After years of struggle on the fringes, homeschooling appears to have emerged victorious. With a string of successes under their belts, and positive research demonstrating the effectiveness of their approach to education, homeschoolers are stepping into the mainstream of American life.

With increasing frequency, newspapers across the country turn their attention to families that take full responsibility for their children's education. Even when criticism is voiced, it often serves to underline homeschooling's strong points.

The Detroit News recently reported on gripes about homeschoolers' string of successes in spelling bees — naysayers complained that "home-schooled students have the advantage because they can spend more time studying spelling during their school days."

But many homeschooling advocates would enthusiastically agree with that "criticism"; their chosen educational approach gives them the flexibility to focus on individual interests and talents. They don't have to stuff lessons into 50-minute periods.

If it were just spelling bees where homeschoolers excelled, the practice would probably remain an interesting curiosity. But research on the academic achievements of children educated away from institutional schools reveals impressive results.

Actually, studying homeschooling is a difficult task. Families had to fight for their decision to educate their kids themselves. The Heartland Institute reports that "[t]wenty years ago, home schooling was illegal almost everywhere in the United States. It became legal in all 50 states only as recently as 1993." After decades of guerrilla warfare with government officials who treat children like cattle to be herded into tax-funded classrooms, the one thing that most otherwise-diverse homeschoolers have in common is a leeriness of revealing their presence and answering questions.

The traditionally underground quality of homeschooling means that nobody even knows how widespread it is; numbers range from the Department of Education's 1999 estimate of 850,000 students upward. Education Week says that "[t]he consensus among those who study home schooling is that at least 1 million U.S. children were educated at home in 1999."

Still, as homeschooling grows in popularity, its practitioners become more willing to work with researchers. The most comprehensive study to date was performed in 1998 by Prof. Lawrence M. Rudner. He found that "home school student achievement test scores are exceptionally high. The median scores for every subtest at every grade (typically in the 70th to 80th percentile) are well above those of public and Catholic/private school students."

Roughly 69 percent of homeschooled students go on to college — and they're apparently adapting well to higher education. A University of Michigan spokeswoman told the Detroit Free Press that, "Generally, we find they're very well-prepared, and they tend to be highly motivated."

Academic success for homeschooled kids seems to be a given. But what about that other great objection to the practice: socialization. Did all of those years outside the classroom leave homeschoolers unable to fit in?

The typical objection was voiced by Prof. Jackie Palka, of Vanderbilt University. She sniffed to the Christian Science Monitor that "Anybody can drill facts into students' heads that will allow them to do better on tests. We're preparing them for a world where they have to go out and talk to other people."

But research into the socialization of home-educated Americans reveals that these allegedly deprived kids do rather well. Since the early 1990s, the leading authority on homeschoolers-turned-adults has been Dr. J. Gary Knowles, first of the University of Michigan, now of the University of Toronto. He found that, after years of independent study far from school bells and formal classrooms, adults who were homeschooled tend to be entrepreneurial, professional and independent. They also strongly emphasize the importance of family.

Dr. Knowles recently commented to Fox News, "Where did we ever get the idea that 2,000 13-year-olds were the ideal people with which to socialize other 13-year-olds?"

With family-based teaching producing generally well-educated, well-balanced adults, it's no surprise that the approach has grown in popularity. The mainstreaming of homeschooling has been accelerated by disappointing public schools and much-publicized, if rare, incidents of school violence. Also, recent years have seen an increasingly vitriolic battle over the way teachers handle disputed topics and ideas in the classroom. Parents on both side of the debate over evolution or the tussle between back-to-basics and progressive philosophies can be forgiven for deciding that their energies are better spent in actually teaching their kids rather than lobbying school boards.

A Cato Institute report on homeschooling noted that the educational approach's roots lie in "two historical strains of homeschooling, a religious-right thread inspired by author Raymond Moore and a countercultural-left thread inspired by John Holt. Their differences illustrate the various concerns that cause people to choose homeschooling: some want religious values in education, some worry about the crime and lack of discipline in the government schools, some object to the conformity and bureaucracy in the schools, others are concerned with the declining quality of education."

Ironically, the same concerns once raised by fundamentalist Christians and hippies now motivate people in the mainstream of American culture to take on the responsibility of educating their children. If experience to-date is any guide, the families that shoulder this task will be much more successful than the schools they leave behind.

J.D. Tuccille is a Flagstaff-based Senior Editor of The Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (www.free-market.net/).

— Arizona Daily Sun

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