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Home-Spun Schooling
by Isabel Lyman
21 July 1997

Isabel Lyman John and Cindy Clarkin live in a rural town in western Massachusetts with their seven children. Their modest home doubles as the Clarkin children's homeschool, where on any given day a visitor can witness the Clarkin children involved in various schooling activities: Hannah practicing the piano, David working on a math sheet, or Ruth playing an educational geography game. Cindy shuttles from child to child like a schoolmarm of yesteryear, answering questions, checking assignments, and, on occasion, changing the baby's diaper. The children's school program includes visits to a nursing home and participation in the Presidential Physical Fitness Program with other homeschoolers.

It's hardly an idyllic life for Cindy, who has no outside help with household chores and finds little free time for her gardening and calligraphy hobbies. Yet she and John, an electrical engineer, are pleased that their homeschooling program has enabled them to build strong family bonds and has allowed them the freedom to concentrate on teaching their children core religious and moral values.

"Public school was never an option," says Cindy, "We thought we'd send our children to private Christian schools." But they changed their minds when all their friends started homeschooling and they attended a seminar led by Gregg Harris, a popular homeschooling author and speaker. "The workshop convinced us how doable homeschooling was, and that we could be a family unit in the nineties," explains Cindy.

Another couple who have discovered the joys of teaching their children at home are Ruben and Donna Almaguer, who homeschool Ashley (9) and Adam (7) in an airy South Florida home surrounded by tropical fruit trees. One room of the house, which faces an in-ground swimming pool, is the children's schoolroom. Ruben and Donna see homeschooling as the wave of the future, where children can excel academically while learning at a pace that is comfortable for them.

"I want to be the first homeschooling family that homeschools their kids through college," Ruben jokes with the enthusiasm of a convert. Like Cindy Clarkin, Donna is the primary teacher. She and the children participate in a support group of 200 other families who educate their children at home.

Exploding Trend

The Clarkin and Almaguer families have much company in their decision to homeschool. Patricia M. Lines, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that presently half a million children are homeschooled. Rich Shipe, a spokesperson for the Home School Legal Defense Association, says the number is more like 1.23 million. Since many homeschoolers do not register with state or local school authorities, there is no way precisely to quantify this phenomenon. But all sides agree that the homeschool movement has been experiencing spectacular growth. The National Home Education Research Institute notes that homeschooling is growing at a rate of from 15 percent to 40 percent per year.

While homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, some states are more restrictive than others. Idaho and Oklahoma are considered user-friendly to homeschoolers, in that there is no requirement for parents to initiate contact with the state to begin to homeschool. On the other hand, states like Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York are heavily regulated in that a curriculum must be approved by the state.

Back in the 1970s and early '80s, when parents were fighting legislative and court battles over compulsory attendance laws, homeschooling was largely made up of two groups -- left libertarians and fundamentalist Christians. Today, however, homeschooling has moved into the mainstream, attracting a broad cross-section of Americans. Religious conviction and a realization of the hostile, secular humanist atmosphere prevailing in the government schools continues to be a major factor in parents' decisions to switch to home-based education. However, there are other factors as well. According to the Florida Department of Education's 1996 survey of 2,245 homeschooling families, the most frequently cited reason to homeschool was dissatisfaction with the public school environment (safety, drugs, adverse peer pressure). U.S. News & World Report confirms the trend: A recent issue noted that mainstream Americans are converting to homeschooling because they believe their local schools are "dangerous places."

Parents, sometimes pushed into this choice, are discovering that homeschooling is a very nice fit for them. In Strengths of Their Own, a recent report of 5,402 homeschooling students, homeschool authority Dr. Brian Ray notes that homeschoolers outperform their public school counterparts by 30 to 37 percentile points on standardized tests, in all subjects. These higher test scores result regardless of the parents' educational background, income, ethnic group, or occupation.

How to Do It

There is no one "right" way to homeschool. Some families choose to purchase a pre-planned, grade-appropriate curriculum. Others rely on homemade materials supplemented by frequent trips to the library. Some parents hire a tutor to teach particular skills like a foreign language or musical instrument. Homeschoolers also participate in learning co-ops with other homeschoolers or take classes at a day school or community college. Finally, children may only be homeschooled for a year or two before returning to conventional classroom settings. Whatever program homeschooling families choose, the results are most often high-achieving and principled young people. Barnaby Marsh, who was homeschooled in the Alaskan wilderness, went on to graduate from Cornell University and was one of 32 U.S. Rhodes Scholars selected in 1996. Rebecca Sealfon, a 13-year-old homeschooler from Brooklyn, was this year's winner of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. Army Specialist Michael New, a decorated medic who was court-martialed for refusing to don a United Nations uniform, was homeschooled. Fifteen-year-old country singer LeAnn Rimes has skipped two grades through her homeschooling.

The explosive growth of homeschooling has created a busting-at-the-seams market of products and services for both novices and the experienced. Distributors of curriculum and computer software tailor-made for home scholars are thriving, homeschool web sites abound, and there is even a Home Education Radio Network (HEN) operating out of Colorado. (See Robert W. Lee's article and bibliography, beginning on page 55, for specific information on homeschool materials and resources.)

The Origins of Homeschooling

The seeds of what has become the modern homeschool movement were planted by a number of unrelated individuals about 30 years ago. In 1969, Dr. Raymond Moore, a former U.S. Department of Education employee and school superintendent, laid the groundwork that would credentialize homeschooling and earn him the moniker "the grandfather of homeschooling." Dr. Moore, who holds an Ed.D. from the University of Southern California, along with his wife, Dorothy, a reading specialist, initiated an inquiry into previously neglected areas of educational research. Two of the questions the Moores and a team of like-minded colleagues set out to answer were: Is institutionalizing young children a sound educational trend? What is the best timing for school entrance?

