Saturday 26 March 2011

The Homeschool Trend

Jennifer Woods told me over the phone that as she sat down to dinner with her family the other night, she asked her children what they thought she should say when I would inevitably ask her why they homeschooled. Her 15-year-old son, who attends two classes, band and choir at Lincoln-Way North, told her to tell me it's because there's no one to monitor the vulgar language at the schools.

“You might label us as a functionally conservative family,” she said.

Conservative I am unabashedly not, nor am I accustomed to teenagers who do not revel in, or experiment with, freedom to use with their peers slapdash colloquialisms at inappropriate times. But to label, I try not. I do not believe it's my right to dictate to another parent what, when or how their children learn.

According to a national survey, there are 1.5 million homeschooled students in the U.S. Since 1999, the number of homeschooled children has risen 74 percent. What is behind this trend and what becomes of these children?

Why Homeschool?

The arguments in favor of homeschooling vary and range from dissatisfaction with the current institutional education system to religion. But there is little arguing that the popularity of the homeschooling lifestyle is on the rise.

“It's the moral or ethical milieu, an emphasis or perceived over-emphasis on categorization and labeling of kids, violence and safety,” said Robert Kunzman, professor of education at Indiana University and author of the book Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling.

Kunzman, who has spent the last several years researching the American homeschooling phenomenon, attributes its popularity to many factors, including access to resources via technology and a “ramping up of rhetoric against the government and the state. It's a perspective that sees the government as not part of us, as external to us. I think that resonates.”

And some parents have religious or spiritual reasons, arguing that educating their children themselves is a mandate from God, or that by sending their children to school outside the home they are abdicating their responsibilities as caregivers, Kunzman said.

Or it may be that philosophical views, in addition to heightened access to resources, come together to increase confidence for parents in their ability to educate their own children, though Kunzman noted that disenchantment with school boards and local control is cyclical and has been around as long as these entities themselves.

A Different Kind of School Day

A typical day at the Woods' home begins early, about 6:30 a.m., according to Tim, a professional musician who stays at home with the five kids, ages 4 through 15. By 7 a.m., the children are practicing their instruments. At 8, it's morning prayer, followed by physical education, and afterward the children split up for academic instruction appropriate to their age and level.

Math, history, geography and literature fill the afternoon. The children have studied Greek and Latin. The eldest son has recently taken an interest in medieval Britain and Old English, his mother said. She's introduced him to scholars of the subject at University of Chicago where she works.

The school year for the Woods children is broken down by quarter. According to Tim, the family takes the months of July and August off for summer break.

The Woodses say they have nothing against the Lincoln-Way high school district, except that it's not, and can never be, one-on-one instruction. They would, in fact, like for their children to be able to participate in the district's extracurricular activities, and last January, Tim presented a case for the school board, asking it to consider opening its activities to homeschoolers.

For the Frankfort Square family, one of the most rewarding aspects of this lifestyle is the close relationship the children have developed, in Jennifer's opinion, as a result of staying home and being educated with each other.

“I don't think we're isolating our kids,” Jennifer said. “We're giving them a very strong foundation so that when they go out in the world they're able to be a strong model in the face of negative influences rather than being influenced by those negative things.”

The most frustrating argument she hears against homeschooling is the one that demands children won't be properly socialized if they don't receive a formal education.

“It implies that they think we're locking our children in closets,” she said. “We're very involved in our church. Church is where our focus of social activities are.”

 The Results

Jennifer remembered being impressed by achievements of current and previously homeschooled students when she and her husband Tim were a young couple, before they'd even had their first child, and, “gradually we became aware that this was a lifestyle we wanted for our family and it matched our faith life very well,” she said.

As to the future success of homeschooled children, Kunzman said that he has personally found just as much variation among homeschooled students as there exists among traditionally educated ones, but there is little evidence that isn't anecdotal.

There are quite a few homeschool success stories, from athletes like Tim Tebow and Venus and Serena Williams to Erik Demaine, the MacArthur fellow who earned a bachelors degree by the age of 14, and who, at age 20, was the youngest professor ever to be employed at MIT.

“But I also get letters from adults who were homeschooled who are bitter about it, who feel they were shortchanged,” Kunzman said.

I also wonder, as a major social outlet, does church serve as an appropriate reflection of the society in which the children will eventually find themselves? Parochial schools, one could argue, limit children's exposure to the culture at large but don't typically suffer under the same stereotype as conservative homeschooling families. Does exposure to children of other backgrounds really prepare students for “real life?”

For Jennifer and Tim, who are Eastern Byzantine Catholic, private religious education that conformed to their beliefs simply wasn't available. And Kunzman described children's exposure to differences in belief at public schools as haphazard, and not necessarily vital.

I find the Woods’ commitment admirable, but it's not one I'm likely to take on with my own children. I do not have the confidence. Or the discipline. Nor do I share their moral ideology. But I am respectful of what I believe is their right as parents to educate their own children as they see fit. Ultimately, I believe, it's a parents' responsibility to determine the appropriate course for their children. And who is truly in position to suppose that any one way is better than another?

