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Midwest Today, September 1994


Advice offered To Home Schoolers


Unhappy with the quality of our schools, some parents are teaching
their children at home. But what are the plusses and minuses?


It was over ten years ago that the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report entitled "A Nation At Risk," warning that the country could soon be overwhelmed by a "rising tide of mediocrity" because of its public school system.

Since then, despite the concerns expressed by politicians, parents, and community leaders, our nation's public schools have not improved much. In fact, according to a federally-funded report recently released, class work in English, math, science, history, geography, foreign languages, civics and fine arts has shrunk to only 50% of the typical American high school day. Incredibly, U.S. high schoolers only spend an average of about three hours every day on core academic subjects -- half as much as the time spent by German, French and Japanese students. The typical U.S. public school curriculum has been "dumbed down," at the same time schools have taken over the responsibility for teaching everything from health to consumer affairs.

Concurrently, there has been a renewed interest in home-schooling -- that is, parents taking responsibility for educating their own children in the home, as opposed to sending them to public schools.

It is estimated that over 300,000 families now practice the oldest, most traditional method of instruction, which is legal in all 50 states and in virtually all countries of the world.

Comments Rebecca Rupp, author of "Schooltools: Educational Resources for Parents and Teachers" (Home Education Press, Tonasket, Washington), the decision to home-school represents "a battery of decisions, reflecting your view of the place of families in society, your attitude toward the political and social status quo. It's a decision about what you find rewarding, about how you define success. It's a decision, face it, that ranks kids ahead of careers. It's a statement about the kind of life you want for yourselves and your children."

Laws governing home schooling vary widely from state to state in their specificity and enforcement. For example, in Missouri, home-schoolers are merely required to maintain attendance records, children's portfolios and logs of hours spent in "school." In Minnesota, a teaching parent does not even need a high school diploma. In Tennessee, teaching parents must have college degrees to teach their high-school-age children. Some states, however, like Pennsylvania, are beset with restrictions. Homeschoolers there must provide a notarized affidavit to the local school district, including an annual list of educational objectives; maintain a detailed log of home school activities; submit a portfolio of student work to the district school superintendent; and each pupil must be evaluated annually by qualified personnel and take standardized tests -- which include phonics drills, arithmetic worksheets and reading comprehension exercises.

Although sometimes home-schoolers are presumed to adopt a sort of free-form approach to educating their children, most say they also think kids should have a general education, acquiring a basic body of knowledge in literature, mathematics, science, social science and the humanities. With this in mind, they do plan ahead, drawing up a 12-month curriculum each summer.

Critics of home-schooling, however, say its practitioners are often arrogant, unimaginative, intellectually shallow and academically substandard.

Yet recent independent studies suggest that home-schools operate under conditions that most beleaguered teachers only dream of: they're small, and as such, are flexible, able to respond quickly to each student. Says Rebecca Rupp, "Every child, as all parents know, marches determinedly along to his or her own drummer. Homeschools -- where the student/teacher ratio is about as good as it gets -- are in a unique position to zero in on each student's learning style, to adapt to the needs and interests of the individual.

In home-school, you can strike while the educational irons are hot, and you have the freedom to drop them when they're cold.

According to Sydney Mathis of the National Homeschool Association in Cincinnati, Ohio, "there are just as many approaches to homeschooling as there are reasons that families choose that lifestyle, including: an education consistent with a learning style and philosophy of how learning occurs; the time and ability to focus on strengths and to strengthen skills at a time and place that is beneficial; living abroad or in less accessible areas; the health of a family member; academic rigor; curriculum choices and values; and the teacher/student ratio."

As Cindy Duckett of Wisconsin observes, "All parents teach their children at home; some of us just choose to do it full time."

Down on public schools

Clearly, a lot of parents make the decision to keep their children home and educate them within the family unit because they are frustrated by the quality of public schools.

David Gardner, former president of the University of California who chaired the panel that wrote "A Nation At Risk," observes that "What I see is a slow, steady erosion of public regard for the public schools and in some respects a psychological abandonment."

