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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.

My wife and I hadn't originally planned on home-schooling, but with six children and one modest income, we couldn't afford a house in one of the better school districts in the state. We were living in Plainfield, an elegant old central New Jersey city with typically poor urban public schools characterized by bureaucratic mismanagement, low teacher morale and student violence. In one notorious incident, third-graders in one school were strip-searched because someone suspected one of them of stealing $20. That wasn't what we wanted for our children. We first tried a local Catholic school, but we thought that the teachers' expectations for students were too low. Since we couldn't afford classy private school tuitions, we turned to home-schooling.

Though we first tried to teach the children what the official curriculum standards said they ought to be learning in school, we soon realized that this only made sense in the context of a school. So we scrapped dry textbooks and workbooks and found more interesting ways for our children to learn.

We haunted used-book sales and assembled a library of classics for pennies on the dollar. We introduced statistics by driving to Florida for spring training (learning some geography on the way). When the dollar was strong and the airlines offered good deals in the off-season -- when other children were in school -- we took ours to Europe to see the great art and architecture or to learn about ancient Rome by walking through the Forum. Travel showed our children things they never could have learned in classrooms.

For several years, they participated in a fife and drum corps, playing colonial and traditional patriotic music, marching in parades, learning not only music and history but also teamwork, perseverance, discipline and a great deal about the communities through which they marched. This kind of experience is fairly typical of home-schooling.

Home-schoolers also work across a much wider socioeconomic spectrum than the conventionally schooled. We have worked on many projects, and in many organizations, that draw participating home-schoolers from all around our state, from far beyond school district borders. We joined a Shakespeare troupe founded by a single mother who was a college professor of literature. She taught the children to find the characters through the language, and they staged a complete Shakespeare play every year. Other members of that troupe founded a home-schooled robotics team, building robots to compete in regional, national and international events. We founded a debate and speech team that continues to compete at the middle school and high school levels.

The results? Studies have shown that home-schooled children outperform the conventionally schooled not only on standardized academic tests but also on tests of social skills. This, I believe, isn't because home-schoolers do things better than schools do them but because we do better things than schools do.

I've never heard a home-schooling parent refer to a child as "learning disabled," for instance. There are many kinds of intelligence, but conventional schools usually only focus on one. Take late reading. A conventional school education depends on written textbooks and workbooks and homework, so a child who can't read is unable to learn. But home-schoolers have developed systems and approaches that work with the kind of talent and intelligence a child has. One of our sons didn't read until he was 8 years old. That was no disability, though. He learned from audio tapes and DVDs and from being read to and -- very importantly -- from going outside and looking around. He could spot a deer on a hillside or a bluebird in a tree long before the rest of us. When he finally decided to read, he jumped into "The Chronicles of Narnia" and finished the series within weeks. "I want to read the books before I see the movie," he told us.

Home-schooled students' high performance continues into college. Admissions officers at IUPUI, a joint-venture urban campus of Indiana University and Purdue, and at Georgia's Kennesaw State University, have tracked the performance of admitted home-schoolers and found that they earn higher GPAs than the general student population. Associate Dean Joyce Reed of Brown University has called home-schoolers "the epitome of Brown students," telling the university's alumni magazine that "they are self-directed, they take risks, and they don't back off." Admissions officers at other highly selective colleges, such as Swarthmore and Stanford, have made similar statements. Some colleges and universities are admittedly more open than others to making the effort to understand home-schooling, but we've gone through the admissions process with three daughters, and all were admitted to excellent colleges.

Conventional schools are like the nation's Rust Belt companies, designed in the 19th century but struggling to meet the standards of international competition today. School boards and administrators should be concentrating on ways to make schools more like home-schooling -- not on ways to force home-schooled children to go back to schools. People who are free to think for themselves usually get together and find solutions that are better than what bureaucrats can devise.

Those are the kinds of principles that gave us California's Silicon Valley. Let's hope that someday soon, home-schooling will be perfectly legal there once again.

gregandmartine@gmail.com

Gregory J. Millman is co-author, with Martine Millman, of "Homeschooling: A Family's Journey," to be published in August.

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