Homeschooled Christian Girl Court-Ordered

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has upheld a divorce court order forcing a Christian homeschooling mom to place her daughter in public school.

The divorced parents share equal rights to the girl's upbringing. The father wanted his daughter in public school full time for socialization.

According to the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), allied with the mother's attorney, the New Hampshire's Supreme Court has previously stated that American home education is a tradition and a right.

The three judges didn't see it that way this time. In this case of The Matter of Kurowski, a "marital master" was called into court to assess whether the girl was too rigidly indoctrinated into her religious beliefs through her homeschool classes.

On the contrary, says ADF, the girl has been in extra-curricular social settings and supplemental public school classes with public school students for years.

The marital master acknowledged that the girl seemed well-adjusted and academically astute (homeschool students consistently average higher than public school students in SAT-ACT testing).

But he/she also found that the girl's Christian beliefs could influence others. On this basis, the judge ordered the mom to pack up her state-approved homeschool curriculum, which included science, math, English and other courses, and enroll the daughter in a government-run school.

This may seem incongruous. If the judges ruled for the father, wouldn't they instead want to keep the girl out of public school so her Christian beliefs didn't influence others?

The solution was to assign a guardian ad-litem who will monitor the girl to make sure she begins reflecting multiple other worldviews.

Several questions need to be asked:

* In whose esteem is one's peacefully conducted religious faith "too rigid?" It's a subjective term.

* Was the marital master's word taken at face value without knowing what his own definition of "rigid" is? Could there be a conflict of interest?

* Who is acting on behalf of this now 11-year-old child's desires? Did someone talk to her without either parent in the room? We're told today that children should decide for themselves what they want. But in divorce cases, states vary on the age a child can be heard.

* Are there double standards at work here? "Morning after" pill makers are lobbying the government to abolish any minimum age limit for purchase. Abortion providers take minor girls across state lines without a parent's knowledge. But this girl didn't have a choice.

* What do the judges personally believe? The Senate Judiciary Committee often votes against judicial nominees on the basis of their personal beliefs, even though it's against SJC regulations to do so. Shouldn't we ask the judges in this case if they're against Christian beliefs, to avoid bias?

As this case stands, the girl needs to stop believing so much in the Ten Commandments: Honor your parents, love God, don't murder, don't commit adultery, Don't lie, don't steal.

And she must be allowed to learn in today's public school curriculum: Do whatever you want, sex is natural at any age, what your parents say doesn't matter, God doesn't exist.

The Homeschool Legal Defense Association's website reflects disappointment with this Supreme Court ruling, but that the court stated their decision was confined to this case, not against all homeschooling. It could still set a precedent.

Homeschooling Conferences

Ken Ham, founder and president of Answers in Genesis, was disinvited from several homeschooling conferences after he criticized a fellow speaker at two Great Homeschool Conventions conferences and on his blog.

"The Board believes that Ken's public criticism of the convention itself and other speakers at our convention require him to surrender the spiritual privilege of addressing our homeschool audience," wrote Great Homeschool Conventions conference organizer Brennan Dean in the email dismissing Ham.

"Our expression of sacrifice and extraordinary kindness towards Ken and AIG has been returned to us and our attendees with Ken publicly attacking our conventions and other speakers," Dean wrote. "Our Board believes Ken's comments to be unnecessary, ungodly, and mean-spirited statements that are divisive at best and defamatory at worst."

Great Homeschool Conventions, which aims to teach and encourage homeschooling parents, hired Ham to present at four conferences this spring and summer, along with Peter Enns, a senior fellow of biblical studies at the BioLogos Foundation.

BioLogos's mission is to "promote a perspective on the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound," and Enns argues against a strictly literal reading of Genesis, according to his blog.

During the first two conferences, in Memphis and Greenville, SC, Ham showed audiences two video clips of Enns to illustrate how modern Christian speakers were compromising God's word, according to the Answers in Genesis website. He also told audiences that Enns had connections to Susan Wise Bauer, another speaker.

Bauer's publishing company, Peace Hill Press, publishes Enns's Bible curriculum for homeschoolers.

"Here is just one of many examples of Peter Enns rejecting the plain teaching of the Bible and undermining God's Word—he totally rejects a worldwide Flood," Ham wrote on his Facebook page the day after the South Carolina conference.

Conference organizers should not have been surprised, Answers in Genesis spokesman Mark Looy said. "We told the conference organizers in November that we intended to caution convention participants."

None of the parents at the conventions expressed concern about Ham's warnings, Looy said. "One speaker expressed concern, but the participants didn't have a problem with the content."

The withdrawn invitation was "out of the blue," he said. "We had no clue there was a problem. If there was, we would have sought to remedy it in time for the Cincinnati conference."

Ham was not removed for his message about young-earth creation, which the conference organizers agree with, Dean wrote in a public explanation. "Dr. Ham was removed for his spirit not for his message," Dean wrote. "We believe Christian scholars should be heard without the fear of ostracism or ad hominem attacks."

