March 2, 2006

Home-schooling grows quickly in United States

By Alan Elsner

COLUMBIA, Maryland (Reuters) - Elizabeth and Teddy Dean are
learning about the Italian scientist Galileo, so they troop
into the kitchen, where their mother Lisa starts by reviewing
some facts about the Renaissance.

Elizabeth, 11, and Teddy, 8, have never gone to school.
Their teachers are primarily their parents, which puts them
into what is believed to be the fast-growing sector of the U.S.
education system -- the home-school movement.

For their science lesson, Teddy and Elizabeth are joined by
three other home-schooled children and their mother, who live
down the street in their suburb midway between Baltimore and
Washington D.C.

Before the lesson starts, all five kids change into
Renaissance costumes -- long dresses and bonnets for the girls,
tunics and swords for the boys.

"We definitely have a lot more fun than kids who go to
school," Elizabeth said.

Nobody is quite sure exactly how many American children are
being taught at home. The National Center for Education
Statistics, in a 2003 survey, put the number that year at 1.1
million. The Home School Legal Defense Association, which
represents some 80,000 member families, says the figure now is
quite a bit higher -- between 1.7 and 2.1 million.

But there is no disagreement about the explosive growth of
the movement -- 29 percent from 1999 to 2003 according to the
NCES study, or 7 to 15 percent a year according to HSLDA.

This growth has spawned an estimated $750 million a year
market supplying parents with teaching aids and lesson plans to
fit every religious and political philosophy. Home-schooled
children regularly show up in the finals of national spelling
competitions, generating publicity for the movement.

Parents cite many reasons for deciding to opt out of formal
education and teach their children at home. In the NCES study,
31 percent said they were concerned about drugs, safety or
negative peer pressure in schools; 30 percent wanted to provide
religious or moral instruction while 16 percent said they were
dissatisfied with academic standards in their local schools.

"I wasn't sold on the idea of institutionalized education.
It's a factory approach -- one size fits all," said Isabel
Lyman, author of "The Homeschooling Revolution" who taught both
of her now-grown sons at home.

"The schools take all the joy out of learning. They don't
take account of a particular child's interests, needs and
development. The whole system is anti-child," she said.


Different states take widely varying approaches to home
schooling. Some, like New York and Pennsylvania, require that
the parents submit lesson plans four times a year and regularly
test the children.

Others, like Texas, basically leave them alone. So there is
little reliable data on how they are doing, said University of
Colorado education professor Kevin Welner.

"There are popular myths that home-schooled children are
socially inept, cloistered kids and that they are either
illiterate or academic wunderkinds. Anecdotes aside, we simply
don't have the data to make such generalizations," he said.

"Some children will get top-notch instruction. Others will
get poor or minimal instruction. Obviously it will vary by
parent," he said.

Even the cliche that the majority of home-schooled children
are evangelical Christians is outdated, if it was ever true.

The movement remains overwhelmingly white and middle class
but it is growing fast among black and Hispanic families and
becoming more politically and religiously diverse as well.

Some parents follow an educational philosophy known as
'unschooling' where the children are encouraged to follow their
own interests rather than adhering to a fixed curriculum.

Laura Derrick, president of the National Home Education
Network, has followed this philosophy with her 14-year-old son
and 12-year-old daughter.

"My son learned to read before he was 3 and I realized then
we were working better than any school program ever designed,"
she said. "Children are born wanting to learn."

Lisa Dean, who was a lawyer before she became a mother,
said home schooling her children was tremendously rewarding but
also very exhausting.

"It's a long day with the kids. I look forward to when my
husband comes home," she said.

She also has backup from a local group of 70 home-schooling
families who organize group field trips and extracurricular

activities. Her children both take lessons in Celtic music
on the fiddle, play soccer and basketball and have tried
classes in art, hip-hop dancing and kick boxing.

Back in science class, the children were satisfied that
heavy and light objects both fall to earth at the same speed,
just as Galileo observed, even if neither they nor their
mothers seemed to know why. And then it was time for lunch.