Moore's team sought advice from over 100 family development specialists, including Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, John Bowlby of the World Health Organization, and Burton White of Harvard University. These professionals recommended a "cautious approach to subjecting [the child's] developing nervous system and mind to formal constraints." Psychologist Bronfenbrenner went even further, advising that subjecting children to the daily routine of elementary school could result in excessive peer dependency.

After extensive study the Moores concluded that developmental problems -- such as hyperactivity, nearsightedness, and dyslexia -- are often the result of prematurely taxing a developing child's nervous system and mind with continuous academic tasks like reading and writing.

The Moores went on to author Home Grown Kids and Home-spun Schools, two 1980s homeschool classics. Dr. Moore advocates balancing study, chores, and play in an atmosphere geared toward a child's particular developmental make-up.

During the 1960s and '70s other voices emerged in the public school debate directed toward decentralizing schools and returning greater autonomy to teachers and parents. The late John Holt, an Ivy League graduate and a teacher in alternative schools, chronicled his litany of complaints in How Children Fail. Holt viewed schools as places that produced obedient, but bland, citizens who would dutifully pay confiscatory taxes and cower in meek subservience to authority figures. Holt concluded that the most humane way to educate a child is to homeschool him.

In 1968, Reverend Paul Lindstrom founded Christian Liberty Academy, a K-12 school now located in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Two years later he launched his homeschool ministry, Christian Liberty Academy Satellite Schools. From 20 homeschool families in 1970, the Christian Liberty homeschool program has blossomed into a global effort with more than 50,000 students in all 50 states and more than 50 foreign countries. In a 1987 interview with THE NEW AMERICAN, Dr. Lindstrom noted that he had launched his homeschooling effort with an advertisement in this magazine's predecessor, American Opinion, because our readers were far more ready for this educational concept than any other audience he could think of.

Through their national media appearances, legislative and courtroom testimonies, and speeches to sympathetic communities, Raymond Moore, John Holt, Paul Lindstrom, and other pioneers worked hard to convince an often skeptical public that homeschooling is a good alternative to state schools and that it is, in a sense, a homecoming, a return to a pre-industrial era when American families worked and learned together instead of apart.

While homeschooling has gained enormous popularity in the last ten years, it is still coming under sharp attack from various quarters. Sometimes the critics are family members or neighbors who mistakenly believe homeschooling is illegal, or that it will deprive the child of essential "socialization" or proper academic instruction, and jeopardize his opportunities for a college education. However, as homeschooling has become more commonplace these concerns have greatly diminished. Little more than a decade ago, homeschool families were often considered oddballs and extremists; today they are to be found in virtually every community and are more likely to be admired than ridiculed. Their accomplishments have laid to rest the fears that homeschooling is somehow detrimental to both child and society.

On a larger scale, the National Education Association adopted an anti-homeschooling resolution at its 1996 summer convention. Resolution B-63 declares that "homeschooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience." Further, the resolution notes that if homeschooling is chosen, "instruction should be by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency." But in this, as in other matters, the NEA is concerned not about education, but about power and control. The most potent rebuttals to the NEA and other naysayers are the many outstanding graduates which homeschools have produced.

Typical Success Story

Alexandra Swann, now 26, of New Mexico is one such graduate. Joyce Swann, Alexandra's mother, armed with only a high school diploma and Calvert School's (an accredited correspondence program) elementary school curriculum, decided to homeschool Alexandra as well as her nine brothers and sisters.

"Twenty years ago we didn't know anyone who homeschooled. There was a concern we would become vegetables, unable to function in society," remembers Alexandra of their beginning days.

Ten years after that leap into the unknown, Alexandra was on the fast track to academic success. By age 16, she had earned a master's degree from California State University's external degree program. After graduation, she went on to write and self-publish No Regrets, a book about her homeschooling experience. At age 18, she was hired to teach U.S. history and Western civilization at a community college. She also authored advice columns for homeschoolers and spoke at home education conferences. Alexandra says her students at the community college were all products of the public education system. "I was horrified because there were so many of them who couldn't read and write," she notes.

Today, Alexandra works in sales, manages Cygnet Press (the publishing company started by the Swann family), and has just finished a novel co-written with her mother. But she is hardly the sole success act of the family -- seven of her homeschooled siblings also hold master's degrees.

The social aspects of high school life -- proms, athletic teams, cliques -- were not missed by Alexandra. "I had a wonderful time in school from the day I started to the day I graduated, so I really could not have improved on that," she says with confidence.

No Government Help, Thank You

The modern homeschooling story is fundamentally one of a grassroots movement of parent educators who have taught their children how to read and write at kitchen tables and in home offices. These parents have educated their children without a dime of government funding and, frequently, without much applause.

This is not to imply that homeschoolers are powerless. Two years ago, homeschoolers came of age, politically, when they overwhelmed Capitol Hill switchboards pushing Congress to drop a drive to force parents to get teaching certificates before they could homeschool. The House voted with home educators, 424 to 1, on this issue.

Homeschoolers have also received a great deal of positive media coverage over the past ten years in the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

Homeschoolers have succeeded in making a countercultural idea acceptable, and if the present U.S. educational dilemma escalates, the number of homeschooled children, who want school and state to be separate, will continue dramatically to increase.

This column appeared in The New American on July 21, 1997.


Isabel Lyman lives in Edmond, Oklahoma. A former editorial columnist for the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Massachusetts, her views have appeared in various national publications, including the Wall Street Journal and Investors Business Daily. She may be contacted via e-mail by clicking here.
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