Susan Wise Bauer called the disagreement between Dean and Ham a "huge ideological clash between two men who have the same view of Scripture."

The discussion is about how to treat people you disagree with, she said. And while online support for each side has been strident, nobody knows how, or if, this is going to affect the number of people attending future conventions, she said.

Swift Action by Homeschoolers Defeats Sneak Attack

Seeking opportunities to maximize their resources, the Vermont Department of Education recently took a closer look at the state’s home study law. Under current law, homeschoolers are required to submit paperwork which creates a significant burden on both them and the staff of the Home Study Department. Acting without input from the homeschooling community, the department decided to recommend changes to the law.

These changes were submitted in a technical corrections bill to the Senate Education Committee. These “technical changes” would have transformed current legislative policy, as reflected in the current law, requiring mandatory testing for all homeschoolers. Although the rewrite would have reduced reporting requirements on homeschoolers as well, such policy changes should never have been slipped into a “technical corrections” bill and certainly not without input from the homeschooling community.

HSLDA caught wind of the proposed changes thanks to Retta Dunlap, a local homeschool advocate and executive director of Vermonters for Better Education. We agreed that action was necessary.

HSLDA worked with Dunlap to encourage homeschooling families to contact the Vermont Department of Education and request that they withdraw the proposed legislation and seek input from homeschoolers before making such drastic changes. After an initial hearing on the bill, the Education Committee told the department to work with homeschoolers to come back with a new draft in just five days.

Both Dunlap and HSLDA Staff Attorney Mike Donnelly agreed that it would be impossible and highly inappropriate to attempt to rewrite the entire law in just five days, which included a weekend. It was also becoming apparent that the department was committed to mandatory testing language.

HSLDA then asked homeschoolers to contact the Senate Education Committee. Over the next few days, senators on the Education Committee received a barrage of phone calls and emails from homeschooling families urging the committee not to move forward with the proposed law without first consulting with homeschoolers. When the committee met to discuss the changes, they had no doubt about the views of their constituents and agreed not to go forward with the changes. Education Committee Vice Chair Ginny Lyons sent a letter to the community agreeing that “if and when there is analysis of the home school system, all interested parties must be involved.”

Donnelly agreed: “Changes of this magnitude require careful consideration and input from all parties. Drafted in 1987, the Vermont homeschool law is in need of changes to make it less burdensome for homeschoolers. Despite supreme court opinions to the contrary, many homeschoolers feel as though they are living in an approval state and not a notification state. HSLDA is pleased to stand with Vermont homeschoolers and to work for change that reduces unnecessary bureaucracy and state intrusion into families.”

Homeschoolers dig into their families' history

Several local students came together recently at the Windsor Historical Society to learn the skills behind delving deeply into their ancestries. On March 23, this group of eager kids, all homeschoolers, were completing a four-week series called “Family Roots.” The classes were offered by the Windsor Public Library and specifically designed for homeschooling families. They taught the families the skills that they need to get to know one’s own family history.

“It just seemed to lend itself beautifully to homeschoolers,” said genealogy expert, Judy Morris, who proposed the class concept to the public library. “You can use your own family to explore culture and history,” she said. By using her own family as an example, Morris walked the families through what resources to use, what websites to visit online, and which common research traps to avoid. “It involves a ton of history. It’s important for them to learn of their heritage,” said Morris.

“Judy and I thought homeschoolers would be a good fit because genealogy encompasses so many other areas – history, math, research, etc. – and obviously is great for families to do together,” said Kidspace librarian Deborah Roe. “I had heard there were a lot of homeschoolers in Windsor, so I thought it was worth trying.”

In the last four weeks, Morris met with the families to walk them through her own personal experiences in researching her family and describe the fascinating facts she discovered, as well as the pitfalls she encountered while digging up her own past.

Morris described how despite the fact that some documents are old, they may not all be reliable. Even a census, said Morris, may be incorrect, depending on who answered the door on the day the census taker came knocking.

Fifteen-year veteran homeschooler and Windsor resident Tammy Barlow, who has educated all four of her children, was taking the class with her youngest daughter. Barlow said as her children get older, finding classes like this one gets a little harder. “When they were younger, I found a lot more,” said Barlow. “You have to be very creative.” Since Barlow and her daughter started the class, she has been able to discover information about her own family stemming back to WWI, and research has led her to family members that once resided in Quebec, Canada.

On the last day of this class, each of the children was given a real Windsor figure to research and learn more about. L.P. Wilson and Marguerite Mills were among those being analyzed by using resources available in the Windsor Historical Society’s research library. Each group was given both primary and secondary ephemera to read and pull information from, including birth dates, marriages and deaths.

Sharon Jackson’s daughter was researching Marguerite Mills, who was a charter member of the Windsor Historical Society. “We’ve enjoyed it,” said Jackson, who has been homeschooling her daughter, and later her son, for six years. “It’s been a neat thing to have Judy share her interests with us.” Jackson has lost track of one side of her family entirely and is interested in employing the skills that they learned during the class to track down some more information to pass on to her children.