schools give them, when you're not as educated as the teachers at these schools? After all, every one of the teachers at the local school has a college degree, and every one also took the additional post-graduate education needed to get a teachers' credential. A good number of the teachers have masters' degrees in the subjects they teach, and a few have doctorates. A child in the AP track at the local high school is especially likely to have several such highly-educated teachers. Even if you have a degree--even a Masters'--in one subject area, what makes you think you can teach all the other subject areas as well as the local school teachers?
I happen to think this is a fair question. I also happen to think this question has some good answers, but to get at these answers it's first necessary to unpack some assumptions underlying the question.
First, there's one approach I don't want to take in answering this question. There are undoubtedly homescoolers out there who would directly question the educational attainment claimed of the teachers in the question above. I think this is an unproductive argument to make, for the simple reason that there are plenty of counterexamples--schools filled with dedicated, well-educated, hard-working teachers who really do care about their students. Making the argument that too many of the teachers are lousy--as some homeschoolers are wont to do--will inevitably lead to charges and countercharges of ignorance and bad faith, and undercuts the chance that anyone outside the homeschooling community will actually listen to the homeschooler's arguments. For the sake of this answer I want to assume that the teachers know and understand what they're actually doing in the classrooms, which I actually believe is true in most cases.
And yes, I did have some lousy teachers when I was a kid. But in my experience there were far fewer of those than there were of the good ones.
So, how can a homeschooling parent who didn't have a strong background in math, say, hope to teach a student as well as or better than a high-school teacher who has a Masters' degree, and has been teaching in the local high school for the last ten years, by all accounts effectively?
Here's the first part of the answer.
Consider a thought experiment. Let's say that this math teacher has a 10th-grade student who's struggling. At the beginning of the semester, he was getting Cs on his quizzes and tests. As the semester progressed and the new material built upon the un-mastered earlier material, the student's grades progressively worsened, until halfway through the semester he was getting Ds and Fs.
Now let's say that this student decided (at the urging of his parents and the teacher) to get a tutor. After asking around, the local guidance counselor gets him set up with a 12th grader who's taking AP Calculus. They set up tutoring sessions a couple of times a week. And we'll say that, within a month or so, our student is back to pulling reasonable grades in the math class--say, B or B-.
Is this a true-to-life scenario? I think it is. After all, private tutoring is a commonly advocated remedy when a student is falling behind; and it wouldn't be commonly advocated if it didn't have some record of success. And it's not uncommon for talented high schoolers to become tutors for those in lower grades. I did a little tutoring as a high schooler; so has my wife.
But consider the following. Our teacher has Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Math; he has likely been studying on his own since he left college, for his own personal and professional enrichment; and he has ten years' experience in the classroom. Our tutor hasn't even finished AP Calculus yet, and doesn't even have a high school degree.
How is it that the tutor was able to achieve success at getting the struggling student to understand the concepts, when the teacher--with far greater qualifications--wasn't?
The answer to this question is not hard to see. The teacher must deal with an entire classroom full of students--in fact, several classrooms full of students--and so has some serious limitations as to how much individual attention he can give to any one struggling student. His responsibility is to his entire class. Even if there are a few students struggling with a concept, at some point the teacher must move on for the benefit of all the other students. And if a student doesn't get a concept during a lecture, the teacher is unlikely to figure this out until the next quiz. Tutors, on the other hand, necessarily pace their instruction to the student's needs. If a student isn't getting something, the tutor knows this immediately, and can start looking for alternate explanations or additional exercises.
Furthermore, the tutoring model of education is much more mentally intensive than the classroom model. After all, if you are the only student, every question the teacher asks goes directly to you. In the classroom setting, some students can be lulled into passive learning by all the mumbling at the front of the classroom, and even tune out entirely and start daydreaming (which happened to me a lot). This is less likely to happen in tutoring environments; after all, if the student starts to drift away, the tutor knows it immediately and can pull the student back to the present.
So while the teacher may well have an educational and experiential advantage over the tutor, the fact is that the one-on-one environment is in fact much closer to what the struggling student actually needs--so much so that a diploma-less, uncredentialled high-schooler can out-teach someone with far, far greater qualifications. This has nothing to do with credentials, or breadth of knowledge; this has to do entirely with the shape of the educational environment.
