What Do You Think?
Parents as Teachers: In America There are More Than 1 Million Children Learning at Home
"We have this assumption in our culture that kids learn proper social behavior by being with their peers," Kristi Northway of Dallas Center said. "But that's actually the opposite. That's the downside of peer pressure."
When parents are the teachers
More than 1 million American students are home-schooled
By DAWN SAGARIO, Des moines Register, December 12, 2004
There is no place to eat in Alissa Tschetter-Siedschlaw 's dining room. The family sits down to meals around a coffee table in the living room.
The dining room in this Des Moines home is crammed full of books. Plastic containers on the floor hold blocks, measuring tapes, rulers and paper money. Educational posters cover the walls - everything from diagrams of the human body to a map of the United States and an illustration of the constellations.
Here is where Tschetter-Siedschlaw oversees a class of just two students - daughter Breanna , 12 , and son Noah, 8 .
Her children, along with nearly 10,000 other students in Iowa and more than 1 million nationwide, are part of the home-school movement.
Tschetter-Siedschlaw plans to home-school her kids until they're old enough to go to high school.
"I'm not at all anti-public school," she said. Breanna attended first grade at Edmunds Academy of Fine Arts, but her mother decided the environment did not fit the girl's academic needs.
"I did appreciate a lot of the things. I wanted the diversity. But for my family, the negatives outweighed the positives."
Before the 1980s, home-schooling - with a history that substantially predates the advent of public schools - fell onto the religious fringes of education. About 20 years ago, it began to be embraced by a broader demographic.
In the United States, 1.1 million students were being home-schooled in the spring of 2003, according to the most recent numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Between 1999 and 2003, the percentage of school-age kids being home-schooled rose from 1.7 percent to 2.2 percent. In Iowa, 1.7 percent of school-age children are home-schooled.
Advocacy groups, such as the Home School Legal Defense Association, estimate the number of home-schoolers nationwide to be higher - between 1.7 million and 2.1 million.
Once heavily dominated by fundamentalist Christian families, the home-schooling movement has been embraced by a wide range of families with diverse religious backgrounds and secular groups with no religious ties.
As the home-schooling demographic has expanded, so have the different ways families can teach. Learning at home has gone beyond sitting around the kitchen table and reading textbooks.
Home-schoolers can choose from a warehouse of home-school curriculum and educational tools. Visit the Internet, and you'll see Web site after Web site devoted to home-school materials.
There are Christian-based textbooks, ideas for lesson plans, online classes, videos, DVDs, CD-ROMs and magazines all devoted to home- schooling.
Home teachers attend conventions where they can buy materials and attend workshops. They join support networks within their own communities and statewide groups such as the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, which lists almost 150 organizations for home-schooled families across Iowa.
Home-schoolers have formed not just teaching cooperatives, they have banded together to take field trips, tumbling, sports, choir and tae kwon do lessons. They send their children to state universities and private colleges, where evidence indicates they are socially and academically accomplished.
Dawn Thompson of Norwalk, who home-schooled her three daughters, said five years ago home-schooling conventions were filled with women who seemed conservative - long hair, modest clothing, no makeup.
"Now, you go to a convention, and there are moms with short hair, tattoos, short shorts," she said.
All compasses point to the fact that home-schooling has taken a permanent place in American education.
Home-schoolers in 2004-2005
IN THE U.S.
Total public school population: 48.2 million
Total private school population: 5.2 million
Estimated home-school population: 1.1 million
Total public school population: 482,372
Total private school population: 37,243
Estimated home-school population: 9,171
The number of home-schoolers in Iowa
According to a Des Moines Register survey of the 367 school districts in Iowa, 9,171 students are being home-schooled this year. The number may be small compared to the 37,240 students in parochial and other private schools in the state, but the home-school population has seen a consistent increase.
Home-schooling was, of course, the norm early in the nation's history. It saw a spurt in the 1960s when members of the hippie counterculture balked at sending their children to public schools.
The most radical change in the home-schooling movement, however, began in the late 1970s. An approach that had been associated with the far-left was taken up by the conservative right.
Many were fundamentalists who argued that the teaching in public schools conflicted with their own religious values. At the time, the attitude toward home-schoolers was less than accepting, especially when families began trying to persuade the government to legalize their choice.
