August 20, 2018

How to Choose Homeschool Curriculum: A Quick Primer

I've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours since March 2013 researching resources in terms their positions on the common core standards (CCS) and recording the information on my database, The Homeschool Resource Roadmap. During that time, I've been asked many times how a new homeschooling parent might go about choosing curriculum.

Of course, the question is both important - homeschooling is much easier when one finds a "good fit" in terms of method and materials - and understandable, because the curriculum possibilities seem endless. Indeed, in my research, I've sent queries to and/or examined websites for over 3,600 curriculum providers (so far, as of August 2018)! And if I'm overwhelmed as an experienced home educator doing a research project, I can imagine how absolutely untenable the task looks when one is a fledgling homeschool parent trying to find "the perfect curriculum" for one's child.

But that brings me to my first point: Simply put, there is no "perfect curriculum." In other words, there is no one program or resource guaranteed to meet every educational need for every homeschooled child. In fact, there's not even one curriculum that anyone can truly, objectively, say is "better for everyone" than another...and if someone does say that, she's probably being paid by the publisher!

But that's okay because we don't need perfection. In fact, one of the best things we can do as homeschoolers - for ourselves and our kids - is to give up the myth of perfection all together...with curriculum and everything else.

Of course, we do need to pursue excellence - i.e., being diligent to give our best effort - in all things. And, in terms of curriculum, that translates into finding a very good fit between our children's needs and the materials we choose to use. But how on earth do we begin sorting through so many possibilities? I know the process can seem very overwhelming, so I wanted to break it down to a few steps that would enable any new homeschooler to get started.

It's imperative that you first understand your state homeschool law so you'll know what you are legally required to cover. Some homeschool laws are wonderful, leaving most decisions up to parents (where they belong), and others are ridiculously onerous and ought to be changed. If you live in a high-regulation state, I urge you to join with other homeschoolers to get the law changed because there's no legitimate reason for home educators to be subject to anyone but God in terms of their home learning choices – but in the meantime, know what the law says so you can be above reproach.

Second, don't begin by asking for ideas from homeschooling friends. As odd as that sounds - after all, networking among homeschoolers is really important - it's not the place to start when choosing curriculum. Why? Well, simply put, what works beautifully for one family may be totally inappropriate for another. For example, I know a woman who followed several friends' advice to use a very solid, textbook-style curriculum. The program is a good fit for the friends' kids, but it turns out to have been completely inappropriate for the woman's children. As a result, the family's first year of homeschooling was much more difficult than it should have been, and she ended up putting her kids back into school. The woman's friends meant well, of course, but they couldn't really know what would meet the needs of her children.

Instead, do begin with prayer. Whatever your spiritual foundation, take time before you launch into your research to start praying for wisdom and discernment - and continue praying as you go. Also, be sure to ask your spouse to pray for you regularly even if he's given you authority to make the ultimate curriculum decisions. As a Christian, I know that God cares deeply about my homeschooling journey, so I know He will guide via His Spirit if I give Him that permission.

Then analyze your family from a homeschooling perspective, discovering your children's preferred learning styles, your preferred teaching style, and other important factors that warrant consideration. The best resources I know for tackling this task are The Homeschool Mom's series on deschooling8 Great Smarts by Dr. Kathy Koch, Passion-Driven Education by Connor Boyack, and Eclectic Homeschooling's "quiz" - What Kind of Homeschooler Are You? Particularly if you're pulling a child from any time within an institutional school - or even just as a guide for organizing your days as you start with a young child - taking time to deschool will enable you to closely observe and understand your child as a learner. While you're deschooling, you can read the books. And the quiz will introduce you to concepts and terminology that will ultimately show you the general types of curriculum that will work for you. Of course, knowing what will work enables you to confidently (without guilt!) eliminate from consideration a wide variety of otherwise fine material that simply wouldn't be a good fit for you and your kids.

Next, take some time to consider important “philosophy of education” questions. Among other things, you'll need to determine whether your kids would do better with spiral or mastery math...if you’d like to use a phonics-based or a “whole language” approach for early reading what age and with what method you’d like to teach grammar...and some other key questions:
1. Do you want FAITH-BASED, NON-SECTARIAN, or SECULAR materials? Next to following the homeschool law where you reside, I believe this is the most important decision because it speaks to the type of worldview you want to communicate to your children. And deciding which type of materials you'd prefer will go a long way toward eliminating a lot of curriculum 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 quite a few science and history resources - 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 you 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 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 in favor of choosing materials from different companies for different subjects, but there is 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, and after that I went completely "eclectic," choosing resources for each subject area from wholly different companies. In fact, at this point, I teeter on the edge of (gasp!) unschooling! 
3. Should you aim for FAMILY-INTEGRATED studies or teach EACH CHILD SEPARATELY? Though it's not my personal recommendation, some people choose to model their homes after institutional schools and keep each child in a family at a separate "grade level" for every subject - meaning that they 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 juggles multiple "grade levels" at one time. That can work if you're very organized, and there are many different types of curricula that offer this type of learning. However, many home educators prefer - and I personally recommend - family-integrated studies. Generally, that means all (or most) of the children in a family study the same history/geography 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 "grade level" is minimized, and the integration of history/geography 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). Many curricula cater to family-integrated studies. And, 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. 
4. What do you want in terms of the COMMON CORE STANDARDS? Almost as important as your worldview perspective is your philosophical position on the common core standards (CCS). Though homeschoolers are not mandated to comply with common core in any state, the initiative does impact us because roughly 40% of homeschool-related material has some connection to it. Thus, you should not ignore it. And you should neither choose nor reject the CCS in a vacuum; rather, educate yourself on the subject (I recommend Truth in American Education, starting with the video series by Jane Robbins) in order to stake out a definite position. And then use The Homeschool Resource Roadmap Common Core Project to weed out the resources that don't match your convictions. 
5. What are your FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS? 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 a very pricey package program and finances became my deciding factor. As good as it sounded, I just couldn't afford it. So I went with something similar instead because it was a better fit for our pocketbook.
After paring things down in this way, you'll have a good idea of your personal priorities. From there I recommend studying the Roadmap's Deluxe Charts, where I've categorized every homeschool resource provider according to all these parameters and more; via The Roadmap you can visit the companies' websites to study online samples and then enlist the help of your homeschooling friends. Specifically, ask if others have hard-copy samples of the materials you're considering so you can see the books themselves. Or, if possible, attend a homeschool convention, and study your remaining options there.

If you've been praying through the process, I'm confident you'll have a good sense of peace at this point. Of course, you may not be 100% sure - as homeschooling moms, we are our own worst critics - and you'll almost certainly make changes over the years regardless of what you choose initially. But "almost sure" is really all you need. If you feel too much doubt, ask your husband if he'd be willing to share his preference among your two or three strongest possibilities. And, if he indicates an inclination toward one, trust him and go with it. On the other hand, if he leaves it up to you, I recommend simply going with your gut or even casting lots. I know a lady who could not decide between two curricula, and I ultimately challenged her to flip a coin and trust God to lead her, just as He did throughout the Scriptures via lot-casting. She gave it a shot and every single time she cast, she got the same "answer." Whether you flip a coin or trust your intuition, you can feel confident in the results. After all, if you've covered the whole process in prayer and you've done your homework, any one of the remaining options will be a very good fit.

Of course, this process will take a bit of time - but it really will bear beautiful fruit. You won't be choosing on a whim or trying to copy your best friend. You won't be picking based on a colorful website or slick advertising campaign. Instead, your choice will be grounded in meaningful research and faith, so you'll be able to move forward into your first term as a homeschooler with confidence that you've begun well.

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