The DIY Education
I say "homeschoolers," and you think right-wing Christians who yanked their kids from public school because they didn't want them learning about sex, evolution and godless humanism. You picture a homemade classroom in the basement, with Mom playing teacher, using church-approved textbooks that substitute creationism for evolution and bible study for world philosophy. You probably aren't picturing anyone like Linda Tagliaferro, an arty writer who'd clearly be more at home in a bohemian cafe than at a Christian Coalition rally. Then again, she's probably not your average Queens housewife, either, though it's out in Little Neck that her son Eric was for years the only homeschooled kid in their school district. He's 14, and hasn't spent a day of his life in a traditional classroom. She laughs about it now, but she can remember coming home from the playground in tears because of the hostile attitudes she got from other Little Neck mothers. Deciding to keep Eric out of school and teach him herself "was like assertiveness training for me," she says. It's true that fundamentalist Christians got into homeschooling in a big way in the 1980s, copping most of the media and setting the stereotypes. It's undeniable that the Christian right continues to dominate the anti-school, keep-your-condoms, abolish-the-Dept.-of-Ed. political rhetoric. But as many as half of all homeschoolers in the country are parents like Tagliaferro, who have nothing to do with that agenda. Like a lot of parents, they don't think schools are working. Unlike most, they decided to do the job themselves, rather than wait for dubious reforms. In Los Angeles, Terri Endsley puts it this way: "I like the way every few years they say, 'Okay, now we know what's wrong.' I couldn't wait for some future utopia that's out there if we do this study and make these reforms and pass these laws and then things will be fine." In Ann Arbor, Pat Montgomery says, "Look, these are my two. I have them for about 18 years in my home. That's not very long. I don't have time for your system. Your system isn't worth what my two are worth to me."Homeschooling is still a tiny movement, representing less than one percent of all school-age kids in America, but its growth has been explosive. In the early 80s, it was estimated that no more than 15,000 kids were being homeschooled nationwide. By '91, the U.S. Department of Education estimated there were as many as 350,000. Christian spokespeople say it's a million to 1.5 million kids today. Others split the difference at around 600,000 to 700,000. Official figures are at best conservative estimates, accounting only for families who report to their school districts. Not all states require homeschooling families to notify officials; in states that do, it's widely acknowledged that some large but undetermined number of families choose not to anyway--some out of political or religious convictions about non-cooperation with government, some just to avoid the hassles which, depending on local levels of bureaucratic hostility, can be significant. The practice goes back much farther than the Christian boom years of the last decade. Homeschoolers like to point out that before the creation of the public school system in the mid-1800s nearly every American was in effect homeschooled, spending minimal or no time in a classroom. "They're the new kid on the block," Montgomery says of public schools. "They're the experiment--a failed experiment." Alaska, where the distances make alternatives to traditional schools a necessity, has had a Centralized Correspondence Study Program--in effect a state-run homeschooling network--since the 1960s. Some religious groups like the Seventh Day Adventists had been homeschooling for decades before that. But the roots of the practice today are really in the 70s, when it was an outgrowth of the progressive school reform movement. Back then, homeschooling was mostly being experimented with by Whole Earth hippies, anarchist-libertarian types and back-to-the-land comunards. Among the best-known figures from this era are David and Micki Colfax, college professors who dropped out, went homesteading in the Northwest and homeschooled four sons. Three so far have gone on to Harvard. The Colfaxes' book Homeschooling for Excellence is universally cited as required reading. Christians began flooding into homeschooling in the early 80s. Issues like school prayer had driven them out of public schools and into private "Christian academies." Then the IRS began revoking the Christian schools' tax-exempt status over curriculum issues like creationism, forcing many of them to fold. Christian homeschoolers accounted for much of the growth in the 80s; depending on who's counting, they still comprise 50-60 percent of homeschooling households today. Endsley insists, however, that the real growth for the past few years has been "by leaps and bounds among ordinary citizens of all kinds of political persuasions and lifestyles." She should know. She and her husband started homeschooling their two kids in their Toledo suburb in 1988. Their son Andrew had been bored and depressed in public junior high, then spent half a year in a private high school "and said it wasn't really very different," she recalls. "The kids were all exactly the same, they just had to wear better clothes. He felt his life was a treadmill." That year, a fundamentalist family made Toledo news when they won a court battle to homeschool their kids. "Andrew asked, 'Mom, couldn't you homeschool me? You