Before 1983, it was illegal in 45 states - including Iowa - to teach your own children at home if you weren't a certified teacher, said Ian Slatter , director of media relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association. Only five states - Oklahoma, Indiana, Illinois, Virginia and Massachusetts - allowed parents who were not certified teachers to home-school.
This situation made it impossible for parents, Slatter said, unless they went back to school to earn teacher certification.
The legal defense association was formed in 1983, he said, to help parents exercise the right to educate their kids.
At that time, Slatter said, "a lot of home-schoolers were under the radar." Parents continued to teach even under the threat of prosecution, and some went to jail, he said.
From 1983 to 1993, states slowly began changing their laws so parents who were not certified teachers could teach at home.
In 1991, Iowa passed a law relaxing the requirements for home- schooling. It allowed parents who weren't certified to teach their children at home, provided they used standardized tests or portfolios of work as evidence that they were making adequate progress.
Not all families in the United States who choose to home-school must report it to the government, Slatter said. Between 15 to 20 states have little or no notification. No notification to education officials is required for families in Alaska, for example.
The states with the most extensive regulations are New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Vermont, he said.
By 1993, parents without teaching certificates could home-school in all 50 states.
How home-schooling works
Families who decide to home-school in Iowa must file a Competent Private Instruction document with their school district by Sept. 15 each year if the children are at least 6 years old. The document declares the intent to home-school - which includes information about the home teacher and the course of study - so the state can track students.
Parents who want to home-school their children can independently teach their children or they can request home-school assistance from a school district, if such a program is available.
Here are the options:
• Families can decide to teach their children independently, without the help of an Iowa licensed teacher. The student must take a standardized test to set a baseline assessment for the first year to verify that adequate progress is being made. After the first year, the student continues to take standardized tests or develops a portfolio to annually verify adequate progress.
• Families can work with a district home-school assistance program. A visiting teacher will make regular home visits to verify that the student is making adequate progress.
In Iowa, 4,128 students are in home-school assistance programs run by the state. Last year, 3,744 were in the programs, according to the Iowa Department of Education.
• Students who work with a licensed Iowa teacher with appropriate credentials do not have to conduct an annual assessment. This includes kids in home-school assistance programs.
• Students who don't work with a certified teacher must take an annual test to ensure there is sufficient progress.
Not every district has a home-school assistance program, and a district is not required to have one. Parents can enroll their children in another district to take advantage of a program. For every child enrolled, a school district receives six-tenths the amount of state aid it receives for a regularly enrolled child.
Whatever the option, parents can also dual-enroll their kids in the local public school to participate in specialized classes or extracurricular activities. For a student in the home-school assistance program who dual-enrolls, the school district receives an additional one-tenth in state aid.
The Iowa Department of Education does not issue high school diplomas to home-schoolers. Students can take the General Education Development (GED) test when they finish their high school studies.
Parents can issue diplomas and transcripts to their kids, but they aren't recognized by the state.
Resources for parents
• Iowa Department of Education, www.state.ia.us/educate. Click on Programs & Services (A-Z) and go to Competent Private Instruction.
Thinking about home-schooling? Get started by looking at the state department's 2004-2005 handbook of Competent Private Instruction. It gives the requirements home-schoolers - along with students in nonaccredited private schools - need to fulfill to properly enroll.
• Des Moines Schools Home Instruction Assistance Program, www.dmps.k12.ia.us . Click on Programs, go to Early Childhood and Elementary Programs and click on Home Instruction.
Parents who teach their children have the option of signing up with the Des Moines Schools Home Instruction Assistance Program. Visiting teachers help supervise and guide home teachers, who will have access to curriculum materials, and students can join field trips and activities like drama and swimming.
• Network of Christian Home Educators (NICHE), www.the-niche.org .
This statewide association has almost 150 support groups statewide. More than 1,000 families are members of the network, which also sponsors an annual home-school conference.
The changing demographics of home-schooling
Since the 1980s, the home-schooling movement has been more widely adopted by diverse religious and secular groups. The majority of today's home-schooling families - 60 percent - are evangelical Christians, said Slatter . In the early 1980s, evangelical Christians made up 90 percent of home-schoolers.
