When it comes to education, Sam Sorbo doesn’t pull any punches.
She is a homeschooling mother of three and tireless advocate for homeschooling, out on a mission to inspire and empower parents.
But 10 years ago, it was a different story.
Despite having studied biomedical engineering at Duke University, having traveled the world and experienced other cultures during her modeling career, and being able to speak five languages fluently, Sorbo felt inadequate to teach her second grader.
She’s far from alone in her fears. For a long time now, it’s been widely acknowledged that the public education system is failing our students. Parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, and the media all admit this freely, and have done so even more vocally once Common Core was implemented to disastrous effect. Yet, parents are under the illusion they’re unable to do anything about it when they actually hold all the cards.
“What is it about a child turning 5 or 6 that automatically invalidates the parent as the child’s primary teacher?” Sorbo asked. Parents who see how well she’s done with homeschooling tell her oh, but they could never do that.
“These are parents of young kids who are like, ‘I can’t, I don’t know how,'” Sorbo said. “The reason they don’t know how is because they’ve been taught by the school system that they can’t do anything that they haven’t been formally instructed in, by a teacher at a blackboard.”
She’s here to challenge those fears.
The ‘Substitute’ Teacher
When parents sign up for public school, they drop their children off for almost eight hours a day to be taught by someone they’d never met until the day before classes start, but this is normal because this is what we’re used to.
Sorbo had dropped her oldest off at pre-school, despite the tears, and she’d dropped her second off at pre-school a few years later, and felt guilty both times. Then she dropped them off at grade school, in the “good” school district where the family had moved to get into. It felt, as it does for most parents, that the child’s education was now in the hands of the institution, as it should be.
But in reality, Sorbo was spending several hours a week volunteering at school. There were bake sales and fundraisers and buying markers and crayons for the classroom, being in the classroom as an assistant once a week, teaching art classes, and even cleaning.
And then once the kids were home, there are the hours of homework wrangling, after the children have already spent hours at school sitting in a desk, and are now tired and cranky and still don’t understand the math worksheet, spending their precious few hours of quality time with their parents doing school work.
“This is a scam,” Sorbo said.
Of course, she didn’t realize it at the time.
In fact, she spent years making excuses for the school and teachers, even as the evidence piled up.
One day, right by the beach, Sorbo had the horrible epiphany that she was in fact the substitute teacher. When she married her husband Kevin, known for his role in “Hercules” and the star of 50-plus films, she knew that for commitment to work they couldn’t be a long-distance relationship, and the couple made the promise to never be apart for longer than two weeks. As a result, the family travels often, and so during the filming of “Soul Surfer,” Sorbo was making sure her sons were completing their worksheets before going out to play.
Her son was complaining that the worksheets weren’t even important, because the teacher often skipped them, and here she was forcing busywork on her children so the school could check a box and say work was done.
It took yet another event for her to make the decision to try homeschooling.
Her oldest had turned in five book reports by the middle of second grade, and it wasn’t until February that Sorbo heard anything about them.
She was helping with clean-up after school one day when she asked the teacher, “Hey, how are Braeden’s book reports?”
“And without batting an eyelash she said, ‘Oh, not very good,’ which I found shocking, because I never received anything back,” Sorbo said. She helped out often and spoke with the teacher two or three times every week, but this was the first time she’d heard there was a problem.
“So I started to make excuses for her because I liked her, and I wanted to think well of her. And every excuse made her look worse,” Sorbo said.
After a lot of difficult deliberation, she decided to try homeschooling for just one semester. Kevin didn’t exactly welcome the idea with open arms; he’d had a public school upbringing, and great memories of it. Homeschooling is a vastly countercultural thing for most Americans.
But it was clear the school wasn’t getting the job done, so they tried it for a semester.
“I’d love to say that I never looked back, but that would be a lie,” Sorbo said.
In retrospect, her homeschooling had been a tremendous success, but she still carried that feeling of inadequacy. A year and a half later, she sent her two sons to a private school where their placement tests showed that Sorbo’s do-it-yourself education put them two grade levels ahead in some subjects. Unfortunately, that school let her down as well, when she came in for a parent-teacher meeting six weeks later and realized the school was almost entirely focused on training behavior, not excelling in academics.
“[The teacher] regaled me with how well-behaved my child was … he sits quietly, always raises his hands, he doesn’t cause problems, he doesn’t cause a ruckus, never interrupts,” Sorbo said. The teacher even proudly told her she’d sat him next to a rowdier child in hopes that he would have a calming effect, and it worked.
