Home schooling first showed up on the national radar screen in 1997, when 13-year-old Rebecca Sealfon, all brains and awkward gestures, won the National Spelling Bee, showing a startled public that her unorthodox education must be doing something right. Today, though home schooling accounts for only 3 or 4 percent of America's schoolchildren, the movement's brisk 15 percent annual growth rate has become a powerful, hard to ignore indictment of the nation's academically underachieving, morally irresolute, disorderly, and often scary public schools. Side by side with public education's lackluster results, the richness of home schooling's achievement—the wealth of challenging subjects its pupils learn, the civility it inculcates, the strong characters it seems to form, and the nurturing family life it reinforces—embodies a practical ideal of childhood and education that can serve as a useful benchmark of what is possible in turn-of-the-millennium America.
Though existing data are incomplete, everything we know about home-schooled kids says that they are flourishing academically in every way. This year, home-schooled kids swept the top three places on the National Spelling Bee, and Stanford accepted 27 percent of its home-schooled applicants, nearly twice its average acceptance rate. Small wonder that the public school establishment wants to regulate home schooling out of existence. It represents a silent, but eloquent, reproach to the professionals.
Only 20 years ago, home schooling was a far-out fringe phenomenon. No more than 50,000 children were then educated outside of school, their parents mostly graying hippies who wanted to protect them from what they considered the stifling conformity of "the system." In the early eighties, though, the ranks of home schoolers began to swell with Christian fundamentalists dissatisfied with value-free public schools. Today, the full array of American families—from religiously orthodox Catholics and Jews to thoroughgoing secularists—are joining the fundamentalists and the Age-of-Aquarius types in home schooling their kids.
Former Department of Education researcher Patricia M. Lines, writing in The Public Interest, estimates that now anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million children are being home schooled, considerably more than the 400,000 students enrolled in charter schools across the country. "The rise of home schooling," Lines judges, "is one of the most significant social trends of the past half century."
What does a typical home-schooling family look like? It is likely to be white (only 6 percent of home-schooling families are minorities) and observantly Christian, with married parents and three or more kids. The parents are likely to be better educated than the adult population at large, and the family will be comfortably middle-class—though either Mom (in nine out of ten home-schooling families) or Dad forgoes a second family income to stay at home. Mom and Dad will probably vote Republican.
The Imperatos of Bohemia, in New York's Suffolk County, fit the typical home-schooling family profile pretty much to a T. Blunt-spoken Joe Imperato, Brooklyn born and bred, works for the New York City Fire Department; his soft-spoken, articulate wife, Karen, teaches the kids, eight of them (aged 11 months to 17 years) . . . and counting. The Imperatos have been home schooling for eight years now, for academic, religious (they're evangelical Christians), and familial reasons. To get a sense of what home schooling was like up close, I went to visit them in late May.
Welcomed into their big white house with a firm handshake from Joe, I felt for a moment—no exaggeration—as if I had entered Laura Ingalls Wilder's little house on the prairie, relocated to a leafy New York suburb. The well-dressed, polite, and cheerful children spill out of every corner of the house to greet me; family portraits and drawings by the kids adorn the walls. The home radiates warmth and good order, from the kids' elaborate chore chart to the piano in the living room to the prominently displayed "House Rules" (Rule No. 1: "I Will Not Argue with Mom and Dad").
Recovering from my intrusion, the Imperatos' home school soon bustles. The family has converted one section of the house into three makeshift classrooms. There's a narrow room with a long counter for the younger kids, three of whom, 12-year-old Julie, Philip (9), and Peter (7), return to math after saying hello; a wider room humming with slightly bruised computers where Luke, 14, is doing a grammar program on CD-ROM; and a third, "quiet" room, where the older children can read. Books pile on shelves in each of the rooms, and everywhere you turn there's something to engage the mind—a wall poster time-lining major events of world history, globes, and educational videos.
The school day, Karen explains, begins promptly at 9:00, after breakfast and chores, and can last, with breaks, until 4:30. She hovers over the younger children, making sure they're working and helping them with difficult problems; Luke and 16-year-old Christine don't need much supervision. Last week, Karen informs me, the whole family dissected a frog as part of a complete science lesson purchased from an educational vendor, formaldehyde-soaked amphibian and dissecting tools included. To teach their children, the Imperatos use a mix of pre-designed curricula, including the excellent Saxon Math program, and their own improvisations. The children do well academically, says Joe; Karen beams that Philip is the equivalent of a grade ahead in math. Speaking with Luke about his American history lessons, I'm surprised at how well-informed and thoughtful he is for his age.
