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December 11, 2002 4 min read
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It was with great interest and some surprise that I read Jean C. Halle’s Commentary on home schooling (“Home Schooling: Why We Should Care,” Nov. 13, 2002). As a home school graduate who is now a doctoral candidate in education, I am always interested in the perception of home schooling in the press.

To the Editor:

It was with great interest and some surprise that I read Jean C. Halle’s Commentary on home schooling (“Home Schooling: Why We Should Care,” Nov. 13, 2002). As a home school graduate who is now a doctoral candidate in education, I am always interested in the perception of home schooling in the press.

Home schooling is a delicate issue for public educators and, in my view, has typically been handled in the same way that other challenges to the hegemony of public education have been handled—with disdain, mistrust, and suspicion. Home education presents a conundrum: It appears to have more success than its public counterpart, without draining assets from public school efforts. This makes it difficult to level criticism at the movement and equally difficult to embrace it, since the results are achieved in most situations without the highly prized teaching credentials presumed to nurture academic success in public education contexts.

Is there a message for public education from the home schooling movement? Ms. Halle urges that educators accept home schooling as a powerful alternative on the continuum of educational opportunity. But this seems to stop short of the real message, since with or without that acceptance, the home school movement is and will continue to be “an important part of the continuum of educational alternatives, a powerful tool in the American arsenal for developing young minds.”

I would like to suggest that home schooling presents an important message about instructional methods. Ms. Halle begins to make this point when she writes that “the home school movement is gaining momentum because of increased community support, program flexibility, and challenging, accessible curricula.” I would extend the point by noting that home schooling creates a more favorable context for the use of instructional methods that have a rich, researched history for increasing student achievement.

In the early and mid- 1980s, Herbert J. Walberg identified a list of instructional methods associated with strong positive effects on learning. Among the methods associated with the largest effects are methods particularly difficult to use in the traditional public education available to most of the nation’s students, but much more possible to use in a home school setting. Such methods include: reinforcement, acceleration, reading training, cues and feedback, science mastery learning, cooperative learning, reading experiments, personalized instruction, adaptive instruction, and tutoring. (Notice that many of these methods are time-intensive and highly responsive to individual needs.)

Let me be quick to note, as Mr. Walberg was, that of all the factors that influence achievement, none was sufficient alone to explain increased achievement. And many factors other than the instructional methods that home schoolers use contribute to their successes. But I would suggest that the flexibility afforded by home schooling results in the use of more powerful instructional methods.

This should be no surprise to public educators. We would all love to see what our students’ test scores or other more important measures of achievement would be if we applied our knowledge of methods to classes of, say, one to three students, as is the case with many home schools. It is certainly not that public educators don’t know about or want to use these powerful instructional methods. But knowledge about them is insufficient to overcome the contextual constraints present in the classrooms of most public educators. The very structures of schooling often prohibit the use of methods that contribute most to achievement.

So what is the message for public education in the continuing success of the home school movement? Having taught in a public elementary school for six years, I know that public educators don’t look to home schooling as a provider of lessons for them. But if an educational alternative proves to be successful, can we afford to simply acknowledge its good points passively? Wouldn’t it be better to try to understand how an effective educational option might improve our own practices, whether the alternative is home schooling or something else? The obvious answer is that we should.

Does this mean that we should quit our jobs and send America’s children home to their parents? Of course not. But perhaps the exigencies of public education that prevent it from being described as “flexible” should be the focus of our efforts to improve it. Until we address the structures of schooling that prevent us from addressing the personal needs of learners in the ways we already know are most effective, we will continue to push a system already performing at capacity with few appreciable results—a plight noted by Robert Branson in his Upper Limit Hypothesis.

Until public education views achievement as the constant and time as the variable, we will continue to wrestle with the issue that home schooling has already solved: how to personalize instruction. Can this be achieved by public education? Only if we understand how the current structures of schooling limit our use of powerful instructional methods, and recognize fully that real change will have to address these structures.

John Keller

Bloomington, Ind.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters

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