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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Homeschooling's true colors- article

Homeschooling's true colors: investigating the myths—and the facts—about America's fastest-growing educational movement

Printed in the July-August 2005 edition of "Mothering" magazine

Rachel Gathercole

We are all familiar with the popular images of homeschoolers in America: Extreme fundamentalist families gathering for a morning prayer and Bible study. Tired mothers teaching in front of a blackboard after late nights of preparing lesson plans, or perhaps stumbling recklessly through unfamiliar subject matter they are not qualified to teach. Lonely, friendless children sitting at home, wistfully dreaming of an exciting, lively social life at school--or worse, isolated little misfits tragically unaware that an outside world even exists.

These stereotypes are touted freely by the popular media and conventional schooling experts alike. We have probably all imagined them ourselves at one time or another. But they have little to do with the realities of homeschooling for most families today, and are rarely backed by factual data.

But even when we ignore these stereotypes and look to the news media for answers, it's hard to sort out what homeschooling is. The things we are told about it and the images portrayed are often contradictory and/or downright sensationalized. The mass media tell us on one hand that homeschoolers excel, and on the other hand that they are underregulated. One minute we hear that it is hard for homeschoolers to get into college, and the next minute that they are going to Harvard. We are told that homeschooling is difficult and requires an incredible degree of sacrifice by parents, yet the number of parents choosing to homeschool is skyrocketing.

Just what is the truth about homeschooling? The hard facts might surprise you.

Below are some common myths about homeschooling, and the simple facts behind this widely misunderstood movement.

Myth: Homeschooling is a fringe movement, less prevalent than advocates suggest.

Fact: The US Census Bureau reports that in 200l, more than 2 million children were being homeschooled in the US alone, and the number is rising at the astounding rate of 15 to 20 percent per year. (1)

Patricia M. Lines, the foremost homeschooling expert in the US Department of Education, further notes (in 1999) that since some families homeschool for only part of their children's school years, "the number of children with some homeschooling experience, by age 18, would be around 6 to 12 percent of the population." (2) The percentage would be greater today.

Demographically speaking, the homeschooling population comprises families of all socioeconomic groups, religions, sizes, political affiliations, family structures, and ethnicities. (3-6) Statistically, homeschooling families tend to be large, conservative, white, two-parent families, and the average homeschooling parent has a moderate to high level. (7-10) of income and education. However, according to the US Census Bureau, differences between homeschooling families and conventional-schooling families are not very large, and the demographic gap appears to be narrowing. (11)

Myth: Homeschooling is a primarily religious phenomenon.

Fact: According to the US Census Bureau and other sources, in 2000 only 33 percent of homeschooling parents cited religion as a reason for homeschooling (and many of these parents cited other reasons as well). On the other hand, 50.8 percent cited a belief that their children could get a better education through homeschooling, while 29.8 percent stated that school offers a poor learning environment, and 11.5 percent said that their children were not being challenged in school. (12)

Statistics that correctly state that the majority of homeschoolers in America identify themselves as Christian should not be mistaken for evidence that homeschooling is a religiously based phenomenon. The vast majority of Americans in general identify themselves as Christians--85 percent in 2003, according to a Gallup poll--so it is no surprise that the majority of both homeschoolers and conventional schoolers also identify themselves as Christian. (13-16) Some families choose homeschool, private school, or public school for religious reasons, and some homeschooling families are religious fundamentalists, just as some non-homeschooling families are. Like the general population, the homeschooling population comprises families of all religions, as well as many families who would classify themselves as agnostic, atheist, or unaffiliated with any established religion. (17)

Myth: Homeschooled children are undereducated.

Fact: Numerous studies of homeschoolers' achievement show that homeschoolers score exceptionally well on standardized tests, with the average/median homeschool students outperforming at least 70 to 80 percent of their conventionally schooled peers in all subjects and at all grade levels. (18,19) Studies also show that the longer a student is homeschooled, the higher his or her test scores become. (20) In addition, homeschoolers have been described as "dominating" national contests, such as the national spelling and geography bees, and are now sought by many colleges. (21-26)

Myth: Most homeschoolers learn through a formal curriculum, taught to them by their parents (for example, at the kitchen table).