DeLisa Glover, a student at Morgan Park high school on the South Side of Chicago, complains that "I come and the teachers talk. Really, I feel that I come there to get homework. It's not like they're teaching anything. I'd be better off if they'd just send me a sheet of homework to do."

Ginny Kester, who has taught science, math, English and social studies at Sennett Middle School in Madison, WI says, "The days of stand-up teaching in the classroom are gone because the kids don't listen. You would have too many behavior problems. It has forced us to evaluate how we teach."

Rebecca Rupp bemoans "the lessons taught by the structure of the school system itself -- the idea that learning is something that must be done to you by somebody else, the idea that conformity with the group is all-important, the idea that doing well means following orders. Any large institution necessarily prefers a cooperative, homogeneous community, making schools, by definition, poor breeding grounds for free thinkers, rebels, square pegs or squeaky wheels. Home-schoolers, by and large, aim to raise people who think for themselves."

In some ways, today's home-schools are a throwback to the one-room country schools of our parents' youth, when teachers had students from first through 12th grades all in one classroom. Because they were within earshot of each other, they sometimes picked up on things that were being discussed on other grade levels.

Comments John Blackstone of rural Fort Wayne, Indiana, "Those of us who are considered yuppies -- you know who you are -- commonly went through all of high school without once encountering the works of Hemingway, Thoreau, Keats or Emerson. There were big gaps in our education. 'New' math came on the scene before some teachers were able to grasp it themselves, and this made us all dependent on pocket calculators as adults. Some of us majored in pep rallies and study halls. And with the violence, drugs and other deleterious influences that kids are exposed in today's schools, I am determined to protect my children. Whereas I acquired knowledge through self-education once I was out of school," Blackstone reflects, "I want my kids to have a well-rounded education. So my wife Millie and I intend to provide it to them at home."


Paige Smith comments that "'Unschooling,' 'natural learning,' student-initiated learning' and many other terms have been coined by home-schoolers to describe learning situations where the subjects studied are chosen by the students in accordance with their interests. Teachers provide the necessary resources, materials and assistance when required. Students spend time in the 'adult' world observing, learning, working and earning money."

Gayle Back, writing in the Christian Home Educators of Ohio newsletter, says that "Children have an innate desire to learn and a curiosity that drives them to find out what they need to know when they need to know it. When unschooling, children learn by being included in the life ofadults."

For example, she ways, "Suppose dad is building a dog house for Fido. Let Jonathan do the measuring and help with the carpentry. And if mom is heading up the annual homecoming dinner at church, let Rachel help by figuring the quantity of food that needs to be prepared for 'x' number of people, or the number of tables that need to be set up, or the amount of beverages the church needs to furnish."

Some studies tend to indicate that homeschoolers are generally more successful than their schooled counterparts in terms of academic achievement. Still, advocates say, it is important to recognize and accept the fact that differences in achievement and skills will no doubt occur even among homeschoolers.

Socializing Pressure

But what about all the socialization kids are presumed to miss when they're educated at home? Thirteen-year-old Thomas Vollmer of Abbeville, La. says that "As a home-schooler in the seventh grade people often ask me if I miss not being with children my own age. The answer is no, and the reasons are simple," he explains. "I've talked to children who are in the public school system and they say the peer pressure is great, and they wish they could also be homeschooled. Why should I allow myself to be humiliated and crucified by peer pressure in the school system when I can concentrate on my studies?"

Young Vollmer notes proudly, "I can pick whom I want to socialize with. I'm not forced to socialize with people who do not have the same values as I do."

"But that's not real life," comments Gary Prior, a psychologist and outspoken critic of home-schooling. "When you enter the adult world and are on your own -- when you are forced to come out of your cocoon -- you're going to have to cope with all sorts of people and situations that may or may not be to your liking. Unless adolescents gain some personal exposure to the vagaries of life as it really is, as they are growing up, they will find themselves at a disadvantage when they come of age and have to go out and be adaptive to a rough and tumble world."