couldn't be any worse than the teachers I have.'" She did some research and decided they could do it. Later, Andrew's younger sister left school as well. Looking around for support groups and guidance, Endsley found that "the existing homeschool groups were unremittingly fundamentalist Christian, and they wanted us to sign a statement of faith. We didn't share their faith, therefore we weren't really welcome. Not only that, but they had a very traditional view of education, and everything I was reading was so exciting and nontraditional." So she and her husband started their own organization, the non-profit Home Education League of Parents (HELP). It began with 12 Toledo families and quickly grew into a national network of local chapters. HELP is "open to anybody who wants to pay $25 to be a member." Because there's a "huge variety" of faiths among members, chapters are asked to "keep their meetings free of religious content, so that people regardless of religious belief will feel comfortable." Pat Montgomery was a Catholic nun from age 13 to 25, teaching in parochial school. She left in 1960 and taught public school. "By the time I had children of my own," she recalls, "I had already been teaching for 14 years. And I decided I didn't want to enter my kids in parochial or public school...I had been in both systems and didn't agree at all with the way children were treated. Their opinions were not valued, they were not an active part of their own education, and parents were treated with even more disdain than children." Kids "were always being forced to do someone else's bidding. They were not surrounded by people who loved them, [but by people who] wanted to train them, mold them, push them and yank them. That just didn't sit real well with me." She started her own private school, Clonlara, in 1967. It's a radical experiment. Children as young as five years old have a say in school policy, including hirings and firings. Instead of heavy classroom time, they're out in the community, learning "a lot of real stuff, not phony sit-at-a-desk stuff. We never had desks or bells or textbooks or tests." It's also a tiny school: from a high of 114, the student body is currently at 50. In the late 70s, Montgomery started hearing from people "who didn't want to send their children to any school, even ours. They asked if I would help them homeschool." In 1979, she started Clonlara's Home Based Education Program. It's one of several support and materials programs that private schools offer homeschooling families. In Clonlara's program you get a basic curriculum plan and textbooks, manuals for the parents, guidance on how to comply with your local regulations, standardized tests if you want them, help from a certified teacher if you want it, official transcripts and so on. The tuition is $475 a year per family, regardless of how many kids the family enrolls. Montgomery says current clients comprise "about 2000 families the world over. That's 5000 to 6000 students." They're in all 50 states of the U.S. and in 20 other countries--not, she notes, American students living abroad, but native families in countries like Japan (the biggest), Sri Lanka, Mexico, Germany, Canada, Brazil and elsewhere. Linda Tagliaferro grew up in Brooklyn and says she's always been arty and bohemian, though she adds that "I couldn't be a hippie because my parents are Italian and wouldn't let me." As a young woman she spent several years working and studying in Florence, Rome, Denmark and Asia. "My husband likes to say that I went all over the world, dated all these foreign men, to find that Brooklyn Jewish men make the best husbands." She's now a freelance writer, currently working on a book about bovine growth hormone. ("You don't want to know the research I've done," she scowls comically. "I stopped eating dairy. I kept thinking of the blood and pus.") When her son was two, she read an article on homeschooling and thought it was "really weird." But as he reached kindergarten age, "I started thinking, 'This kid is going to be bored out of his mind in school. This is a criminal thing to do to him.'" She did some more research, decided homeschooling would be good for both Eric and her, and he's never set foot in a classroom. Tagliaferro now gives occasional seminars on homeschooling in Manhattan, tag-teaming them with the anti-school polemicist John Taylor Gatto. Patrick Farenga is the president of Holt Associates, a major homeschoolers' organization based in Boston. He and his wife are homeschooling their three girls, ages five, eight and nine. Farenga himself had totally traditional schooling. He went to prep school in the Bronx, Boston College and grad school, and came out wanting to be a teacher. "I had my masters degree in English, and I couldn't find a job anywhere," he recalls. He was managing a bookstore in Boston when he met the godfather of the progressive homeschooling movement, the late John Holt. Somewhat like Gatto, Holt (who died of cancer in 1985) was a star teacher who came to reject traditional schooling, then became a leading figure in the school reform movement of the 70s, and finally went all the way to an outright rejection of the whole system. He wrote 10 books in the process; three of the best known--How Children Learn, How Children Fail and Freedom and Beyond--are being reprinted this fall. His book on children's rights, Escape from Childhood, was "vilified from the left and the right" when it appeared in 1970, though some of his ideas, like children being able to choose their