On an early Tuesday afternoon in the middle of March, the sun burst out and burned off a cold, gray sky. Standing in the shade of a tree in Tecolote Park, I watched two dozen school-age children play various games. Some swung on swings; some ran in circles on the grass, chasing each other and laughing. In another corner of the park, a group of kids played soccer. They had set up yellow traffic cones as goals and a volunteer coach with a whistle instructed them. Other kids sat on the ground in small groups and talked.
The children were not alone. Their parents, mothers mostly, had laid out a colorful quilt of blankets on the grass. They wore straw hats and poked around in their picnic baskets for carrot sticks and sandwiches. They talked in quiet, earnest tones; every once in a while one would politely brush crumbs from her face. Sometimes one looked up and scanned the park for her boy or girl. Except for the occasional happy shriek piercing the air, tranquility reigned. Everyone was loose and cheerful.
But why, an uninformed passerby might have asked, aren’t these kids in school?
“It was a simple decision, really,” she said. “One day she came home from school with all these questions about the speed of light. She couldn’t figure it out and she wanted to talk about it, but I said, ‘No, we can’t. We have to color in all these bunnies.’ It was her homework assignment. I saw how absurd that was. So I decided to homeschool in order to let her pursue her interests.”
Today, “homeschooling,” once a dirty word among educators and responsible parents, sits on the tips of many tongues. No longer a fringe concept, homeschooling has become a profitable business and a potent catchphrase in the political wars over education. Liberals and conservatives, atheists and fundamentalists, and people from every other ideological camp — including teachers — now recognize homeschooling as a sensible — and in some cases necessary — alternative to a school system that so many of us think is broke. Locally and nationwide, more and more parents homeschool their children, whether on their own or through programs set up by school boards. Almost two million children in this country attend homeschool. By most estimates, about 5000 kids in San Diego County homeschool in one way or another. That number will surely rise in coming years.
The mainstream media’s increasing coverage of homeschooling has something to do with this surge. In its February 26 issue, People ran an article titled “The Learning Place” that claimed, “Home is where the school is.” Early this year Leslie Stahl did a 60 Minutes segment on so-called distance learning (the segment has since run a second time). She profiled the University of Phoenix, an online college that allows students to work or stay at home while they earn a degree. To keep up with these trends, and to make sure they don’t lose tuition revenue, major universities — Columbia and Harvard, for instance — are launching similar Internet-based curricula. Naturally, humanities professors who cherish their seminars and memories of the Socratic banter that taught them what they know vehemently oppose these shifts and predict the annihilation of the liberal education. We should take their warnings seriously. As reactionary and pedantic as it sounds, college must provide more than a degree. The world — yes, the world — will suffer if young adults stop attending college. We can place no value on collegiality. Nevertheless, curious 20-year-olds will find a way to learn, so long as they’re equipped with the basic critical skills that a K-through-12 education provides.
That’s why, in this age of standards and accountability, pundits worry more about homeschooling at the primary and secondary levels than at the college level. It doesn’t matter, they argue, whether homeschooled students attend college in person or remotely (via a computer terminal) if they are crossing the threshold into college education at a disadvantage. The question is, do elementary and high school classrooms impart unique, indispensable lessons that homeschooling or online programs can’t provide?
Many people doubt the inviolability of the classroom. Even William J. Bennett, the back-to-basics, ultraconservative secretary of education under President Reagan, embraces homeschooling — or a butchered version of it anyway. As recently as 1999, Bennett, in a book titled The Educated Child, took a swipe at the burgeoning online learning industry. “When you hear the next pitch about cyber-enriching your child’s education,” Bennett wrote, “keep one thing in mind: so far, there is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning.”
But last December, Bennett changed course. He announced that he was founding a for-profit school called K12 that will offer children a complete elementary and secondary education, from kindergarten through 12th grade. The curriculum will be available only online and at a cost of at least $1000 a year. If parents or students have questions or want to correspond with instructors by e-mail, they will have to pay more. The announcement of Bennett’s venture sent shock waves through the education community. Michael R. Milken, the infamous Los Angeles–based financier who pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 1990, is the primary investor in K12. After his plea, Milken concocted a new persona, becoming a high-profile philanthropist. As if Milken’s backing weren’t enough to cause a stir, Bennett recruited David H. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, as K12’s technology adviser. Gelernter is also a well-known public figure, though not by choice. You may remember that in 1993 a package mailed to Gelernter by the Unabomber blew off most of the professor’s right hand.
