Homeschooling Kate McReynolds
Across the nation, public schools are cutting backor eliminating recess, art, music, physical edu- cation, and drama. Excessive homework and
test-prep are encroaching on children’s free time and family time, making it difficult for them to engage in activities that are important for their full develop- ment. Competitive college entrance requirements push young people to take Advanced Placement courses and SAT-prep courses, adding to their al- ready heavy homework loads. The school work it- self, driven by high-stakes tests, is typically dull and lifeless, consisting of little besides the memorization of disembodied facts and concepts. Children seem to dislike school more than ever.
We are told that all this is necessary to prepare our children for the future. But is it? Is there an alterna- tive way to educate our children that will respect their happiness and individuality, and will foster their natural love of learning? Growing numbers of parents are turning to homeschooling.
By its very nature, homeschooling cannot be eas- ily described. There is no unified homeschool “movement,” no standardized curriculum or cen- tralized source of information on academic achieve- ment. Parents have many different reasons for homeschooling their children. For some the motiva- tion is not the repressive and dreary nature of the public school curriculum, but the need to teach a reli- gious-based education. Other parents fear violence in the schools (Bauman 2001, Masland and Ross 2003). Still others want to spend more time with their children (Blanchard 2006).
Some homeschooled children follow a traditional curriculum and a set schedule, some are “de- schooled,” a style of homeschooling that permits children to follow their own interests at their own pace. Some homeschoolers engage in “distance
Homeschooling represents a real alternative to traditional public education, as well as to the ideology of consumerism, conformity, and competition that permeates our increasingly standardized educational institutions.
Kate McReynolds, a child clinical psychologist, is the Associate Editor of Encounter. She is the mother of two teenage children.
learning,” i.e., Internet-based instruction, and pur- chase books and ready-made curricula. Many make or find their own materials, join learning co- operatives, and make use of community-based learning opportunities, such as public lectures, community theater, and continuing education classes (Russo 1999). Increasingly, homeschoolers are joining together to share resources and even to form partnerships with traditional schools (Bauman 2001; Blanchard 2006). But regardless of the form it takes, homeschooling is a growing trend, increasing annually by 15 to 20 percent (Bauman 2001; Masland and Ross 2003).
Evaluating the Outcomes
Academic achievement among U.S. homeschoolers is difficult to assess. There is no uniform curriculum; standardized tests are voluntary in many states; and federal systems of “accountability” are absent. Never- theless, a variety of studies suggest that by traditional standards, homeschoolers do pretty well. They tend to score higher than public school children on stan- dardized achievement tests (Rudner 1999), advanced placement exams (Richman 2005), the SAT (King 2004) and the ACT (Golden 2001). Homeschoolers at- tend college at higher rates than public school stu- dents (Richman 1999).
About three-quarters of the nation’s colleges have policies regarding homeschool applicants and many, including Harvard, actively recruit homeschoolers (Cloud and Morse 2001). In 2001 Stanford University admitted 27% of its homeschooled applicants, nearly twice the acceptance rate of traditionally schooled ap- plicants (Golden 2001). Once in college home- schoolers tend to have higher grade point averages than their traditionally schooled peers (Golden 2001).
Despite its apparent academic success, a prevalent mainstream concern is that homeschooling deprives children of the social and emotional development necessary to make it in the “real” world. The social- ization question, as it is often called, represents a number of concerns. If children don’t attend tradi- tional schools will they be able to cope with college? Will they be able to get and keep a job? Will home- schooled children know how to get along with oth- ers? Will they tolerate people’s differences? Will they know how to behave as society expects? I decided to
talk with homeschoolers to get a better idea of their day-to-day life.
