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News : Education Sep 3, 2009 - 10:59 PM


By by Deborah DiSesa Hirsch

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I was interviewing Ann Zeise, a California expert, on the pros and cons of home schooling when she said the thing she hated most were the stupid questions from people like me.

Defensive? You bet. A common theme. But when you begin to understand how the whole thing works – and many say it does – you get why home schooling parents get so angry when the world thinks of them as a bunch of religious fanatics who shelter their children in underground bunkers and never let them out into the light of day.

On the contrary, as they are adamant to point out, home-schooled kids have lots of friends, they play sports, they sing in choirs, they even march in parades. They just don’t go to “regular” school. And some of them even go on to college at 10 or 11.

But many experts think there’s a lot that’s not so great about home-schooling — like... 10-year-olds going to college. What happens if the boy who sits in front of this preteen brags about how wasted he got last night, or the girl next to him worries she didn’t use enough protection. Do kids pay a price for growing up so fast?

Home-schooling is a fast growing alternative to traditional education in America. According to a 2003 study done by the Department of Education, it’s estimated that 1.1 million American children were being home-schooled, or 2.2% of the school age population — a substantial increase from 1999, when 850,000 children were home-schooled, according to Courtney Higgins, an expert on the subject. And that number continues to rise.

Higgins, who did a study for Humboldt College on home-schooling last year, says that while she believes it can be valuable for some students, “I have personally known several home-schooling families, and struggled to understand how their children’s academic and social needs are met through home-schooling.”

College professor Jimmy Huck, Jr., who says he considered home-schooling his own kids, then decided against it, feels parents usually decide to do it primarily to protect children from a “hostile and inadequate external environment.” Huck, who writes about this on his blog,, says while some home-schooling parents might disagree, he is convinced that this still remains the main reason many parents give for removing children from public school.

Home schooling is sometimes born out of the desire of parents to “protect” their children from life’s harsh realities and the rough-and-tumble world of peer pressure with minimal supervision, says Huck. “The argument is usually that kids don’t need to be ‘thrown to the wolves’ as a kind of hazing ritual in order to come into their own.”

Professor Huck completely agrees with a parent’s need to want to protect one’s children. “But from what I’ve seen, that can easily slip into a rather unhealthy over-protectiveness that can infringe upon a child’s unique sense of identity. Even at young ages, they’re not helpless ‘mini-me’s’. They’re their own persons, completely independent of us, and it’s important to let them find space to stake out their independent identities separate from us,” he says. “Home-schooling may interfere with that.”

The evidence is all over the map. But one thing is for sure. Home-schooling incites such passion (and antipathy) because it’s not just education, it’s a lifestyle.

Though parents do it for many reasons — religious, special needs, kids too gifted, or too difficult, for regular school — home-schooled kids do, many times, tend to do better academically. But is this because parents who home-school tend to be more affluent, educated and therefore, have more time, energy and resources to handle it? We attempted to find out.

In the Humboldt study, white students made up 77% of the home-schooled population, vs. 61% of those who went to public school. Home-schooled children were more likely than their public school counterparts to come from two-parent households in which only one parent was in the labor force. Parents who home-schooled their children averaged higher levels of educational attainment than parents who sent their children to public school, and less than parents opting for private school.

“When you’re talking about race, educational attainment, and income per working adult, home-schooling parents tend to be more privileged than public school parents,” Higgins writes. “The home-schooling parent is reasonably well-educated, and can provide individualized instruction which is absent in many public schools.”

Many experts, like Steven Duvall, writing for Questia, an online research firm, on special ed students and home-schooling, puts the success of home-schooling down to one simple thing: the ratio between student and teacher. Who wouldn’t benefit from individual attention throughout a school career?

“Home-schooler success could be caused by the interest of the parents in the educational process, merely being offspring of college-educated parents, or some combination of the two,” agrees psychologist David W. Gershaw, Ph.D.,

In Connecticut, home-schooling families have quite a bit of leeway when it comes to curriculum. It’s apparently one of the few states where there are no statutes governing what must be taught, and how.

“We can’t require parents to have a certain curriculum. We can only suggest,” says Mike Meyer, director of student support services for the Board of Ed in Stamford. “We like parents to contact us at the beginning and end of the school year about what they accomplished. We’re not trying to be intrusive. We just need to make sure students are not truant.”

But for the most part, a parent who wishes to home-school a child is pretty much free to let a child study what, and how, he or she wants.

That’s not to say a parent could take a child hot-air ballooning for a year and call it fifth grade.

While state law mandates that parents of children ages 5 to 15 must send them to school, it also allows parents to opt out if they can demonstrate that their children are receiving “equivalent” instruction. Parents must instruct their children in the basics – reading, writing, spelling, grammar, math, geography and U.S. history, but how they do it is pretty much left in their hands.

Estimates put the number of home-schooling families at about a hundred in southern Fairfield County. The Connecticut Department of Education counted over 2,200 families statewide in 2002, the last year statistics were available.

Certainly, there are compelling home-school success stories. Like Bridgette Murphy’s high-school-age daughter, Fallon, who won a national contest to be an “Arctic Ambassador” and will go to Manitoba, Canada this winter to study polar bears.

