I don't think Jeffrey Loomis of Waynesboro, Va., meant to do it, but he made me ashamed of myself. In a recent e-mail he said, "I read Mr. Mathews' column every week and struggle sometimes with myself and our decision to homeschool and I often wonder what his opinion of homeschooling is."
This is, of course, the nicest possible way of reminding me that I have pretty much ignored the homeschooling movement, one of the most interesting and dynamic developments in American education. That was because I was ignorant of what was going on with those hundreds of thousands of home-schooling families, and didn't want anyone to know.
Loomis' note convinced me that this was rank cowardice. I pulled out a thickening homeschooling file that I had put off reading, called up the most recent reports on this phenomenon and looked them over.
Before I share what I learned, I want to plead for help from families like the Loomises who are homeschooling, have homeschooled, or are thinking of homeschooling. I want to hear about your intellectual journey. What have you found to be the best and worst parts of educating your own children? What do we non-homeschoolers need to understand? Are there public policies that should be changed? Tell me anything that you think is important for readers to know, and I promise to do a second column that will be much better informed than this one. Those who think harm can come from the growth of the homeschooling movement should also e-mail me.
There were plenty of surprises in the stories and reports, particularly the relatively great freedoms now enjoyed by homeschoolers in many states. As late as 1983, homeschooling was banned in all 50 states, but by 1993 the prohibitions were gone, replaced by legal battles in the 1990s between local school districts and homeschoolers over the rules. Today nine states do not even make homeschoolers register, and the redtape for them in other states has been significantly reduced. I recommend a comprehensive story by Melissa Ludwig on the front page of the March 28, 2004, Austin American-Statesman, "Education on their own terms," one of the best pieces on homeschooling I have ever read. (The article only appears to be available online via the newspaper's paid archive at http://www.newslibrary.com/sites/aasb/.)
There are at least 850,000 homeschoolers in the United States, according to the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, but that estimate is five years old. Leading advocates for homeschooling, such as the Home School Legal Defense Association [hslda.org] in Purcellville, Va., say there are about 2 million homeschooled children today. From all the available evidence, I think it is fair to say that the number is well over 1 million. That is less than 2 percent of all the school children in the country, but it is growing.
The surge of popularity has altered the political atmosphere. Legislators and school board members who once warned that homeschooling would hurt the public schools now tell glowing stories about children they know, sometimes children in their own families, who are thriving with lessons in their kitchen rather than in a classroom. The Home School Legal Defense Association has an experienced legal team educating parents, and any still-unfriendly school superintendents, about homeschooler rights. Even unfavorable news stories, like the revelation last year that four home-schooled boys in Collingswood, N.J., were allegedly being starved to death by their parents, have not changed the way politicians embrace the movement.
And that has sparked some remarkable, and I expect to some people disturbing, developments. For instance, there appears to be a small but noticeable trend toward what is called "unschooling" -- zen homeschooling in which the parents make no schedules and place no demands on their children. The unschoolers pick their activities -- reading, GameBoying, cooking, bike riding, whatever -- and the parents trust that their natural instincts will eventually lead them to ask for help in learning to read, write and do math, or learn it on their own. A Dec. 22, 2003, story by Leslie Brody of the The Record of Bergen County, N.J., noted that "some unschoolers don't start reading until they're 12."
There is also an interesting tendency among more affluent homeschoolers to revive the custom of full-time tutors. This was the way many wealthy families educated their children in the 19th century. It survived in the 20th century usually for children in special circumstances, such those with severe disabilities or members of the Culkin family who were too busy making movies to get to school on time. But parents who have the money, and lack the time, inclination or talent for teaching, are hiring professionals to come into their homes and instruct their kids, often for what it would cost to send them to fancy private schools, $15,000 to $20,000 per kid.
I was aware that cyber charter schools had become a problem in some states for demanding state grants even though some of their parents paid taxes elsewhere. The reports indicate that legislatures are moving to correct the problem, and some cyber schools, such as the Florida Virtual School, are doing very well by emphasizing extra courses for students who are enrolled in regular schools.
Many educators watching the growth of homeschooling worry about parents not being up to it, and not only giving their children a lousy education but stunting the development of social skills that arise from getting in cafeteria lines, joining the basketball team and doing group projects at school. There is not much research on this, but I have spoken to enough homeschooling parents to sense that they are, on average, at least as good at teaching their own children as the local classroom teacher would be, and better able to focus on each kid's needs and interests. The rich American tradition of non-school activities for children -- soccer leagues, scouting, church and even, heaven forbid, hanging around with the neighborhood kids -- takes care of the socialization problem, at least in my experience.
A recent study by Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, of more than 5,000 young adults home-schooled at least seven years found they were more likely to have taken college courses, participated in community service, used the Internet and used the public library than the average American their age. Hopefully someone can explain to me one disturbing part of the survey, at least to us journalists: the home-schooled respondents were less likely, 61 percent to 82 percent, to read a newspaper at least once a week and also less likely, 42 percent to 64 percent, to check national news on TV or radio almost every day than the average American aged 18 to 39.
Loomis, a systems engineer, said he and his wife Catherine, who also has an engineering degree, decided to homeschool not for religious reasons or libertarian anti-government reasons but because their two boys were skipping ahead in school to a point where their teachers, obliged to spend time with many other children, could not keep up. He said in his e-mail that "there are certainly times when my wife and I question our decision to homeschool, but then there are days like today, that started with my older son and I watching the sun rise over the Blue Ridge Parkway shortly before 6 a.m. with a number of amateur astronomers, whom my son relates to very well, so that we could observe the transit of Venus, that I know we have made the right decision."
I am interested in seeing evidence to the contrary, but it seems to be that homeschooling is as American as yard sales, pancake breakfasts and Little League, all of which have thrived without much government intervention. Tell me more. Those of you who are feeling generous might give me some information, or even floor plans (my fax is 703-518-3001), that will help me write the story on how to design your living space for homeschooling that I promised the Home section editor three years ago, but never delivered.
I called Loomis and thanked him for his e-mail, saying it did me good to finally read up on this issue. If you think about it, he was homeschooling me.