Bennett and Milken see homeschooling as a lucrative commodity. Parental anxiety over education knows no bounds, and the market in alternative, for-profit educational products, such as software and tutoring programs, is expected to reach $170 billion by 2005. Bennett has stated publicly that he designed K12 for homeschoolers. In two articles that appeared in the New York Times, the first published in late December and the second in late January, Jacques Steinberg examined the new school. He wrote, “Mr. Bennett hopes to enroll about 50,000” of the country’s two million homeschoolers by 2004. Bennett’s flirtation with homeschooling highlights some of its many facets.
On paper, Bennett appears directly opposed to the ideas of many of the homeschoolers I’ve met. The author of books like The Moral Compass and The Book of Virtues, Bennett exhibits a cartoonish, sanctimonious kind of conservatism. It’s not that homeschoolers aren’t virtuous — quite the opposite — but that they reject his strict prescriptions for education. Under Reagan, Bennett all but invented the absurd system of standards that currently hobbles so many schools and he opposed social-promotion programs of any kind.
Bennett told the New York Times that he was writing the standards for the K12 curriculum himself and that he would base them on those expectations contained in The Educated Child. In that book, Bennett and his coauthors, Chester E. Finn Jr. and John T.E. Cribb Jr., maintain that kindergartners should be able to identify the plants in a playground, second graders should know “that the f sound is sometimes spelled ph,” third graders should know the legend of Romulus and Remus, fourth graders should have a working knowledge of the French and Indian War, a seventh grader should know why trade winds occur, and so on. Bennett also said that K12 students will be “tested frequently online and will not be able to advance to new topics before mastering preceding lessons.” Finn has likened the tests to “a second opinion from a doctor or mechanic.” Another back-to-basics proponent, Finn admitted to Steinberg that there is a political motivation behind the tests. “It will push a school toward teaching the things we think are important,” he said. Homeschoolers recoil from such rigidity. They haven’t removed their children from a structured setting so that Mr. Bennett and his cronies can dictate their children’s education.
On the other hand, some of Bennett’s positions correspond with those of most homeschoolers. He is an outspoken proponent of school vouchers, which are one small part of the larger social movement we call choice. Like homeschoolers, Bennett has said that he favors school choice and that K12 might become a haven for children who don’t thrive in traditional schools, whether because they’re shy, worry about being exposed to drugs, or, as he told Steinberg, have “terrible acne problems.”
By playing tug of war with it, politicians have wrenched most of the meaning out of the word “choice.” On the left, it stands for a woman’s right to choose; on the right, for the freedom to send your children to whatever school you see fit. But there’s a reason Bennett has had to squirm to pitch K12: the issues surrounding education today have become so complex and twisted that standard party rhetoric buckles under their weight. When talking about education, a hippie can suddenly sound like a right-winger and a William Bennett can sound like a compassionate softy. What talking to local homeschoolers and reading the manifestos on the subject taught me is that we should drop the traditional rubrics we use to talk about it — fundamentalist and secular, for instance. Those terms, and others, compress all the reasons and ways to homeschool into tidy packages. In fact, the homeschoolers that I talked with, parents and children alike, contradicted themselves all the time. Ralph Waldo Emerson, though well educated, promoted self-learning perhaps more than anyone. “A foolish consistency,” he wrote in “Self-Reliance,” “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Nancy Wooton and I talked about Bennett’s program. We debated whether it should be called homeschooling or distance learning. We decided on the latter. K12 will let kids stay at home and will allow more parental control, but the curriculum is fixed and, according to Nancy, flexibility lies at the heart of homeschooling.
Nancy, 42, lives in the College Area and is the San Diego contact for the HomeSchool Association of California (HSC). The association, based in Atascadero, promotes and provides information about homeschooling and offers opportunities for families to get together. Nancy’s husband works in the dot-com industry, and she homeschools her two children, Laura, 13, and Alex, 11. Neither child has ever attended school.
“The HSC is one of three main homeschooling groups in the state,” Nancy told me. “It’s pretty well organized. If someone has decided to take their children out of school and wants to do some research, they can talk to me and I can help them find support groups. I also moderate an e-mail chat group and we have the park days, although both are separate from the association. We get together because our kids like to play together and we can talk. HSC is inclusive, meaning it’s not an exclusively religious group. There’s one group that is exclusive,” she said, referring to the Christian Home Educators Association.
