Much of what I thought about home schooling was wrong. The conventional wisdom about this rapidly growing dimension of American education is too simple, too stereotyped and too stale.
For instance, the Home School Legal Defense Association, despite its energetic lawyers and many admirers, is not the leader of home schooling in this country. There is no leader, and no reigning ideology. There are instead at least a million American children – the real figure is probably twice that number – whose families want them to learn at home for many reasons, often having little to do with religion or politics.
The common image of home-schoolers as lockstep religious conservatives falls apart when you discover that some of these parents have been shunned by their fundamentalist churches for teaching their kids at home rather than sending them to the church’s school. Some home-schoolers love the new for-profit online teaching programs like K12. Some think they are a corporate plot. Some parents are home-schooling because their kids were learning more quickly than their teachers could keep up with. Some are home-schooling because their kids were learning more slowly than their public school teachers had patience for. Some home-school because their children were unhappy at school. Some home-school because they could not meet their needs any other way.
Public school educators often worry that the children of such people will not learn necessary social skills. But home-schooling parents said their children learned how to deal with other people just fine, particularly with the many adults they encountered when they visited the library or went to church or did chores around the neighborhood. With their parents so often at their side, they were able to see what good manners and self-confidence looked like, rather than be forced to adopt the jungle code of the average high school corridor. In many families one parent stays at home to supervise the home schooling, although they often do some work there to pay the bills, or trade off with other home-schooling parents when they have to be away.
Home schooling involves a tremendous commitment from the parents. At least one parent must be willing to work closely with the child, plan lessons, keep abreast of requirements, and perhaps negotiate issues with the school district. The most common home school arrangement is for the mother to teach while the father works out of the home. There are a variety of educational materials geared for the home school, published by dozens of suppliers. Some are correspondence courses, which grade students’ work, some are full curricula, and some are single topic workbooks or drill materials in areas such as math or phonics.
Many of the curriculum providers are indentifiably Christian, including several major home school publishers such as Bob Jones University Press, Alpha Omega Publications, and Home Study International. A major non-religious provider of home school materials is the Calvert School in Baltimore. Figures vary as to how many home schools use published curricula or correspondence courses, but the Department of Education estimates that it is from 25 to 50%; the rest use a curriculum the parents and/or child have devised. Education writer John Holt, a champion of home schooling, suggested that no particular area of study was essential. He advised parents to use real life activities such as work in a family business, writing letters, bookkeeping, observing nature, and talking with old people as meaningful academic lessons. Home schools might fall anywhere on this spectrum, between the tightly planned study of a formal curriculum to Holt’s free-form, experiential learning.
But first, all the parents interested in teaching their children at home need to find out what laws apply to their state and school district.
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