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A Question of Excellence

By Clay and Sally Clarkson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #37, 2000.

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Clay and Sally Clarkson


It's all a bad dream. I'm surrounded by a mob of skeptics. The future of homeschooling hangs in the balance. "Why are you doing this irrational thing to your children?" they demand. (Remember, it's a dream.) A sneering questioner calls out, "Can you really pursue excellence as a homeschool teacher?" I breathe a sigh of relief. This is an easy one. "Why, yes. We are strongly committed to pursuing excellence in our home school." The crowd begins to murmur and grumble. A voice angrily shouts out, "Yes, but what do you do to pursue excellence?" It's going to be a l-o-n-g dream.

The question of excellence hangs over homeschooling like the proverbial sword of Damocles. If you took all the "honest" questions laid at the feet of homeschooling by critics and skeptics, it wouldn't be far off the mark to summarize their underlying charge something like this: "Homeschooling falls short of the excellence that is the right and privilege of every child in public school."

Homeschooled children consistently outperform schooled children - both public and private - on nationally normed standardized tests. This now extends to the ACT (the "other" test that some colleges require instead of the SAT), as we recently heard that, once again, homeschoolers taking the ACT had higher averages than schooled test-takers.

So why are we even talking about excellence? Because it's all about defining terms. If the public education system gets to define the term "excellence," then it's going to be a kangaroo court. The fix is in, the jury is rigged, forget the facts and let's get to the verdict - guilty!

In the world of public education, excellence used to be defined as performance on standardized tests. Today, it is increasingly defined as a system of "outcomes" that include beliefs and values many of us do not wish our children to have. Either way, excellence is defined by standards, and standards are defined by professional public educators. To protect their standards franchise, homeschooling, which is by definition not public schooling, is simply labeled as a substandard education (i.e., not "excellent"). To suggest that children raised at home are pursuing academic excellence would be to admit that "untrained, unqualified, uncertified parents" are as effective as "real" teachers.

The reality, of course, is that we are. Homeschoolers simply have different sets of standards to determine excellence than the public school system. Our standards, based on academic achievement plus much more, are also shaped by our personal experience and convictions, our family commitments, our insights into our children as individuals, our priorities in life, our own knowledge and skills, and much more. Our standards are not fixed, but dynamic, because every child is different and unique, deserving a personalized, "Designer" education. Public school standards, in contrast, are based on a theoretical, one-size-fits-all, age-graded model of knowledge attainment and personal behavior and belief. The goal is conformity to their shifting standards; excellence, by their definition, is reaching or exceeding the current goal.

So is there a legitimate standard of excellence toward which we as Christian homeschooling parents should encourage our children to strive? We wrestled with that question early on as a family, even before our first child was born, as we sought to come to grips with just what a homeschool should be and do. We came to a philosophical divide. On one side were child-centered educational models that based homeschooling success more on what the child was doing; on the other were parent-centered models that based homeschooling success more on what the parents were doing. What was needed, it seemed, was a model that integrated both into a single approach. We found it in a discipleship-based model.

We came to homeschooling with a basic conviction, born in our years before marriage in discipleship ministries, that we are not just raising children; we are discipling them. Our greatest goal as Christian parents has always been to help our children become mature disciples of Christ. Academics, as important as they are, have always been second to that first priority to disciple our children.

In Paul's words to the Ephesians, parents are commanded to "bring up" their children in the "training and instruction of the Lord." The word "bring up" does not describe a technical duty, but a very personal relationship of nurturing and cultivating a living thing. It's the same word Paul uses to describe how husbands are to "nurture" their wives as they do their own bodies. And "training and instruction" are the vocabulary of discipleship and spiritual training.

The only "excellence," to my knowledge, to which we are called in Scripture is the excellence found in God, and in Jesus Christ. Though there are certainly many examples of God's people who become "excellent" by the world's standards, God's standard of excellence for our lives is moral and spiritual. If we aim only for worldly or academic excellence and miss God's, our children will be of little use to Him; if we aim for God's excellence, our children will certainly learn the academic skills they need to be useful to the God of the universe in their future callings.

How is that usefulness attained? It is a process of growing in godliness that never stops, and is never fully realized in this life. Peter says that if your moral and spiritual excellence are "increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful" for Christ, and "as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble." That is a promise Christian homeschooling parents should claim!

We have worked out a method of how to lead our children towards excellence with God. It's an educational model that we have come to call the Whole Hearted Learning Model. It emphasizes the relational nature of education in the home, and integrates all the necessary academic goals that will enable us to raise children who excel both as students and as people. We begin with the goal of striving for moral and spiritual excellence, which we believe will enable our children to strive for academic excellence, and do so in a way that brings the most glory to God.

Although the model is more fully developed in our book, Educating the Whole Hearted Child, the five areas of focused study that define the model will give you an idea of how we have combined both living and learning goals in our approach to homeschooling. The first two areas are more parent-directed, the last two more student-directed, and the central area more interactive and relational.

Discipleship Studies   We start with the study of God's word to gain wisdom. Our goal is to shape our children's hearts to love God and to study and know his word. This is the foundational area of study.

Disciplined Studies   Next we study the "basics," such as math and language arts, that require a more disciplined approach. Our goal is to develop our children's foundational learning skills and competencies. These academics are part of our overall goal to raise balanced, competent, wholehearted children. These correspond roughly to the "inactive literacies" John Taylor Gatto talked about in his interview, although of course at a higher level than the schools encourage!

Discussion Studies   We spend the bulk of our studies in the humanities, reading literature and history to ourselves, reading them aloud to each other, and studying the fine arts. Our goal is to feed our children's minds on the best in living books and the fine arts. There is a great deal of interaction, discussion, and inquiry in this section, all of which is shaped by biblical perspectives. Here are the "active literacies," again using John Taylor Gatto's term.

Discovery Studies   Next, we direct our children into the "study of learning" in areas such as nature, science, the creative arts, and all other interests. Our goal is to stimulate in our children a love for learning by creating opportunities for curiosity, creativity and discovery. We are transferring to our children their own sense of desire and ability to learn.

Discretionary Studies   Finally, we turn to the "study of living," focusing on natural gifts and interests, community involvement, and life skills. Our goal is to direct our children in developing a range of skills and abilities according to their drives and gifts. Here is where we move them toward excellence in areas of personal giftedness and ability.

Having established our own methodology and standards of excellence based on Scripture and our own convictions, we do not concern ourselves with the standards of excellence defined by public educators. We have, in fact, a much higher standard to which to attain - the excellence of the One who made us and sustains us. If we truly pursue His excellence, the rest will follow naturally for our children, not just because Mom and Dad require it, but because they will desire it in order to glorify God in all that they do.

As it turns out, the dream is not so long. I answer the crowd, "What do I do? Why, I pursue in my homeschool the excellence of the One who created the very brains we use to learn. Why would I pursue anything less for the precious children God has put in my care? Your puny standards of excellence are far too low and pedestrian for me. The God of the universe is personally committed to helping me raise children who will excel in eternity. Anything less is unacceptable for my homeschool. That's what I do!"

And with that the crowd breathes a resigned, "Oh!" and quietly disperses.

. . . I can dream, can't I?


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