Another local homeschooler, Lesley Payne, told me that this “big Christian group” bans many people, “including Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others who are not ‘saved.’ Some people who do meet their criteria just plain don’t like them,” she added.
“There’re people of all different faiths in HSC,” Nancy said. “I’ve known everything from Orthodox Jews to Muslims; personally, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian. But we’ve had Baha’is and pagans and all kinds of people in this group.”
Nancy confirmed that homeschooling has become more popular in recent years. “Oh yeah,” she said, “it grows by leaps and bounds. A lot of people are calling me and are looking at it, and for a lot of different reasons. Some people are fed up with the amount of homework their kids are given. They realize their kids are doing a tremendous amount of busywork and are miserable and are getting really stressed out.”
I asked Nancy why she and her husband decided to homeschool Laura and Alex. “We decided even before we had kids that we would homeschool,” she said. “It was a couple of different things. It’s been a long journey. One of them was our own experiences in school. In my case, it was pretty bad. I was a smart kid but I got crushed by about third grade. My husband was a smart kid who thought school was too easy. So I came at it as the C student and he came at it as the A student. We just decided that if there was an alternative we would do it. Then we discovered homeschooling and that was it.”
She makes it sound so simple. Naturally, it’s not an easy decision, but all local homeschoolers I talked to said that they met with no resistance from the State of California. In fact, California silently embraces homeschooling. State law neither permits nor forbids the practice, and according to the HomeSchool Association of California brochure, “This vagueness delights some homeschooling families.” The California Education Code states, “All children between the ages of 6 and 18 must attend a public full-time day school unless otherwise exempted.” Of course, parents may send their child to a private or parochial school. Those who choose to homeschool have several options. They can employ a private tutor, who must have a teacher credential; get a teacher credential; or enroll their child in an independent study program at a private school; but from what I’ve gathered, most parents in San Diego County choose one of two other options — either establishing their own private school or signing up their child in a public school’s independent study or homeschooling program.
Mt. Everest Academy in Clairemont, part of the San Diego Unified School District, enrolls homeschooled students — about 350 of them. Linda Gross, a counselor at the school, explained the program to me. “We’ve been operating for 12 years and we call it a public homestudy option,” she said. “If a family decides to homeschool, for whatever reason, their kids come to us and we guide them. We offer different options, we set the kid up with a credentialed teacher, we provide a full set of curriculum materials, and then they go home and do their work. We also offer all kinds of activities to keep the kids socialized and engaged.”
Like any public school, Mt. Everest receives funding from the state. Officials in Sacramento calculate how much money a school gets by counting the number of students sitting at its desks, Gross explained to me. “But here, they calculate our funding based on the amount of work our students hand in.” Gross admits that her job involves lots of paperwork and bureaucracy, but, she told me, “When it works, it works wonderfully. We’re in favor of options and flexibility here. Not all kids are alike; we serve kids who are outside of the box either in their brains or interests. Plus, what we can offer the parent who wants to homeschool are the free guidance, activities, and books and materials.”
The San Diego County Office of Education administers something similar through its County Home Education Program. Sally Maxwell, a teacher in the program, explained to me that the county homeschooling option is just for students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Mt. Everest Academy, meanwhile, ushers students through high school. “We say we’re a choice to what we call traditional school,” Maxwell said. “The greatest benefit, of course, is that unlike homeschooling on your own, this doesn’t cost the students anything. The state has been very supportive,” she says. The county started the program 15 years ago when it realized that so many parents wanted to homeschool. Rather than send those kids away and lose the state funding that comes with them, the county set up the homeschooling program. “Fifteen years ago it was still pretty new,” Maxwell said. “But once the districts saw that it was working and viable, they broke off and started their own homeschooling programs. So now most of the big districts within the county have their own programs; they have the number of clients to warrant the books and everything else.”
Maxwell told me that she never tries to talk a parent out of homeschooling, “but sometimes it might be that a parent is simply mad at a teacher. In a week maybe things could be worked out. Whatever reasons parents have to homeschool, you want them to be sincere, and you can tell by talking to a parent if that’s the case. Also, of course, the child has to buy into it. If you’re pulling out your seventh grader for some random reason and the child fights you, you won’t win. It won’t work.” Maxwell, who has seen its benefits up close, supports homeschooling. “The one-to-one instruction is so valuable. If you look at teachers in the classroom, they do a phenomenal job of trying to teach to all the different learning styles, but if you can zero in on your child’s style, that’s good. You can stay with something longer because they have an interest, or you know when you need to cut something short because they’re losing interest. The beauty with homeschooling is that you tailor make it to the child. If I have a child who is way above in reading levels, I would make sure that I’m challenging that child. All fourth graders are not necessarily fourth graders. This used to be scary, and today every district knows that it’s a choice that really works for some people, that works well.”
