More Parents Turn to 'Home Schooling'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

In September 1980, George Arnold, a former schoolteacher, converted a spare room in his mother's house in Malta, Mont., into a one-room private school and began holding daily instruction for his 15-year-old son, Derick, much to the consternation of local school officials. Mr. Arnold set up shop in his mother's home after the state attorney general said it was illegal for him to teach Derick under his own roof.

Also last year, mathematician James O'Toole and his wife, Edwina, of King George, Va., went to court and won the right to teach their 7-year-old son, Frankie, at home. They've enjoyed the experience so much that they've decided to keep their 6-year-old daughter, Regina, out of school as well.

And sometime this autumn, the New Hampshire Supreme Court will decide whether homemaker Denise Rice and her husband, Chris, of Claremont, were denied due process by the State Board of Education when it refused last year to accept a home-study plan for Ms. Rice's 7-year-old son, Justin. The court will get its first opportunity to review the state and local school boards' implementation of New Hampshire's year-old home-study guidelines.

The three families are part of a national phenomenon sometimes labeled "the home schooling movement."

The "movement" defies most standard definitions; it has no local chapters, no annual convention, no true organization to speak of. Its motto, if it had one, would most likely be: "Question Authority." And its increased popularity as an alternative to traditional forms of education worries many school officials, who think that parents, however well-intentioned, are unqualified to provide their children with an adequate education.

Increasing Parent Interest

No one knows exactly how many parents are involved in home schooling, primarily because most such families prefer to keep a low profile. Many learn of each other's existence and experiences through newsletters such as Growing Without Schooling, published by John Holt of Boston, Mass.

Mr. Holt, who is perhaps the movement's most widely recognized spokesperson, says the initial April 1977 press run of Growing Without Schooling was a meager 50 copies. This month, he adds, the newsletter will be mailed to more than 3,200 subscribers.

Mr. Holt estimates that in recent years some 10,000 families have removed their children from traditional schools. He predicts their ranks will swell to half a million by the end of the decade.

Evidence to support his prophecy is scarce. But growing numbers of legislative and legal indications of home schooling's interest for at least some parents suggest that Mr. Holt may be right about the direction, if not the size, of this little-remarked education phenomenon.

A series of highly publicized legal battles over home education in Virginia during the past five years, for example, prompted a member of the state's General Assembly to propose a bill to regulate where and by whom a child could be taught outside of traditional schools. The bill, the last to be heard during the General Assembly's most recent session, was defeated by seven votes after a highly emotional debate, according to Virginia legislators.

In New Hampshire, so many parents were requesting information on home education that last year the state's Department of Education published a handbook of rules and regulations governing the practice.

Thirty-five states, like New Hampshire, have passed laws that provide some basis for home instruction; 23 require that parents provide their children with instruction "equivalent'' or "substantially equivalent" to that given in the public schools. Fourteen states also require that the person teaching a child out of school be certified by the state as a teacher or private tutor.

Many advocates of home education call those restrictions unjust and have argued that point in court. School officials, however, counter that such rules are the only means a state has to ensure that children are adequately educated and socialized.

Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, says that the decision of some parents to teach their own children is an example of the tremendous impact a parent can have on his child for either better or worse.

"At home, parents are free to instill whatever values they please in their children," Mr. Shannon explains. "It could be religion, or it could be racism.

"I suspect," he adds, "that the main reason parents choose to keep their children out of public schools is not to let them develop their own ideas about things, but rather to stifle all competition with their own values."

"If a child is improperly educated and can't find employment, society pays the cost of unemployment insurance and welfare, not the family," argues James Ward, research director of the American Federation of Teachers. "We have public schools to impart common social, political, economic, and cultural values among all people. If we allow a series of separatist schools to take root, we'll see the eventual destruction of the country."

Education Too Bureaucratized

Mr. Ward says some parents are adequately qualified to instruct their own children, but no home program can provide the services and facilities that schools do. "We conclude that home instruction cannot offer the quality education that public schools can provide," he says.

Mr. Holt, who once taught in one of Boston's most prestigious private schools, counters that traditional forms of education have become too big and too bureaucratized to accomplish that goal. Students at his former school, he says, "were so preoccupied with protecting themselves, with being right at all costs, that their initial learning powers were largely extinguished by the fifth grade."

