Home Is Where the School Is

By Gregory J. Millman
Sunday, March 23, 2008

During a break in a high school debate tournament not long ago, my 17-year-old son struck up a conversation with a student on the rival team from a New Jersey public school. "Where's your school?" asked the boy. When my son replied that he was home-schooled, the student probed.

"How do you socialize when you're at home all the time?" he asked.

"Well, for one thing, I'm here, right?" my son laughed.

My children have gotten used to most of the standard questions from their conventionally schooled peers: Are you super-religious? Do you stay at home in your pajamas and watch TV all day? Is your mom a teacher?

Adults, on the other hand, can be surprising. Like the professor at the community college where one of our sons was taking a course, who went out of her way to pull him aside, sit him down and tell him, "You home-schoolers think you can change the world. But you can't. Nobody can."

It's hard to generalize about home-schoolers, but if there's one thing we know, it's that we are changing the world, or at least the world of education choices. Others, though, see us as either misguided or threatening -- and probably cheered last month's California appeals court ruling that all children in the state must be taught by credentialed teachers. At least 166,000 California children are home-schooled. And most home-schooling parents don't have teaching credentials, so the ruling is worrisome, even though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called it "outrageous." The decision will probably be appealed, but the teachers' unions are applauding in the meantime.

Nonetheless, home-schooling is booming. In 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that the home-schooled population nationwide was 1.1 million. And the National Home Education Research Institute estimates that it may be growing at double-digit rates.

There's no denying that the modern home-schooling movement was born of the desire to shake off stultifying school bureaucracies and to sidestep the uncertain mission of public schools, which is set by adults with often conflicting priorities for children. A century of ideological struggles has defined the hodge-podge taught in schools, and they persist to this day. Will schools teach evolution or intelligent design? Offer safe-sex or abstinence-only instruction? Encourage art and dance or treat them as distractions from No Child Left Behind tests? Home-schoolers can make our own decisions based on what's best for our children.

But "home-schooling" is a misnomer, really. Most of it doesn't even take place at home, and the schooling has little in common with what goes on in school. The legal definition varies from state to state, as do registration and other requirements. In New Jersey, the law only requires parents to see that their children get an education "equivalent" to public instruction.

What home-schoolers most readily reflect are the virtues of the old American frontier settlement or the Amish barn-raising -- we co-operate in self-reliance. My wife and I have been teaching our children ourselves for more than 15 years, and we've found that home-schooling opens doors that schools leave closed.

And contrary to most popular belief, home-schooling isn't the brainchild of religious fanatics. It actually got started in the counterculture of the 1960s. In his landmark 1964 book, "How Children Fail," teacher and education reformer John Holt accused schools themselves of causing students to fail; eventually, he came to advocate a sort of "underground railroad" out of compulsory schooling. It wasn't until the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s that the movement spread through communities that believed public schools were threatening their moral values.

The boundaries between the counterculture and Christian home-school traditions blurred through the 1990s and 2000s, as home-schoolers from various backgrounds came to discover how much they actually have in common. Today, a well-established and widespread infrastructure of home-schooling groups, Web sites and networks has made home-schooling accessible to a broader population, people who wouldn't consider themselves either particularly countercultural or particularly religious. People like my family.

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