“But,” Maxwell concluded, “there are still a lot of people out there who are doing it on their own and they prefer to get their own curriculum. We’re a public school, so we use a state-approved and state-adopted curriculum.”
Gross made the same point about Mt. Everest. “We’re standards-driven because we’re public,” she said. “We’re flexible, but we’re still standards-based.”
Many homeschoolers feel that true homeschooling must be separate from the state and that standards and prescribed curricula poison the whole endeavor. Nancy told me, “Some of these programs have a stigma attached to them because the public schools use them to educate dropouts. I filed as a private school, and that’s what I recommend that other people do.” Establishing a private school in California only requires filing a yearly affidavit, called an R-4, with the state. A private school, therefore, can enroll just one student. (Some state officials have said that parents who use an affidavit to declare their home a private school have misinterpreted certain statutes and may be operating illegally. But one has to assume not. The state never enforces such a law.)
“I don’t use a curriculum at all,” Nancy said. “I’m an unschooler. I started out using a boxed curriculum and used that with my daughter through first grade. Later on, I started to get more and more relaxed. Now I’m really relaxed.”
Nancy’s school, however, reveals some contradictions. “As far as national issues go, I’m a Republican,” she said, “but I just hate what happens to education when Republicans get ahold of it. It’s just more of what doesn’t work — more money thrown away, more testing.” She added, “I consider myself a secular homeschooler, and I would say that most people who meet in Tecolote Park each week would say that they homeschool for secular, or at least not for religious, reasons. I say this even though my school has a very religious-sounding name — Saint Innocent Orthodox Christian School. Saint Innocent was an orthodox saint in Alaska, and it’s very interesting to read about what he did as far as education goes.”
Saint Innocent was born in Siberia in 1797. His name was John Popov, though he later changed his last name to Veniaminov in honor of a great Siberian bishop, Benjamin Veniaminov. At an early age, Saint Innocent demonstrated a wide range of interests, including woodworking, watchmaking, and linguistics. He moved to Alaska and traveled throughout the territory by kayak. He created written forms of the Aleut and Tlingit languages, translated the Scriptures and divine services, built churches, started schools, and composed textbooks. He also taught carpentry, blacksmithing, and masonry. According to the website of the Saint Innocent of Alaska Eastern Orthodox Mission in Charlottesville, Virginia, “He was an ardent naturalist, he studied the land, customs and traditions of the people, and peacefully presented the Gospel with love and meekness. Greatly loved, he led a multitude of souls into the Holy Church. In later years he became head of the Russian Church. He gave astounding advice to form young pastors, emphasizing farming, medicine, and secular classical literature. He entered the heavenly kingdom on March 31, 1879.”
Nancy said, “He’s an inspiration for me. Alaska was one of the first states to develop homeschooling, and so was California, because the Hollywood studios had to set up tutoring programs for child actors. In my own case, faith and religion is a part of my life, but it’s not the reason we’re homeschooling. We’re homeschooling for freedom — freedom of thought and freedom of mind. My children spend an inordinate amount of time doing whatever they want to do, and in that process they learn. They follow their interests, and sometimes those interests are nothing but Pokémon. Alex would trade the cards, and he learned a lot of math concepts doing that. But I try not to look at it that way. I don’t want to say, ‘Ah, he’s doing math when he plays Pokémon!’ He plays Pokémon because he wants to; in the process, because he needs math concepts, he learns them. It’s just like someone who wants to read something — they learn to read. That’s how we learn to walk and to talk. We want to do those things. I have great faith in a child’s ability to learn what they need to learn.”
Nancy added, “The media usually presents one kind of homeschooling. Inevitably they want the American flag in the background with the globe on the kitchen table and the whole family sitting around it. There is a need for a wider portrayal of homeschooling. The majority of homeschooling is not sitting around the table with the dusty globe. I mean, we have a globe, and we dust it off once in a while if someone wants to use it.”