"School itself is often a truncated and abnormal society," complains Ms. Rupp, "and the exchanges that take place there seldom teach kindness, compassion or tolerance. Such values aren't picked up willy-nilly on the playground; they're learned through personal interactions with caring adults. Children become socially skilled by observing the behaviors of people around them," she insists..

"Dumping large numbers of social neophytes together and expecting their interactions to generate social adeptness is naive. You're more likely to get 'Lord of the Flies."'

Edwin L. Bercier claims "Homeschooling is like an oasis in the midst of a world of total desert. One of the first things that they notice about their children, once they have been removed from school for awhile, is that their social skills begin to improve. They become happier, they begin to relate better to their siblings, and, in general, to people of all ages."

Some parents not qualified

"What happens in those cases when children are being kept home from public schools and instructed by parents who themselves were underachievers academically?" wonders Gary Prior. "I worry about that a lot. One of the striking things about some of these newsletters that these homeschoolers put out is that they are replete with grammatical errors, poor spelling, and other indications that the so-called 'teachers' are in dire need of some teaching themselves."

Critics of home-schooling say teaching is a very underrated profession and that the notion that any Tom, Dick or Mary can be a good teacher is beyond absurd. "That just isn't so," asserts Olga Warner of Chicago. "Teaching credentials and accreditation are bestowed on people only after rigorous training and education" she notes. "For someone with no experience in this field to suddenly arrogate to themselves the job of teaching their own children is a mind-numbing decision of staggering proportions and often disastrous consequences,"

Mistakes made by parents

Rbecca Beach of the South Central Kentucky Homeschool Association confesses that "the first vear [of teaching her children at home] was definitely bondage. I became so determined that my kids would learn more and sooner than any child in the state that I drove them and me to distraction," she remembers. "As I have a drill sergeant nature anyhow, this came rather natural (the only thing I really lacked was a whistle!) Rousing everyone pre-dawnish for devotions and continuing right up to 5 p.m. I drove everyone. My husband was the first to insightfully recognize that perhaps this was a little stiff for fourth and second graders, a kindergartner, preschooler and toddler. I can be just a little hard-headed at times, so I continued on this same course the first year despite his warnings and fueled on by my own fear of raising illiterate social misfits."

Mrs. Beach explains that "about midstream in our schooling career ... my guilt swung like a pendulum from the right side of 'too much structure' to the left side of 'too much freedom.'"

Finally, she says, "By the time my oldest son was nearing high school, I realized [that] in order to get my kids ready for college, that they and I would have to knuckle under and actually do some memorizing, take tests, and have a fairly demanding structure if I was to survive the high school years..."

Eventually, "the rewards of long hours of work began to surface," she concludes, "and our children began to excel in different capacities..."

Legal status

Home-schoolers jealously guard their freedom, even resisting efforts by some members of Congress, however well-intentioned, to introduce the terms "home schools" and "religious schools" as a separate class of schools in federal statutes, fearing that the government would then gain dominion over them.

"Religious schools and home schools will be in a weaker position politically if they have to stand alone than if they can stand in the company of each other and other private schools"

Some families even buy insurance from the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) to protect themselves against possible legal conflicts over home-schooling with their local or state education authorities. The family pays a yearly fee, and the HSLDA handles the confrontation.

What about college?

ONne major worry for home-schooled children and their parents, of course, is what to do about college. Without a high school diploma in hand, some teenagers find it next to impossible to enroll in the college of their choice. The literature distributed by various home-school advocacy groups generally pays scant attention to this important matter. The National Homeschool Association says simply, "Most colleges and universities have entrance exams, but many of them place much more weight on an individual student's ability and aptitude. Home-schooled children have encountered little difficulty in continuing their education, whether in local community colleges, the Ivy League universities, vocational institutes, or other avenues of high education."

Costs and time

Home-schooling isn't cheap, and it requires a lot of adult time. There are resources which simply must be bought -- like science kits, art supplies, map puzzles, historical games, audio and visual equipment and tapes. Yet many financially-strapped home-schoolers have made an art out of making do, by patronizing yard sales and used-book stores, creating their own materials, borrowing and sharing.