guardians, have become law. In Instead of Education, he proposed a kind of underground railroad to help kids escape the slavery of compulsory schooling. His last book, Teach Your Own, is a primary homeschooling text. When Farenga told Holt one day that he wanted to be a teacher, "He looked me square in the eye and said, 'Why do you want to do that?' I said I liked working with children. He said, 'Pat, you got it all wrong. If you become a teacher, you're not going to work with children, you're going to work on children.'" Farenga became a believer and went to work at Holt Associates in '81. Holt had started it in 1970 as an educational consulting firm, "and got very few referrals, given his position on education," Farenga laughs. Instead, it became a networking and information warehouse for homeschoolers, publishing the magazine Growing Without Schooling and a catalogue of home study materials, learning games and books. Farenga says Growing Without School has "over 5400 paid subscribers, and a circulation two or three times that. And we're one of the smaller publications. First because we're secular, and also because we have this radical attitude toward education." By comparison, The Teaching Home, a Christian publication, claims a circulation of 100,000. Religious homeschoolers "don't hesitate to criticize us as liberals or libertines or whatever," Farenga says. "They keep us at arm's length. But I support their position 100 percent. Because if you're going to pass a law that they can't teach creationism, well, who's going to be this commissar of correct thought? Who decides who can think what? I don't teach creationism to my kids, and I'm not going to pretend I like it, but I'm certainly not going to tell them they shouldn't learn about it." Montgomery estimates that "maybe 10, 12 percent" of Clonlara's families homeschool for religious purposes, adding that "some others are very religious people, but that's not their main reason for doing it." If parents request it, Clonlara will add religious materials to the basic curriculum packet. "What we send to people by way of curriculum and materials is just bare bones. We assist them in developing those bare bones and tailoring it to fit their families. If we have a family--and we do have very many--who say they want to be very heavy on their religious beliefs, then we say, 'Go for it. Here's some materials you might want to consider,' or 'Here's a support group you might also want to contact.'" In addition to Christian families, she says clients include "a very high number of Muslim families," both American Black Muslims and immigrants. "Religion is so focal to their existence. Their children are already in religious schools four days a week. So for them it's more a matter of injecting the basics, the reading, writing and math." A national organization, the Islamic Homeschool Association of America, puts out a newsletter called The Muslim Family. There are also Jewish and Catholic national organizations, a couple for black homeschoolers, one for the physically challenged and so on.Everyone agrees that the classic Cleaver family--one parent at work, one home playing teacher, with a comfortable household income--is the easiest homeschooling setup. But evidently it's no more the norm among these folks than in the general population. The Endsleys both worked out of the house when they started homeschooling--she was a full-time music teacher, he had his own business and traveled a lot. Tagliaferro's at home during the day, but working. Farenga's kids come to the office with him. "We know we have fabulously wealthy people, multi-multi-millionaires, in our group, as well as people on welfare," Endsley reports. If there are households it doesn't work for, she says, it's "career-track, double-career parents, or for single parents who have no time after work for anything but their own personal lives. You really have to want to spend some time with your kids. You don't have to be with them every minute, but you do have to want to devote your spare time." Montgomery tells me that Clonlara's homeschoolers tend to be blue collar families, living in or near cities. They're "pretty normal, ordinary folks." They all admit it's hardest for low-income and single-parent households, but then they cite numerous examples like the divorced nurse who works hefty weekend hours so she can spend time with her kids during the week. Another who cleaned offices at night so she could homeschool days. A single mother who did so well organizing her five kids' learning she got an equivalency-credit MBA. People starting businesses they can run out of the home, or getting jobs like Farenga's where they can bring their kids. In Boston and many cities, there are support groups where "you can swap out," Farenga says. "You watch my kids on Tuesday, I'll watch yours on Wednesday. A lot of bartering and swapping of skills and childcare occurs among homeschoolers to create space for themselves." There's a national organization for single-parent homeschoolers. When kids are old enough, Farenga adds, they can do "a lot more independent study. If the kid is 14, you can leave them home." "It may not be for everybody, but anybody who wants to can do it," Tagliaferro insists. Then again, Farenga notes wryly, "Not everyone wants their kids around them all day. Let's face it, schools have a very important custodial function that no one wants to talk about." Some people do simply recreate the classroom in their homes, with blackboard, textbooks, class periods, the whole