Home Room: Debunking the Myths of Home Schooling
Maria, age 10, usually gets up at around 6:30 a.m. to read the comics. After breakfast, she does her daily chores, then starts on her work—math, writing in her journal, practicing piano, learning French, reading—in her words, “whatever we’ve got on for the day.” By lunchtime her work is usually completed, and she has the rest of the day to play, work on the computer, and read. Her long-term goals include learning to draw animals better, becoming a master at the piano, and owning her own animal shelter.
Steve, age 12, wants to go to college and play football. He considers himself an average learner in many areas, but an above-average reader and mathematician. Steve participates in several activities, including taking piano lessons, volunteering for Meals on Wheels, taking part in a book discussion group, and going on field trips.
Claire, age 14, is also an active member of her community. She volunteers at a local Humane Society, takes cello lessons, and participates in the String Academy of Wisconsin at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her passion is the cello. On most days, she practices four hours, from eight in the morning until noon, which still allows her time later in the day to edit her recently completed science fiction novel, learn algebra and biology, and play with her younger brother. “I guess you could say I’m ambitious,” she says. “I want to continue to write my own songs, something which I’ve been doing for a while. I also hope to know just about everything I can find out about space and our environment.”
What Maria, Steve, and Claire have in common is that they attend neither public nor private schools. They are home schoolers. They are part of the quiet revolution of as many as two million children who are becoming educated outside the traditional school system.
The Quiet Revolution
The phrase “home school” is perhaps not the best phrase to describe how these children get their education, since many “home schooled” children do little that resembles classroom school at home. David Guterson, award-winning novelist, high school teacher, home school parent, and author of Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, writes that a home schooled student is best described as simply “a young person who does not go to school.” Home schooled students get their education outside of school, in their homes, yes, but also in their communities, in their local libraries, in museums, and through everyday life.
No one knows exactly how many children are home schooled in the United States. Some states do not require home school families to register, and other states have laws that are so punitive so as to lead families not to file at all. Estimates of the number of home schoolers nationwide range from a little under one million to two million children, or from 1.7% to 4% of the school-age population.
In Wisconsin, where home school families file an intent form with the state, the trend is clear. Between 1996 and 2000, public school enrollment decreased by 1,855 students, private school enrollment decreased by 1,774 students, and home school enrollment increased by 4,210 students to a total for the 1999/2000 school year of 21,134 home schooled students, an increase of nearly 25%. If home schooling were simply a reaction to the negative aspects of classroom education, its popularity would soon fade. What continues to draw families to home schooling are the positive aspects of home-based education, including a better fit for intellectual needs, positive social development, and a more natural kind of education.
Home School Myths and Realities
Many people think they know home schoolers from their portrayal in the media. If we were to believe the popular press, we’d think that most children who are home schooled come from one of these three types of families:
- Ultra-conservative, Christian families
- Isolationist libertarians
- Spelling bee champions
It is true that some home school families do follow a traditional, religious-based curriculum, believe in libertarian principles of freedom and individualism, and have children who learn remarkably quickly and who are intensely driven to succeed in school tasks. These parents are not unlike many other parents whose children go to schools. But just as many home school families practice secular home schooling or unschooling (child-led, interest-based learning), believe strongly in the value of community and effective government, and have children who are more than content to learn at an average pace and without competition. Home school families are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Quakers, just like people in all other segments of society. They are people, not stereotypes. Like Maria, Steve, and Claire, they are the children next door, the children at your local library and playground. And they may just be an important part of educational reform in the 21st century. Home schooled young adults are entering every corner of American society, from physical labor and self-owned businesses to Ivy League schools and the creative arts. And the attitudes and beliefs that they bring with them about education will most certainly help to shape the direction of the next century.
Home schooling is a more natural educational choice for many families who seek alternatives to a fast-paced, treadmill way of life. When families make decisions to live in closer harmony with the earth, to take a more spiritual approach to living, to reduce their contribution to world waste and pollution, and to simplify their daily lives, home schooling often seems the next logical step toward respecting life’s natural rhythms, both in terms of their children’s intellectual development and their day-to-day schedules.
Intellectually, children who are home schooled are not restricted by ideas of grade levels or inappropriate standards. Children who are in school are nearly always “in a grade,” meaning that a fifth grader would work at the same level in most if not all subjects and would be compared with and evaluated against “the average fifth grader.”
However, most parents and teachers know that few children develop evenly in all areas. A 10-year-old may be reading at grade level, a late bloomer in math, and a whiz at science. Four years later, this same child may have superb writing and math skills and have less of an interest in science.