Ellen, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, home- schools her five children. She was originally somewhat opposed to homeschooling, put off by her impression that homeschoolers were trying to shield themselves from the world, but all that changed when she sent Aidan, her first child, to kindergarten. “I knew some- thing was wrong on the first day of school. I asked the teacher if I could meet with her and she seemed shocked. She agreed, but during our meeting her atti- tude seemed to be, ‘What are you doing here?’” Al- though the school, which Ellen had researched and carefully selected, had an open door policy, Aidan’s teacher didn’t value parent cooperation. There were 37 children in Aidan’s class and they were expected to sit in desks and do academic worksheets; there was very little playtime. Aidan, who already knew how to read, was bored and restless. Ellen was surprised to get re- ports that her well-behaved son was acting up in school. She discovered that the punishment was losing recess, which struck her as counterproductive. At home, her young son talked about teachers yelling at students, about students yelling, and about his feeling that his teacher was always watching him. Ellen sus- pected he had been pegged as a troublemaker. Six weeks into the school year a family emergency re- quired Ellen’s attention. She left town for two weeks, taking Aidan with her. When they returned, Aidan did not go back to school.
Ellen is a proponent of Waldorf education, devel- oped by Rudolph Steiner, a holistic developmental approach that discourages introducing academics too early. Aidan spent his first year of homeschool primarily playing with friends, going to the library, doing art, and going on outings with his mother. Now, with five homeschoolers ranging in age from 3 to 13, some of the work is more academic, some of the time more structured. The children learn with books and workbooks, with friends, from programs at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Museum of Natural History, and other community resources. But each one has a unique developmental path that home- schooling is fostering. Ten-year-old Caleb, for exam- ple, is a peacemaker who is unusually sensitive to
Volume 20, Number 2 (Summer 2007) 37
people’s well-being. He is more of a homebody than Aidan, and not as interested in academics. His edu- cation, therefore, is not as book-based, rather he spends time building and sculpting.
Ellen has been “methodical” about math but, in keeping with her philosophy, does not introduce it too soon.
I observe my children very carefully to see how things are affecting them, not to cater to their ev- ery whim, but to make sure of healthy growth in every aspect of their lives, not just academics. It takes a lot of attention.
It seems to be working. When Ellen’s daughter, Justine, who is sunny, artistic, and loving, was six, she spent the entire year drawing pictures. It was all she wanted to do and she was very focused and content. Now 8 years old, her interest is turning to academic subjects and she recently asked for a math workbook. When her mother gave her one shortly before bed- time, Justine took it to bed with her and began work- ing out problems. She enthusiastically told her mother, “Don’t be surprised if you see me here in the morning still working.” Ellen believes that by allow- ing children the freedom to develop their own inter- ests and learn material when they are ready we are protecting their natural enthusiasm and preparing them in the best possible way for the future.
Their enthusiasm for the things they are inter- ested in is so untainted by competition and ex- ternal expectations that it’s retained. Their en- thusiasm for what’s coming in the future is pre- served. If we expose them to academics too early we’re stunting their ability to use their knowledge creatively and in their own way. If it’s too early they won’t know what to do with what they know, but if we pay attention to the unique way that each child learns and grows, they will be free to accomplish what they want in life.
Ellen is very familiar with the socialization ques- tion. She’s puzzled that people think of public school as the “real” world. “It’s silly,” says Ellen. “This is the world; we all live in it.” Ellen believes there are many aspects of traditional schooling that work against healthy socialization, such as age seg-
regation, competition, and the near exclusive focus on academic subjects.
My children, and other homeschoolers I know, interact with people of all ages. In my family we have to adjust to each individual on a daily ba- sis. There is an awareness of differences, a give and take. The older children help the younger ones and this develops compassion and under- standing. Multi-age socializing is a very natu- ral, real world practice that children in tradi- tional schools don’t experience. Home- schoolers have more time to socialize too. We are out in the world everyday interacting with people. And the children have time to play with their friends because they’re not burdened with afterschool programs and homework.
Ellen goes on to say that cooperation, which she de- fines as working together for the common good, is not fostered in traditional schools. “How does putt- ing children in a very competitive environment, where the emphasis is on individual achievement, promote social harmony? What are we teaching chil- dren when we socialize them in this way?” But Ellen believes that one of the biggest advantages of homeschooling for socializing children is the cul- tural opportunities it can provide. “The things that we share in our culture, like art and music, are the things that socialize us. This is where we come to- gether as a society. And this is what’s being elimi- nated from public schools.”