bit. The homeschoolers I talked to sound like they spend much more time out of the house than in it. In fact, Montgomery considers "homeschooling" an unfortunate term, because it gives "this vision that the children are going to be locked in a room and toast is going to be slipped under the door. That is so ridiculous." Endsley agrees. "What a lot of people don't know is that the choice to homeschool is not an isolationist choice. People who homeschool the way we recommend are out in their community a lot." Holt proposed the alternative term "unschooling," Farenga explains, "because you didn't want to give the impression that we just have miniature schools in our homes. Very little of this actually takes place in the home. It takes place in the community, in the children themselves. Learning is part of life." The approach they favor is hands-on and real-world. Montgomery tells me of young kids volunteering at convalescent centers, reading to people who are blind. "Kids are bagging vegetables at co-ops as we speak--a 10-year-old I know is manning the cash register." High school-age ones apprentice, intern or get part-time jobs in real working environments that interest them; Growing Without Schooling and HELP's newsletter Mentor are filled with examples of them doing things from veterinary science and gardening to journalism, astrophysics and theater. They also make heavy use of museums and libraries. "New York City is the greatest city to homeschool in," Tagliaferro says. "You read about dinosaurs, then you go to the Museum of Natural History. Anything your child is interested in, you can find for free or nearly free in this city." She joins small groups of other homeschooling parents and kids to get into museums' school programs under the guise of being "a private school with a high teacher-student ratio." When Eric got interested in Roman history, they went to the Roman section of the Metropolitan, saw Spartacus and read I, Claudius, got a book and learned Latin, got another book and learned to cook Roman cuisine. At the Museum of Natural History Eric participated in a "sandbox archaeology" exhibit for kids. When it was done he told her, "in true homeschooler fashion, 'Mom, that was fun, but it wasn't archaeology. I want to go a real dig.'" She got him a volunteer role at the historical archaeology dig in Astoria, "and he was being an archaeologist. This is the essence of homeschooling. You do real things. You don't read about something you might do someday. You don't watch somebody on tv doing it. You do it." In deciding what to teach your kid, and when--in essence, in setting up a "curriculum"--"you follow the child's interests," she explains. "People learn in a very organic way. My opinion is that people learn in spite of the way schools teach you. The way my son learned is through very intense study. We're talking three, four years of American history, which led him to a year of Roman history, which led him to Greek history, which led him to geography, which led him to math. Everything hangs together." At 14, Eric's now into marine biology. Rather than college, he's thinking about apprenticing at a fish hatchery. The Endsleys' son Andrew got deeply into military history, so he joined a Civil War reenactment group. That led to his being an extra in the movie Glory. Which led to both him and his younger sister being extras in Dances With Wolves. When he was 19 and she was 17, their folks moved them to L.A. to continue pursuing film careers; they lived there by themselves for a year until the folks moved out to join them. Andrew, now 22, is a second assistant director in film and tv. His 20-year-old sister (who doesn't care for publicity and asked me not to use her first name) recently moved to New York City to work for one of the big movie producers here. "I thought about going to film school, but I hire interns from film school now," she tells me. "For what I want to do in film, I don't think it would help. I'm sort of already doing it. I'm on my way to doing it more independently. Eventually I want to have my own production company and write and produce my own stuff. What better way to do it than to learn from the best? And I'm not paying for, I'm getting paid. I would've waited four years in film school to start where I am now." She admits that when her brother started homeschooling, she resisted it for herself. "I was much more social and into the whole cheerleader, popular crowd scene at school. So I was like, 'No way, don't take me out of school.'" Then, seeing it work for Andrew, she tried it, and never went back. "It took me like a month of being really lazy and watching so many soap operas. I went through the lazy period and realized how boring it was, how much more exciting it was to be out learning things." She joined theater groups, took voice and dance lessons, and moved toward her goal of working in film. When I ask if she saw less of her school friends, she says, "Some of them. I didn't keep in touch with that many people from school...But the few of them I did I'm still in touch with. They're all in college now, and we're still really good friends. I found I started making friends in other places, like in these theater groups. They were older and younger, a really diverse group. I found that was more important to me. We had something more in common than, you know, taking science together and 'Oh, you have a really cute outfit on.' "It got me started early in the world," she continues. "Now in my job I deal with people twice my age or