Home-schoolers point to creativity, good test results, but critics question parents' teaching credentials

Just after 10 o'clock on a weekday morning, Susan Pitler and her four children are on their hands and knees in their sun-washed living room, using a tape measure.

Spread out in a generous space full of books, art supplies, puzzles, and a fish tank, they're learning to gauge distances. Opera music plays softly in the background as they work.

This is a classroom. Ms. Pitler is the teacher. Her three sons and one daughter, ages 3 to 10, are the pupils.

Pitler, who lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., is among roughly 350,000 Americans who have spurned public and private schools in order to teach their offspring themselves. Called home-schooling, the practice involves more than 1 million children. Representing 2-1/2 percent of all primary and secondary students, it is one of the fastest growing - and most controversial - educational movements in the country.

To critics, home schooling is at best a well-intentioned but misguided effort. They contend that children kept out of traditional classes may receive a narrow education and be socially isolated.

"In the abstract, home schooling is a hard thing to argue with," says Sam Stringfield, the principal research scientist at the Center for the Social Organization of School at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Our founding fathers did it." But today, he says, there are too many things that can go wrong: inadequately prepared parents; weak curricula; and restricted contact with peers.

To advocates, there is no better way to learn. "We have no bells here. We can do things for as long as the kids are interested, and they're not forced to stop midstream," Pitler says.

Having finished working with the tape measure, Pitler is on to the next lesson: Standing ankle-deep in a bathtub full of water, shredded toilet paper, and her four kids, she is teaching them how to make paper the way it was done in Colonial America. In the spring, they plan to go to Williamsburg, Va. Learning by doing, she contends, is a great way to retain information.

On any given day, Pitler, like many home-schoolers, focuses on two or more subjects, be it math or history. Over the course of a week, her "class" tackles a broad plan of study. Her school days last four to six hours, with both group and one-on-one attention.

While the home-school day can be quite kinetic, Pitler makes sure to include "private, quiet time." Most parents, she says "seem so scared about boredom - they provide videos, and lots and lots of toys. But when children are left to their own devices, they learn to rely on their imagination and ingenuity."

Rachel, Pitler's 10-year-old, says she has read 43 books since September and has been working on sixth-grade math. Seven-year-old Alexander reports that reading is his favorite subject. For Pitler, these are major accomplishments. "Rachel had 33 kids in her class at public school, some were hyperactive, and a third of the students couldn't speak English." In kindergarten, Alexander had such a tough time with reading, she recalls, he would throw a fit about going to the next day's class.

Growing numbers of parents, like Pitler, are turning to home-schooling after losing confidence in their public schools. But they alone do not fit the profile of most families that decide to teach their children at home. While there are no formal statistics, education experts and interest groups estimate that more than 80 percent of the parents who educate their own young are fundamentalist, born-again Christians with big families.

They say they are repelled by what they view as the disintegration of the conventional school: its elimination of daily prayer, the incorporation of sex and AIDS education into the curriculum, and, in many cases, the threat of illegal drugs and violence.

Class on the farm

Robbin Bury, mother of seven, lives an hour away from Pitler in Huntingtown, a rural part of southern Maryland. Her "classroom" is a wide expanse of farmland, replete with a goat, chickens, and other animals. Living next door to horses has provided the Burys with an on-site horsemanship seminar, where they have seen the birth of a foal and the gelding of a stallion. The children, ages 2 to 16, will become accomplished bird watchers by the time they've completed their home-schooling. And their proximity to the Chesapeake Bay allows them to visit it regularly for science projects and water sports.

"My desire is that they see these things with a Christian world view. In the circle I'm in, I can see a lot of people home-schooling for religious reasons - they want to be able to teach creation as not a myth but a fact," Ms. Bury says.

Is she worried about turning out children who are too protected and intolerant of those who do not share their "world view?"

"That doesn't concern me at this stage in their life, because they are exposed by way of our trips to museums," Bury responds. "I don't keep them from studying other religions or other cultures. That only aids in their education."

But actually being with a diverse group of schoolmates better prepares children to live in society-at-large, Mr. Stringfield counters. "One of the beauties of group education is that there are many different people with many different belief systems."