Though family is central for the Imperatos—the children clearly revere their folks, and Mom and Dad are proud parents—the kids do plenty outside the house, too. Christine is an accomplished pianist and Luke is getting there with the violin. They both play classical music in a home-school orchestra that meets several times a month. "Everybody learns to play a musical instrument in this house," laughs their father. Three of the kids, including Julie, play Little League baseball. Every month, the family spends an afternoon at the Bowery Mission helping the down-and-out. Field trips and outings with other home-schooling families are frequent. The Imperatos also participate actively in the life of the Gospel Community Church in West Sable.
I left impressed: if home schooling is responsible, even in part, for such a seemingly happy, thriving family and bright, well-mannered children, it's a big success.
The No. 1 reason that most families first decide on home schooling these days, surveys show, is dissatisfaction with the academic quality of the public schools. "A lot of parents say, I'd be happy to trust the local school system with the education of my kids—except that they haven't learned to read yet, " says Susan Wise Bauer, co-author, with her mother, Jessie Wise, of The Well-Trained Mind, a remarkable compendium of information designed to help home-schooling parents give their children a traditional liberal education. "Something has changed in the schools for the worse over the last 20 years," believes Catherine Moran, director of a national network for Catholic home schoolers. "They're dumbing down the kids, and the teachers aren't of the highest caliber, to say the least."
Sabrina and Gary Matteson's story of their son Myles's public school woes is typical. Several years back, Myles, bored crazy with third grade at the New Hampshire public school he attended, begged his parents to let him stay home and read more challenging books—"a request from a kid that a parent shouldn't simply ignore," says Sabrina. When the Mattesons informed the school principal that they were going to home school their son, the honest administrator couldn't blame them. "He told us that they had to teach to the 40th percentile," Sabrina remembers—meaning that classroom instruction geared itself to the worst students, and sharp kids like Myles lose out. Trapped in dull public school classrooms that do nothing to engage their minds, the Myleses of the world frequently tune out or become disruptive. Even American Federation of Teachers president Sandra Feldman admits that public schools have to do more to challenge smart kids or risk losing them to home schooling.
Home schoolers' misgivings about the public schools aren't just based on isolated cases. As education reformers William J. Bennett, Chester E. Finn Jr., and John T. E. Cribb Jr. underscore in their recent book, The Educated Child, the public schools have suffered at least since the mid-seventies from watered-down assignments and exams, politically correct textbooks, incompetent or lazy teachers who can't be fired because of union protection, and trendy educational fads like "New Math" that have pushed aside the three Rs. It's a toxic brew, the authors argue, that has left only one out of three public school fourth-graders reading "proficiently," 40 percent of public school eighth-graders unable to do basic math, and public school 12th graders the worst in the industrialized world in science.
Why not send the kids to a competitive private school? Most home-schooling families can't afford it, even when a good private school is available nearby. Weekly Standard literary editor J. Bottum and his wife, Lorena, have decided to home school their daughter, Faith, in part for economic reasons. "My wife and I are typical, I think, of that shabby-genteel class of people with more education than money and greater aspirations than resources," says Bottum. "At some point we realized that we would never be able to afford to hire anyone else to give our daughter the level of schooling with which we'd be satisfied."
But this may be to construe too negatively what for many home schoolers is an inspiring educational mission: to regain the vision of excellence that has vanished from so much of American education. Indeed, the brisk sales of Bauer and Wise's The Well-Trained Mind point to the longing of many parents to educate their kids in the great riches of the West that too many public schools value so lightly. Most of the home schoolers I encountered were learning Greek, Latin, and other serious subjects that most public schools have abandoned, and their history lessons emphasized imagination-stirring biographies of great, world-transforming men and women instead of the abstract and inhuman historical forces that so many dry-as-dust public school textbooks stress.
