Correcting Misconceptions About Home Schooling

Four years ago, Alicia Knight would have been the last person you could ever imagine home-schooling her kids.

She was a very active parent in the Stafford County, Va., public schools, where her son Roger was a fifth grader. She was a legislative aide to then Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for education issues. She was a card-carrying liberal who considered the conservative leaders of the Home School Legal Defense Association in nearby Loudoun County to be religious extremists with whom she could never see herself agreeing about anything.

Whenever her son struggled with his homework, which was often, she said: "You've just got to get this school work done because, with God as my witness, I'm NOT home-schooling you!"

And yet for the past three years Knight has been doing exactly that, one of the many surprising stories overflowing my e-mail basket since my June 29 column confessing my deep ignorance about the home-schooling movement. This is the follow-up column I promised, but there is no way I can do justice to the breadth and depth of these responses in just this one space. I plan to do a few stories in The Washington Post about what I learned, starting with this:

Much of what I thought about home schooling was wrong. The conventional wisdom about this rapidly growing dimension of American education is too simple, too stereotyped and too stale.

For instance, the Home School Legal Defense Association, despite its energetic lawyers and many admirers, is not the leader of home schooling in this country. There is no leader, and no reigning ideology. There are instead at least a million American children -- the real figure is probably twice that number -- whose families want them to learn at home for many reasons, often having little to do with religion or politics.

The common image of home-schoolers as lockstep religious conservatives falls apart when you discover that some of these parents have been shunned by their fundamentalist churches for teaching their kids at home rather than sending them to the church's school. Some home-schoolers love the new for-profit online teaching programs like K12. Some think they are a corporate plot. Some parents are home-schooling because their kids were learning more quickly than their teachers could keep up with. Some are home-schooling because their kids were learning more slowly than their public school teachers had patience for. Some home-school because their children were unhappy at school. Some home-school because they could not meet their needs any other way.

Once the parents finished politely explaining all the things I had wrong in my column, they got to the heart of the matter. In a hundred different ways they expressed their joy in being able to spend every day, all day, with their children and join them, as a family, in discovering the world and themselves. I also received several interesting messages from what I think are the best judges of the results, young adults who were home-schooled, but let's start with the parents.

Michelle Shaver of Springfield, Ill., has home-schooled her son Alex, 16, and her daughter Abigail, 6, for three years. "Home education was a great deal of work, but there was something more I hadn't considered," she said. "It was rewarding. I could get to know my children, especially my son, as a person, an individual, not as a member of that mysterious group called teenagers. My husband and I could impart our own values as part of our children's education. . . . A new world opened up to me."

Adele Schneider of Des Moines, Iowa, said her husband Paul had to work many weekends and evenings. When their children were in school, they rarely saw him. But "home-schooling allowed us to take Tuesday off if that was Dad's day off and do school on Saturday," she said. "If he went in later and worked late, they could hang out with him in the morning and start school later. What a gift!"

Angela Kriel of Escondido, Calif., said, "If people were able to spend more time with their kids they would find they like them more, they are more tolerant with them and patience is acquired through practice."

Public school educators often worry that the children of such people will not learn necessary social skills. But home-schooling parents said their children learned how to deal with other people just fine, particularly with the many adults they encountered when they visited the library or went to church or did chores around the neighborhood. With their parents so often at their side, they were able to see what good manners and self-confidence looked like, rather than be forced to adopt the jungle code of the average high school corridor. In many families one parent stays at home to supervise the home schooling, although they often do some work there to pay the bills, or trade off with other home-schooling parents when they have to be away.

I was wrong to dismiss what some home-schoolers call "unschooling," a unstructured approach inspired by the writings of home-schooling guru John Holt. Parents who use the term say it does not mean just sending your kids out to play all day, but letting them choose what to study. My concern about poll data showing young adults not reading newspapers much after being home-schooled ignored the fact that they are of the generation that is more likely to get stay in touch with the world through Web sites like this one, a choice I naturally applaud.

Some who wrote me think home schooling can do real harm. Liz Sommers of Vienna, Va., said she is raising a 17-year-old who was unschooled by her mother until she was 13. "She still can't multiply or divide," Sommers said of the girl. "Her mother never taught her how at the age when her brain would have taken to it. She is a GOOD mathematician, in honors calculus, . . . but one with no arithmetic skills at all. Her writing is improving. She is a slow reader, and because of the unschooling and emotional problems, it is hard to get her to read assigned work."

Elizabeth Bennet of St. Louis said she thinks about home-schooling her children full time, and feels parents can do at least as good a job as a regular teacher, given that they have so much more time. But, she said, "I worry that my children will miss out on a common national experience, and thus feel removed from our national society. . . . I believe that our country needs to have certain shared experiences so that we can debate public policy issues and communicate with each other."

