One night, when my husband (and then, just a nice young man I have seen only three or four times) brought me home after taking me out to a cup of coffee, we were sitting in his car and talking. I don't remember all of our conversation, but it was an interesting and long one - we talked about many different issues, from Torah and science to sustainability and simple living.
At one point, he looked uncomfortable and said uncertainly:
"OK... now I'm going to say something that will sound very freaky."
"I think children are better off when they are educated at home."
I blinked. I couldn't believe that someone I randomly met - a stranger, basically - is voicing something I often thought, but didn't dare to say.
Homeschooling families are rare like unicorns in Israel. Homeschooling isn't illegal, but it is strongly discouraged by both law and society. The handful of families that homeschool are typically English-speaking, and originally from places where homeschooling is common. I haven't studied all the specifics of local homeschooling laws, however I do know that each family which plans to homeschool is required to send an individual request, with explanations of why they think public education isn't suitable for their child, what exactly they intend to teach their child in the upcoming school year, and who will be teaching.
Both my husband and I have been public-schooled, and other options were never considered when we were growing up. I was born in USSR, where homeschooling was actually illegal whenever there was a possibility to attend school. I was educated in secular school. My husband went to religious school and then yeshiva. Despite our different educational backgrounds, we both reached the same conclusion: children are probably better off educated at home. There are several reasons why we think so.
School - even a very good school - cannot possibly provide the individual approach which makes children thrive and succeed in their learning. A large group of children (anywhere between 25 and 40) is crammed into a crowded classroom and required to perform the exact same task, at the exact same time. If a child is a quick learner, he will soon be bored. If a child lags behind a bit, he will feel pressured. If a child fails to perform a task when everyone else completed it successfully, he feels like a failure.
Some very gifted children are naturally slow thinkers who require plenty of individual attention they cannot possibly receive at school. My experience in private tutoring often showed amazing examples of how a child can grasp a subject in an hour, when learning is done in a quiet room and in a non-pressuring manner - after the very same subject couldn't be learned for weeks spent in classroom. Of course there are also children who will successfully learn in a classroom - but they, too, will normally learn more thoroughly and efficiently when they are taught one-on-one and encouraged to think on their own.
School, by its very nature, wastes a lot of time. During my school years, less than half of the time we spent in school was actually dedicated to learning. I don't think it will be an exaggeration to say that at least half of each lesson was spent just trying to keep all the pupils quiet and get their attention ("Stop pulling at her hair! Put that inside your bag! Go out and don't come back without a note from the principal!"). Add to that changing classrooms or waiting for the teacher to arrive, individual questions which are not necessary for all pupils to hear, and different administrative announcements that often disrupt the structure of a lesson ("I just wanted to remind everyone that those who want to participate in the school trip next week must get their parents' permission in written form"), and you will see that institutionalized education isn't a terribly efficient model.
The school I graduated from, the one I attended during six years, prided itself on having "a prolonged school day". Yet what was it good for? Simply making it convenient for parents to work longer hours, knowing their child is "safely" (more on that later) shepherded someplace else. I would come home exhausted, with my head buzzing from noise. The same material could have been easily learned at home, more quickly and efficiently, freeing more hours in a day for the child to pursue individual hobbies, read, engage in creative activities, and simply play outside.
As for the actual "safety" of school environment, I could talk about this alone for hours. You name it, we had it: alcohol, drugs, immodesty, promiscuity...not to mention that history, geography, and social studies curriculum was composed by biased ministers who wanted nothing but to push their political agenda down students' throats, and parents had little control over it. One might think that in Israel, with the abundance of religious schools we have here, parents can ensure the safety of their child by opting for such a school. Not quite. It's true that problems such as drugs and promiscuity are less common in religious schools, and parents can choose a school with likeminded administration - but eventually, the child is still sent away for many hours, which he spends without the supervision of his parents.
Another big problem with schools is that they are so hooked up on curriculum, exam papers, and diplomas, that they don't help to build a mindset of creative learning. We believe learning is done from the first day of a child's life, spontaneously and naturally. How come young children, who are thirsty for knowledge and will ask any number of questions about any subject if you only let them, turn into bored teenagers who sigh when they open their schoolbooks, and settle in front of the television for the entire afternoon and evening? An observation from my tutoring experience: I encountered a great number of children who simply have no motivation for learning at all, or try to memorize facts instead of learning. It is not natural. It is the unfortunate consequence of spending too many years in a system which only cares about cramming facts into their heads. In many cases I had to throw curriculum aside and simply work on a child's desire to learn. I did it by praising the children, asking for their opinions about what we are learning, and adding interesting facts to "spice up" the subject.
I now remember an especially dear student of mine, who fell completely behind in her schooling. How should I put it? The train has long gone by, and she was left behind at a forlorn station. She was so used to being a failure that she was afraid to ask a question, and passed through lessons by trying to make herself invisible. The poor child's eyes grew enormous the first time I encouraged her for doing something successfully. And worse of all, she was bored. Here in Israel we study lots of modern Jewish history, and most of it is about European Jewry, taught with a false assumption that most students are from European background - which they are not. My student's parents' came from Ethiopia, and she had no clue about European history or geography. Half of her class was in the same situation. Yet no one ever bothered to make history lessons more interesting for them.
Since we don't have children yet, some time will pass before the matter of schooling becomes a pressing one for us. However, when I tried to discuss it with a good friend of mine, she was horrified at first, and then said: "How can you teach? You don't even have a teacher's diploma!" - see, we're all so stuck on diplomas that we believe a piece of paper makes someone more qualified to teach a child than his own mother, who knows and loves him from before he was born, who studies his strengths, talents and weaknesses every day of his life. And of course there are all the objections such as, "you will over-protect them"; "they will feel isolated"; "they won't develop social skills"; "you don't have enough knowledge about everything they need to learn" - if you ever read blogs of homeschooling moms, I think you'll know what I'm talking about.
Since this post is getting monstrously long, I will touch just one last point. Several readers were curious about what we intend to do in order to make sure our children receive proper knowledge on subjects we don't know enough about. For example, Jewish education and religious studies (especially for boys). Well, I think there are many solutions beside formal schooling. Two families can make an exchange: if a fellow mom knows mathematics well, she can tutor my children in maths, and in exchange I can help her children with English. For deeper religious studies, boys may join a local study group with a rabbi (there are many of those where we live), and when they are older they may choose to go to a yeshiva.
Whatever choice a family makes, it's important to make sure that first, there is a choice; and second, that the choice is fully informed. Who knows how many families would have chosen to homeschool, and how many children would have benefited from it, if the opposition to home education hadn't been so strong, and if parents weren't made to feel inadequate to teach their own children just because they don't have a piece of paper that says they are qualified to do that.