Ellen’s son, Aidan, has decided to start public high school next fall. She’s not worried about how he will cope. “This is what he wants. He’s motivated to be a part of this experience and he’s a creative prob- lem solver. He has the skills to overcome whatever challenges he meets.”
Elisa is a lively, articulate 15-year-old girl who has been homeschooled for the past year. She is a veteran of the Popcorn School, a parent cooperative pre-K and kindergarten, a public school, and a private school. When the homework started piling up in middle school, Elisa’s mother suggested home- schooling. Elisa resisted, fearing she’d become a so- cial outcast. By 8th grade, then in private school,
38 ENCOUNTER: Education for Meaning and Social Justice
Elisa was doing six hours of homework a night. She was overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and wanted a break. Desperate, her worries about being a social out- cast faded. “I didn’t care if I ever saw my friends again. ” But it took meeting a group of homeschooled children for Elisa to get excited about what she was about to be- gin. Describing her reaction to a dramatic production that she attended staged by homeschooled children, Elisa said, “These are homeschooled kids and they are happy and they are doing this incredible production. I never looked back.” I asked Elisa how she knew the children were happy. She said:
You can tell. When you’re in a place like school everyone seems very empty. They have very structured days and they are forced into a cor- ner. But when I met these homeschool kids, they knew who they were and where they were go- ing. You could see it in their smiles, in their eyes. I had never met anyone like that. They had an intelligence and a knack for life. There’s a tangi- ble difference.
Elisa told me that she has wanted to write a novel ever since she could say the word “novel.” She’s writ- ing one now, and studying herbs and medicine. “I’m doing things that really interest me, and that’s the car- dinal difference. I’m getting to do things that I would- n’t have been able to do in school, things that will help me in my career path and in my life.” Elisa also studies French, geography, mathematics, and English. She has two voice teachers and a dance teacher. Elisa and her mother have written a play, a parody of regular school that is currently in production. “It’s the most surreal thing about homeschooling. You don’t expect to be able to write a play and see actors voicing the words you wrote. It’s unbelievably heart-warming and jaw- dropping at the same time.”
Did her fears about her social status prove true? Elisa laughs.
There are so many misconceptions about home- schoolers, that they’re nerds, they’re isolated. If you take any class, you’ll meet people. But when you choose the classes you take you meet people who are mutually interested, and you come together in a way that you can’t in school because in school it’s forced down your throat.
The people I’ve met in these classes are friend- ships I’ve kept.”
Elisa expresses her belief that holistic education is the natural way to learn and that experiential learn- ing is its essence. “Actually getting to touch and feel what you are learning is what’s missing in the public schools.” She is so wonderfully alive and enthusias- tic that I asked Elisa to say more about happiness. She replied:
This might sound odd, but once when I was lit- tle I was at the grocery store with my Dad, I saw this organic milk and on the carton it said, “From happy cows, on happy farms.” I begged my Dad to buy that milk, and I could taste the difference. In schools kids are not naturally grown; they don’t develop naturally. They can’t tell happy from sad; they are fed emotions. It was a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from. Now I feel real. I feel this is what life should be like. I have never been more fulfilled and genu- inely happy.
Henry and Adam
Henry and Adam have taken charge of making popcorn for the Pied Piper Children’s Theater pro- duction of Anything Goes. Ten-year-old Henry mea- sures oil, then popcorn into the movie-theater style popper. Seven-year-old Adam closes the popper door and begins to assemble popcorn boxes. He shows me a hot mitt that he brought so he wouldn’t burn his hand when he opens the door. Their friend Emma joins them and they play as the kernels heat up. When the popcorn is ready, all three children scoop it into boxes with a paper cup. They repeat the process until the concession stand is full of popcorn boxes. I watch them closely, trying to detect deficits in their socialization. I can’t see any.