While it's possible to get around the problem of costs, it is not possible to avoid an expenditure of parental time. Home-schooling, its devotees admit, expands to fill all available hours.

Rebecca Rupp explains that she and her husband spend 20 hours a week formally working with their boys. "Our official school day runs from 8:00 a.m. to noon. The boys take various extracurricular classes -- drawing and violin lessons, just now -- which, with transportation time, occupy a couple of afternoons. We usually go on one field trip a week. We swim in summer and skate in winter. We read aloud at lunchtime and at bedtime for an hour or two.

"Sometimes, depending on who gets up when, we also read early in the morning. My husband, Randy, and I spend many hours preparing, researching, collecting project materials, assembling books, writing supplementary workbooks. One of us is around all the time to answer questions, help look things up in the encyclopedia, find the pliers, open the glue. It is time-consuming for parents, and it's hard to set limits. When I need uninterrupted time, I get up at four in the morning As solutions go, that's not everybody's cup of tea," she concludes.



The newsletters put out by home-schooling support groups are filled with an assortment of advice, some sound and some half-baked.

Typical is a recent essay which appeared in ReMAINEing, a publication of the Maine Homeschool Association. Advocate Earl Stevens drew comparisons between public education and homeschooling, and offered these opinions and advice:


"The schools are hysterical about 'results,' and they put great pressure on classroom teachers to get results from their students. One of the reasons that they constantly need to see results in the form of test scores is that they have no other way to demonstrate to parents and to taxpayers that something is happening.' We know what is happening because we live real lives with our children, and we can plainly see their growth and development. Just as we don't need to give healthy children weekly medical exams, neither do we need to constantly examine their minds. Our job is not the same as that of public school teachers, and there is no need for us to imitate them."

When things don't work

"When a child has difficulty coping with something in a school, the usual response is to give him or her lots more of it. As a homeschooling parent you are uniquely free to drop things that don't work and to try alternatives, even radical alternatives. To modify your plans in this way does not signify failure; it is a part of an interesting and fruitful search that can sidestep the pressure and anxiety of schooling and result in great personal success for your children."

The homeschooling day

"Some parents use a curriculum, and others don't. Some families avoid conventional schooling practices altogether and choose instead to rely entirely upon daily life and the natural curiosity and eagerness of children. These parents may decide to provide resources, tools, support and encouragement but no lessons and no timetable. Many families decide to combine elements of both approaches. You may feel very comfortable with reading or with history but not with mathematics or some other acadeniic subject. Your treatment of reading and history may be a decision to just not interfere with a child who is doing lots of reading and likes history, but you may find that you are both interested in a more systematic [curriculum] approach to math as the child gets older. Every choice has its consequences, and these choices belong to you and your children."

Basic Skills

"If you sit in on an elementary school classroom or read through a curriculum, you will see that much of what is taught is nothing more than a structured, rigid and sometimes bizarre way of presenting what children will easily learn on their own if nobody makes a big fuss about it. What children are unable to learn on their own can be learned at a time that is sensible and convenient for both the parent and the child. Learning to talk is a basic skill, and our children learn to do it very well without a curriculum or a timetable."


"The risk of conventional reading programs is that often they produce kids who may have memorized lots of rules but have been turned off by bad literature, nonsensical quizzes, and endless quibbling about the rules of pronunciation."

Staying on the academic track

"Grade level expectations are an arbitrary mess created for the purposes of mass education, and no thoughtful educator takes them seriously when applied to individual children in a home environment."


"Currently there are a lot of people going about making solemn pronouncements about their methods and systems and formulas for homeschooling success. If we are not impressed by certificates, credentials and self aggrandizement among public educators, then there is no reason why we should be impressed by them within the home education movement."

The Right Way

"There isn't any 'right way.' Homeschooling is an opportunity for independent thinking and self confidence, not imitation and conformity."

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