I asked Nancy what she means when she uses the word “unschooling.” She answered, “It’s another euphemism for child-led learning. It is to let the interests that children have lead the way. For instance, with my son, his passion for dinosaurs basically taught him to read. He wanted to know more about dinosaurs and he had all these books about them, so when he was five years old he was reading dinosaur names. They’re very long words. But children like that; they resent the see-Spot-run kind of reading and learning. I’ve got a friend who talks about teaching children subtraction, and she says you shouldn’t start with two-digit numbers, start with six-digit numbers. It’s a huge thing, all that carrying and borrowing, and the kids get really into it.”
I’m open to these ideas and believe in the principles of homeschooling, but Nancy may have detected some skepticism in my questions. So, like a good teacher, she asked me the same question that every homeschooler I talked to asked me: “What have you been reading about this stuff?”
There’s a huge body of good literature on homeschooling, and everyone seems to have a favorite book on the subject. Nancy recommended I read anything by John Caldwell Holt, who first coined the term “unschooling” and has written dozens of books on children and learning. In How Children Learn, 1967, Holt wrote, “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”
In Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education, 1981, Holt explains, “Since they were founded, the public schools have enjoyed almost limitless public trust and confidence. People might criticize them in detail, but in principle almost everyone agreed that the public schools were a great thing. The idea of an effective government monopoly in education was accepted almost without question. Now, suddenly, more and more citizens do not believe any longer that the government should have such a monopoly, and many are beginning to ask whether the government should be in the school business at all.… What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out.”
Holt had predecessors, of course — Henry Adams, for instance, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who preferred the primitive, or childish, state to the civilized one. Were Rousseau around today, he might point out that while homeschooling and unschooling seem radical, they were very natural hundreds of years ago and continue to be in other cultures. Adams expressed doubt about traditional education in his masterful autobiography The Education of Henry Adams, which he wrote in 1905 but was not published until 1918 ( it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919). In his preface, Adams wrote, “Jean Jacques was a very great educator in the manner of the eighteenth century, and has been commonly thought to have had more influence than any other teacher of his time; but his peculiar method of improving human nature has not been universally admired. Most educators of the nineteenth century have declined to show themselves before their scholars as objects more vile or contemptible than necessary, and even the humblest teacher hides, if possible, the faults with which nature has generously embellished us all, as it did Jean Jacques, thinking, as most religious minds are apt to do, that the Eternal Father himself may not feel unmixed pleasure at our thrusting under his eyes chiefly the least agreeable details of his creation.”
Adams scoffed at what he believed to be the 19th Century’s false piety and positivism. He quoted from Rousseau’s own tortured autobiography, Confessions, 1782, in which the Enlightenment philosopher wrote bravely, “I have shown myself as I was; contemptible and vile when I was so; good, generous, sublime when I was so.” According to Adams, the arrogant American school system rejected Rousseau’s courage; it disavowed the more painful truths of human nature and in so doing injured its students. Adams wrote, “From the cradle to the grave this problem of running order through chaos, direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through multiplicity, has always been, and must always be, the task of education, as it is the moral of religion, philosophy, science, art, politics, and economy; but a boy’s will is his life, and he dies when it is broken, as the colt dies in harness, taking a new nature in becoming tame. Rarely has the boy felt kindly toward his tamers.”
In 1992, David Guterson, the author of Snow Falling on Cedars, published a book titled Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense. At the time, Guterson taught high school English and the book tries to explain why he and his pretty, wholesome wife, Robin — who, along with the author and the couple’s three blond boys, is shown on the dust jacket as the picture of rosy-cheeked, organic health — decided to homeschool the kids on Bainbridge Island in Washington. The boys — Taylor, Travis, and Henry — stayed at home through grade school and then transitioned into public schools. When the book was written, Angelica, the Gutersons’ young daughter, still studied at home.
Guterson had read Rousseau and Adams. He begins the book by describing the inevitability of school and how Americans have come to blindly accept school as necessary — as “ineluctable” as “birth, death, and taxes.” We see school, he writes, as “the foundation of our meritocracy and the prime prerequisite to a satisfying existence. School is the institution sine qua non, the elemental experience of childhood.”
He makes a good point when he demonstrates that the books kids read in school reinforce the “doctrine of school’s necessity,” which we willingly “imbibe.” “In Lord of the Flies,” he writes, “a pack of schoolboys degenerate into killers because no teachers are around.” In To Kill a Mockingbird, “Atticus insists that for all its shortcomings…Maycomb Elementary is mandatory.” Guterson adds that in The Catcher in the Rye, an English teacher, Mr. Antolini, is “Holden Caulfield’s last best hope” and that “A Separate Peace might explicitly condemn the neurotic competitiveness of school life, but its implicit message — the one that gets taught in schools anyway — is that Gene Forrester should have paid closer attention to his English teachers while they discoursed on the nature of evil.”