But most of the home-schooling parents who wrote me said their only communication problem was the frequent assumption by non-home-schooling parents that they were off their rockers. Kelly Donovan Middleton, who home-schools her son and daughter in Anacortes, Wash., wished those parents could get a taste of her new life, such as what happened when Colin, her 9-year-old, became interested in a local pond. "We explored the shore, took a canoe out into it, and explored the floating islands in the middle," she said. These turned out to be old logs covered with soil, moss and, to Colin's delight, colonies of carnivorous plants. He read everything he could find in the local libraries and nurseries about this species and made friends with a nursery owner who specialized in them. He has been living, breathing, analyzing, discussing and raising Drosera rotundifolia ever since.

Alicia Knight, the die-hard anti-home-schooler, changed her mind gradually. The first person to work on her was her own son, who heard her say she was never going to home-school him and took that to mean that home schooling was a viable alternative to the torture he was suffering at school and with homework.

She resisted. She tried testing, child study meetings, educational consultants and high-priced tutors. But "by the time my son was in the fifth grade and thoroughly miserable, I was willing to do anything -- even if it meant having to bite my tongue and join up with the wing-nuts who I thought dominated the home-schooling scene," she said.

She met some home-schoolers who were not Republicans. She took her entire family, even her mother, to a home-schooling conference organized by the Virginia Home Education Association. And on the first day of her uncertain new life as a home-schooling mom, her son walked into her home office with a stack of books under his arm. "Hey Mom," he said. "These are all the books that I've been wanting to read but never had a chance. Can I read them now?" He read for 11 hours that day and 10 hours the next. She decided this might not be so bad after all.

Knight's younger son Lee is also home-schooling now. They play computer games, visit museums, hike in parks, find community places to enjoy art, music, fencing and swimming and read a lot of books. The boys have friends who home-school and friends you go to public and private schools. "In this presidential election cycle," Knight said, "they gained first-hand knowledge of retail politics and the electoral process by working precincts for Howard Dean during the Iowa Caucuses, where they also got an important lesson in character development in the face of a huge loss."

Friendswood, Tex., home-schooler psam ordener, who does not use capital letters in her name, said she, like Knight, was a super-involved public school parent, until she found her third grader getting a string of 100s on his tests and the teacher saying "no" whenever she suggested a way of accelerating him. The principal refused to let him skip a grade, and said out loud that he thought she should try private or home schooling instead. Her adopted first grader, of African-American heritage, had one good teacher and one he grew to fear because, ordener said, she "saw him as 'black' and expected him to be slow, dishonest and a discipline problem."

As home-schoolers, her sons made good progress. The older one returned to high school in ninth grade, but after a few weeks asked if he could home-school in pre-AP English, speech and world geography, since he already knew what those classes were teaching, and just go to school for geometry, biology and Latin. The school refused, so he enrolled in community college at age 14 and now, three semesters later, has just transferred to the University of Houston.

The formerly home-schooled students who wrote me were often similarly enthusiastic, but they had no qualms about discussing the downside of their experience. Justin Morton, who home-schooled in Portland, Ore., from second to eighth grade, said the worst part was the boredom: "When you're home-schooled, you are stuck in your house with your parents and siblings all day every day, and it gets incredibly dull. My best friend was the mailman."

Ben Beliles, having just finished his first year at the University of Virginia Law School at age 21, said home schooling was good for him, but he thought some home-schooling parents were too strict. After spending so many years under daylong parental discipline, he said, "you will find that many of these home-schoolers rebel against their parents' hopes and dreams for their lives, negating the best aspects of home schooling."

Marya DeGrow said she liked the free-form nature of the unschooling movement, and did not have the kind of experience Liz Simmons complained of. Because of the flexibility of her lessons, DeGrow said, "I was able to pursue something I was really interested in: politics. I was able to begin an internship at a state think tank at the age of 14. This ultimately led to the institute hiring me on staff at the age of 18. I still work there as an education policy research associate. I also went to Hillsdale College in Michigan and graduated in 2002 with a B.A. in political economy."

And then there were the e-mails from Sean E. Noonan, 29, of Ashburn, Va., who was home-schooled from the beginning of the second grade when he lived in Ventura County, Calif. Home-schooled children, he said, do have trouble relating to public school students, but it seemed a temporary problem to him because the fashions and cliques of the playground evaporate for most people in adulthood.

Parents can be pretty weak teachers, he said. "I was not taught so much as I taught myself," he said. His parents "had no idea what they were doing. They, like many others, sought out help and advice, but it was mostly from people who really didn't know what they were doing either."

He said he has mixed feelings about the Home School Legal Defense Association. They do fine legal work, but the social, religious and political beliefs of some of the leaders are too much for him. He supports the idea of mild state oversight, such as occasional required testing of home-schoolers, just to make sure parents are doing their jobs. But, he added, "home-school children should not be held to higher standards than their public school peers."

Noonan and his wife have not made up their minds about home-schooling their children. They think they will do it at the beginning, but there is a good chance they will send them to public or private schools later on.

There was one thing, however, he said he wanted to emphasize, that took me back to what I had heard from nearly every parent who had risked this sharp change in their daily routine.

"I don't think home schooling is for everyone," Noonan said. "Not every parent can, or should, teach their children at home."

"I will say, however, that every parent should be involved in their children's education, and I think one big reason public school fails our children is because parents simply aren't involved in their children's lives."