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?

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