And this fact isn't even very controversial--after all, the very fact that just about everyone recommends tutors for struggling students is testament to the fact that just about everyone acknowledges, at some level, that one-on-one learning has some major advantages over the classroom environment. If it didn't, then tutoring would be widely regarded as a waste of time.
Here's the next part of the answer. Consider this question: what is the limiting factor to how much a student can learn on a topic during, say, an academic year?
Consider another thought experiment. In this one, there are two students. Student X doesn't particularly care for history. He does his homework (most of the time, at any rate), but he sees it as busywork and more of a duty than anything else; he does enough to get a passing grade, but not much more. Student Y loves the subject of history; he reads works of history in his spare time; he discusses it with his parents and with whatever other friends he has who are also history buffs; he fact-checks his textbooks.
Now it's pretty obvious who's likely to get the better grade in a history class. And much more important than mere grades, Student Y is likely to learn more and retain more. But one thing to notice about this, is that this is true regardless of the educational attainment of the teacher.
Let me put it this way. If you have a history teacher much like our math teacher above--Bachelors', Masters', credential, 10 years teaching experience, lots of personal and professional enrichment--there is no way that this teacher can pass on everything he knows to his students given the short time he's with them. It took him years and years of motivated, interested study to get to the point he is now; he has one year to teach the subject to his students. Now if this teacher chooses to learn even more, this may well be a good thing for him personally, but it's unlikely to have an impact on what he can push through a classroom in one academic year.
So as long as the teacher has a certain required minimum level of knowledge in his subject, his own education attainments are not the limiting factor in how much the students learn. The limiting factor--as illustrated by the examples of Student X and Student Y above--is the amount of work each student is willing to do to learn the subject matter. In fact, if you get a true Student Y on your hands, you don't need a particularly talented teacher at all. All the teacher has to do with Student Y is point him in the direction of a carefully-selected pile of well-written history volumes, and he will educate himself.
In fact, the greatest teachers that we remember from our own time in school, we remember not so much because of the knowledge they had (although the truly great ones had that in spades), but because they were inspiring. That is, they were the ones that could actually infect the Students X with a love of the topic of study, that they were motivated to go out and do the work to learn the subject. They were the ones that could transform Students X into Students Y. There were plenty of other teachers around who had the knowledge, but couldn't pass on the passion; therefore their students didn't work as hard, because they weren't as interested, and they didn't learn as much.
And this brings us to the third part of the answer.
This is a point that British educational reformer Charlotte Mason made a central part of her philosophy: since the acquisition of knowledge and understanding is far more strongly affected by the efforts of the student than the efforts of the teacher--since the best that a teacher can do is to inspire a student to do the work to learn, the responsibility of education actually falls on the shoulders of the student. The job of the teacher is to assist the student in his or her own education, by pointing the student in the right direction more than anything else. And because of this, Miss Mason saw personal character as one of the most important prerequisites of a real education. A student must actively choose to learn, and must be self-motivated--by a hunger for knowledge, and not from fear of punishment or desire for good grades or love for a teacher--in order for real education to take place. If a student wants to learn something, and has the work ethic to do the study, then all a teacher has to do is present the student with enough reading material of sufficient quality, and the student's own hunger for knowledge will accomplish the rest.
Here's what it looks like in the real world. My first job out of college was about twenty or thirty miles from my apartment, and I was fortunate enough to be able to take the train. The commute was about 45 minutes each way. I quickly realized that this was a whole lot of time that could be spent reading. I was starting to feel, in those days, that my knowledge of the canon of Western culture was a little lacking, so I started reading. At first, I started reading out of a sense of duty--"Everyone needs to know what happened in Beowulf"--but after a while, everything I read increased my hunger to know a little more... and a little more...
By the time I left that job four years later, I had read through the Bible (four times), Beowulf, the Divine Comedy (Dante), Churchill's History of the English Speaking People, a history of Croatia (since the Balkan wars were in full swing then), a work of sociology on China, the Federalist Papers, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (William L. Shirer), Albion's Seed (David Hackett Fischer), a history of the naval action of World War 1 (I wanted to learn about Jutland), Lord of the Rings, a couple of novels by Connie Willis, Jerome K. Jerome's short novel Three Men in a Boat, a history of the Civil War Battle of Chancellorsville, Black Holes and Time Warps (Kip Thorne's book on cosmology and physics), and a whole bunch of other stuff that I had never been exposed to in school. I learned all this because I wanted to.