A question of tolerance

What concerns Cecil Banks, president-elect of the North Carolina Association of Educators, is "that in their zeal to instill proper values and attitudes in young people, sometimes parents fail to give enough attention to other essential values, and one of those is tolerance. If you pull them so far away from the world, they may not develop a respect for other people, or an appreciation for divergent viewpoints."

One Christian home-school activist, Christopher Klicka, whose wife teaches their six children, says, "We are training the very souls of our children, because we believe we will be heading toward heaven or hell one day." Mr. Klicka, executive director of the National Center for Home Education in Purcellville, Va., adds, "Our children will be taught strong traditional values and character traits - honesty, obedience, and loyalty - that originate in Scripture and are paramount to anyone being successful."

Other, so-called "secularist" home-schoolers such as Pitler, believe their children will only flourish in a "go-at-your-own-pace" environment in which there is plenty of one-on-one attention and ample opportunity for individual exploration and reflection.

Despite the skepticism, the movement has come a long way in recent years. Since 1982, 31 states have enacted specific laws to ensure the right of parents to educate their young, while all 50 states recognize either statutes or case law that condones home-schooling.

Few standards

Requirements for home-schoolers in Fairfax County, Va., just north of the Bible Belt where home-schooling is most popular, are typical of most school districts nationwide.

When parents seek approval from county officials, "a minimum amount of documentation or rationale needs to be presented," says Dolores Bohen, Fairfax County schools assistant superintendent for communications and a 28-year veteran of the system. "Challenges to requests are rare, and the approval is perfunctory. The general assumption is that if parents say they are going to teach their children, they will." While there is no on-site monitoring, she adds, the parent must provide an acceptable curriculum and have the child tested once a year.

The rare exception is the San Diego Unified School District, which has set up an administrative office staffed by teachers and clerical workers who aid interested parents by doling out textbooks, helping design curricula, and organizing field trips. They also frequently review students' progress. "It's not a matter of just seeing home-schoolers every half year and saying, 'See you in six months,' " says Norma Trost, information specialist for the school district.

Gradually, restrictions have been removed on just who is entitled to home-school. Laws mandating parents to secure teacher certifications in order to qualify for teaching their children have given way to a much more lax approach.

As a result, only eight states require a high school diploma or a graduate equivalency diploma for parents who wish to home-school. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., half of all home-schooling parents have earned a high school diploma.

Stringfield finds this statistic alarming. "One would hope that children would receive education from those with a college degree," he says. An adult lacking a solid education can hardly be expected to pass it along to the child, Stringfield says. He offers the example of a home-schooler who never did very well in math, or simply didn't take the very courses that he or she is expected to teach her own children. "It's implausible to believe that the child would become a strong mathematician," Stringfield argues.

Mr. Banks agrees. "There is a lot of risk involved on the part of parents - whether they are academically prepared to take on the responsibility."

The increasing national awareness of home-schooling was spurred by a network that began as a grass-roots struggle to legitimize family-provided education. Today, the groups are a potent political force.

Klicka, who also serves as senior counsel to the Home School Legal Defense Association, lobbies hard to change perceptions of home-schoolers as eccentric or backward and has assisted parents challenged by state regulations.

"One of the major battlegrounds in the past 10 years was to get rid of teacher-certification qualifications for home-schoolers," Klicka says. "We unleashed the fury of the nation" in a successful fight against a 1993 reauthorization bill for elementary and secondary education.

"We were fighting one little amendment that would have required all states to certify that teachers were licensed. We trained home-schooling moms and dads and their teenage students, and with their help we blanketed every single congressional office four times a day with personal visits. In eight days, over 1 million phone calls opposing the bill poured into the Capitol."

Bad press

He and other advocates are working to dispel what they consider to be myths about maladjusted home-schooled children, or worse, how home-schooling enables abusive parents to do even more damage because their children are removed from mainstream society.

Klicka rattles off assorted references to studies that show home-schooled children demonstrate far fewer behavorial problems and higher test scores than their traditionally schooled counterparts. But he sounds less comfortable when confronted with suspicions about the connection between home-schooling and potential harm to children.

