For the past month I have been drowning in a sea of anxiety. It started innocently enough with a casual reading on a homeschooling discussion forum. The topic was ‘mapping out a rough plan for high school.’ I knew high school was looming, but what I did not realize was how much things have changed in the past three decades.
When I was in public high school in the early 1980s I took the most advanced coursework offered. I remember four years of math, culminating in AB Calculus, 4 years of English and science, 3 years of history and government, and a couple years of Latin. I took all (4) the Advanced Placement courses offered (English, American History, Political Science and Calculus). Today, students at the top public high schools in the country are taking upwards of 9-12 AP courses. In order to complete the most rigorous coursework offered, as is expected for admission into the nation’s most selective colleges, they must begin planning their high school career by 6th grade. They also spend significant time and money prepping for the infamous SAT (which used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test, but now stands only for SAT – i.e., recognizing that the test tests neither achievement nor aptitude the ETS decided the acronym was no longer an acronym, just a name)
So, I have spent the last month reading guidebooks, discussion forums and websites devoted to teaching you how to turn your homeschooler into the kind of competitive high school graduate that admissions officers will recognize and embrace. The advice goes something like this: 1) decide whether you are going for no college, non-competitive college, competitive college or really uber competitive college; 2) gather the lists of high school credits required for whichever of the former you choose (e.g. 4 credits of the same foreign language for uber-competitive; 2-3 credits of language for just plain competitive, etc…); 3) plan your sequence of AP courses (if you want to do AP bio then get chemistry in early and begin with conceptual physics, or if you prefer AP physics, focus on math; or do AP everything and cut back on sleeping and eating); 4) If you are not going the SAT route, start planning which SAT II subject tests you will take to verify the rigor of your homeschool classes; 5) start researching online courses, community colleges and coop classes for outsourcing the subjects you do not feel qualified to teach; 6) start planning your extra-curricular hook and your long term volunteer service (admissions officers really want to see this, but it can’t be ad hoc, it has to reflect a deeper commitment to your community); 7) start prepping for the PSAT and SAT.
If you are still confused this chart should make everything crystal clear (and when you are done with hours of research on the preferences of your particular college choice perhaps you could learn something like math or history or geography….)
I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
My dismay was reasonable. My oldest child and first high school student is deeply asynchronous, and is never going to fit into this narrow box. She is bright and engaging, deeply logical and analytical, but dyslexic. She is passionate, but most of that passion is focused on an “extra-curricular” activity that takes 35-40 hours a week of her time. At this point she is not even sure she plans to attend college. What’s a highly educated, school loving mama to do?
After mulling this stuff around for a few weeks (like my daughter, I am a slow, deliberate thinker and rarely come to a conclusion without letting my ideas fester for a while) I am finally coming back to a sense of peace and reality. The rat race described above is the traditional, school route to admission to competitive and highly competitive colleges. But, we are homeschoolers. We can never do traditional school better than traditional school. We are not traditionalists and we have never been conformists. We have always forged our own path based on our own goals and values. The college admission landscape is starting to look like a hamster wheel, lots of frantic turning with no way to get off (unless you stop, of course). The price of college has increased at a fantastical rate, but the value, shape and structure of college is increasingly in question (see College Unbound, and Academically Adrift).
Planning for high school is not about credits and transcripts and APs and SATs. It is about keeping our goals in mind. It is about allowing our children to become fully who they are, rather than mapping out the best route to who we think or wish they could be. And, it is about teaching them to think about our changing world in a way that takes the interests of all humans into account. As I previously argued, education is more than just a path to economic prosperity. The pitfalls of our changing economy are indeed frightening, but education cannot be about finding a way to keep my children from tumbling down into the growing pit of “have nots” or “used to haves.” My child “making it” when so many others are not, is not success at all. I will not sacrifice educating for virtue and justice from a place of peace to the alter of high stakes competition. High school is just the next step in a life-long journey.