In fact, it was the opposite of what Sorbo wanted to hear. “I’d love to hear that he interrupted, because he’s so eager to learn,” she said. And not a word about learning, until she asked, how were his academics? “Fine.” Just six weeks ago he had loved learning.
“It was actually a wonderful experiment. Because after six weeks, I realized the school couldn’t show me anything better than what I was doing. And once I had that realization, everything started to unravel,” Sorbo said.
“I was convinced then, that not only was I adequate, I was, in fact, uniquely gifted to be the educator for my children,” Sorbo said. “That was extraordinarily empowering.”
The following Monday, she went back to homeschooling—but it wasn’t easy.
“My middle child, who was a math wizard … I put math in front of him and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ And he started to cry and said ‘No, Mommy, I can’t do it. It’s too hard, I can’t do it,” Sorbo said.
“I’ll tell you something—my heart broke,” Sorbo said. Her son Shane is like her in many ways, she said, they both love math. “They somehow had ruined math for him.”
She put it aside, heartbroken, and they worked on other things while they took a week off math. And when they approached it again, she went back to chapters that would have already been taught in school and retaught it to him.
“And he did it and loved it and it all worked out. But I think that the message is that we are so brainwashed. We put our kids in the system, we do not understand the sacrifice that we are making by doing this,” Sorbo said.
Even though we know the schools are failing, we can’t bring ourselves to action, and Sorbo says this is because we’ve been trained not to blame the schools.
“We buy into this idea that the school is responsible for educating the children, but that’s not actually the case,” Sorbo said. “And in court cases, where parents have sued [the schools for not teaching their child to read], parents have lost every lawsuit because ultimately it’s the parents’ responsibility.”
Once Sorbo began homeschooling, she started documenting the journey, and a few years in she published the book “They’re Your Kids: A Personal Journey from Self-Doubter to Home School Advocate.” The first half sounds the alarm to parents, detailing what they need to wake up to, and the second half is the nuts and bolts of her own experience with plenty of advice for parents considering homeschool.
In it, she illustrates that with the public system, “The bar is really low, and you, with your child, can step over it easily.”
Nine-year-olds taking trigonometry, 13-year-olds whizzing through physics—these are common cases amongst homeschoolers, where students typically outperform public students by at least 30 percent.
One of the quotes she leads with is a snippet from a book by Bertrand Russell, who influenced the entire public school movement. Russell quotes a German philosopher in his work, saying, “Education should aim at destroying free will so that after pupils are thus schooled they will be incapable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking or acting otherwise than as their schoolmaster would have wished.” It continues, describing the amount of power a government would amass after just a generation or two of “public school.” We’ve borrowed from the Prussian system, which was designed to create little soldiers, ready to obey.
“They are behavior modification centers,” she said.
Radicals and Rebels
Sorbo has three teenagers, and often when she tells people this they give her a look of understanding. Three teenagers? Sounds tough, they say.
It’s the opposite.
“It’s fantastic,” Sorbo said. “My authority at home is not challenged. I don’t have arguments with my children. We have a very even-keeled relationship. They know me, I know them, and we work things out.”
After meeting her children, other parents marvel at how well-behaved they are, and Sorbo says this isn’t by chance or accident.
Academics aside, she has another big reason you should homeschool: Consider your relationship with your child.
“We are absolutely sacrificing our relationship with our child. You can’t tell me your relationship doesn’t suffer,” Sorbo said. “If you drop your child off at school every day, and the teacher is telling them things that may or may not agree with the things that you’re saying at home, and the teacher has them for seven and a half hours a day. And you have them for, what’s left over, three hours? And do you see your child even three hours a day at that point? How can you hope to have the relationship?”
Teenagers have a reputation for disagreeing with their parents, and Sorbo says that’s only to be expected if you drop off your kids so that others can deal with them. Kids will also read it as rejection, even if they never voice that.
The problem is compounded: Public school by design doesn’t have the children’s best developmental interest at heart, and in recent years they have declined. Parents might remember a good experience with public school, and they aren’t all wrong. But many schools have since become worse.
In her book, she writes: “They hustle their kids into the wolves’ den and wonder why their children return home behaving like wild animals.”
Instead of morals, schools also teach moral relativity.
“We don’t teach morality in schools. How can we hope to have a moral public if we don’t teach morality? I don’t know,” she said. “It’s disastrous, what we’re accomplishing … what they are teaching in school systems today is tantamount to child abuse.”