Frank Brogan, Florida state commissioner for education, contends that only the smallest number of children who are home-schooled are in abusive situations. "There are parents who pull the child out of school to avoid expulsion or to avoid the juvenile-justice system," he says. But the "vast majority" of the home-schooled, he says, are taught by "dedicated, committed parents and perform as well as or better than their public-school counterparts."

One of the most aggressive advocates for parental discretion hails from Oklahoma. Rep. Steve Largent (R) is the author of the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act. Picking up on the basic concerns of the Christian right, Mr. Largent calls for four basic rights of parental discretion in the care of a child: education; health-care decisions; discipline, including corporal punishment; and religious training.

Rep. Dave Weldon (R) of Florida, a cosponsor of Largent's bill, pulled his daughter out of first grade so his wife could teach her at home. He says he is part of a burgeoning group and points to attendance at the annual home-schoolers' convention in his home state to show just how explosive the growth is. "In 1993, we had 700 parents. That number doubled in 1994 to 1,500 and doubled again to 3,000 in 1995."

Mr. Brogan can vouch for the jump in numbers. In 1991, he says, roughly 10,000 Floridians were home-schooled; last year, the number climbed to more than 19,000. The trend is troubling, he says, because it reflects badly on the state of public schools.

"More and more people are dissatisfied" and take their children out of school because of low academic standards and safety concerns, he says, adding that as long as the child is not placed in a poor, neglectful situation, "the parents have every right to do that."

Rep. Weldon's wife, Nancy, has a master's degree in counseling and a bachelor's degree in linguistics. But most home educators cannot boast such credentials. Some child advocates say that the lower the education level of the home-schooling parents, the greater the chance they will raise a poorly educated, or even abused, child.

"We're up against a perception that states and communities should pull out all the stops to protect children, but there's a limit," says a congressional source close to the Largent bill. "We don't want that 'protection' to become an infringement on parents' ability to raise their children free from governmental interference."

To many home-schoolers, one of the most important aspects of their work is the strong parent-child relationship they are forging. They credit their more flexible program - most often a self-directed curriculum and individualized pace - with turning out students who have a strong sense of self and strong scholarship.

Making the grade

A recent compilation of test scores in the Iowa Basic Achievement Test administered in North Carolina showed that home-schooled students performed 25 percent better than the state's public-school average.

Another recent survey by the University of Michigan seemed to counter the claim that teaching children at home makes them social misfits. Examining the lives of 53 adults who were educated at home because of ideology or geographical isolation, J. Gary Knowles, assistant professor of education, calculated that two-thirds of the group had married, none were unemployed or on welfare, more than 40 percent had attended college, and 15 percent had completed a graduate degree. "That [nearly two-thirds of] those surveyed were self-employed supports the contention that home-schooling tends to enhance a person's self-reliance and independence," he concluded.

Robbin Bury says that her two oldest children - 14- and 16-year-old sons - are evidence of that advantage. They attend a nonsectarian private school nearby, where they are on full scholarships. The boys, who were home-schooled through eighth grade, have received glowing reports from their teachers about how well they have adjusted to rigorous academic demands, athletic opportunities, and socialization.

The Bury children still at home are thriving, she says. Local education authorities just completed one of their regular assessments of Bury's students. "I enjoy being held accountable," she says. "We got a super review."

Does Bury, who comes from a blue-collar family and completed just one year of college, aspire to more advanced education for her children? "I would like to see them go to college, but I want to see them pursue what they want to - if they choose a field that didn't require a college education."

Pitler, a college graduate, has also fared well with her county's department of pupil services. "Curriculum is very creative and integrated" reads last month's review of her home-teaching program. "Evidence of plenty of socialization with peers."

Bury and Pitler are like many other home-schoolers: middle-class parents who have given up a dual income and free education to teach their children at home. They often have to scrimp to buy the necessary materials - from workbooks to microscopes.

Picking up on proposals pending in Congress, Bury says, "I would love to see a tax rebate for those who are choosing private schools or home-schooling."

Pitler says she doesn't mind paying taxes for the public schools. But she would like to use the schools as a resource for Rachel to join the chorus, for example, or have access to other facilities when they are not occupied. Tax write-offs for teaching supplies, books, the family computer, and field trips would also help, she adds.

But for Pitler, there is a more important bottom line: "I do this because I love being with my kids. We have a really great time learning things, and we know each other really well."

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