Homeschoolers, including Henry, Adam and Emma, frequently participate in theatrical produc- tions at the Pied Piper Children’s Theater in New York City, where I live. The founder and Artistic Di- rector of the theater, Reinaldo Martinez-Cubero, has worked extensively with homeschoolers and public school children, in children’s theater and in his pri- vate music studio. I asked him if, in his experience, there was a difference in the social skills of
Volume 20, Number 2 (Summer 2007) 39
homeschooled and traditionally schooled children. He replied,
Not anymore. When I started working in chil- dren’s theater, fifteen years ago, there was a dif- ference. The homeschooled children were not as skilled at negotiating and compromising with their peers. That was really the only difference. But that has changed. Homeschooling has evolved; parents are more committed to getting their children out and involved with other chil- dren. The Pied Piper Theater is a magnet for homeschooled kids because the families create a whole curriculum around the show so they have a great learning experience and a great so- cial experience. I always have ten or fifteen homeschoolers and they are no different from the other kids. Of course, so much depends on the parents. We have some great parents who are doing great things. We have one home- schooler who has serious learning disabilities. If she were in public school she’d be in a class for disabled kids and she’d be doomed. But as a homeschooler she’s been able to do everything that the other kids do; she’s no different.
As a frequent volunteer at the Pied Piper Children’s Theater, I was surprised to discover that there are so many homeschooled children involved. It turns out that I’m acquainted with many homeschoolers. I didn’t know it because they’re just like everyone else.
The World as a Class Room
The stereotype of the isolated, misfit homeschooler is giving way as, in growing numbers, homeschoolers make the world their classroom. It appears that homeschoolers spend more time in their communities and have meaningful interactions with a wider vari- ety of people than traditionally schooled children typ- ically do. Perhaps this accounts, at least in part, for the empirical findings that suggest that parents who edu- cate their children at home are doing a good job social- izing them (Russo 1999). In one study, Brian Ray (2003) of the National Home Education Research In- stitute surveyed over 7,300 adults who had been homeschooled, most for at least seven years. Ray found that homeschool graduates were significantly
more involved in community and civic affairs, such as volunteering and working for political candidates, than were traditionally schooled adults. They also voted and attended public meetings at higher rates. Over 74% of the young adults surveyed had taken col- lege classes compared to 46% of the traditionally schooled population. The overwhelming majority was gainfully employed or attending college. 98% of the homechool graduates had read at least one book in the six months prior to the study, compared to 69% of the comparison group. Ray’s study demonstrated that adult homeschoolers are happier and find life more exciting than their traditionally schooled peers. Other studies have concluded that homeschooled children are not socially isolated (Meighan 1984), that their self-concept, a barometer of socialization, tends to be better than traditionally schooled children (Tay- lor 1987), and that home-schooling fosters leadership skills at least as well as traditional schooling (Mont- gomery 1989).
The British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott (1986, 178-179) cautioned that there is a price to pay for education that neglects children’s emotional and imaginative capacities. We can mea- sure it, he said, “in terms of the loss of the opportu- nity for creative learning, as opposed to being taught.” Creative learning is connected to Winni- cott’s concept of creative living, which he considers the foundation of health and happiness. He says, “In creative living you or I find that everything we do strengthens the feeling that we are alive, that we are ourselves” (1986, 43). When children learn creatively, they retain a personal, self-directed sense of purpose that is unmistakably their own. And this can be mea- sured in enthusiasm and vitality. The homeschoolers that I met are learning and living creatively. They seem to be the very picture of homeschool advocate, John Holt’s (1983, 288) description of the learning child, “It is their desire and determination to do real things, not in the future but right now, that gives chil- dren the curiosity, energy, determination, and pa- tience to learn all they learn.” Homeschooling repre- sents a real alternative to traditional public educa- tion, as well as to the ideology of consumerism, con-
40 ENCOUNTER: Education for Meaning and Social Justice
formity, and competition that permeates our increas- ingly standardized educational institutions.
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