Fact: Homeschoolers learn through a variety of methods, which may include some teaching by the parent, as well as self-directed projects, real-life activities (such as gardening, cooking, sports, volunteer activities, etc.), free play, independent reading, group classes with other homeschoolers, cooperative learning experiences with other families, field trips and outings as a family or with a homeschooling group, and social activities and gatherings. (27-31) The majority of homeschooling families do not purchase prepackaged curriculums but instead use some individually created combination of the above methods determined by the parent and/or child to suit the child's individual needs and learning style. (32)

Homeschoolers also employ a wide range of overall approaches and philosophies, from "school-at-home" approaches that match the popular image, to (perhaps most common) an eclectic approach in which the family selects materials and activities according to the children's needs at the time, to unschooling--"delight-driven" or "child-led" learning in which the child learns all necessary material through pursuing his or her own interests in a real-world setting, with a parent available to help, answer questions, and direct the child to resources. (33-36) Those who engage in formal lessons do so to varying degrees: one family might put chase and adhere to a full curriculum, while another might devise a complete or partial curriculum of their own using alternative methods and focus; still another might reserve formal lessons for a particular subject area, such as math. (37-40)

As new and varied as these methods may sound, all are effective methods for home educating. Dr. Lawrence M. Rudner, in an independent study of more than 20,000 homeschoolers, found that though homeschoolers tend not to use prepackaged curriculum programs, they nevertheless score "exceptionally high" on standardized tests, ranking typically in the 70th to 80th percentile (compared to the national average of the 50th percentile). "It is readily apparent ... that the median scores for home school students are well above their public/private school counterparts in every subject and in every grade," regardless of the presence or absence of formal curriculum use, (41) says Rudner. Homeschooled students, regardless of teaching method, have gone on to attend Ivy League universities. According to an article in Stanford Magazine, "among homeschoolers who end up at Stanford, 'self-teaching' is a common thread. (42,43)

Myth: Homeschoolers are "stuck at home."

Fact: Per week, the average homeschooled child participates in at least five outside activities, such as sports teams, scouts, clubs, classes in the community, volunteer activities, etc. (44) Some (about 18 percent) participate in public school part-time. (45) Many homeschooling parents are also very involved in their communities--volunteering, attending or teaching classes, pursuing part-time or full-time careers, operating family businesses, and/or developing close friendships with other homeschooling families. (46,47) Homeschooling parents and children, free of externally imposed school schedules, are in charge of their time and are free to come and go as they please. Homeschooling enables family members to be very involved in outside activities without sacrificing their time together to do so.

Myth: Homeschooling deprives children of proper socialization.

Fact: Homeschooling affords children plenty of time and opportunity for social interaction and friendships, as well as time to learn appropriate social behaviors from their parents. The available research shows that homeschoolers tend to be very well adjusted. In 1986, even before the rapid growth in the homeschooling movement that we are seeing today, social researcher John Wesley Taylor V found that the self-concept of homeschooled children was significantly higher than that of their traditionally schooled peers when tested using the widely accepted Piers-Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale. Among his conclusions was the statement that "it would appear that few home-schooling children are socially deprived. Critics of the home school should not urge self-concept and socialization rationales. These factors apparently favor homeschoolers over the conventionally schooled population." (48)

More recently, psychotherapist Dr. Larry Shyers, in a study involving "blind" observation of the behavior of homeschooled and conventionally schooled children, found that homeschooled children exhibited significantly fewer "problem behaviors" than their conventionally schooled peers and had no significant difference in levels of self-esteem. (49) Thomas Smedley, studying communication skills, socialization, and daily living skills through the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, concluded that homeschooled kids in his study were more mature and better socialized than the conventionally schooled. (50) And finally, in a survey of adults who had been homeschooled for at least seven years, Dr. Brian D. Ray found that 59 percent said they were "very happy" with life, while only 27.6 percent of the general population said they were "very happy" with life. (51)

Due to the excellent teacher-student ratio that homeschoolers enjoy and the lack of time-consuming administrative tasks such as attendance taking, busywork, etc., the academic aspects of homeschooling require only a fraction of the time necessary for the same tasks in a conventional school setting, leaving lots of extra time for social activities. Not limited by strict "school hours" and brief interactions in the hall, homeschooled children are often found instead spending long days at the park with friends, gathering with other kids for group activities, sleeping over at each other's houses on weeknights or weekends, and enjoying long conversations with their parents and siblings. (52,53) Homeschooled children also tend to have both homeschooled and conventionally schooled friends, and, like conventionally schooled children, they can and do play with neighborhood children and participate in scouts, 4H, church groups, community bands, orchestras, and sports groups, as well as outside classes such as dance and martial arts. (54-56) Many homeschooling parents consider their children's social learning to be as integral a part of their education as academic subjects, and they are careful to provide their children with both social skills and opportunities to use them.

Myth: Homeschoolers are insulated from the real world, democracy, and diversity.

Fact: Homeschooling families live and learn in the real world (see methods outlined above), typically interacting with real people of various ages and backgrounds on a real-world basis rather than just with peers in a classroom. They have time and proximity to observe firsthand the social and political activities of their parents, who, according to Patricia M. Lines's report in the ERIC Digest, "are more likely to vote, contribute money to political causes, contact elected officials about their views, attend public meetings or rallies, or join community and volunteer associations" than are the parents of conventionally schooled children. (57) "This holds true even when researchers compare only families with similar characteristics, including education, age, race, family structure, geographic region, and number of hours worked per week." (58) Moreover, homeschoolers are a diverse population (see above) and often have lots of freedom to travel to diverse locations for both educational and social purposes.