Learning is the natural result of a child's curiosity, inventiveness, willingness to experiment, and internal motivation, Mr. Holt says. "But when schools say, 'We will decide what you will learn, punish you if you fail, reward you if you succeed, and set up the system that you'll follow,' all the powers of the learner will eventually be destroyed. The more we try to motivate children with bribes and threats, praise and blame, those motivations from within will wither away."

Why Keep Children at Home?

The reasons families have for abandoning traditional forms of education apparently are as varied as the geographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the families themselves.

Some base their conviction on religious grounds, and others on claims of excessive violence, physical abuse, and regimented policies in schools. Still others, often ex-teachers, simply feel they can give their children a better start in the early formative years than a local elementary school can.

All, however, appear to agree on the principle that parents have a basic right to decide how, what, and where their child will learn.

Mr. Holt's theories of educational motivation have been adopted by Patricia Montgomery, director of the home-study program of Clonrara School in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Ms. Montgomery founded the home-study program in August 1980 with 46 charter families. This year she predicts enrollment in the program will more than double.

Clonrara requires no traditional graded course of study, according to Ms. Montgomery. It has also done away with standardized texts, workbooks, and other traditional school materials.

Students are given an equal say with parents and instructors about how they will spend their time and what they will learn, she says. Families can follow as flexible or as rigid a course of study as fits their style, and can change their method of instruction at any time during enrollment.

"If the child says he wants to take up horseback riding," Ms. Montgomery explains, "then we set up a curriculum that incorporates academic learning skills--which we let the child know are needed to be a good horseback rider--into the curriculum." The school charges its affiliate families a flat $195 annual fee that covers all services.

The home study program of the Christian Liberty Academy of Prospect Heights, Ill., charges its subscribers a comparable $185 fee, but that is where the similarities between it and Clonrara end. "We're a fundamental, non-denominational, Bible-oriented church," explains academy counselor Michael McHugh. "All of the academy and home program's curricula emphasize that Jesus Christ is king and that he created all."

The academy's home study program, which was founded in 1972, originally included a dozen families, according to Mr. McHugh. A minimum of 4,500 students are expected to enroll in the program this year.

Unlike Clonrara, the Christian Liberty Academy offers families the rigidly structured curriculum of a typical Christian day school, including a course in Bible study. "Our school will allow any state to come in and test children enrolled in our program for competency," Mr. McHugh says. "But we think the state should pull out the test scores of public school students at the same time and see which group of students is progressing at a quicker rate. We're seeing higher achievement test scores from our students than we ever expected."

Families who enroll their children in ideologically based programs like the Christian Liberty Academy constitute only one segment of the home-study movement. Perhaps the majority of parents who take their children out of school do so for more pressing, personal reasons.

James and Edwina O'Toole, for instance, say they took their 7-year-old son out of the local public school because the experience frightened him to tears every night.

Denise and Chris Rice of Claremont, N.H., say Ms. Rice's son encountered similar difficulties during his first year of school. And the former teacher George Arnold began instructing his 15-year-old son Derick at home because he claims both students and teachers in the Malta, Mont., school made the boy the object of abuse.

Government Overkill

Mr. O'Toole concedes that states have an interest in seeing that all children receive a sound education. But, he adds, most states presume that because some parents will mistreat and mislead their children, all responsibility for education should be handed over to the government.

"Not only do I think such an approach is naive, but it is overkill,'' Mr. O'Toole says. "States would take away the rights of all parents to protect against the few who would abuse those rights. Every family has a basic responsibility for the education of their children, which is derived from the fact that they gave them birth, clothed and fed them, worried about them, and maneuvered in such a way so that their children would get a reasonably good chance at a happy life.

"In my own opinion," he concludes, "anybody who seriously wants to teach their own child is bound to succeed, and if those persons realize that they aren't succeeding, they would in all likelihood find another alternative. It's extremely hard for me to envision the bizarre character who wouldn't act in the best interests of his children."

Vol. 01, Issue 02, Page 14

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories