Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Schooling Dangerously

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Schooling Dangerously

Article excerpt

Homeschooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement BY JOSEPH MURPHY CORWIN, 2.00 PAGES, $34-95

The Year of Learning Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling BY QUINN CUMMINGS PERIGEE, Z40 PAGES, $23.95

I'm tempted to compare homeschooling to a YouTube video gone viral. Defying regulation, thwarting would-be competitors, and multiplying without official sanction, homeschooling just keeps popping up in more homes. Over the past three decades, the number of homeschooled children has grown by at least 7 percent a year - the number may now exceed the number attending charter schools - and between 6 and 12 percent of all students are educated at home at some point between kindergarten and twelfth grade. See it; like it; forward it to a friend.

My husband and I began homeschooling in 1994 for multiple reasons. Our three children were neither enjoying nor learning much in school, our professional lives were crowding out family time, and our children's school treated religious faith as a curiosity, if not an active barrier to reason. We would be spending a year away from home while my husband was a visiting professor in Utah, and we craved more flexibility to explore this new corner of the world. Besides, how much harm could we do in a year?

Six years later, our children returned to brick-and-mortar school. No longer math-phobes, now steeped in history, geology, logic, sentence diagramming, and even (thanks to my husband) a little Plato, they thrived. I went back to school, too, first as a public and then as a Catholic high school teacher.

I remain an enthusiastic advocate of homeschooling, but recent years have found me occupied with reforming "real" school. Two much-heralded but very different books, Joseph Murphy's new survey of the professional literature on homeschooling, Homeschooling in America, and Quinn Cummings' story of homeschooling her daughter Alice, The Year of Learning Dangerously, rekindled my interest in the movement that once so engaged my family.

A professor of education at Vanderbilt, Murphy is a social scientist, not an advocate, which makes his generally positive evaluation of homeschooling all the more significant. His survey of the social science literature on the topic usefully, if sometimes turgidly, compiles the growing evidence that homeschooled children learn more than their counterparts, at least to the extent that standardized tests measure learning, and are emotionally healthier as well, at least to the extent that psychologists' "self-esteem and self-concept" scales truly capture emotional health. They volunteer many more hours in their communities and even spend more time participating in extracurricular activities.

While these findings have been widely reported, some of the other studies he describes deserve more attention. For example, low-income children who are homeschooled often reach or exceed national academic averages, whereas the average lowincome children in public schools score "considerably below" the national norm.

Likewise, homeschooling seems to mitigate the negative effects of low levels of parents' education on student achievement - a finding that's especially intriguing since these parents are the educators - as well as the negative effects of family socioeconomic variables and race displayed in public schools. It's easy to postulate that homeschooling parents are unusually committed, but these results still challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that societal problems inevitably hold education hostage.

The Year of Learning Dangerously offers an account of homeschooling driven by personal experience rather than data. Quinn Cummings, a former child actress turned blogger, intersperses her tale of her first year of homeschooling with anthropological forays among those she repeatedly dubs the homeschooling "tribes."

She seems, alas, to envision herself following in Margaret Mead's footsteps. We learn a lot more about her worldview than we do about the world of homeschooling. …

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