School's out forever (Aug. 15, 2001)

School's out forever

An increasing number of North American children -- possibly more than one million Americans and up to 80,000 Canadians -- are being educated at home as parental disaffection with institutional systems grows

The original home-schoolers had the great advantages of naïveté and perfect confidence in their ability to transmit knowledge to their children. The core curriculum consisted of: 1) How to keep a fire going and 2) Sharpening sticks. For down time? Charcoal drawing on stones.

During the next 20,000 years or so, home-schooling remained the mainstream, indeed the only, alternative to no schooling at all. The notion of publicly funded, compulsory schooling for everyone is a relatively recent phenomenon, about 100 years old in the West.

Long considered a private matter in North America, education is not even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Nor was it a concern for Canada's embryonic federal government. And so by default, education came under the aegis of individual states or provinces. Attitudes to home-schooling are therefore highly divergent from state to state and province to province: user-friendly in Western Canada, for example -- with free computers and tax relief -- and less so in the east.

No one alive today in North America can remember a time when there were no public schools. So psychologically, it seems like an older institution than it is.

That human beings went from educational strength to strength for 99% of recorded history without the benefit of professional teachers and government-authorized curricula is a fact today's home-schoolers like to emphasize. Many among them are also pleased to point out that the delivery of education in the public system -- with children grouped according to age and receiving instruction geared to the average learner -- is a paradigm borrowed from the assembly-line model of efficiency created by the Industrial Revolution.

But mass production, now held in horrified contempt by a culture in thrall to individualism, was initially considered the ultimate symbol of progress. Thus, once established, public education met no organized resistance or threat to its monopoly until the upheavals of the 1960s, when countercultural attitudes challenged the received wisdom of all social institutions. The modern home-school movement began in the United States, but Canada -- with some notable departures in Quebec, of which more anon -- has reproduced its essential characteristics.

Statistics are rather porous, because no official census of home-schoolers has ever been taken. But the often-cited guestimates for the United States range between 500,000 and 750,000 (some insist on up to one million), and 70,000 to 80,000 in Canada, a proportionate number for the population. Those are today's numbers. When you consider the U.S. estimate for home-schoolers in 1985 was only 50,000, it is clear home-schooling is but the bellwether for a mushrooming disaffection with the public education system.

Home-schooling, initially off the radar screen, once identified with religious fundamentalism, Luddite homesteading and cultish anti-government paranoia, has in the 30 years of its modern revival become a completely mainstream alternative to institutional schooling of any kind, public or private. No longer monolithic, easily accessible, adaptable and responsive to its consumers, you might say home-schooling is the still extreme but rapidly assimilating cultural prototype for inevitable reforms to public education in the coming decades, already in vigorous germination in the form of school voucher programs and charter schools.

Where is the empirical evidence for home-schooling's de facto integration into North American society?

Well, you can buy a recently published Complete Idiot's Guide to Homeschooling on the extensively stocked home-schooling shelves in bookstores. Click on Google to find 357,000 Web entries for home-schooling (including several hundred Canadian sites). Or consider this from U.S. Air Force Brigadier-General Peter Sutton: "We want to reach out to home-schoolers to let them know they have a place in our nation's Air Force."

The Big Book of Home Learning, by Mary Pride, has sold 250,000 copies; The Home School Legal Defense Fund (with a Canadian branch in Alberta), which helps defray costs for home-schooling parents in school board suits, has 53,000 dues-paying members. Start a Web search, and you will be hit by a tsunami of newsletters, magazines and ads for competing privately published curricula -- standard, Web-based, videotaped. In short, if you want to homeschool, your only problem will be keeping your head above the tidal bore of materials on offer. Home-schooling has arrived, and is not going away.

During the past several years, leading North American newspapers, magazines and TV shows have devoted prime space to the movement. The tendency is to gush over the accomplishments of home-schooled children in the news, even though such examples offer no actual proof of home-school superiority for the general population. Most often cited are 13-year-old Rebecca Sealfon, who won the 1997 U.S. National Spelling Bee; the Colfax family of Boonville, Calif., who have had three of their four home-schooled sons accepted by Harvard; or Barnaby Marsh, the 1996 Rhodes Scholar who was home-schooled in the Alaska wilderness.

While these prodigies are exceptions to any rule and likely would have excelled equally in public schools, the home-schooling outcome graphs are taking shape with regard to the general population, and it is not out of good will that Harvard and other Ivy League universities are engaging in active outreach programs to attract home-schooled students. In a long-term study published by the University of Michigan, of 53 adults who had been home-schooled, for example, two-thirds were married -- the population norm, and a gentle rebuke to the most often cited myth of home-schooling, that it shortchanges children in socialization skills -- and not one was unemployed or on any form of social assistance. "The lesson for educational reformers is that homeschooling with minimal government interference has produced literate students at a fraction of the cost of any government program," concludes Isabel Lyman in a Cato Institute policy analysis titled Homeschooling: Back to the Future.

Dr. Norman Henchey of McGill University's Faculty of Education sees us as being in a gradual transition to a concept called guaranteed access to educational services, in which definitions of schooling and education become "so broad that any definition of compulsory learning has little meaning and is unenforceable."

Championing this viewpoint is Wendy Priesnitz, Canada's acknowledged home-school guru, one-time leader of the Green party and author of Challenging Assumptions in Education. She recommends de-certifying and de-professionalizing teaching, and the abolition of compulsory education.

