Lessons from the hearth

March 20, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- This is home-school country. Harford County, although its public schools are by most measures better than average, has a higher percentage of its student population being taught at home than any other Maryland jurisdiction.

I know many of these families. Some are neighbors, some are old friends, some I've met through business connections. I used to think that most home-schoolers were either old hippies or members of far-out religious sects, but none of the ones I know these days come anywhere close to those definitions.

The home-schooling parents I know seem to vary considerably as to age, religious affiliation, educational background and income. The only obvious link between them is a strong desire to do the best for their kids -- a desire they also share with millions of devoted parents who've never considered home-schooling and probably never would.

What's going on in Harford, and in other Maryland counties, especially Howard, is a reflection of a national trend. Across the U.S., home-schooling is thriving.

About 1.2 million children, more than are enrolled in public school in most states, are currently being educated at home. The movement is so strong now that the public-education lobby, which hates and fears it, has almost certainly missed its last chance to kill it by regulation.

Some parents elect to home-school for reasons only peripherally related to education. One couple I know withdrew their children from an excellent private school in order to teach them at home. They did so, presumably, not so much out of dissatisfaction with the available schools as because they had simply decided they could do the job even better themselves.

But most of the growth in home-schooling is driven by the same forces that have created a simultaneous boom in private education. Parents who see the continuing erosion of educational standards even in the better public schools, and who sense that government at all levels has turned cool, even hostile, to concepts which were once fundamental to American culture, find themselves looking for alternatives.

If they can't afford the available private schools, or don't care for what those schools seem to offer, home-schooling seems a logical choice. It demands some family sacrifices, but offers the promise of both tangible and intangible rewards.

It's no secret that home-schooled children do better on standardized tests than do students in public schools. They score, on average, about in the 85th percentile; public-school children, by definition, average in the 50th percentile.

Although racial minorities account for only about 5 percent of home-schooled students, the test scores of these children are very close to those of white students. In reading, reports the Home School Legal Defense Association, whites and minorities each score in the 87th percentile. In math, whites average in the 82nd percentile, and minorities in the 77th.

In the public schools, by contrast, whites average in the 57th percentile in the standardized reading tests, blacks and Hispanics in the 28th percentile. The gap in average math scores is greater still.

Obviously, it's hard to predict with any certainty which environment will suit which student best, and it would be a mistake to see home-schooling as the answer to the crisis in American education. Some children thrive in the public schools, and would be ill-served if their parents suddenly decided to teach them at home.

The example of Israel

Religious schools offer yet another approach. An interesting study out of Israel recently observed that children who attend ultra-orthodox Jewish schools seem to do better in math, and especially geometry, than do those in mainstream Israeli schools. Why? No one is sure, although the children from the religious schools seemed to have developed a more reflective and analytical style of reasoning.

What the home-school parents do seem agreed on is that they'd rather be responsible for their kids' education than turn it over to a system directed by the government. Some of them, if they're old enough, may remember that 1983 government report called ''A Nation at Risk,'' which warned of ''a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future.''

(They may also remember Russell Baker writing that even this warning was mediocre, at least grammatically, in that it should have warned about a ''tide of mediocrity which threatens,'' etc., etc.)

Michael P. Farris, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, puts it succinctly. ''The No. 1 political goal of home-schoolers,'' he writes, ''is quite modest. We just want to be left alone.''

Addenda: In last Sunday's column, my listing of Republican legislators supporting stronger seat-belt laws in an important House of Delegates vote should have included Delegates Cryor and Redmer. It should not have included Delegate Gordon, who's a Democrat. Sorry.

Also, readers have asked how to send me hate mail and other important communications. They may do so at Box 696, Havre de Grace, Maryland 21078, or by e-mail to peternline1.magnus1.com.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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