I was invited to give the Keynote Address at the Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency’s 2016 Conference in April, 2016. The topic I was assigned was “Reaching for Excellence in Homeschooling.” Following is the main text of that address.

Conference Address

Reaching for Excellence in Homeschooling

I want to give you five ways teens can REACH for Excellence, but first, let’s define “excellence.”

Definition of Excellence:

Some may equate excellence with good grades, getting into a good college, or earning a lot of money. Others may associate excellence with winning awards or recognition from others, or coming out on top in a competition.

I would propose that excellence is discovering your own personal potential and purpose and then giving 100% to develop it and use it to serve God and others.

“Train up a child in the way *he* should go….” As parents we need to help our children discover who they really are and what their purpose is in this life, and then aim them in the right direction. Each child is different – and we need to be willing to train them differently, and hold them different standards of achievement perhaps based on their God-given potential and abilities.  I recently listened to a webinar by Gregg Harris on this very topic and he pointed out that young person’s passion is often an indicator of a desire or appetite for learning that God has given that young person.  We should try to tune in to that and find ways to “fan the flame” toward growth and service to others.

We all have a lazy, selfish nature that wants to be comfortable and indulging. We tend to be mediocre, wasting time with social media, pointless reading, gaming, and other pursuits. To excel takes dedication, initiative, and effort.

I’ve read of athletes who aspire to become Olympic medalists. In fact, a boy I evaluated last year – Gharett – wants to wrestle on the American Olympics team some day. He invested hours of practice every day. He worked out. He watched his diet and sleep. He enrolled in a special summer camp for wrestlers. He was committed to his dream.

The teen years are years of SO MUCH potential. Teens have abilities, strong motivations — and free time to invest — that could reap such benefits!

Homeschooling by itself does not guarantee excellence.

Let’s face it – the homeschool law sets a rather low bar for academic achievement. Only 3 years of math, science, and history, and a few electives. . . .  Testing is only seen by the evaluator, and you only have to give the school district a checklist evaluation form each year. You could really “slide” and make life easier for yourself. Parents can even issue their own diploma and find an evaluator willing to sign it. But is that really what is best for your teen? Don’t you want him to “excel” both in school and in life?


If excellence isn’t automatic, how can we achieve it?

I want to suggest five ways we can REACH for Excellence in Homeschooling, using the acrostic R E A C H

  1. Research the Resources

Twenty and thirty years ago there were very few curriculum options for homeschoolers. Old, used classroom textbooks could be scrounged at yardsales and used bookstores. What a contrast today! Curriculum fairs are sprawling with vendors offering every course imaginable for every type of learner! Don’t get stuck in a rut of only using one source – try some alternatives.

Here are some other resources available to homeschoolers today:

  • Dual enrollment in college, online or local community, or taking online courses at the college you intend to attend
  • AP Online classes – PHAA has become very well-known for their offering of challenging courses that prepare students well for taking the Advanced Placement tests. Over 900 students are enrolled in AP classes through PHAA. There are many benefits to the students: Good preparation for college level course work, students are challenged to think not just memorize, explore field in depth, and interact with other student
  • Conferences like this one
  • Turn a course into an Honors Course by adding an indepth unit study, perhaps using content from “The Great Courses”
  • Participate in a Homeschool Cooperative or mini-classes
  • Join contests and competitions
  1. Exceed Expectations

What do most adults and other teens expect of teens? The stereo type is that they sleep till noon, play on their phones, moan about doing chores, procrastinate doing their school work, and only are willing to work if getting paid for it. Picture “Jeremy” of the Zits cartoon!

Those are pretty low expectations. In fact many homeschool teens easily “impress” other adults in their lives – grandparents, neighbors, boss as work, etc. But that can actually become a hindrance to excelling. When we feel good compared to others we get complacent and don’t challenge ourselves.