Guterson writes, “We live in a country where a challenge to the universal necessity of schools is considered not merely eccentric, not merely radical, but fundamentally un-American.” He goes on to challenge Thomas Jefferson’s vision of schools as “democracy’s proving ground, a place where all comers would take their best shot at the American dream.” We believe in the “school of hard knocks,” he says, “and in the notion that our finest virtues as adults are the results of school’s hardships.”
Homeschooling, Guterson concludes, can fix these mistaken impressions. “Pinned down by the forces of ideology and culture, by social consensus and our common mythologies,” he writes, “we have thus far in America been unable to treat fairly the notion that not every child need necessarily attend school, that many might indeed flourish beautifully outside of it, and that our society might actually derive significant benefits by promoting and nurturing what we have come to call homeschooling, a term that is in essence a powerful misnomer, a newspeak word for the attempt to gain an education outside of institutions.”
It’s unfair, he argues, to associate homeschoolers with either religious fanatics or the “philosophical heirs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” those who think school is “at odds with Man the Individual.” According to Guterson, thinking this way simplifies the matter and reduces the variety and diversity of homeschooling’s goals and methods to caricatures. Homeschoolers, Guterson writes, are not just “fundamentalists” or “wide-eyed granola heads, romantic libertarians, and idealistic progressives.”
Ironically, Guterson’s book probably did more harm than good for the homeschooling movement. In last year’s In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing, Thomas Mallon, the acerbic writer and critic, mocks Guterson’s precious pedantry, what he calls his “exceptional humorlessness” and “fine feelings.” About Family Matters, Mallon writes, “I have been against home schooling ever since that family-taught girl won the national spelling bee a few years back. This child who became such a point of pride to home-schooling parents couldn’t stop shouting and jumping around and crowing about her moment of onstage accomplishment. I didn’t care if she could spell ‘arrhythmia’ backwards; this unsocialized kid needed Miss Crabtree to put her in the corner.”
Mallon goes on to quote Guterson’s tribute to a student, “a brilliant watercolorist,” who received, unfairly, a C for an essay on Kipling. Mallon says the girl should “put down the paintbrush and try harder” and wonders if young people might be better off with their peers “instead of on the back porch, or snuggled away in the hollow of a cedar tree.”
The precious Guterson makes an easy target, but researchers and writers with more rightful claims to authority on the subject back his ideas about homeschooling. In Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, 1992, John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, levels harsh accusations against America’s school system. Though states, not the federal government, run schools, Gatto says that the unspoken national curriculum is one of “confusion” and “indifference”: “No large-scale reform is ever going to work to repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force open the idea of ‘school’ to include family as the main engine of education.… Experts in education have never been right; their ‘solutions’ are expensive, self-serving, and always involve further centralization. We’ve seen the results. It’s time for a return to democracy, individuality, and family.”
Gatto proposes homeschooling as a solution for some families. “The home-schooling movement has quietly grown to a size where one and a half million young people are being educated entirely by their own parents,” he writes. “The education press reported the amazing news that children schooled at home seem to be five or even ten years ahead of their formally trained peers in their ability to think. I don’t think we’ll get rid of schools any time soon, certainly not in my lifetime, but if we’re going to change what’s rapidly becoming a disaster of ignorance, we need to realize that the school institution ‘schools’ very well, though it does not ‘educate’; that’s inherent in the design of the thing. It’s not the fault of bad teachers or too little money spent. It’s just impossible for education and schooling ever to be the same thing.”
Gatto echoes Adams’s sentiments about the anachronistic nature of many of school’s fundamental principles. “Schools were designed by Horace Mann and by Sears and Harper of the University of Chicago and by Thorndyke of Columbia Teachers College and by some other men to be instruments of the scientific management of a mass population," he writes. "Schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled. To a very great extent schools succeed in doing this, but in a national order in which the only 'successful' people are independent, self-reliant, confident, and individualistic (because community life which protects the dependent and the weak is dead and only network remain), the products of schooling are, as I've said, irrelevant. Well-schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell film and razor blades, push paper and talk on telephones, or sit mindlessly before a flickering computer terminal, but as human beings they are useless. Useless to others and useless to themselves. The daily misery around us is, I think, in large measure caused by the fact that, as Paul Goodman put it thirty years ago, we force children to grow up absurd. Any reform in schooling has to deal with its absurdities.”