Murphy says she kind of “fell into” home-schooling when her husband went to work at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and just barely escaped with his life. The Redding mom had also lost her own mother a few months earlier, causing a move to Connecticut in the midst of all the turmoil, trauma and grief a couple of year later. “It was too late to enroll the kids in school so I figured I’d do it till Christmas and they’d be ready to go back to school. But they loved it,” says Murphy, whose two other children, both boys, have decided to return to middle and high school, respectively, this fall.

Home-schooling mom Laurie Doig of Stamford, who has home-schooled all three of her children, ages 10, 15, and 17, wouldn’t do it any other way. And Karen Fratturo of Norwalk says her son Liam was thrilled he could study Medieval times instead of Native Americans in third grade as in public school.

And the sister of the 10-year-old, a “late” bloomer, who went to college at age 11? Now in her early 20s, she’s an astrophysicist at Harvard.

But do these kids pay a price? Life, after all, is a marathon, not a sprint.

Dr. Gershaw, who writes a blog called “Dr. Dave,” sees pluses and minuses to home schooling. “Home schoolers are less likely to meet children of other cultures and ethnic backgrounds,” he says. “Home-schooled children hear only their parents’ philosophies. Gradually encountering a variety of philosophies – and people – can help a child form his own views.”

Gershaw sees another downside: a lack of participation in the greater society. “Keeping children at home may hinder their ability to get along with others in our pluralistic society. Public schooling teaches skills like self-control and accountability. Kids who go to public school are more likely to learn to respect others (even if the others are different), wait their turn and share their resources.”

“Parents whose values and beliefs clash with those of mainstream society may choose to home-school to avoid conflicts,” says Higgins in her Humboldt study. “Home-schooling allows parents to exercise a greater degree of control over their children’s exposure to popular culture and peer groups. In this way, unwanted behaviors and beliefs can be avoided.”

What one and all admit is the highlight of home schooling is that each child can get the attention he or she needs. “Kids get so beat up when they think outside the box,” says Murphy. “In school they’re often taught how to think. I have nothing but admiration for teachers. When you have 25 kids in your class, you can’t possibly know – or give – each child what he or she needs. But with home schooling, you can gear learning towards the way a child learns,” says Murphy, “because there’s only one.”

As to how home-schooled students do once they leave school, a recent study by the National Home Education Research Institute found that, among 7,000 young adults who had been home-schooled, 74 percent had attained some college credits, compared with just 46 percent of other young adults, according to Shaunti Feldhahn, a Harvard-educated mom and author who home schools her own children.

Home schooling is, of course, not for everyone. It requires great commitment and sacrifice from parents and a desire on the part of the child to really want to learn in a different environment. It also requires commitment and sacrifice from the kids. While they might be protected from the intense peer pressure public school students feel in Fairfield County, they’re also often at a loss for how to interact socially with others, experts say.

“It can be a glaring disaster if you’re limiting your kids socially, reducing their number of social connections. That’s a big downside. There’s nothing wrong with it if you’re supplementing it with outside activities,” Says Stamford child psychologist Chris Bogart, Ph.D.

What worries Huck, the college professor, most is that though home-schooled kids do have plenty of social and recreational contact with the outside world, their lives are still very much conditioned, planned and approved by their parents. “They’re controlling everything,” he says. “How can that be good?”

Lucy Frank was totally convinced that home schooling was not the way to go when she began research for her young adult novel, “The Homeschool Liberation League” (Penguin, 2009).

“I changed my feeling completely,” she says. “I’d never met such self-confident, self-motivated young women. I found enormous sincerity, such drive and passion in both the kids and the parents. The girls had such a strong sense of self, no hesitation about who they were. They didn’t end every sentence with a question in their voice.”

One girl particularly struck her. “She was able to form her own opinions, no kids around to parrot the teacher, or any pressure on her to see what others thought. She didn’t stand or fall on what others thought. She didn’t have to worry about looking ‘too’ smart.”

What was really remarkable to Frank was how “free-floating” it all was. “Parents were just taking it as it comes. So fluid. Most of these kids I spoke to tended to have been in school and decided to try home schooling. One student said real school was turning her into someone she doesn’t want to be. Home schooling was like an alternate world.”

But Frank also observed some parts of home schooling that might not be so positive. “When you’re a teenager, it’s a time to break away from your parents,” she says. “It’s your major job. It becomes more complicated when your lives are bound up so much with your parents’.”

She adds that the girls she studied had terrific social skills, “but it was harder for them in a lot of ways – they weren’t in close proximity to other girls their age so they missed the intimacy, the dailiness, the social cues, the easy back-and-forth of knowing how to ‘be’ with other kids.”

Home schooling is a complex proposition, says Milton Gaither, author of “Homeschool: An American History,” and college professor in Grantham, Pennsylvania. “It requires sacrifices and compromises and generates conflict among parents, children and extended family, even as it brings people together in a shared endeavor. It’s neither panacea nor scourge. It can be liberating, isolating, rewarding and punishing.”

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