The rise of home schooling has sparked an explosion of marvelous curricula based on the ideal of a comprehensive liberal education. Upstate New Yorkers Melissa and David Fischer, both Cornell grads, home school their three children, 15, 14, and 12, with the help of one such curriculum. It's a "unit" study program, provided by the evangelical Christian educational firm Konos, that organizes studies, month by month, around common themes. (Secular and Catholic firms offer equally impressive curricula.) When I talked with the Fischers, they were exploring ancient Greece with Konos. After morning prayer, Melissa, who does most of the teaching, read and discussed Homer with the kids; later in the day, after math and before piano lessons, the family studied Greek history and even a bit of ancient Greek, at each child's own level. Konos is meaty stuff, using great books, the study of languages, and intelligently designed study guides for parents. Many home-schooling parents told me that they enjoy learning along with their kids, filling in gaps in their own educations.
Frequently, home-schooling parents design their own curricula. When done right, they can be imaginative and substantial. Kenneth Robinson, a lawyer by training, is one of the rare fathers who stays at home to teach (his wife writes and illustrates children's books in a wing of their pleasant Ware, Massachusetts, home). His self-designed curriculum uses "the best books I think available." Whitney, his 13-year-old daughter, begins her day with pre-algebra math, and then moves on to reading—Arthur Conan Doyle's collected Sherlock Holmes stories and C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity are currently on the plate. Then it's time for logic. "I stress thinking skills and the ability to reason correctly, so we spend time looking at arguments and critiquing them for logical fallacies," Robinson says. In the afternoon, Robinson and his daughter were tackling Frederick Bastiat's writings on socialism's flaws.
Home schooling, families say, allows you to tailor your educational approach to a child's interests, innate gifts, and learning style. This kind of flexibility can go too far: some in the small but growing "unschooling" wing of the home-schooling movement, inspired by 1960s educational radicals like John Holt and Ivan Illich, think that any adult direction will crush kids' creativity, so that parents should just facilitate whatever their children want to learn, whenever they want to learn it—replicating at home the trendy folly of the "child-centered classroom." But, kept within limits and balanced with fundamentals, a flexible approach can ignite a child's love of learning.
Lisa Kander is a Michigan home-schooling mother with four kids, ranging in age from ten to 18-year-old Beth, who now attends Brandeis University in Massachusetts on full scholarship. All of Kander's children read, write, and do math far above grade level. She attributes their success to home schooling's flexibility. "Home schooling allowed our four children to reach a readiness moment for reading skills on their timetables, not on an arbitrary curriculum chart," Kander says. With one child, that moment came earlier than average; with another, later.
Home schooling can take much less time than classroom schooling, since you don't have to stand in line, spend an hour at recess, or wait for the slowest student in class. "We can get accomplished in three hours what it takes a public school days to cover," says Sabrina Matteson. Freeing up time lets many home-schooled children devote lots of energy to interests like music. Two of Matteson's home-schooled children are gifted musicians: Myles, now 16, plays the bagpipes and his elder brother Tyler plays eight instruments, including the piano and the sitar. Almost every home-schooling family I talked with had musical children. Sixteen-year-old Piper Runnion-Bareford, home schooled in Deerfield, New Hampshire, practices the harp four hours a day, something that wouldn't be possible, she says, if she attended public school. Her effort—"pure joy," she says—has landed her the harpist's position in the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic.
Even a well-designed curriculum, along with great flexibility and efficiency, can't always substitute for expertise or for access to expensive facilities, such as science labs, that public and private school kids take for granted. For difficult subjects like advanced languages or upper-level science, most home-schooling families outsource, with the children enrolling in community-college courses or seeking out tutors in the fat home-schooling bulletins published these days in almost every part of the country. For example, Mary Eagleson, a retired college science professor in White Plains, New York, does a booming business as a science and math instructor for home schoolers, converting her porch into a makeshift science lab. In some states, including Washington and Iowa, home-schooled students can even enroll in public schools part-time, in order to take advantage of school facilities or sports programs. The schools receive partial state funding for the part-timers.
All this sounds good, but how exactly do home-schooled children measure up academically to their counterparts in public and private school? The National Education Association—focusing, with its typical disingenuousness, on inputs rather than outcomes—has passed a testy resolution demanding that home-schooling parents go through "the appropriate state education licensure agency" and use only curricula "approved by the state department of education" before they receive state permission to home school. After all, if any dedicated parent can home school effectively, the teachers' unions' and ed schools' claim to the special, credentialized skills of "teaching professionals" collapses.
