Does Homeschooling Make the Grade?
By Christina Baglivi Tinglof
When JoAnn Kelly became a parent volunteer for her daughter Lisa's first-grade class back in 1976, she didn't like what she saw. "The children were bored. They just sat at their desks and didn't move," remembers Kelly, a resident of San Diego, California. Wishing to keep their daughter's innate curiosity alive, she and her husband, David, considered homeschooling Lisa—now a graduate of UCLA—but decided against it. "I was too afraid to be out there on my own," says Kelly, who has a background in child development.
Back in those days, when homeschooling was considered a radical '60s idea, she would have been. But encouraged by a recent flood of local support groups and magazines catering to the needs of home educators, the Kelly family took the plunge. JoAnn has been teaching their second child, eight-year-old Michael, at home for the past three years. "With homeschooling," says his mom and mentor, "Michael is allowed to develop at his own pace."
Kelli and Vincent Way of Los Angeles teach four of their six children at home: Peter, eleven, Douglas, ten, Virgiliana, eight, Benjamin, six (three-year-old Beatrix, and 18-month-old Nicolette are patiently waiting for their first pencil boxes).
"When I was in school, I was a straight-A student," remarks Kelli Way. "And I hated every minute of it. I didn't like being regimented—doing the same thing, at the same time every day." After carefully investigating, the decision was clear. The Way children have never seen the inside of a classroom.
Homeschooling on the Rise
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has just released the report "Homeschooling in the United States: 1999". In the first organized attempt to estimate the number of students being schooled at home, the NCES report shows that an estimated 850,000 students nationwide were homeschooled in spring 1999. This represents 1.7 percent of all U.S. K–12 students.
Dr. Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute (a non-profit organization in Salem, Oregon) estimates that homeschooling continues to grow by about 15 percent a year. Patricia Lines, a research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education concurs. Her analyses show that the number of families homeschooling children has risen dramatically in the past two decades.
Why the Dramatic Increase?
Ray cites many reasons, including safety (What parent hasn't been deeply troubled by the rise in school violence?), and a chance to provide a stronger academic foundation. Yet Ray says the number one reason is simple: parents want more say in what their children learn and how they learn it. "Parents want to pass something on to their children," he says. "They want to pass on their belief systems, and the way their kids look at the world."
According to Lines, the rise is due, in part, to articles like this one. "The news makes it seem more acceptable, more normal," she says. The majority of homeschoolers do so because they believe they can give their child a better education at home and because they want more freedom in educating their child. "As we increase regulation in education," Lines says, "there will be more people who say, 'Hey, my kid doesn't fit this.'"
Take Cheryl and Steven Robinson, for instance. After moving to Pacific Palisades, California, they had trouble finding the right public school program for their ten-year-old daughter. Lauren, who has a delayed-learning problem, would have had to travel many miles to continue attending her special education class in her old neighborhood. That was unacceptable for the Robinsons, who instead enrolled Lauren in regular classes at the local elementary school. But problems quickly arose. "School wasn't happening for her," Cheryl Robinson says. "She didn't fit in."
Working with a private school that provides curriculum and support services for families who homeschool, Lauren received a custom-fit program of phonics, math and reading. "She feels happier, more balanced," says Robinson. "She's more affectionate, more demonstrative."
Purchasing pre-fab lessons through a private institution (you can find them in homeschooling publications, your local parenting magazines, or by surfing the net), as the Robinson family did, is just one option for whom the homeschool bell tolls. The Internet has opened up a world of resources for home schoolers. There are websites for every aspect of the curriculum offering information, activities, and even challenging lessons that are actually graded.
Opening Their Own School
The Rileys of Thousand Oaks, California, on the other hand, decided to open up a school of their own by filing the proper forms with the California Department of Education and enrolling just one pupil, their 13-year-old daughter.
