Homeschooling is one of the fastest growing and least understood educational and cultural movements in the country today. Over one-and-a-half million elementary and secondary students, 3 percent of the age group, have exited the public schools to be educated at home. In full disclosure, while both of us are former public school teachers, we need to acknowledge that all of our 10 grandchildren are being (or scheduled to be) homeschooled.
Parents who for any number of reasons have decided to homeschool their children get used to odd reactions and questions when the fact becomes known. Individual motives vary, but there are at least three prominent reasons parents choose to homeschool. One reason parents school at home is actually reflected in the most frequently asked question. "Aren't you concerned about depriving little Maude and Jasper of that foundational American experience, a public school education? Are you concerned that when they grow up they won't fit in? They will have missed so much and be seen as 'outsiders?'"
Actually, yes. Many parents hope to avoid total immersion into that toxic environment that pushes children into a world of too early sexuality, clothes consciousness, and the debased world of popular television. They are sheltering their children from the vulgar, media-driven culture which is all too often the Lingua Franca of the public schools.
A second major reason for homeschooling is to educate the whole soul. A prime interest for parents to school their children is to educate them with a clear religious perspective on life. Their view is, "What is more important than the education of my children? Of preparing them for the life ahead of them?" Public schools are often less than receptive to a religious world view. And, of course, the large percentage of homeschooling parents who are Christian would empathetically want to say, "What greater duty do I, as a Christian parent, have than firmly grounding my children in the teachings of Jesus and helping them to make those teachings part of the fabric of their lives."
And, of course, there is the unasked question which hovers in the air above these polite conversations: "What's the matter? You afraid to send your kids to school with minorities? Are you a racist or something? Don't you want your kids to be part of the great American melting pot?" All too often the accuser is an escapee from an urban area and its disordered schools to a safe suburb, one with a handful of minorities, who themselves are fleeing the city to save their children. While such charges may be true for a small percentage of homeschooling parents, it is clearly unfair to the majority whose primary responsibility is the quality of their children's schooling.
Further, there is the questioner's mental picture of homeschooling: youngsters studying alone at their faux school desks, glancing longingly out the window as the neighborhood kids gleefully hop on the school bus. Contrary to the popular opinions, homeschooling does not involve mom and the children down in the basement play room, now converted into a 19th century prairie classroom with chalkboard, erasers and a slate board for every child. It does not involve them in 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. one-on-one instruction with no recess.
Most homeschools involve about 90 minutes of at-the-desk, formal instruction. After that children read, work on hobbies, practice a musical instrument, play sports and work on projects. In fact, they do all the stuff public school parents want their children to do, but can't because of dubious homework assignments and of the school's over structured extra-curricular activities.
On the other hand, one of the major advantages to homeschool children is that they learn how to do real work. Excuses, such as I have a paper due tomorrow and can't put out the garbage, just don't cut it with these parents. Their children learn how to cook, to garden, to take care of pets and animals and in general contribute to the work of the family. Last fall, our grandchildren started raising chickens and have already turned a profit on the eggs.
In actuality, homeschooling is a broad label for many forms of education from parent-led tutoring to small groups from a few families, where one parent becomes an expert in a subject and instructs the children. There is an ever-expanding array of cyber-based courses delivered via the computers. Further, there is a near infinity of Internet sources of instruction. Central to homeschooling is independent learning. One of the great goals of education is to develop someone who can use resources and learn how effectively to amass information, sort through it and solve problems.
There never has been, nor ever be, one royal road to schooling or a one-size-fits-all source of education. Certainly homeschooling is not the answer for everyone. However, large scale studies comparing "regular" students and homeschoolers show the superiority of a homeschool education.
Finally, those who are doing it report deep satisfactions from being part of their children's growth and watching them -- up close and very personal -- develop as individuals.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.