And indeed, the data show that the legions of parent-teachers are succeeding solidly. The largest study so far, authored for the Home School Legal Defense Association by respected University of Maryland statistician Lawrence M. Rudner, examined some 20,000 home-schooled students from 50 states. These students scored higher on standardized tests than public and private school students in every subject and at every grade level. The longer their parents had home schooled them, the better they did. The results shocked the left-leaning Rudner, who initially believed that home schoolers were a bunch of "conservative nuts." He has changed his mind.
On standardized national tests of skills and achievement, Rudner found, home-schooled kids score better than 70 to 80 percent of all test-takers. Even more striking, he observes, "By eighth grade, the median performance of home-school students is almost four [grade] levels above that of students nationwide." By 12th grade, home-schooled students scored way up in the 92nd percentile in reading. Rudner cautions that his study doesn't compare home-schooled children, whose parents are generally richer and more educated than average, with equivalent public and private school kids. Moreover, the families whose kids he studied all sought testing materials from fundamentalist Bob Jones University, so they are a skewed sample.
Recent statistics from the SAT and ACT college entrance exams, though less impressive than Rudner's, are still solid. In 1999, students who identified themselves as home schooled scored an average of 1083 on the SAT, 67 points above the national average, and 22.7 on the ACT, compared with the national average of 21.
Sixty-nine percent of home schoolers go on to college, compared with 71 percent of grads from public high schools and 90 percent of private school grads. How do they get in without transcripts? Parents will put together portfolios with samples of their children's work and lists of their accomplishments. "If home-schooled students are required to take standardized tests, they take them," explains Cafi Cohen, a home-schooling mother and author of And What About College? "If they need a transcript, Mom or Dad sits down at the computer and writes up a transcript, with grades if necessary." More than two-thirds of American colleges now accept such transcripts, though some require home-schooled applicants to submit a GED or additional subject exams, and home schoolers now attend 900 colleges of all descriptions. Harvard accepts approximately ten every year. Oglethorpe in Atlanta actively recruits home schoolers.
Home-schooled undergrads do well, after the initial adjustment. Those who have enrolled at Boston University during the past four academic years, for example, have maintained a 3.3 grade-point average out of a perfect four. "Home schoolers bring certain skills—motivation, curiosity, the capacity to be responsible for their education—that high schools don't induce very well," a Stanford University admissions officer recently told the Wall Street Journal. The consensus among admissions officers across the country, a 1997 study reports, is that home-schooled students are academically, emotionally, and socially prepared to excel in college.
Though academic excellence is essential for home-schooling families, two-thirds have chosen this course primarily for religious and cultural reasons. For Joe and Karen Imperato, raising their kids right was crucial. "We want our children to grow up with sound characters and firm values," Joe stresses.
Protecting children from a popular culture overflowing with images of rebellion and sexual promiscuity is a key goal. "Home schoolers know that you don't have to condemn your kids to the kind of educational-formation-by-default in the rotten popular culture that so many parents seem to resign themselves to," remarks University of Tennessee historian Wilfred M. McClay, who has home schooled his two children, ages 11 and 14, with his wife, Julie, for four years now. Home schooling mother Connie Marshner agrees: "You can resist the culture that so many horrible TV shows and movies promote today," she says. Home-schooling, she's convinced, helps you take up arms against it: "It allows parents to play more fully the role of cultural gatekeepers," she maintains. Accordingly, only 1.6 percent of fourth-grade home schoolers watch more than three hours of television per day, compared with 40 percent of fourth-graders nationally.
The public schools, these home schoolers believe, fail to shield children from the enticements of McClay's "rotten popular culture" because few teachers and principals offer adult leadership or moral example anymore. "Teachers don't know how to discipline kids today, since they themselves don't believe in authority," Marshner argues. "The sixties destroyed the idea. How can you inculcate character and good behavior—the old idea of deportment—without legitimate authority?" Some teachers even stoke the spirit of rebellion in their young students. Laurie Runnion-Bareford began her journey toward home schooling her kids after a New Hampshire public school teacher told her ten-year-old son that profanities were okay to use in a vocabulary assignment. "It wasn't as if he hadn't heard bad words before," Runnion-Bareford recalls, "but the signal his teacher sent by doing this was that incivility was acceptable—which was unacceptable to us." Many home schoolers, too, find the Heather Has Two Mommies and condoms-on-bananas aspect of today's public school regime deeply offensive.