(Incidentally, this was also about the same time that I was learning to play the harp.)
It never occurred to me, as a high schooler, that I might consider reading the Federalist Papers for fun. As a high schooler, I was a Student X in most subjects. How did I change from a Student X in high school, to a Student Y after I got out of college? Yes, I'm more mature now, seeing as I graduated 18 years ago. But I'm still the same basic person. What changed?
Part of it is that I wasn't under pressure to learn these things. When you're being forced to read stuff on which you will be tested, that tends to suck the joy out of learning it. After six or seven hours a day in a school environment, you'll be unlikely to find too many students left who actually would choose to read the Federalist Papers on their own initiative. But part of it is that teen culture tends not to respect academic pursuits. After all, if a student did actually choose to read the Federalist Papers on his own personal initiative, for his own personal development, without being assigned to do so, how would his peers react? They think it's just weird, even a little intimidating.
A personal example: One of my classmates was a military history buff, and could answer from memory just about any question on military matters you could put to him--down to the unit numbers of the brigades and divisions involved in various given military actions. He was a useful guy to have around in our history classes, where the teachers would occasionally consult him before their own lecture notes. But needless to say, he was widely seen as a total geek; his ability to answer these questions engendered stunned disbelief in his classmates, but it sure didn't enhance his popularity any. Now I was a geek, but I wasn't that big a geek; even I thought it was weird and uncanny. Now that I've grown up and am no longer immersed in the teen culture, I just think it's really cool, and I wish I could do that. He was a true Student Y, at least regarding military history; and he didn't learn all that stuff in any classroom.
So the holy grail of education is to create students with the intellectual curiosity to seek out new information on their own, and the self-discipline to see a self-directed course of study through to the end. And these are matters of character development. If you can instill these character traits in the student, the student is almost guaranteed to gain a good education, regardless of whether he has good teachers--or whether he has a teacher at all. Although it is possible to cram information in students' heads when they haven't developed these character traits--through threats of bad grades, or through inducements like awards and other honors--the student is much less likely to master the material than if they were motivated to learn it through their own desire and initiative; and furthermore, there is a danger they will stop learning the moment they leave the classroom and these inducements go away.
So here's the summarized answer to the original question, about how homeschooling parents of moderate education levels can hope to educate their children as well as or better than the professionals at the local public school.
First, the parents can provide a educational environment much better tuned to the needs of their children--much as a tutor can provide a better educational environment, one-on-one, than even the best of teachers can with a 30-student classroom to manage. Even when the parents don't know a subject particularly well themselves, the much greater amount of time they have available for one-on-one work with their child gives them the opportunity to learn the subject matter themselves--say, from a pre-prepared curriculum or reading list--right alongside their children.
Second, the sheer amount of time the children spend around their parents in a homeschooling household--along with the inherent academic flexibility that homeschooling provides--strongly facilitates the education and training of the children's character. I myself am a firm believer that character must be passed on through deliberate training, as I implied in this post; if it is not deliberately passed on, it doesn't generally happen on its own. But character training is considered an integral, inseparable part of education in much the Homeschooling community, especially among those who have been influenced by the philosophies of Charlotte Mason; and this emphasis on character development leads to an increased chance that homeschooled students will grow up to become disciplined self-educators by the time they reach college age.
After all, consider this news item from the AP that came out a little over a year ago, describing how many colleges are now actively recruiting homeschoolers. Here's the opinion of one admissions director, explaining why they're doing this:
And there was a similar AP article written last March. I particularly liked the attitude of the student in the last couple of paragraphs:
Home-schooled students _ whose numbers in this country range from an estimated 1.1 million to as high as 2 million _ often come to college equipped with the skills necessary to succeed in higher education, said Regina Morin, admissions director of Columbia College.
Such assets include intellectual curiosity, independent study habits and critical thinking skills, she said.
"It's one of the fastest-growing college pools in the nation," she said. "And they tend to be some of the best prepared."
Now a freshman, he is adjusting well to college classes and shrugs when his peers complain about the way a professor teaches.
“You are already used to teaching yourself,” he said about homeschooling. “Forget the teacher, forget the class, I am just going to read the book and figure it out myself.”
Now that is a textbook example of a Student Y.