Homeschooling gets a bad rap. After all, perhaps the most well-known homeschooling family right now is the Duggars. Among some circles, they were often touted as a homeschooling success story. In the wake of revelations concerning eldest son Josh’s sexual abuse of his sisters, we’ve learned that the organization providing curriculum and support to the Duggars and other conservative Christian homeschooling families has rather extreme problems of its own.
Duggars aside, a chorus of adults who were homeschooled as children have raised concerns about their own educational histories, telling stories of abuse, neglect, and serious gaps in academic opportunity.
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Horror stories like these are catnip to the media, naturally. And for those whose only exposure to the idea of homeschooling comes from what they see on TV or in magazines, it’s pretty easy to assume that most families who homeschool their kids are either religious extremists or hard-core control freaks (or, more than likely, both).
“We only see the bad homeschoolers in the media,” Sandy says. “We are a very misunderstood group of parents.” Sandy, the mother of one child, lives in upstate New York. She bristles at the assumptions other people make about how she educates her son, with whom she’s just embarked on a second year of homeschooling; yet she understands where they’re coming from.
“I think homeschoolers are perceived to be religious types who don’t want kids exposed to the world—that’s how I perceived homeschool before I looked into it,” she says.
“I know that my own impression of people who homeschooled was not that positive before I took the step,” says Andre, an Illinois father who took his youngest son out of middle school, taught him at home for a few years, and then returned him to public school for high school.
“Quite honestly, I am not bothered by media portrayals of homeschooling because frankly, they are not referring to people who look like me,” says Shautel, an African-American mom who homeschools her children in Nashville.
By most measures, homeschooling is on the rise in America. The U.S. Department of Education says that 3.4 percent of K-12 students were homeschooled in the 2011-2012 academic year, and the government’s own data suggests that number will go up. And the reasons parents are choosing to educate their kids at home seem to be changing as well, with the number of non-religious homeschoolers growing at a faster rate than those who cite religious reasons.
Good-bye, modest attire and daily Bible instruction; hello, experiential learning, hands-on field trips, and college courses. The new homeschoolers are educated, involved, and fed up with what they see as a broken system of public education. Unlike the Duggars, they aren’t attempting to shield their children from a sinful world—they are opting out of institutional education in an attempt to better prepare their children for the world we’re all living in.
Some of their kids have been remarkably successful. A recent article in Boston magazine profiled some of that city’s homeschooled youngsters, starting with a newly minted Harvard freshman. And it’s exhilarating to read about what some of these homeschooled kids are doing. Andre’s son built a composter as part of learning about science. Denise, who homeschools her son in Georgia, has connected with a group of homeschoolers in an enrichment program that includes speech lessons with a trial attorney, and drama taught by the head of the local theater company. For Sandy, the freedom to ignore the public-school calendar has brought the flexibility to travel with her son, visiting historic sites and museums, a kind of rolling field trip. The author of a Massachusetts homeschool blog, Off Kltr, touts the opportunity to engage in “holistic parenting,” which for her family includes lots of park time and library time (and sounds pretty heavenly to this overscheduled mom).
It’s easy to relate to why these families have opted out of their local schools. “Our decision to homeschool our child came after observing, first hand, a public-school environment that was focused more on administrators filling their own agendas rather than meeting the needs of each child,” says Denise, who felt that while the public system placed a lot of emphasis on help with special needs, it was too easy for “average Joe” kids to fall through the cracks.
For Shautel, it was a question of protecting her son from racism. “I decided to homeschool because my son was entering fourth grade, which is a crucial year for African-American boys and can determine if they will continue in school or drop out,” she says. “I frankly did not feel like explaining my son’s learning style to a new teacher who may or may not have preconceived notions on African-American boys.”
Other parents simply felt the school environment was a bad match for their child, whether because of the high pressure of standardized testing or the toxic social environment of middle-school popularity cliques.
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For Eliza, a mother of two in California, homeschooling is part of her own history. A middle-school research project about homeschooling sparked her desire to leave school herself the following year. “I decided to give high school a try,” she says, “but after a couple of weeks I felt like the teachers were just yelling at us. It seemed like a bad place for anyone to be. And so I left.” Taking charge of her own education, she passed a high-school proficiency exam and attended college.
Asked whether she plans to homeschool her own children, now an infant and toddler, she is ambivalent. “I’m leaning not that much toward homeschooling,” she says, “because I really wanted to be able to work again, and I didn’t want to just be home with my kids.”
It’s a good point. Homeschooling is not free. The loss of parental income, not to mention autonomy and career-building, is significant, and puts the very idea of homeschooling out of reach for many families. And there’s the not-trivial problem of managing your own child’s resistance to parent-as-teacher, which is made especially vexing when you’ve given up your own job to take on this role. “The time it takes is endless,” Denise says, “so a parent needs to be able to give and give, 24/7.” On bad days, Shautel says, “I feel like my children do not understand the sacrifice I am making to homeschool them.”
Nor is homeschooling a completely neutral choice when it comes to society. What does it mean for a self-selected group of bright, creative, and motivated kids and parents to leave school systems they could be improving by their presence and energy? Is homeschooling, in a word, selfish?
For Mya, a Brooklyn mother of one, there’s no single word to sum up the homeschoolers she knows. “I think people’s reasons for homeschooling are so varied,” she says, “I almost hesitate to call it a group.” Mya’s husband, Noah Mayers, founded Brooklyn Apple Academy, which calls itself a resource center for kids who aren’t in the traditional school system (it also offers after-school programs for kids who are). Based on the democratic school model, Noah’s work involves “field trips and hands-on projects and tinkering and running around in the park.”
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One part that’s very important is that the groups are mixed-age (“like a one-room schoolhouse,” Mya adds). It’s a point that Eliza echoes. “Separation by age is artificial, first of all because kids have different developmental levels that aren’t related to their age,” she says. “Second, it creates competition, because you compare yourself to all these other people who’re supposed to be the exact same level as you. And third, it doesn’t give you an opportunity to learn from helping those younger than you and looking up to those older than you.”
Can public schools adapt and address these concerns? We might all yearn for a school that provides hands-on learning, mixed-age classmates, and sensitive individual instruction, all driven by what sparks a child’s passion. Would such changes be more possible if those who opt out would stay, and agitate?
Mya, for one, is not so sure. “I think what people do agree on is the fact that there’s not enough time in one child’s education for these things to get worked out,” she says. “It’s not impossible, it’s just not going to happen by the time my kid graduates.”