Sour grapes, anyone?

Home schoolers -- big winners in national spelling and geography bees -- are criticized for "unfair advantages."

Published June 6, 2000 7:08PM (EDT)

The past few weeks have been mighty sweet for home schoolers.

Home-schooled kids hogged the headlines as finalists and winners at both the National Spelling Bee and National Geographic Bee. And more acclaim may be ahead: One of the home-schooled spelling bee finalists is off to a national math competition in which she was a finalist last year. The past few months also brought a New York Times puff piece on unschooling -- a child-led approach to home schooling -- and the Wall Street Journal published a paean to the home-schooled wunderkinders who are scooping up academic distinction and elite college spots galore.

But along with the accolades has come an ugly undercurrent of resentment from critics of home schooling. Last week, a St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist suggested that the current crop of home school contest winners came from families who are home schooling expressly to groom future competition winners.

A Fox News Channel report pondered whether "the odds are stacked in favor" of home-schooled spelling whizzes who spend hours a day poring over dictionaries, unencumbered by school bells. The program warned that recent home school triumphs, such as the record number of home-schooled spelling bee finalists, and studies showing that home schoolers score higher than regular schoolers on the SAT/ACT, may "reignite the home schooling debate."

But the debate was ignited and burning nicely before Brit Hume started rubbing two stats together on Fox News. Home school e-mail newsletters often are loaded with slights and skewerings culled from the papers that seek to expose the unfair advantages of learning at home. My personal favorite? Not long ago a Tucson Weekly sports columnist charged that home-schooled kids shouldn't be allowed to compete with other kids in sports because they have more time to practice.

Meanwhile, the National Spelling Bee folks already have taken steps to placate the parents of conventional schoolers with regulations that require youngsters to have "a full school schedule and varied academic course load" in order to compete.

Well, speaking as an outraged home schooling mom of two, I'm here to say that the home school critics are ... absolutely right. And they're absolutely wrong.

Yes, home-schooled children have plenty of time and flexibility to focus on a talent or interest. No way around it -- home schooling can allow kids to spend hours on any given passion, to zip through certain material and move on to more challenging stuff, to take advantage of opportunities like apprenticeships, early college classes and volunteering. And, if they choose, home schoolers can, and will, produce impressive portfolios to wow Ivy League admissions officials. (Note to self: Pursue online bumper sticker biz -- "My home-schooled kid just squeezed your schooled kid out of Stanford.")

But a lot of home schooling advantages aren't necessarily off-limits to schooled kids. Do you honestly believe that spelling champ George Thampy was the only finalist who spent three hours a day studying for the competition? They all did, regardless of where they went to school. All kids who compete at high levels find the time to pursue their goals. Some who end up in competitions or elite universities attend pricey private schools or charter schools where polishing an individual talent is incorporated into the school day.

And let's be honest: The folks most likely to cry "foul" about successful home-schooled kids are competitive parents who expect their kids to always win first place. Sour grapes, anyone?

I don't buy that schooled kids don't have opportunities to wax creative or follow a talent or passion. The problem isn't that they aren't schooled at home; it is what they do at home after they leave school. The latest statistics show that 8- to 13-year-olds spend an average of 6.5 hours daily in front of a screen. There's no way kids can even discover what their strengths are, much less indulge them, with their creative juices sucked dry by passive staring.

And then there is the stuff they are doing instead of hanging out at home after school. Do kids really need to be in 97 extracurricular activities? Even in my little town, I was shocked to hear the elementary school counselor tell me that the major source of stress for her students is over-scheduling. And I know from researching and writing articles about over-scheduling that it's an American epidemic. Think what might happen if kids had time to do what really intrigued them and not simply what all their friends are doing or what parents think kids "need" to do to get into a swell college.

The phenomenal success that home-schooled high schoolers are having getting into great colleges suggests that many admissions officials are looking for different "right stuff" these days. Home schoolers are getting into top universities, say officials such as Stanford's Jon Reider, because they tend to be more emotionally mature (they hang out with more adults) and are inclined to be independent learners who "take responsibility for their education." This year at Stanford, home schoolers were accepted at twice the rate of schoolers.

Do critics of home schooling really believe that, in the interest of "fairness," accomplished children should either submit to an educational system that even proponents admit is flawed, or foreswear any advantages proferred by an alternative learning system?

"Maybe we shouldn't allow people who live near libraries to participate in contests because they can spend more time at the library," jibes home school advocate Michael Moy. "Perhaps tall people shouldn't play basketball because they have an unfair advantage."

Adds Helen Hegener, who with her husband Mark publishes Home Education Magazine, "What is our real goal here? To protect a system or to raise creative, focused, passionate kids?"

Home school critics are right about one thing: Eight hours daily in the classroom puts a big dent in a kid's day. It's not like home schoolers do nothing for eight hours a day -- it's just that most kids can get the "school work" out of the way in a few focused hours, and then concentrate on what excites them.

And I am seriously sorry that most folks can't or don't want to home school. As Hegener points out, the truly unfair situation about home schooling is that every child could excel if given the same level of individual attention, freedom and support most home schoolers get.

For my part, I have to admit to being a fairly lackadaisical home teacher. I try to put in the hours that I think I should, but writing projects are constantly in the way. Our curriculum -- that motley amalgam of used texts, library books and videos, Internet stuff and whatever else I grab -- is anything but organized and rigorous. There are entire topic chunks I've avoided so far -- sorry, I'm just not excited by physical science, but I will get to it. And I've got files full of intriguing but unexplored educational Web sites as well as still dormant fabulous field trip plans.

Mostly my husband and I talk with our kids about the world and all of our interests and favorite reading. We encourage their opinions and analysis. And we see the rewards every day as they make spontaneous, cross-topic connections. We see their world expand as they have time to make friends with a fertile mixture of people of different ages, ethnicities and economic classes that they meet in our neighborhood and community, on the campus where my husband teaches and in the inclusive local home school groups we socialize with once or twice a week.

Haphazard as it may seem, this approach appears to be working -- at least by conventional school standards. We just received the results of the seventh-grade Stanford Achievement Test for our 12-year-old. My jaw dropped when I found that she "rated" PHS (post-high school) in 11 of 12 test areas.

Don't get me wrong -- we're happy to know that our eldest daughter "tests well" (and in fact home schoolers do generally score higher in standardized tests), but our goal is most definitely not to create a supercompetitor. Not that it matters. We have not gone unpunished. Upon hearing about my daughter's test scores, several friends have quickly followed their praise with scolding -- not for maintaining an unfair advantages but for depriving the local public school of such a bright, and high-scoring, student.

I guess as a home-schooling parent, you can't win -- but your kids sure can.

By Helen Cordes

Helen Cordes home schools two daughters in Georgetown, Texas, and writes for Utne Reader, Child, The Nation, Family Life and other magazines. She is author of "Girl Power in the Mirror" and "Girl Power in the Classroom."

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