Slater Aldrich doesn't attend any of the top-shelf public or private schools near his family's Madison (Conn.) home, not even his mother's alma mater, the $18,000-a-year Country School. Instead, the 11-year-old spends his days playing the role of town zoning officer, researching the pros and cons of granting approval to a new Wal-Mart (WMT ). Other endeavors include pretending he's a Sand Hill Road venture capitalist, creating Excel-studded business plans for a backyard sheep company, and growing his own organic food. "It's kind of like living on a white-collar farm," says his dad, Clark Aldrich. Aldrich vowed he'd never put his kid through the eye-glazing lectures he endured in school, even at prestigious institutions like Lawrence Academy and Brown University.
Like a growing number of creative-class parents, the Aldriches homeschool Slater, splitting the duties. (Aldrich père, who co-founded interactive learning company SimuLearn, handles math and science; his wife, Lisa, a stay-at-home mom, does the reading and writing. Slater's friends come over after school and on the weekends for pickup games.)
No longer the bailiwick of religious fundamentalists or neo-hippies looking to go off the cultural grid, homeschooling is a growing trend among the educated elite. More parents believe that even the best-endowed schools are in an Old Economy death grip in which kids are learning passively when they should be learning actively, especially if they want an edge in the global knowledge economy. "A lot of families are looking at what's happening in public or private school and saying, 'You know what? I could do better, and I'd like to be a bigger part of my kid's life,"' says University of Illinois education professor Christopher Lubienski.
The spread of the post-geographic work style and flex-time economy, in which managers can work at odd hours in any number of locations, is also playing a role. So is the fact that more knowledge workers want to live in more than one place. Homeschooling can untether families from Zip codes and school districts, just as the Internet can de-link kids from classrooms, piping economics tutorials from the Federal Reserve, online tours of Florence's Uffizi Gallery, ornithology seminars from Cornell University, and filmmaking classes from UCLA straight onto laptops and handhelds. Also driving the trend is a new cottage industry of private tutors, cyber communities, online curriculum providers, and parental co-ops. Popular online sites range from the humanities tutor edsitement.neh.gov to the agenda-free lifeofflorida.org. "It would have been impossible to homeschool like this 20 years ago," says Richard Florida, author of The Flight of the Creative Class.
The Internet is a chief resource that's powering homeschooling's growth, from 850,000 children in 1999 to more than 1.1 million today, according to the U.S. Education Dept. The popular perception is that people homeschool for religious reasons. But the No. 1 motivation, research shows, is concern about school environments, including negative peer pressure, safety, and drugs. In some circles homeschooling is even attaining a reputation as a secret weapon for Ivy League admission.
Homeschooling is also more prominent in the popular culture, which is helping to de-stigmatize the choice and lend it some cachet among kids and their parents. The near-perfect SAT-scoring Scot, a contestant on last year's ABC (DIS ) reality show The Scholar, was homeschooled. Home-learners have long swept the national spelling and geography bees. This year the $100,000 prize awarded by the famed Siemens Westinghouse Competition went to homeschooled 16-year-old mathematician Michael Viscardi.
Viscardi's neuroscientist mother and engineer father pulled him out of the tony, oxford-and-shorts private school St. Mark's in Dallas because administrators wouldn't accelerate Viscardi in math, even though he was doing high school-level work in the fourth grade. Michael's mother, Eunjee Viscardi, says Michael initiated most of his own learning. The challenge was dealing with her fears that she was ruining his life by isolating him, something he countered with heavy involvement in the community youth orchestra. "It was nerve-racking because we're all brainwashed to believe that our children have to be in school," she says. Those concerns have since faded; Michael is set to enter Harvard University this fall.
One popular critique of conventional education likens it to a mass-production institution that is failing to adapt. Schools, critics say, are like old industrial assembly lines, churning out conformists who could function well in rote factory jobs or rigid corporate hierarchies but not in New Economy professions that demand innovation and independent thinking. Indeed, the Education Dept. states in a report that the most promising learning developments, such as e-learning and virtual schools, are occurring outside the system. "Almost everyone is thinking about how schools aren't the right institutions anymore," says Florida.
PATCHWORK OF LAWS
Homeschooling isn't universally applauded as a solution, however. Some parents and educators worry that it retards children's socialization. Others say it siphons much-needed resources like per-pupil funding and the activism of the most savvy parents. Schooling in isolation could threaten civic cohesion and diversity of thought, says Stanford University education professor Rob Reich. Reich favors stricter homeschooling regulations to supplant the current patchwork of state laws so that children can be assured of exposure to more than just what their parents sanction. He also worries about parents pushing homeschooling on their kids.
But in some cases it's not the parents who are doing the pushing. Lynne Miles-Morillo, a mother of three, taught herself Russian in high school so she could read Dostoevsky in the original. ("It's totally different, you wouldn't believe.") She graduated from Bryn Mawr College and married Robert, a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar who is now a history professor at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind. A year ago, Miles-Morillo's oldest son begged her to homeschool him. He was bored in class and didn't share the conservative views of most of the other kids. She agreed to try it out on her two older children, and if they didn't all hate one another by the end of the month, they could continue. "I don't have that inner Buddha inside of me," says Miles-Morillo.
What surprised her was how lovely it was for the family to create its own educational rituals. The biggest misnomer is the word home since the family travels all over, from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry to the world's most active volcano in Hawaii. Morillo's fear was that homeschooling would make her kids' world smaller. But instead, she says, "it's opening it up more."
By Michelle Conlin