Myth: Homeschoolers have a hard time applying for, getting into, and adjusting to college.

Fact: College admissions officers now seek out homeschoolers due to their excellent preparation for academic success at college. An article in Stanford Magazine indicates that Stanford has a "special interest" in homeschoolers, and is "eager to embrace them" despite their lack of formal credentials. "The distinguishing factor is intellectual vitality," says Dr. Jonathan Reider, a former senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Stanford and a national expert on college-bound homeschoolers. "These kids have it, and everything they do is responding to it." (59) David and Micki Colfax, authors of the well-known book Homeschooling for Excellence, homeschooled four sons, three of whom attended Harvard. (60) These are just a few examples; Karl M. Bunday's well-known website (www.learninfreedom.org) lists more than 1,000 colleges and universities, including Ivy League schools and many other very selective and prestigious schools, that have readily admitted homeschoolers. (61)

Myth: Parents without teaching certificates, college degrees, and so on are not qualified to teach their children.

Fact: Rudner's large study (mentioned earlier) found that there is "no significant difference" in homeschoolers' achievement according to whether or not a parent is certified to teach. "For those who would argue that only certified teachers should be allowed to teach their children at home, these findings suggest that such a requirement would not meaningfully affect student achievement." (62) Another study, by Dr. Brian Ray, similarly found that while homeschooled students scored on average in the 76th percentile or higher in reading, language, and math, children of certified teachers had no advantage over children whose parents were not certified teachers. (63)

Myth: Greater government regulation is needed to make homeschooling a more viable or valid option.

Fact: There is plenty of evidence that increased regulation is unnecessary for homeschoolers. In addition to the studies cited above showing that teacher certification and use of a formal curriculum are not relevant factors in homeschoolers' achievement, a study of more than 5,000 students from 1,657 families found that homeschoolers score very high on standardized tests, even when their state does not highly regulate. (64)

Keeping in mind that the average homeschooled student appears to exceed the achievement of her or his average conventionally schooled peer, it is illogical to impose curriculum or other requirements aimed at making homeschooling more school-like or requiring homeschools to adhere to the standards of public or conventional schools. Such regulations would be superfluous and could potentially lower the level of achievement by removing the freedom and flexibility that make homeschooling so effective.

Myth: Homeschooling is associated with neglect and abuse.

Fact: There is no evidence that homeschoolers are at higher risk for neglect or abuse than publicly or privately schooled children. (65) In fact, there is reason to believe that neglect and abuse are actually less common in homeschool situations. (66,67) Moreover, 85 percent of child fatalities occur in children younger than six years of age, before children begin their formal schooling in any form. (68)

Myth: Homeschooling is a threat to the public schools. Homeschoolers abandon or "suck the life out of" public schools in their choice to homeschool.

Fact: Homeschoolers and public schools are, in many ways, boons to one another. By removing their children from public schools, homeschoolers inadvertently help the schools by relieving overcrowding and freeing up resources for other students while still paying the taxes that fund public education. In this way, homeschoolers actually save taxpayers millions of dollars per year. (69) To put it another way, every child who is homeschooled opens up a free seat in a classroom for another child. In this sense, every time 3 to 10 new taxpaying families (or about 20 new homeschooled kids) choose to homeschool, it is as if a new teacher has been hired for the public schools at no cost to taxpayers. Thus the growth of homeschooling is the equivalent of a host of new, high-achieving schools being built to relieve overcrowding and reduce class size at no expense to taxpayers.

Moreover, it is private schools, not public schools, that appear to bear the true brunt of reduced enrollment. While enrollment in public schools and home schools continues to grow with the population, enrollment in private schools remains stagnant. (70) In other words, it appears statistically that the majority of homeschooling parents would otherwise be sending their children to private school, not public school. Finally, it has been noted that educators in conventional schooling situations stand to learn much from homeschoolers, who are conducting field research on education that can never be conducted in a school setting, even as they educate their kids very successfully. As the late educator John Holt commented: "It is a research project done at no cost, of a kind for which neither the public schools nor the government could afford to pay" (71) He also wrote: "From these people and their work, all serious schools and teachers, many of them now severely limited and handicapped by the conditions under which they have to work, stand to learn a great deal." (72)

Whatever images pass through the media and popular culture, the facts of homeschooling ultimately speak for themselves. As more and more homeschoolers grow up and become adult citizens, perceptions of homeschoolers will gradually change, but the facts will remain the same. Although it is understandable that perceptions and fears exist, there is a reason that homeschooling is growing at the rate it is. There is a reason that so many educated parents are choosing it despite popular stereotypes and assumptions. The reason is simple: In the face of fact, those muddled images are cleanly washed away by homeschooling's true colors.

Flying colors.


Blogger Mountain Shepherds said...

Whoa, that was a good article. I haven't read a homeschool article for a while. That was good.

10/26/2006 11:23 PM  

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