The ABCs Of Home Schooling

P. Aurora Robinson has home schooled her 14-year-old son Tau.
P. Aurora Robinson has home schooled her 14-year-old son Tau.
For a growing number of American students, "homework" is two words, not one, and a classroom is the one place they're not likely to be, because when it comes to education, for these students and their parents, there's no place like home. Tracy Smith spells it out for us:

On a late summer morning in Brooklyn, New York, a mother walks her son to school. It's a common routine, but this one has an uncommon twist. The classroom is a coffee shop. There's only one student. And the instructor? Mom herself.

And what kind of teacher is she?

"She's really a cool teacher," says 14-year-old Tau. "And kind of a cool parent, too."

P. Aurora Robinson began home-schooling her son Tau two years ago. She wanted to teach him herself because, she says, she knows him best. So together they hit the books, and then they hit the road.

It's called "home schooling," but how much time did they spend at home?

"Very little," Robinson laughed, "'cause I don't like staying in one spot. I took him out of the country to Zimbabwe. We went to Canada. I mean, we've gone as many places as I possibly can take him so that he can see that learning doesn't have to relegated to one little spot in one little room at one little time."

"It sounds like a wonderful ideal," Smith said, "but you did have to sacrifice?"

"Of course," Robinson said.

Robinson's career was as a tenure-track professor at Drury University in Missouri. She gave it up, started living off her savings, and moved the family back to her hometown in New York. She says she did it to save her son from teachers and classmates who did not see in him the young man that she saw.

"Here's a child who takes cello, who play soccer, who's a boy scout," she said. "And they wanted him to be a thug and wear his pants under his behind, because of the color of his skin."

Smith asked Tau what public school in Missouri like for him.

"It wasn't that good," he said. "Everybody was really mean. There was lots of stereotypes put on me."

Thomas Morrow, like Robinson, was wary of bullying when he chose to home-school his kids.

"As a child, you're bullied because you haven't learned yet how to behave properly to one another."

But Morrow (left) says his main reason was something far more fundamental: academics.

"It's very difficult for me to see how an institutional education can compete with home education, it's not a fair competition," he said. "[An] institutional-educated child is one of 30 kids facing one teacher. Home-educated child is typically one of one, two, or three kids facing one teacher.

"The publicly-schooled child, that teacher probably didn't know them before they showed up one day in late August. The home-schooled child, their teacher knows them intimately."

For Morrow, home education is not just a lifestyle, it's also a livelihood. He's a former Fortune 500 executive who launched his own company about three years ago: Home School Inc.. Located outside Chicago, it supplies educational materials and teaching assistance to 47,000 families around the world.

That number, he says, will soon skyrocket.

Morrow says home schooling is a multi-billion dollar industry. "About a $1.5 billion for materials and about $3.5 billion for services - mostly tutoring, instructors, that kind of thing. So it's a big market."

And Morrow says Home School Inc.'s multi-million dollar business is expected to grow "quite a bit."

He has reason to be optimistic: An estimated two million children are now home-schooled in the U.S. And there's an average annual increase of seven percent, according to the Department of Education's most recent survey.

Calvert Education Services in Baltimore, Md., the granddaddy of home-school mail order - it's where Aurora Robinson got her materials - sends its wares to every continent except Antarctica.

Calvert began more than a century ago sending out curricula to homebound students during a flu epidemic.

Calvert CEO Jean Halle (left, with Smith), says it's like "Christmas in August" when Calvert's so-called "school-in-a-box" - complete with pencils and supplies - arrives at the start of home school years. It costs about $700 dollars. For a couple thousand more, kids can enroll in a "virtual classroom" on the Internet, where they communicate with teachers and other students.

There's also a home school blog. This is not your grandmother's home-schooling.

Not Benjamin Franklin's home-schooling either. Long before "virtual classrooms," Franklin and many others who signed the Declaration of Independence were, in fact, home-schooled.

"You can trace it all the way to before there was an America, before there was a United States," Morrow said. "Home education was the rule, until the 1850s, when we began to see the public schooling movement began.

"Shortly thereafter, the states began to pass what are called truancy and mandatory attendance laws. When those laws were passed, it became illegal to home school.

But by the 1960s, anti-establishment groups were routinely breaking those laws. And thirty years later, after the laws were overturned, fundamentalist Christians began home-schooling in droves.

But these days, Aurora Robinson paints a different picture of the movement.

"I mean, the average person, when you say you're going to home school your child, thinks you're a Bible-thumping fanatic. And that's not true."

The truth, said Robinson, is that home-schooling has a new face. It's on the rise among non-white minorities - an estimated twenty percent of home educators, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. And she says they do it not for religion, but because they're unhappy with public schools.

"More parents see it as a mainstream option," Halle said. "If you go to a college orientation, they're going to talk to you about home-school students and how they're welcomed and encouraged to be part of the program."

The proof is at Princeton University, where the 2002 valedictorian was a home-schooler, and where the college Web site has a special section for home school applicants.

But at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, associate admissions director John Birney says fielding those applications can be tricky.

"When it comes to home schooling students versus traditional, I think the eye becomes a bit more critical because some of the required pieces, like the transcript, which is most important, isn't always in that file," Birney said.

So how stringent are standard? What is, Smith asked, some parent decides he wants his kid to just learn Rolling Stone lyrics?

"The states have some oversight," Halle said. "And it varies by state. But they are going to look for you to give your student a certain education and for you to provide proof that you're doing that."

States do regulate home-schooling, some more stringently than others. And no state requires parents to be certified. But John Birney wonders if that should change.

"When you're looking at that applicant file and you know there's been a certification behind it, almost like an accredited school, you're a bit more comfortable with the curriculum because you know it's past an accreditation stage," he said.

Thomas Morrow is less skeptical: "The statistics demonstrate that even uncertified parents still do a better job educating, as measured by standardized tests. Typically, a home-educated child is testing two grades ahead, once they're in middle school."

But even if, statistically, home-schoolers are better test-takers, critics say they sometimes lag behind on a lesson not in any textbook: how to interact with other kids.

"Well, I think the piece that they're missing is the socialization that a traditional high school absolutely provides to all students who attend that school," Birney said.

Robinson took issue with the worry some parents have that home-schooled kids don't socialize with other kids.

"Oh, they must be insane," she said. "We have home school associations, similar to the PTA. The difference is it's like having the exploded version of a play date!"

And Tau is about to get even more chances to socialize. He's headed back to a traditional school. He was recently admitted to a competitive New York City high school for the arts, and starts this year.

"You're willing to let him go back into conventional school now?" Smith asked Robinson.

"You know, I've gotta also let him grow," she said. "I've gotta let him make choices. He's making a choice."