You won’t get a homeschooler to speak so apocalyptically about school for two reasons: first, homeschoolers, whether parents or children, look ahead and have already taken action to fix what they see as a problem. And second — need I say it? — homeschoolers don’t go to school. They don’t see what Gatto sees. If they aren’t optimistic about education and learning, they had better not be homeschooling.
Helen Stelmar, for one, did not give up. On a chilly evening in mid-March I drove out to the boulder-strewn hills of rural El Cajon to visit Helen, 46, and her husband Hal, 45. I also spoke with two of Helen’s homeschooled children, Hillary, 14, and Patrick, 11. Hal, who’s a civil engineer, was born in San Diego, and Helen, who spent four years teaching reading and math to students in places like Watts and Logan Heights, grew up in Los Angeles. They live in a nice, big, sturdy house high on a hill at the end of a cul-de-sac. I walked into a home full of kitchen warmth and kids. Though an implicit order ruled the house, the paraphernalia of childhood — cribs, toys, coloring books, sneakers — littered every room.
“It’s the hardest thing about homeschooling,” Helen admitted to me. “Hal always defers to me when it comes to homeschooling, but it’s hard for him because he comes home and the place has been a school all day. The house absorbs so much energy. Schools are made of cement; these walls are not. We always say that people are more important than things, but it’s hard to live that out,” she said with a laugh.
Helen and I sat at a table and talked. She made sure I asked precise questions, and so I got precise answers. “I found out about homeschooling when we were living briefly in New Mexico, when Christopher [their eldest child] was an infant. It intrigued me: my passion was to motivate children and to excite them about learning anyway, and I was convinced that if I did it at home that it would be the best and most intense way for my child to learn. But I didn’t start out homeschooling him because it was too scary to go against the flow. This was 17 years ago. So we moved back to California and I put him in school and he had trouble even in preschool. It had mostly to do with social skills; he wouldn’t talk to the teacher enough for her to even assess him. A series of events just kept him on the periphery socially. Then I met two women who were dying to have their children homeschooled. These were women who were older than I was, but they had younger children. Their passion was to be able to homeschool, but neither of them could afford the time. They worked. So I took the plunge and homeschooled all six kids — my two plus two of each of theirs. I went through the school district, and that year I taught fourth grade, third grade, second grade, and first grade. I went to the El Cajon school district and said I want to homeschool and they said okay. They had the materials and lesson plans in place. I was totally comfortable with the curriculum because I had teacher training. But I just about killed myself. Because it was four grade levels and six different abilities and interests. There were boys and girls, and some were brothers and sisters, and it was very complicated. Plus, I had a preschooler. Because it’s such a passion for me, I would get up early in the morning and go to bed late at night. I did very little else.
“I made the mistake of thinking of homeschooling as transplanting a classroom situation into the home, and it’s not that at all. It could be if you want it to be, but for me that’s not what it is. So that worked for a year, but I couldn’t do it again; it was too hard. So both families were very sad, but I had to say no.
“The next year, I met a lady through church who had been homeschooling her kids for three or four years, and we became friends. We moved into this neighborhood because they moved into this neighborhood, and we’ve been homeschooling together ever since.” Helen said the move was like relocating to a new district because it has better schools. She didn’t speak about it as if it were a sacrifice, just something parents do. Helen has been homeschooling long enough that she’s almost forgotten that the amount of time she gives to her children is unusual. To her, this story sounds perfectly natural, but I had to keep raising my hand to ask questions.
“Hillary is so savvy about social relationships and when she was in kindergarten I could see her getting into the pecking order right away and rising to the top,” Helen explained. “With her it was kind of the opposite of my son. I don’t mean she was ruthless, but I was worried about her sensitivity toward other children, so I felt I wanted her at home too, so that I could impart values that are consistent with my beliefs.”
Knowing the Stelmars are Catholic, I had a few questions about that.
“In the beginning,” Helen said, “I would say that religion played maybe about 30 percent of a role in my decision to homeschool. Now I would say it’s 80 percent, if not more.” Helen insists she’s not a reactionary, antischool person. “The reason is because of what I’ve seen in my children, and I’m learning right along with them. My kids understand their faith, and they understand it from more than just a head point of view. They know it’s important to us, that we want to live it. When we make moral decisions, we don’t say to them, ‘Well, okay, remember that you’re Catholic.’ We don’t do all of that. When they make their decisions, I know they know why they’re doing what they’re doing. You can use any content to teach basic skills, and I do use religion; it’s an essential part of what we do.
