The art of reading homeschooling curriculum reviews

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Parents who are new to homeschooling face a conundrum almost from the beginning: There are myriad curriculum options out there – many of which represent a significant financial investment – and almost none of the publishers allow you more than a brief product sample online. If you have a limited budget and do not want to throw good money at cheaply-produced or incomplete content, this situation can be as frustrating as it gets. How do you get past this obstacle? For many parents, this means reading a lot of online curriculum reviews. But that often introduces new issues.

Choosing curriculum based solely on what the aggressively online Queen Bees like is a bad idea

Homeschooling is no longer a fringe activity. It’s a bona fide marketplace that many players want to capture. You may think of your homeschool as you doing what’s best for your child, but to many parties you are simply an open wallet. It pays (literally and figuratively) to be skeptical.

The dirty little secret of homeschooling publishers is they rely heavily on social media influencers to push their products. They would rather “own” a specific niche of the market reliably than put their content out there and risk someone stealing what they regard as their intellectual property. This is what folks in finance and economics would call an “information asymmetry” – select insiders “know” the market, and everyone else is in the dark. Just as hedge fund managers exploit information asymmetries in trading, homeschooling influencers try to trade off of this privilege.

Popular homeschooling blogs and social media accounts, and the newer folks that throw themselves into the orbit of popular bloggers seeking a piece of their influence, often receive free educational materials in exchange for promoting a publisher from their account. If publishers can hit an entire online ecosystem of like-minded individuals, it makes their product look more desirable than it may be in reality, because they are all going to start crowing about it in unison. This is a common marketing strategy that is hardly unique to homeschooling. Homeschooling bloggers all say they are unbiased, but come on… When was the last time you saw a blogger write “this company sent me free stuff to review and drive traffic to my site, but honestly their content kind of sucks, definitely avoid it”? That’s not a thing that happens in the real world. In fact, the publishing houses will cross-promote bloggers who give them favorable reviews. “Look at this positive review we received from top homeschooling blogger Karen McKaren!”

This strikes me as a major ethical problem, as those “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” arrangements end up hurting people who take them at face value and cannot afford to go searching for something better when they are disappointed. It’s the sad shadow economics of swag.

There is a deeply unserious gig economy in homeschooling too

The rise of homeschooling influencers on social media has also resulted in a lot of dumbed-down freelance content hitting the homeschooling universe, which is problematic for a variety of reasons.

First, the barrier to entry for producing homeschooling curricula is extremely low. Many homeschooling mothers try to supplement their household income by producing what I call “pseudo-curriculum.” It takes little effort to slap together worksheets with a cutesy theme and clip art, then sell a locked PDF online. This is basically what the website “Teachers Pay Teachers” is for public school teachers, and it’s essentially what people like Susan Wise Bauer (author of The Well-Trained Mind) have done. She seems to have built an entire online platform from re-writing the history and writing textbooks used in public high schools for an elementary-aged audience. (But, hey, at least they are written to academic standards, which makes them more useful than other options.) I mean, you actually get people to pay you for a reading list now. It’s bonkers.

For some, this gig economy worksheet / workbook stuff can be a lucrative business. I met a former public school teacher at our neighborhood park one day who told me she quit her day job after she realized she could make more money cranking out worksheets connected to young adult literature than she could being in an actual classroom. All she does is read young adult books and write book club-style questions about what she read. Then she tosses it up on the internet for a fee. No spitballs and she can have wine for breakfast, what’s not to like? Some people might produce insightful content along those lines that works in concepts kids need to learn (e.g. give an example of foreshadowing), but frankly, most do not. Education platforms are absolutely saturated with mindless “What Do You See On Your Nature Walk” content now.

Very few of these personalities have any interest whatsoever in putting together a truly comprehensive curriculum that correlates with academic standards. They may have a subject they personally enjoy like history or English, and they start producing content related to that. Even within those subjects, they have things they enjoy reading about and covering more than others. This is quite different than purchasing content from a publishing house that ensures people with diverse backgrounds, academically speaking, are represented. The learning gaps are real and should not be discounted.

In fact, I would say the popularity of the homeschooling gig economy is likely one of the main drivers of the “unschooling” phenomenon in homeschooling circles now. You don’t need to care about academic standards! You don’t need to purchase a formal curriculum – so boring! Let your child choose what they want to learn each day – so empowering! Now buy my brainless printables that have nothing to with progressing academically and my emo memoir on how all you need to be a good homeschooler is iced coffee and an Instagram cult!

There is a lot of misinformation out there

Two of my biggest pet peeves in reading curriculum reviews are: (1) people who dismiss good content because it does not fit their rigid ideology, and (2) people who are writing with an air of authority on a subject they really have zero understanding of.

Here’s an example I cite often. We purchased several mathematics curricula for our daughter before we settled on Beast Academy from the Art of Problem Solving. The main reason we had not explored using Beast Academy earlier was I had read what I now understand were some pretty ignorant and mean-spirited reviews.

The Art of Problem Solving is the best math curriculum for sale in the United States. All of the International Math Olympiad champions every single year trained with this program. It is the single best preparation for a career in a STEM field that I can think of, and I am saying that as someone who owns a tech company that makes financial software for large corporations and spent most of my career structuring complex financial deals worth billions of dollars. I am jealous of the math education our daughter is now receiving.

But you know how many of the homeschooling mothers characterize Beast Academy? As “Common Core Math.” You know, the “new math that’s ruining public schools.” They are talking about one of the most rigorous math programs in the world as if it’s the work product of some toxic political game, which it isn’t. It is nothing like what is taught in public schools. My guess is they cannot intellectually differentiate between math that challenging and a paradigm shift in teaching, both seem like Greek to them. But they don’t know they are wrong, because they don’t actually like to do math and have spent zero time trying to understand the progression of concepts children should be learning in that subject. They insult what’s used in public schools as they advocate for curricula that has not been updated since the era of slide rules. In short, they are offering a bad opinion loudly and pushing people toward objectively inferior products instead.