Among home-schoolers today, 15 percent are Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, Slatter said. The remaining 25 percent are secular.
Academic concerns - running the gamut from special-needs students to the gifted and talented - have prompted more families to pull their kids out of classrooms and teach them at home.
Some are taking their children out of the public school system because they believe the schools are ill-equipped to meet their children's individual academic interests. They say overworked teachers - in classrooms with a range of academic abilities - must target the average learner, penalizing those above or below the median.
Students may be easily bored or apt to fall behind. Parents claim students get one-on-one attention at home and work at their own speed. Parents have the flexibility to insert extracurricular activities into the school day.
The most common reason cited for home-schooling, however, is the absence of religious education in public schools and the perception of negative social influences.
A July 2004 report from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 31 percent of home-school parents noted that concern about the school environment was the most important reason to teach their children at home.
Providing religious or moral instruction (30 percent) was second. Dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools (16 percent) was third.
The trends reflect a tolerance and understanding of home-schooling, believes home-teacher Thompson of Norwalk.
"In the earlier years, it was so looked down on. There was a need to prove we could do it and succeed," she said.
As the movement matured, she said, it became less dogmatic. More people began home-schooling, and more people began accepting it as just another option to traditional school.
Thompson emphasized that it may not be a solution for everyone.
"This is just an option," she said. "You have to always be assessing. Is this the best curriculum? Is this the best way for the students to get the information?"
Home-schooling is not an easy way out, she said. "I really think it is extra effort. It's a very serious responsibility."
It was important that her children always have the choice between home or public school, Thompson said. That also meant her three daughters were involved in the curriculum they used at home.
"We didn't want them to feel this was something forced upon them."
Keri, 20 , is now a sophomore at Drake University; Cate, 18, is taking classes at Des Moines Area Community College; and Kristin, 16, takes classes at DMACC and the Network , a home-school cooperative that teaches high school subjects.
She defined success for her daughters as "always learning and improving and growing . . . and embracing that thirst to know, to understand."
Why parents teach their children at home
Leslie Dahm has seen home-schooling families run the gamut from homeless to affluent, but they shared the same mission: the best education for their children.
Dahm, coordinator for the Des Moines Public Schools Home Instruction Assistance Program for the past 12 years, said numbers have grown since the program began in 1984 with 15 students and one teacher.
This year, 376 Des Moines-area students and 91/2 teachers are in the program, which is based at Mann Elementary School. An additional 215 students are home-schooled without the program's help.
Home-schoolers need not participate in the program. If they do, visiting teachers will help supervise home teachers, who will have access to curriculum materials. Students can join field trips and activities such as swimming, drama and tumbling with other home-schoolers. Parents pay extra and transport their children.
In the early days, home instruction was typically a decision parents made even before their kids were old enough to head off to school.
In the last decade, the appeal has broadened, Dahm said. It has become an option for kids coping with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, for special-education students, school-age pregnant mothers and students with medical problems.
"Now, we have a mixture of families," said Karla Fisher , who has been a teacher with the Des Moines home instruction program for 14 years.
Sometimes, kids only need to be home-schooled for a short period of time. They will go back to traditional school after one or two years at home, Fisher said, "after they catch up."
In the Des Moines program, parents are responsible for the curriculum and teaching. Visiting teachers are assigned to each family as a consultant and adviser, and they set regular home visits, usually two weeks apart, to ensure student progress. The teacher verifies progress with standardized testing, a review of portfolio work, informal evaluations or direct instruction.
Kerry and Kristi Northway of Dallas Center are board members of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, a statewide association designed "to provide Christ-centered events, communication and resources to better equip, inform and encourage Iowa home educators to the glory of God." As of September, they had 1,145 families as members, Kristi Northway said.
The Northways have six children . Benjamin, 18, and Levi, 13, are home-schooled this year, and Zachary, 19, finished high school last year. The remaining three children are preschoolers.
The Northways say learning at home helps the children work at their own pace, avoid the peer pressure in traditional school and develop a firm Christian foundation.
"We have this assumption in our culture that kids learn proper social behavior by being with their peers," Kristi said. "But that's actually the opposite. That's the downside of peer pressure."