Educators must accept home schooling as a powerful tool in the American arsenal for developing young minds.
Early in the fall, classroom teachers across the country are busy assessing their students’ academic levels, learning styles, and individual needs. No matter how extensive the testing, however, they will face difficulty meeting the singular needs of every student during the course of the year. That’s because successful classroom instruction requires that teaching be directed to the average student; focusing too much time on the few accelerated or underperforming students takes important time away from the majority.
Home schooling can bridge this learning gap. But first, educators must develop an appreciation for its appeal and its strengths. With increased understanding, they might more readily accept home schooling as an important part of the continuum of educational alternatives, a powerful tool in the American arsenal for developing young minds.
Many unfamiliar with home schooling question its academic rigor. They are equally concerned about possible gaps in instruction, the need for socialization, and the potential lack of parent-educators’ qualifications. But moving beyond perceptions, home schooling is a growing educational success story. Colleges and universities are courting home schoolers. They are “the epitome of Brown students,” says Joyce Reed, a Brown University associate dean, in a recent alumni magazine article on home schooling. “They’ve learned to be self-directed, they take risks, they face challenges with total fervor, and they don’t back off.”
This year, home schoolers accounted for 12 of the 55 finalists in the National Geographic Bee and four of the top-10 finishers. The winner, Calvin McCarter of Jenison, Mich., is home-schooled. Similarly, home schoolers made up one-tenth of the 248 finalists in the National Spelling Bee this year, even though they account for only 1.7 percent of the school-age population. Home school students on average scored 30 percentile points above the state school average, according to research from the National Home Education Research Institute. These developments speak to the positive results that home schooling can produce.
Nor is the phenomenon new to the educational landscape. Formal home schooling began in the early 1900s, because missionaries and others in remote places had no access to schools. These early- 20th-century home schoolers relied largely on Baltimore’s Calvert School, which in 1906 founded the first U.S. distance-learning program to deliver lessons and supplies by mail. By the 1940s, the military was using Calvert’s program in some of its schools around the world. Later, after U.S. Supreme Court decisions and congressional action on federal funding for schools began to restrict the role that religion could play in the nation’s classrooms, a new wave of families turned to home schooling to ensure that their children received faith-based instruction. And the list of curriculum providers and home school booksellers quickly grew.
Even with this growth, however, many school boards have routinely discouraged families from home schooling by subjecting them to intense scrutiny or misinforming them about regulations. Although home schooling has been legal in all 50 states since 1993, families still face constant challenges to their ability and authority to home school. “Home schooling is not authorized in California, and children receiving home schooling [by a noncredentialed parent] are in violation of state truancy laws,” the California Department of Education announced in July, setting off a battle with the thousands of home schooling families in the state (“No End Seen to Flap Over Calif. Home School Policy,” Oct. 30, 2002.)
What the California state board of education and others fail to grasp is that the home school movement is gaining momentum because of increased community support, program flexibility, and challenging, accessible curricula. Local schools, for example, are making their after-school activities and sports available to home schoolers, while community centers, including many YMCAS, are establishing home school sessions on weekday afternoons. Besides providing important extracurricular opportunities for these children, such activities afford home schoolers the chance to develop their socialization skills. Typically, socialization is the first concern educators have about home schooling, but children who are home-schooled generally participate in a number of activities, groups, and teams with other children because their flexible schedules and self-paced instruction put fewer constraints on their time.
The home school movement is gaining momentum because of increased community support, program flexibility, and challenging, accessible curricula.
Like public education, home schooling takes various forms. In both environments, some approaches work and some fail. Families, like school boards, are free to choose what suits them. Among the number of approaches home school families can choose from are “unschooling,” or teaching through life’s examples, and groups that offer a traditional education with professional supervision and parental home instruction.
Many home schoolers follow rigorous guidelines, often imposed by their local or state school boards. To assist themselves in meeting these criteria, parents rely on professional curriculum providers or guidance that comes from books like The Well-Trained Mind. The teaching materials used by many families match, and often exceed, the levels of classroom course materials.
The modern-day Calvert School, for example, provides each home school family with a lesson manual containing 152 daily lessons, eight reviews, and eight tests in all subjects. We test our lessons on real children in our day school in Baltimore, and then write them with a home teacher in mind, a process that takes at least two years. Our students, with few exceptions, are expected to complete all lessons and cover all portions of the textbook.
At the heart of home schooling is quality family time. These one- on-one discussions start in “the home classroom” and move to the grocery store, the doctor’s office, or the park. “Field Trip in Progress” reads a bumper sticker we send in each course box.
If they are committed to the effort, parents, especially those who have professional support, can be effective teachers, even though they are not professionally trained. Bridging the gap from nonteacher to teacher is at the center of effective home schooling, especially for first-timers. Our research, conducted this year, found that two-thirds of home school parents are newcomers, having taught at home for no more than four years. Their success hinges on quickly developing the ability to instruct and to monitor the child’s understanding of new concepts. To aid them, each daily lesson includes a warm-up activity, introduction, objective, instruction, application, or assignment. Often, enrichments or optional activities designed to boost understanding are included.
To further bolster parents’ success, some curriculum providers offer additional support. We have professionally trained teachers available to discuss questions, concerns, or problems with daily instruction, for example, and also offer a testing service. A teacher grades and corrects a student’s tests in each subject and returns them with a letter directed to the student (or parent in the lower grades) that provides encouragement and suggestions for improvement. Calvert and other providers also offer objective tests with answer keys so parents can assess their children’s understanding of new material.
Families arrive at the decision to home school for a number of reasons. Some choose it because of health reasons or dissatisfaction with a classroom situation. Others decide to home school because their child is in need of accelerated or remedial instruction. And about 10 percent of Calvert’s students are home-schooled because an American education is not available in the country where they live.
With the influence of home schooling, the focus of education is finally—and rightfully—shifting from what is right politically and financially to what is right for the children.
Educators are interested in student achievement and should acknowledge and accept that families may elect to home school for a year or two. Moreover, as professional educators, we should work together to make it possible for home- schooled students to be placed in the grade level that best matches the student’s achievement, even if it is not the next grade in the public school sequence. Home-schooled students, because of the individualized instruction, often move more quickly through rigorous course materials than public school students do. Students schooled at home should not suffer in any way for their parents’ choice to educate them at home.
In past decades, newspapers typically published good news about our schools. Now, school news is often bad news—about poor academic performance, violence, limited resources, and failing schools. The success of home schoolers is a bright spot in our struggle to improve American education. Home schooling should be treated that way.
Home school families invest their own money and time in their children’s education, removing the common obstacles of politics and funding from the educational equation. With the influence of home schooling, the focus of education is finally—and rightfully—shifting from what is right politically and financially to what is right for the children. And that is great news, worthy of far more attention.
Jean C. Halle is the president and CEO of Calvert School Education Services, a Baltimore-based not-for-profit home school curriculum provider that annually provides courses to prekindergarten through 8th grade students, in homes, schools, and other educational environments. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Home Schooling: Why We Should Care