Here’s a glimpse of what a Beast Academy workbook for our 9-year-old looks like:

You really have to get to know the priors of someone before reading their thoughts on content. And I will tell you up-front, it is a real challenge in some circles to get opinions on STEM content more than anything else. Don’t ask people who spend 75% of their school day on literature and history for their opinions on math or chemistry books. Go find someone who does not hate and is not intimidated by teaching these subjects for their experiences.

If you are an unapologetically college prep homeschooler – which I am – it is going to become intensely painful over time to talk to parents who do not care if they are raising a child that can compete in a modern economy about what you are doing for schoolwork. I have legitimately had “unschoolers” try to bully me about making my child do too much, and then they go berserk when they see they are going nowhere with their arguments. There are so many people coming into homeschooling now for reasons that have nothing to do with education (extreme politics, vaccines, social anxiety, you name it) and academic achievement simply is not a priority for them. This is something you need to know when you talk to them about the materials they choose to use or avoid. They are not the majority of homeschoolers, but they are an incredibly vocal minority.

It seems like every year this behavior gets more and more extreme as well. Here in Florida, we have evaluators who will accept photographs in lieu of the legally required portfolio of work samples because there are people out there who claim to be homeschooling but can produce zero physical evidence they have been doing anything at all… across years. No math problems. No spelling practice. No essays or book reports. Nothing written at all. Some of them have graduated to actual fraud and created sham private schools – private schools that exist only on paper, and are not physical schools – so they can all submit sham attendance records to the state instead of going through evaluations or standardized tests. There is a Florida Unschoolers private school with thousands of children “enrolled” that exists only to evade government oversight. I consider these folks and their shenanigans the biggest threat to our right to homeschool there is. When they tell you they don’t care about academic standards, believe them.

My biggest advice to new homeschoolers is avoid getting wrapped up in this crowd like the plague. It all sounds cute and fun and low-stress, but I knew two unschoolers where we used to live who had their children taken away by the state. Take the responsibility of educating your child very seriously and keep good records. What you are doing here is a big freaking deal, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. This is not a silly fad, and if you end up dumping your kid back in a traditional school after they suffer meaningful learning loss, you’ve pretty much ruined their childhood.

So let’s talk about priors and motives

Before purchasing curriculum based on something you’ve read, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the reviewer share my approach to homeschooling and my family’s values? Do they bash secular content for no other reason than it is secular? Do they hate anything that even occasionally mentions God or the divine?
  • How long has this person been homeschooling for and how old are their children? Is this a “Day 1 of Homeschooling Blog” or a veteran opinion?
  • What is the reviewer’s personal academic background? Do they seem like they can actually assess this content? Do they brag about how they are finished with homeschooling in under an hour and always go for easy, throw-away content? Do they care about tracking their children’s progress in meaningful ways or is homeschooling a means to evade that for them? What do they think a good education looks like?
  • Does this reviewer have a conflict of interest in talking about this material? Was it given to them for free? Was it created by their best friend? Do they get a cut out of how many items they sell? Are they promoting content from a company that also promotes their writing?

Answer these questions and you will be a long way toward finding your tribe in our ever-expanding community. I realize my brutal honesty here is not going to win me any fans in the blogosphere, but there you go.

6 thoughts on “The art of reading homeschooling curriculum reviews

  1. Excellent article. I can’t speak with knowledge about STEM materials but I would like to add a note about the literature courses: even some of the “legit” publishers have hidden agendas. I worked for a live online school for 5 years which is also a publishing company of “classical” materials. The attending families usually buy most of their materials from this publisher. Understandable: it’s so much more convenient. But the number of literature books required for each course was/is so numerous that no student can possibly get through them all during each course, much less enjoy and contemplate them as should be the case. Next step: this publisher started creating student workbooks (mostly busywork) for the literature – and these specific workbooks are now required for the courses. There’s nothing wrong with a company providing materials but it’s important to know that their sources may not be as good as they proclaim them to be. Many, many people look to this company and other similar companies for “expert” advice, but the people writing their newsletters and giving this advice are not really experts: just salespeople who happen to have homeschooled or who have seen the market opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought about adding this very point, but my rant was way too long and I could not put it as succinctly as you put it here. I have bought several textbook packages from the big publishing houses that service public schools, and you could probably tear out half the pages in it (no kidding). Every chapter has inserts of drills for “standardized test taking skills,” and it’s just unreal to me that is even a thing now.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The only subject I would tell anyone to consider those for is science, and for that (if you are willing to spend the money) you can really skip to college-level stuff. But you use the books they put out for AP subjects, they are not so bad because they have to be considered a substitute for a college course. And modern foreign languages. Everything else is becoming increasingly agenda-driven.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. And AP has just changed its system. As of this coming year, if a teacher wants to “debate” a student’s test results he or she can send the test back in for reevaluation. (Previously teachers were even not given the exam results to review but they will be now.) This has been on the horizon for a while – it was discussed as a future possibility when I went to an AP course in Woodside, CA in 2011. This was right when the new College Board president had taken over and openly asserted that such changes would be coming. I’m “guessing” that if you teach in an area that isn’t underprivileged, your students’ test scores won’t be given any higher scores upon reevaluation, but that the opposite will be true for those in underprivileged areas. The whole POINT of having AP is about to go out the window. I decided to stop teaching AP this last year because of this. I have no idea how they will curve the test for STEM subjects but they are going to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

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