EACH weekday morning, while millions of children take the familiar yellow bus to school, Rachel and Daniel Miller walk downstairs into the family room.
For the Miller children, who live in Medford, Mass., their home serves as the school building and their teachers are Mom and Dad.
Rachel, 8, and Daniel, 11, are part of a growing number of children who are learning the three R's and a slew of other subjects in the same place they sleep, eat, and play. The United States Department of Education estimates more than 300,000 children are being homeschooled, up from about 15,000 in the late 1970s. Homeschooling groups put the current number even higher, at between 500,000 and 600,000. Exact figures are difficult to gauge because half the states don't require their board-of-education offices to keep track of the numbers.
``In those states where central reporting is required, 1 percent of the school-age population is being homeschooled,'' says Steve Moitozo, director of administrative services for Homeschool Associates in Auburn, Maine. As one of the country's largest homeschooling organizations, its growth reflects the overall trend. ``Our organization started in 1988 with 35 families; six years later we serve 19,000 families,'' Mr. Moitozo says.
The typical profile of a homeschooler has changed significantly since the 1980s when Christian Fundamentalists were by far the majority of the homeschooling population. Today Moitozo estimates about 45 percent of homeschool families decide to teach at home for reasons other than religious. Adds Pat Farenga, president of Holt Associates, a clearinghouse for information about homeschooling: ``If you look at our resource list... there are now groups for Islamic, Jewish, black, physically disabled, and single parents....''
REASONS why many of these ``mainstream'' parents homeschool range from disillusionment with the public education system to wanting to spend more time together as a family.
Rachel and Daniel Miller's parents, Stephen and Susan, had always been interested in the idea, but it wasn't until their school began to have problems with finances that the Millers decided to opt out of the public-education system. Also, Mrs. Miller explains, ``Danny was an advanced reader, and they were putting the advanced readers in a corner for part of the day to do their own reading. They were reading these dry textbooks, and we just said this isn't what we want.''
While some parents who homeschool use a packaged curriculum, others like the Millers don't follow a structured agenda.
``We've gone the way of the camp that's called unschooling, which does not try to impose the regime of schooling on the kids but rather works with just what goes on in life. If there's an event that comes along and sparks interest, you follow it wherever it may lead,'' Mr. Miller says.
This past summer, for instance, Daniel says he spent most of his time ``writing book reports, reading about 20 books, doing a little math, and history with Shakespeare.'' Rachel also spent a lot of time reading, as well as writing poetry and stories. The children also work on the family's computer and take trips to the library, museums, and other projects ranging from scientific experiments to visiting a publishing company to see how books are made. They also participate in group activities such as Boy Scouts, Brownies, and Little League.
Although homeschooling is legal in every state, each state's laws differ. ``In Massachusetts and 13 other states you have to go through an approval process,'' Mr. Farenga says. ``In other states like Maine, you just submit something to the state department of education, and you're off.''
Massachusetts ``has the ability to ask you to provide certain proof of what you're using for a curriculum, and they can ask to see the kids and test the kids,'' though no state official has asked them, Stephen Miller says.
``If there was ever a doubt that our kids weren't learning or struggling with something, we'd be the first ones to send them someplace to get the skills they need,'' Susan Miller says. She admits that there will probably be a time when she can't help them with a certain subject, like chemistry for instance. At that point, she hopes she will be able to enroll them in a public-school chemistry class.
Daniel stopped attending public school after first grade. ``I kind of miss seeing all my friends at school everyday, but besides that I like homeschooling a lot better,'' he says.
As the trend to homeschool accelerates, however, educators and others are raising concerns about it.
``It's not that we as educators are saying that homeschooling cannot deliver the intellectual content,'' says Deborah Appelman, associate professor of educational studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. ``The job of a young person is to go from person to person, from classroom to classroom, and make sense of the divergences they seek, and when you keep someone at home they're not really able to do that. Another thing is the importance of peer relations,'' she adds.
``As you move from late childhood to early adolescence the single most important developmental factor in a young person's life is their peers.... I think the school day is the core, the center of a young person's life - it's the physical act of being in school.... I don't think that extracurricular activities take the place or can offset the daily isolation,'' Ms. Appelman says.
BUT Maeve Visser Knoth, a children's librarian at the Cambridge Public Library in Cambridge, Mass., who works with homeschooling children, sees it differently. ``I haven't seen any problem with them in terms of socialization. I see very outspoken kids who are sometimes very far ahead of their peers.''
``Homeschooling encourages people to speak their mind,'' says John Keller, a senior at Carleton College who was taught by both parents at home between the 8th and 12th grades. Mr. Keller's sister, who is 13, is the only one of his family's six children to be homeschooled from scratch and now tests in the upper percentiles in all subjects, he says.
Keller explains that he had to be creative in applying to college because he was never graded. His father wrote up a transcript on what he'd completed in each subject. His biggest concern about entering college as a freshman was wondering if he'd have a hard time taking notes, but after the initial settling-in phase, he says he's adapted.