A different child may have even greater uneven abilities, sometimes called “asynchronous development.” This child may think much faster than she can write, read and comprehend silently at a much higher level than she can pronounce words correctly, and arrive at math solutions in her head before she has the small-motor skills or patience to show all the steps. With time and maturity, her abilities may come into sync, but in the classroom, such a student is often labeled learning disabled or ADD.
Home schooling can meet a child’s intellectual needs in another important way—by allowing the child’s interests and passions to be an integral part of the child’s education. A young child who is smitten with dinosaurs can read about dinosaurs, learn the science of food chains and habitats through dinosaurs, write stories about dinosaurs, and even do dinosaur math by calculating how much dinosaurs may have eaten or making a chart of the estimated numbers of different species. If a home schooled child is interested in learning state history during a year when United States history is supposed to be taught, parents can take advantage of the child’s intrinsic motivation rather than let it fade away and go untapped in order to meet benchmarks and standards.
In addition to a better fit with intellectual needs, home schooling also offers many families the time and space necessary to get to know each other and learn to live peacefully with one another. By simply having more time together, home school families often learn how to tolerate individual differences, respect individual needs, and cooperate toward common goals.
That’s not to say that home school families don’t experience the same normal struggles and disagreements that all families go through, but it’s not uncommon for home school teens to enjoy the company of their parents and younger siblings. These families have learned how to get along with each other, and they can then transfer that ability to other social situations.
But what about socialization?
Lack of socialization is one of the first criticisms raised by many home school opponents, but psychologist Linda Silverman notes the important distinction between socialization and social development. Socialization is the ability to adapt to the needs of a group, the ability and desire to conform. Social development, on the other hand, is the process of getting to know and be comfortable with oneself and one’s beliefs so as to better contribute to the needs of the group. The difference is between going along with the crowd and not making waves or standing out (socialization) and cooperating when necessary for the common good but also being willing to stick one’s neck out to make a positive difference (social development). As Claire puts it, “To me, a good education allows you to live life and not just get by. I just really want to know things and make a difference.”
Extreme isolation is not an inherent aspect of home schooling. Many home school families participate in community classes, home school groups, library book groups, impromptu play dates, learning co-ops, and field trips shared with other families. When home school children do have time alone, it is often welcome, allowing for uninterrupted hours devoted to reading, daydreaming, writing, playing, and time to be a child. A normal school schedule plus extracurricular activities and homework allows the classroom-schooled child little time to hear, much less follow, her own internal drummer.
Listening to Home Schoolers
Home school families have a lot to teach us about new possibilities for education and community. Children who home school can receive a truly differentiated education—an education tailored to their specific needs and strengths—rather than a generic curriculum. While it is difficult for classroom teachers to switch curriculum mid-year when it isn’t working or to experiment with longer blocks of learning time rather than short classes, home school parents have the flexibility to try these approaches, and their successes can perhaps point to better ways to educate all children.
Many home school parents mention decreased stress and improved family relationships as two of the best things about home schooling, even though they may have originally chosen home schooling as a way to better meet their child’s academic needs.
With one to two million American children learning outside of school, home schooling can no longer be considered an extremist position or fad. Home schooling is a valid and effective educational option. Home schooling is here to stay.
Families beginning home schooling need to research their state’s home school regulations. Each state has its own home schooling laws and requirements. Wisconsin’s Home-Based Private Educational Program requirements are available from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 125 S. Webster St., P.O. Box 7841, Madison, WI 53707-7841; phone: 800-441-4563; www.dpi.state.wi.us/dpi/dfm/sms/homeb.html.
Several websites also offer links to information about state home schooling laws, including the Home School Legal Defense Association and Home Education Magazine.
- HSLDA Website: www.hslda.org/laws/default.asp
- Home Education Magazine Website: www.home-ed-magazine.com/lawregs
- The Wisconsin Parents Association, an inclusive state-wide grassroots organization, offers information and support. Wisconsin Parents Association, P.O. Box 2502, Madison, WI 53701-2502; 608-283-3131; www.homeschooling-wpa.org
A list of home school support groups by state can be found at the A to Z Home’s Cool Homeschooling Web page: www.gomilpitas.com/homeschooling/regional/Region.htm
About the author: Lisa Rivero and her husband home school their son. Lisa’s book about home schooling intense and creative learners, Creative Home Schooling: A Resource Guide for Smart Families, is published by Great Potential Press. This article first appeared in Milwaukee’s Outpost Exchange.