Like most kids, Dawn Barry's three children--ages 11, 8, and 6--are learning math, geography, and poetry. But they're doing it in a "home-school room" in the basement of the family home in New Hartford, Conn., where Barry helps them plow through a homemade curriculum. Academically, they're doing well, she contends, judging by the levels of the reading and math texts she's using. "It has been ingrained in us that education can take place only in schools and that teachers are the experts," says Barry. "It's not that complicated and mysterious."
Once dominated by the Christian Right, the home-schooling movement is gaining mainstream adherents like Barry every year. The U.S. Education Dept. estimates that more than 1 million children are being taught at home. As home-schooling's popularity has grown, so has an industry of Web sites, curriculum materials, online courses, and enrichment classes that cater to the home-education family.
These families, according to a 1998 survey of parents of more than 20,000 home-schooled students grades K-12, tend to have higher-than-average income. Most of the instruction is done by the mothers, nearly half of whom have at least a college degree and the majority of whom don't work outside the home, says the study by Lawrence Rudner, who directs a federally funded education information clearinghouse at the University of Maryland. He conducted the survey for the Home School Legal Defense Assn.
Parents decide to home-school for many reasons. Some view it as a way to tailor education to a child's needs, whether it's accelerating reading for a gifted child or honing math skills for a struggling one. Some worry about the negative social influences in schools. Peg and Jerry Moore of Cazenovia, N.Y., wanted to develop stronger ties with their three children. The two older ones eventually went to public school as teens so they could get a taste of competition before they entered college.
Whatever the motivation, home-schooling is a huge undertaking. Parents must devote considerable time to planning as well as teaching. Freed from the demands of an outside institution, the temptation to slack off is ever present. And spending nearly every waking hour together can fray the nerves of the closest family.
Some educators worry that many children may not be prepared for the world outside. In regular school, kids are confronted with and learn to handle difficult social situations. But many home-schoolers could spend long stretches without other kids. Those who eventually go to school are often awkward socially, says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "They're not used to the social context, and it takes a while to adjust." But Gregory Cizek, now an associate professor at the University of North Carolina's School of Education, says parents often are sensitive to the charge that their children may not be well socialized. As a result, "they make sure their kids get a wealth of social experiences," says Cizek, who as an associate professor at the University of Toledo in the 1990s visited hundreds of home-schooling families as part of an Ohio law that home-schoolers be evaluated by a certified teacher.
DOING FINE. Take Sarah Moore, Peg and Jerry's 13-year-old daughter, who's in school for the first time. The eighth-grader says she "fit in right away." Although she enjoyed home-schooling, she's glad to be in school "because I want to be around kids my age." Sarah says it took her a short time to catch up in science, but she was ahead in math and English. Rudner's study found home-schoolers did well on achievement tests, placing in the 62nd to 92nd percentile, depending on grade level and subject.
If you're considering home-schooling, visit some of the related Web sites (table) or buy one of the how-to books on the subject. Next, call a home-school support group in your state. Parents have created local organizations that act as sounding boards on the law, curriculum options, and other issues. Home-schooling is legal in every state, but regulations and paperwork vary.
Dozens of companies (including The McGraw-Hill Companies, publisher of BusinessWeek) sell textbooks, workbooks, and educational software directly to parents, and some are developed specifically for home-schoolers. Others, such as the private Calvert School in Baltimore, have a home-schooling branch that provides a curriculum by grade level. ChildU of Weston, Fla., offers a self-paced online program for students in the first to eighth grades. Kids log on daily for interactive lessons, and can call teachers if they have any problems.
At the Barry household, the girls work every morning on spelling, math, and handwriting. The two older ones, Ashley, 11, and Jaclyn, 8, work on their own, while Dawn helps Kelsey, 6. They also must spend at least one hour a day reading, usually from a list of classics their mom found on the Internet. After lunch, they work on a project. Ashley has been immersing herself in Japanese culture. They may spend an afternoon with other home-school families on a science project, or in a writers' cooperative, where parents take turns conducting lessons, from letter-writing to poetry. Volunteer work is part of their curriculum, so the girls visit a local senior center once a month to help the residents with art projects. They also fit in piano lessons, team sports, and Girl Scouts.
Those who home-school their teens often seek help outside the home. In many cases, families chip in for a tutor for difficult subjects, such as physics. Some private schools accept students for some courses such as calculus. And a growing number of students are turning to the Web as more high-school-level online courses become available.
Since most home-schooled teens don't get transcripts, colleges seek other proof of learning. Harvard University admissions officer Julia Hunter, who has found home-schooled applicants to be competitive with other students, considers test scores, extracurricular activities, and interviews. Says Cafi Cohen, author of Home-schooling: The Teen Years: "You have to find out what [the schools] want early, and then adapt your program."
Cohen's son, Jeffrey, says he began home-schooling in the seventh grade because he believed school wasn't teaching him enough. He knew by eighth grade he wanted to go to the U.S. Air Force Academy. He learned electronics with an amateur radio club, took an aerospace course with the civil air patrol, studied physics and calculus at the University of Denver, and got his flying license at 17. An academy graduate, he is now a lieutenant flying F-16s.
Home-schooling, says the pilot, "takes a lot of self-discipline on the part of the student and the parent." But for parents who have the time, enthusiasm, and patience, educating a child at home is a growing alternative to the one-size-fits-all public-school system.