This abdication of authority, social thinkers say, has produced disorderly and uncivil schools, where the peer group sets the terms. "There used to be a social consensus that you don't talk back to adults, you don't spit, you don't swear at the teacher," Marshner says. "All those things start breaking down now in the fourth grade, as kids start taking their cues from their peers and popular culture." Says Catherine Moran of such peer-dominated schools: "Everyone acts the same, dresses the same, and, when they're 12 or 13, pierces the same—and in some cases starts having sex or doing drugs." Says social scientist Rudner: "When a nine-year-old comes home with garbage language and garbage values, home schooling makes sense."
Sabrina Matteson sees the Columbine massacre as a watershed for home schooling. "Columbine caused a lot of families and students to assess the safety of their schools," she says. Colorado's home-schooling population rose 10 percent in the months after the killings. Friends of the Mattesons just pulled all their kids out of their local New Hampshire public school after the seventh bomb scare this year.
Critics of home schooling claim that withdrawing children from the classroom will retard their "socialization," to use educrat jargon. Charges Annette Cootes of the NEA-affiliated Texas State Teachers Association: "[H]ome schooling is a form of child abuse because you are isolating children from human interaction. I think home schoolers are doing a great discredit [sic] to their children."
Yet social science research suggests that home-schooled children aren't lacking in social skills. Grad student Larry Shyers of the University of Florida videotaped at play 70 home-schooled eight- to ten-year-old children and 70 children of the same age group who attended school. Trained counselors—who watched the tapes without knowing which group the kids belonged to—found only one behavioral difference: the home-schooled kids had fewer behavior problems.
Even a cursory familiarity with home schoolers makes clear that the accusation of isolation is absurd. Most home-schooled kids take advantage of buzzing networks of associations. Beth Kander's busy social calendar as a home schooler before she left for Brandeis is typical. "I never had a problem with friends," she recounts, "since I belonged to the Girl Scouts, participated in several 4-H clubs and youth programs and the drama club my mother started, and volunteered all over the place." Many home-schooled kids join church groups, play in town sports leagues, do internships, or work part-time. And they form their own associations, everything from poetry recitation clubs to Scandinavian dance groups to home-school orchestras—legions of them.
For their part, home-schooling families reject the model of age-based socialization that the schools offer. "I don't know any adults who would choose to spend eight hours a day, five days a week with 20 to 30 people of exactly the same age," says Glorianna Pappas, a New York musician and home-schooling mother. Instead, home schoolers often meet people of widely different ages and outlooks when helping out at a homeless shelter or singing in a church choir. "This gives them a greater level of poise, experience, and maturity than can be had in the artificial confines of rigid, age-based classrooms," argues educational theorist Andrew J. Coulson.
Still, for home schoolers, family comes first. Historian Dana Mack sees home schooling as an important example of what she believes to be a growing "familist counterculture." This counterculture firmly rejects elite culture's contempt for traditional family values and its celebration of a me-first ethic in pleasure and work that has led to sky-high divorce and illegitimacy rates and a generation of sad and neglected kids. "Home schooling," Mack holds, "is one aspect of a new vision of family life that equates family time with children's well-being, and that puts family intimacy and child-parent bonds before self-realization and economic gain."
For many, home schooling gives family life an unexpected richness. Historian McClay, who watched his teenage son Mark develop a deep love for classical music and leap ahead academically when removed from school, describes the "transformative" impact that home schooling had on his family. "There's this sense that we're involved in a project in life together: the notion that the family is an arrow in time is much more meaningful to me and to all of us than it was before," he says. "We've seen a bonding in our family that we wouldn't have seen if we didn't home school," stresses Joe Imperato. "When you become the teacher, you're really aware of the incredible responsibility you have toward your children."
Home schooling seems to minimize the proverbial friction between teens and their parents. "Life with our home-schooled teens has been a joy—heaven," Laurie Runnion-Bareford enthuses. "It surprised us, because my friends who had teenage kids in the public schools were miserable." But, after all, argues home schooler Douglas Dewey, Chief Operating Officer of Theodore Forstmann's Children's Scholarship Fund, "Not so long ago, it wasn't considered natural or even tolerable for children to rebel against their parents."