  • Initiative – find some areas of interest and immerse yourself in learning about it. Don’t wait for others to “make you do it”
  • Investment of time – an expert is an expert for one reason. Malcolm Gladwell, a well known author, has proposed this rule from his observations and study in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Once a person has invested 10,000 hours learning a skill or subject area, he is an expert. He used Bill Gates as an example – he had access to computers when they were first invented and found a way to spend thousands of hours learning to program them. That made him an expert! I have a friend who is an expert at videography and video editing – not because of courses he took or a degree he holds, but because of time he has invested!
  • Do more than is required by parents or diploma program, not the minimum at the last minute.


  1. Access Accountability

No one likes to be accountable to someone else. We feel like they’re breathing down our neck, or trying to make us do something we don’t want to do, or not let us do what we really want.

But what if we view accountability as asking someone to help hold us to a standard we’ve set for ourselves? That changes the whole dynamic!

I heard of a mom who was trying to lose weight and exercise more. She asked her teen son to help hold her accountable. And boy did he! She didn’t always like it, but she reminded herself she had asked for it and it was for her own good. And guess what? It worked! She lost weight!

External accountability is a good thing – not an evil. Our homeschool law is actually very flexible, but there are some mechanisms built in to ensure that students are getting a decent education. Periodic testing and annual evaluations are the few requirements. And you get to choose your evaluator who will support you! An evaluator is like a personal trainer at the gym – YOU set the goals and ask for accountability along the way. Accountability feels better when you choose it!

Let’s talk about the value of accountability via a diploma program. PHAA has set a high bar in the area of reading 25 books, including 5 classics, writing a 10-page paper each year, and giving a speech. Those are good standards for a teen to meet each year, and will help you as a teen to be smarter and more ready for college and life. Knowing that your diploma program and evaluator are requiring that work from you is motivating to do that, right? Would you do it if they didn’t require it? Probably not! Diploma programs help us achieve our goal of excellence by providing external accountability.

Another way to Access Accountability is to enroll in an online class or participate in a homeschool co-op class. There’s something motivating about knowing that others are doing the same thing, meeting the same requirements, and meeting the same deadlines. Maybe hire a tutor-teacher who gives weekly assignments and grades papers to add a layer of accountability.

(Boys especially benefit from competition and accountability.)

I had a student from the Poconos who really procrastinated and was easily distracted all day by his cat instead of doing his school work. When we would meet in June I would have to require summer school work and meet again in August before I could give credit. I recommended he join a Co-op in his area for chemistry and he found a tutor for English and math his junior and senior years. Problem solved! He was accountable every week to have his work done instead of just the end of the school year.


  1. Challenge the Comfort Zone

We all like what is comfortable to us. But we grow when we push ourselves to try new things. Here are some ideas:

  • Read some books that of a different genre
  • Volunteer your help somewhere and learn some people skills
  • Work with children in a camp program, team, church ministry
  • Do some “hard things”
  • Get involved in a political process
  • Learn an instrument
  • Take a stand against the crowd for what you believe
  • Become an apprentice or work a part-time job
  • Learn a hobby – wood working, photography, robotics
  • Participate in a contest
  • Take part in a drama

My daughter, Brittany, learned Publisher, graphics design tools, fonts – she started a newsletter for teen girls at church and published it every two months. Now this year she is pushing herself to publish every month! She has learned so much in this process.


  1. Harness your Habits

So much of what we do is governed by habits. That’s good. We don’t have to make decisions about what to do, or how to do it. But some of those habits are time wasters and lazy – like texting, social media, watching TV, etc.  What if you redeemed some of that time and used it to read?

Little habits can make a big difference. A habit of reading and meditating from the Bible every morning for 15-20 minutes will change your life. I recommend reading a chapter from the book of Proverbs every morning for some great wisdom.

Turn off your devices at 9:30 and get to bed with the lights out at 10pm and sleep for 8-9 hours. Research is telling us that electronic devices in teens’ bedrooms is robbing them of sleep and the constant notifications coming in prevents deep sleep.

Stop eating junk snacks and drink water instead of soda. Your eating habits can make a huge difference in your life now and in the future.

Start a habit of reading a book for 30 min a day

Start a habit of journaling.

Learn some time-management skills.


Conclusion: Excellence is a great goal. But we don’t get there by coasting and we don’t inherit it. We have to REACH for it. And the teen years are key years to do that!