LEARNING AT HOME Home-Schoolers Point to Creativity, Good Test Results, but Critics Question Parents' Teaching Credentials

Article excerpt

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. …