It's important not to over-idealize home schooling's impact on family life. It is an enormous investment of time for a teaching parent, and it can lead to burnout. Says Shari Henry, a contributing editor of Homeschooling Today and a home-schooling mother of three: "One February, when the weather was bad, I just said to myself, I can't keep doing this—it's too much responsibility." To avoid burnout, Henry emphasizes, home-schooling parents, particularly those with young children, must give themselves occasional breaks and make certain that they're plugged in to a good support network of other home-schooling families. In addition to this difficulty, home-schooling parents often encounter painful opposition from their own parents or from neighbors and friends. And—one last danger—Susan Wise Bauer, who speaks to home-schooling families across the country, reports that one does occasionally come across a paranoid and domineering parent, afraid of letting go—ever—of the children.
The rise of home schooling has pressured the legal system to accommodate it. "From the early eighties through the next decade, there was a pitched war over whether home schooling was going to be legal at all," recalls Michael Farris, the lawyer and former politician who heads the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association. When his advocacy organization was formed in 1983, home schooling was illegal or strongly discouraged in all but three states, and school administrators and teachers' unions wanted to keep it that way. Parents who tried to teach their kids at home frequently faced jail terms and the loss of their children to foster care as school districts cracked down on them for breaking state compulsory education laws.
But because of the HSLDA, which has won virtually every legal battle it has fought, and because of the warm support of Republican legislators, home schooling is now legal in all 50 states, though the degree of state regulation varies. Texas's regulations, for example, are all but nonexistent: home-schooling parents must cover reading, spelling, grammar, math, and good citizenship, but they don't have to keep records or have their kids academically tested annually or follow any rigid timetable. New York's regulations, by contrast, require parents to teach "AIDS awareness," "substance abuse," physical education, and health (i.e., sex ed), among a host of other specific subject requirements, and they must do so on a state-determined schedule; parents must also file detailed quarterly reports with the local school superintendent. (Many states once required home-schooling parents to have teacher certification, but all have abolished that requirement.)
Nevertheless, even today, Farris complains, some school districts "just don't get it." This March, to take one egregious example of many, the Richmond County School District sent cops to arrest Gerald and Angela Balderson, after they removed their eight-year-old from his Warsaw, Virginia, public school to teach him at home. The Baldersons had scrupulously given notice to the school superintendent, as Virginia law requires. But the district chose to call out the truant officer on them nonetheless. The Baldersons, understandably, are suing. According to the HSLDA, home schoolers also have to watch out for social workers, some of whom perversely view home-schooling as a "risk factor" in assessing the likelihood of a family to commit child abuse.
Against opposition like this, home schoolers have turned themselves into a formidable political force. California Democratic Congressman George Miller learned this the hard way. In 1994, he offered an amendment to a federal education bill that specified that teachers had to have certification in the subjects they taught. Miller protested that he didn't intend the amendment to apply to home schoolers, but worried home-schooling parents, galvanized into action by the HSLDA, barraged Congress with hundreds of thousands of phone calls. The amendment, which had already made it through committee, got only one vote on the floor—Miller's.
What level of regulation is appropriate for home schooling? The best arguments are on the side of a relatively laissez-faire approach. The New York–NEA model of constant school-district supervision and narrowly specified subject requirements implicitly presumes that the state does a good job educating kids and that parents are ignorant until proven otherwise—dubious propositions. Moreover, some states' subject requirements may offend a home-schooling family's deeply felt cultural and religious beliefs, subverting the very reason they've decided to home school their children in the first place. But the public does have a legitimate interest in making sure that home-schooled kids get educated and that, say, a dysfunctional foster care family isn't yanking its children out of school to use them as laborers. The most sensible regulations would be minimal, requiring home-schooled kids only to demonstrate—through taking a state test or some agreed-upon alternative means—that they were learning how to read, write, and do math by a certain age.
"In America in the twenty-first century," William Bennett recently observed, "no family should feel it has to educate at home to educate well." But until that day comes, home schooling will continue to grow—educating kids successfully, invigorating civil society, and reaffirming family values.