Gillian had done poorly in many of her seventh-grade classes, and worse, she didn't seem to care. "If we didn't reverse some unhealthy trends, it would soon be beyond our control," adds Riley, a corporate publications writer and editor. The results of their nine-month field trip were positive. The following year, while attending a Catholic girls' school, Gillian brought home one of her best report cards ever. But more important was her new attitude. "Her level of communication and trust increased," Riley says. "She developed a conscience."
Each school day for Gillian began with a perusal of the Los Angeles Times. The rest of her mornings were spent studying math, science, history, and geography. When Dad left for his job in the afternoon, Gillian worked independently on various projects.
Yet enlightenment comes in all forms. Michael Kelly's day begins with a chore—to help teach family responsibility—followed by an activity like building a model spaceship. By mid-morning, student and teacher sit down for one-on-one tutoring in the basics: reading, writing, arithmetic. Kelli Way emphasizes grammar, math, and penmanship. The rest of the day is up to each child. "Life is the curriculum," says Way, who feels that fostering individual curiosity is the best lesson plan.
Time for College
Can homeschooled kids get in to college? The answer is yes. David and Micki Colfax, pioneers of homeschooling and authors of Homeschooling for Excellence (Warner Books) taught their four sons at home, and three went on to Harvard. Not bad. Although a college-bound homeschooled student can take the SAT, she obviously won't have transcripts to submit. To counter that, she can simply send in a portfolio of her work as many homeschoolers do. These days more and more colleges have admissions policies for homeschooled students.
Is Homeschooling Right for Your Family?
Think this sounds like the greatest invention since the car pool? Wait. There are a few things to consider before hanging a chalkboard in the living room. Homeschooling is a big financial commitment—the average family spends nearly $500 a year per child for such expenses as books, field trips, and equipment. And when one parent leaves his or her job to become an educator, making ends meet can be difficult. With a little creative planning, though, many households make it pay off. Dan Riley's corporate employer, for instance, allowed him to work part-time from September to June. The 50 percent cut in pay put the squeeze on the family's budget, but according to Riley, it was well worth it. Cheryl Robinson, a clothing storeowner, teaches Lauren from 8 to 11:30 a.m., then dashes to her boutique and works from noon until 6 p.m.
The Critics Speak
Although homeschooling has become more common place, it does have its critics. One of the biggest issues is socialization. Skeptics claim that if you teach your children at home, they won't be able to interact well with others once they're out in the real world.
Mary Hagen, an education consultant and director of education at Encore Language Training Services in Burbank, California, believes that homeschool is like private school. Families of similar circumstances—economic, religious, political—isolate themselves from the rest of the community. "How can parents really bring the world to their children without exposing them to people from all different backgrounds?" she asks. "I think there's a misconception about K through 12 education. It's not just about academics. It's about learning to cooperate with people you may not like. It's about being exposed to opinions that you may not agree with. It's important to appreciate differences and respect them."
Although Patricia Lines, a research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education, won't give an opinion about do-it-yourself education ("I just gather data"), she does poke a hole in the social misfit theory. "All the evidence shows that homeschooled kids are real joiners," she says.
"Michael has many friends," adds JoAnn Kelly, who takes him to a weekly homeschool playgroup. And Kelli Way is quick to add that public school isn't always a nurturing place. "I didn't learn how to get along [in school]," she says. "I was painfully shy and unable to be in any social situation."
Another valid concern of critics is that some parents aren't qualified instructors. Unlike public school teachers, parental mentors don't need a degree in education. (Only ten states require that parents have a high school diploma to teach their children at home.) Homeschool parents argue that quality is paramount, and when they fall short in certain subjects (who honestly remembers their high school geometry?), special tutors ably fill in, or parent and child can learn the material together.
Still convinced? Then the next step is to investigate the laws of your state. More than half have standardized testing requirements. Some require registration with the local school district, and a few call for formal approval from local school boards. A phone call to your department of education can fill you in on the specifics.
Although homeschooling can offer families a unique answer to their education woes (your kids will never be late for the bus again), it's not for everyone. Yet if you have a strong desire to be included in your child's education, the time, and the energy, your student may just get the patience and encouragement that only a family can offer.
Other articles by Christina Baglivi Tinglof