“And we are so incapable of calling it out and saying ‘No, we’re going to do something about it.’ It’s discouraging to me, but that’s sort of my crusade now. It’s not just homeschooling—we need to revamp our schools, and we need to change the way we think about education,” Sorbo said.
Sorbo never thought she was a rebel until just the last few years. She was the anxious straight-A student in high school. She was a calculus tutor in college. Even during her modeling career she was known by the crew as the “good girl.”
It wasn’t until she stepped into homeschooling advocacy that she realized she could be considered an anti-establishment radical, but in reality, homeschooling is a fast-growing movement. Nearly 2 million students are homeschooled, and the fallout of Common Core has caused many people to research school choice and homeschooling.
It used to be, for instance, thought of as an option for ultra-religious families, and mistakenly thought to hinder socialization.
Sorbo is a Christian, but faith had nothing to do with her decision to homeschool, and one of the schools she had tried and pulled her children out of was a Christian school. Years later, having seen other religious families send their kids to public school or college and return as estranged atheists, she’s added faith to the growing list of reasons parents should consider.
As for socialization, homeschooled children interact frequently with people of all age groups, rather than being confined to peers of their age in the school system, taught to fear older kids and to bully the younger kids. Sorbo says even in the few years her sons went to public school she saw ageism take its toll, and it took work on her part to undo it.
“I started homeschooling and I loved it. Because it freed me. I was no longer beholden to the institution,” she said. Instead of running the library and driving to and from school, and grading papers and teaching art class for other kids, she was able to spend that time with her own. “And not only that, my kids started to get along a lot better. So we had a much more peaceful family dynamic and home.”
In taking on the task of teaching morals and core values, she wrote a second education book, “Teach From Love,” full of daily devotionals.
“Here’s the thing, the reason core values are worthwhile is because they lead to a happier life,” Sorbo said. In fact, many great educators throughout the ages have pointed to true happiness as the ultimate goal of education.
“If you are a liar, and you know you’re a liar, and every time you look in the mirror, you know you’re a liar. And you know that lying is wrong, because we have that innate sense in ourselves, the difference between right and wrong, and you can’t trust yourself,” she said. “And what happens when you can’t trust yourself? The world falls away. What can you do when you’re not able to trust the one person you’re closest to?”
We don’t think about these things until we rethink what education means, and set those goals for your students. Sorbo says that even after all this time, she is still learning.
“You know, it’s still a journey. And I recognize that I’m still the brainwashed one in a sense, because I went through the school system,” she said.
Her own education certainly didn’t bring true happiness. To reach that, she had to first find her faith.
“I grew up with a lot of stress and anxiety about being able to support myself, and so once I had a career that was lucrative enough, I realized, wow, I think I’m actually going to be OK. I’m going to be able to make it,” Sorbo said. This was in her 20s, and she soon started to question her success.
“I was like, is this it then? Is this the whole meaning of life? So I went on a search, and I discovered God,” she said. She found peace from her anxiety, and now she is able to enjoy what she does.
The family travels often, but not always for work. This summer, they took a guided trip through Israel, which was partly filmed for a documentary.
She and her husband work together on films and book projects as well; in recent years a series of faith-based movies, because most people in the film industry don’t make these.
“Miracle in East Texas” has been going through the film festival circuit and she plans to bring it to theaters for spring 2020.
Sorbo also runs a radio talk show, which she previously took a break from while producing and promoting their 2017 movie “Let There Be Light,” which covers politics and current events.
This month, she and her son Braeden will be at a state policy event in Colorado Springs, because his career as a public speaker is well underway.
“I’ve got an engineer, an artist, and a public speaker,” Sorbo said of her teenagers. Rethinking education has allowed her to rethink higher education as well. With the string of admissions scandals, brand name universities don’t mean good grades as much as they signal an expensive degree, and studies have shown that people with Harvard-level academics who don’t attend Harvard end up with similarly lucrative careers.
Parents look at what Sorbo has done and they’ll tell her, “Wow. But I just don’t have the patience.”
“And I look at them, and I say, well, maybe God gave you children to teach you patience,” Sorbo said. “Maybe patience is something for you to learn.”
By the way, she adds, the opposite of patience is anger. We have enough of that in our culture.
Beyond homeschooling, there are myriad options including tutors and hiring a retired teacher who can homeschool or hybrid schools that mix homeschooling with private school, and co-ops where a group of parents take turns educating. Children are our most precious parts of us, Sorbo said, and if we care, there are options. Lots of them.
She is currently working on putting together more materials on homeschooling of a more practical nature, “some materials to make home ed something a bit more tangible and reasonable-looking,” she said.