more, and I don't have a problem communicating with them in the sense of 'You're so much older than me and I'm just a child.' It gave me the courage to feel like a person instead of a freshman or a sophomore. I feel like high school really shelters kids from everybody else." I ask if there are downsides to growing up so fast. "I wouldn't say that I grew up too fast," she counters, "but sometimes it is hard to relate to people my own age." It's no surprise to hear that while some homeschooling parents administer standardized tests to their kids, the ones I spoke with refuse to do it, on the theory that test scores only measure test-taking skills and tell more about desires for a standardized citizenry than about anyone's intelligence. Farenga paraphrases Holt: "The only difference between the smart student and the poor student is the smart student is very careful to remember what he studied for the test." They like to point out that the IQ test was originally designed by eugenics-friendly psychologists to identify the mentally defective. It was, for instance, used at Ellis Island in an attempt to screen out "inferior" Jewish, Italian and Russian immigrants. The SAT comes from similarly anti-immigrant origins; to some homeschoolers, the ETS (Educational Testing Service) that administers SATs and banks all the data is an evil shadow empire on a par with the IRS. "I don't want my daughters to get the idea that the only way they'll know something is to take a test and pass it," Farenga says. Like Tagliaferro, he submits written quarterly evaluations of his kids' progress instead. When homeschooled kids do take tests, including the SATs, the data show they score as well as schooled kids. If they want to go to college, only a few holdout institutions are resistant anymore. Most major universities offer home study programs as well, and give credit for real-world experience as opposed to classroom time. And in the job market, where employers have complained for decades about how ill-prepared traditionally schooled graduates are, kids like the Endsleys' suggest that the career-focused homeschooler is, at the very least, at no disadvantage. Farenga concedes that homeschooling doesn't work for many families--that it has its failures and a fairly high turnover rate, with many kids going back to traditional classrooms after a year or two. Then again, he's quite dubious when any education system claims to have what he calls "the one right way"--and especially skeptical about calls for national curriculum and teacher training standards. Look at "the fact that there are so many different teaching methods, and all of them can claim success," he suggests. "We have parochial schools, public schools, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, homeschool. All of them can say 'I got So-and-So into Harvard, blah blah blah.' All of them have their failures, too. What does this say?"Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, but it wasn't always, and Montgomery was a leading figure in the struggle to make it so. Through the 70s into the mid-80s, she recalls, school districts everywhere "were very hostile to homeschooling, because they saw that every child who left the system took money with them." Schools districts get funding based on an average daily attendance head-count. It ranges from a couple thousand dollars a year per kid in the South to as much as $10,000 a year in New York. "We have a family in Paw Paw, MI, with 15 children. That's a hefty amount for a family to 'deny' the district, as it were. So the school officials waged war on homeschooling." She remembers a man in Florida who "sat in jail for a week for homeschooling his children. It was really awful. "But that's not the case today," she adds. "More and more, district officials realized this is not going to go way, this movement is growing." Growing Without Schooling lists school districts that cooperate with homeschooling parents. "We've never had more than 12 at once, nationwide," Farenga notes ruefully. Still, he agrees that things are changing. He tells me that school districts in California and Washington have actually figured out how to make money off homeschoolers. They enroll them in independent study programs, so they can count those kids as attending and get several thousands of dollars per, with almost no expenses. It's found money. For a few years in the late 80s and early 90s, districts were actually competing to lure homeschooling families, sweetening the deal with offers like tuition tax credits. The teachers' unions killed that. If you want to homeschool no state requires you to be a certified teacher (though Michigan requires that you have some contact with one). In around a dozen states, your local school district has to approve your decision. In the New York City system, you must send a letter before July 1 of each year announcing your intentions. "You're not asking permission," Tagliaferro notes pointedly. "I even think it's offensive to have to tell a stranger that you're going to be doing what's your God-given right to do." She and her husband did once go speak to some city school officials, but she jokes that it was mainly "to show them we had only one head apiece." Even if there are a million kids being homeschooled nationwide, Farenga notes, that's a tiny percentage of the school-age population, "so schools shouldn't be concerned about a mass exodus. Although they should be concerned about the issues homeschooling raises, and I wish they would be concerned in a positive way."