Ms. Priesnitz's frankly anti-establishment stance puts her squarely in the camp of the pedagogues, one of two general positions home-schoolers tend to take. The pedagogues dislike the professionalism and bureaucratization of modern education. They see peer-group learning as an artificial, even unhealthy construct. They have a broader interest in educational theories. They are interested in, and up to date on, theories of child development, and a good proportion of them -- Ms. Priesnitz included -- are disillusioned former teachers themselves.

In the other camp are the ideologues. Ideologues want their children to learn religious doctrines and values. They tend toward a conservative political social perspective and they generally take up home-schooling in order to communicate to their children that the family is the most important institution in society. Ideologues have no problem with structure or group learning (many have families large enough to constitute a classroom), and tend to "school-at-home," often reproducing the actual classroom with its time constraints and rigid curriculum structures, while Ms. Priesnitz would call the laissez-faire program she gave her children "home-based learning," "deschooling" and "learning from life."

The ideologues take their inspiration from Raymond Moore, the "Dr. Spock of home-schooling," a former U.S. Department of Education employee who laid the groundwork in 1969 in his books, Home Grown Kids and Home Spun Schools. The pedagogues revere former alternative schools teacher John Holt, who has chronicled a litany of complaints against the public school system in a series of books, starting in the early 1970s with How Children Fail.

Who is home-schooling today? As you might expect, a huge proportion of home-schoolers are Christian fundamentalists. And yes, many of them do indeed teach creationism. But the lists of support groups show a staggering variety of adherents. In addition to regional groups, there are support groups for Mormon home-schoolers, for Catholics, Jews, Muslims, people of colour, adoptive parents and the disabled. For military families, missionaries, children with ADD and children in the entertainment industry, home-schooling is a godsend. Whatever their cultural or vocational launch pad, though, the long lists of home-schooling families all have one thing in common, and that is dissatisfaction with the public system of delivering education.

"Dissatisfaction" covers a multitude of perceived problems. In the weeks after the 1999 school shootings in Columbine, Colo., home-schooling support group phones rang off the hooks across the United States with calls from frantic parents determined to withdraw their children from institutional schools. Canada, once smugly immune from such fears, has had its own share of less cataclysmic, but equally harrowing school-based incidents. Other concerns include bullying, too-early sexual peer pressure (often school-abetted), locker bombs and others too numerous to cite.

Beyond fears for children's security, there are issues of unmet educational outcomes: the prevalence of illiteracy, and high school graduates unprepared for the rigours of higher education. Parents' irritation is fuelled by wagon-circling teachers unions and politicians who oppose the use of public monies for such innovative solutions as vouchers and charter schools. When 3,500 parents join a waiting list to get into one charter school in Calgary, supposedly the centre of free market thinking, it is clear the monolithic public system is not keeping up with the wishes and demands of its clientele.

Education is so irreducibly language-based, it comes as no surprise to find Quebec a distinct society with regard to home-schooling. Marguerite Corriveau, the bicultural founder and still the linchpin of The Quebec Association for Home-Based Education/Association Québécoise pour l'Education à Domicile (AQED), notes that because of the time lag in awareness produced by language barriers, home-schooling became legal in Quebec only in 1985, although anglophone home-schoolers had been tuned in since the 1970s. Once established in Quebec, however, home-schooling made rapid headway.

The Internet site for the AQED,, was "the first, and maybe the only, French Web site on home-schooling in the world." It received 10,000 hits in its first year, and numbers double annually. Ms. Corriveau guestimates there are about 10,000 home-schoolers in Quebec, of whom about 80% are francophone and 20% anglophone, a reversal of proportions from the 1970s. While many Quebec home-schoolers are religious, Ms. Corriveau stresses that whether home-schoolers are "doing it for Jesus or to be responsible citizens," it is values first and foremost that are motivating the conversions. While her organization fields hundreds of calls these days, "maybe one out of 75 calls" is for information in English.

Quebec's school boards are language, not faith, based, and Ms. Corriveau believes this change may be creating more incentive for Catholic parents to take up the home-schooling challenge. School boards in Quebec willingly provide materials and support, however regulation-dense, to home-schooling families. And while one might assume many francophone parents, constrained by Bill 101 from educating their children in English -- and vice versa -- would be motivated to home school, Ms. Corriveau makes it clear that language of instruction is never the only reason.

In whatever part of North America home-schooling takes place, methodologies range across a spectrum bracketed by the two approaches mentioned above: structured schooling-at-home and laissez-faire "unschooling." There is a third type, an eclectic and organic "unit learning" strategy that has broad appeal because it combines traditional educational resources such as libraries, museums and other public institutions, with hands-on experience.

For example, in studying prehistoric man, children might watch the movie Quest for Fire, read whatever books they like, visit appropriate animal and botanical exhibitions in a natural history museum and do a virtual tour of the Lascaux Caves on the Internet.

Topping off this unit might be an overnight camping trip where dinner would be the broiled salmon, wild lettuce and berries of the pre-agricultural era rather than today's more civilized hot dogs and chips. The next morning's study time could be devoted to learning: 1) How to keep a fire going and 2) Sharpening sticks. For down time? Charcoal drawing on stones ...