“You can’t have our family values, our religious values, and — there are so many things in society that are contrary to what our values are. And when children are very young they’re very susceptible, and if they went to a public school, or even a Catholic school, what we know and believe is diluted. And we don’t want that to happen. We want what we believe to be intense, so it’s not that we hate society, it’s that we love what we believe and we want them to share that with us before they reach adulthood and make their own decisions.”
Helen brushed off my carefully worded concern that she might be programming her children. She launched into an articulate discourse on theories of learning and education. Ultimately, Helen made her case for homeschooling on secular grounds. She didn’t say so, but I felt that the religious aspect of her school was a matter between her and, well, someone else.
Helen had prepared a reading list for me. Rousseau, Adams, Holt, Gatto, and Guterson were not on it. David and Micki Colfax’s Homeschooling for Excellence (1988) was on the list. It tells the popular and narcissistic story of how the Colfaxes homeschooled their four boys and sent three of them off to Harvard — on scholarship no less! “Homeschooling parents can ignore what are for the most part government directives as to what shall be taught and when,” they write. “Rather, parents and children can work together to develop courses of study that address long-term needs, interests, and capabilities in the context of what they, and not a bureaucracy of somewhat dubious credibility, deem important and necessary.”
At the top of Helen’s list, penciled in neat script, was “Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind (multiple intelligence theory).” Later, I looked into Gardner, who is far more provocative than the Colfaxes. He owns the distinguished title of the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has also written close to 20 books and several hundred articles. Gardner earned respect in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that there exists a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standard “psychometric instruments.” He published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983. The book sums up his theory of what he calls “the existence of several relatively autonomous human intellectual competencies.” He writes, “An intelligence is the ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings — a definition that says nothing about either the sources of these abilities or the proper means of ‘testing’ them.”
But I’ll defer to Helen’s presentation on Gardner’s theories for the simple reason that she’s the one who puts them to use. “He discovered that there are many intelligences in the brain,” she said, “and that we are born with strengths in certain ones, and you can teach to all of them, but certain ones might be more practical. In schools, they basically teach to the logical/mathematical and the linguistic intelligences. So kids who are naturally strong in those areas will do well. For them it’s easy, they understand it, they move on, and they feel successful and good about themselves. And success of course breeds desire. But there are other intelligences: musical, kinesthetic, visual/spatial, and interpersonal and intrapersonal. You know, the social and the introspective. It’s unbelievable what he has found. You also have to think about how information is transmitted to children — there are visual, auditory, tactile, and other ways that interplay with these intelligences.
“I asked Christopher once how he reads. I asked if he heard it, or something else. ‘What happens?’ I asked. And he said, ‘Oh, I hear it.’ Sometimes I tell him, ‘Look at the coach when you’re talking to him,’ and he says, ‘Oh no, Mom, I need to turn my ears so I can hear him.’ Turns out this kid is so totally auditory that he cannot have any music playing when he’s doing something else, because once the music enters his hearing, it cancels out everything else in his mind. That was totally foreign to me. I’m a product of teacher training. I was convinced that everyone was a visual learner like me and that all they had to do was see the pictures and the diagrams and that they would get it. Homeschooling is such a perfect venue for this stuff if you know what to look for.
“I really believe that every child is an individual and that you have to look at each child, which is one of the great things about homeschooling,” she said. “If you are aware, you can observe and experience with your child to the point that you can really understand where they are as a learner and as a person. So with my older two children, before we sent them to school, we prayed and prayed and thought about it very deeply, and when we came to our decision, I knew it was the right one. Hillary was ready to go.” She went back to school in the eighth grade.
“Her learning style matches with how schools teach, with the tests and all that. She learns what she needs to learn; she remembers it and then spits it out and gets great grades. She was ready academically and emotionally. I knew that if I kept her here anymore, she would react and that would override anything she was able to do here. So I knew she needed to go to school. And Christopher needed to go because he wanted to play football and because he needed to be accountable to another adult.” Christopher went back to school in the ninth grade.
“He was no longer willing to be accountable to his mother. That part of the relationship is gone. Not because something has disappeared, but because he has matured and he can’t connect with me as an authority figure anymore. I believe for our family that it was better that they went when they went. I would rather see them encounter values counter to ours now, so that when they’re home, we can talk about it and go through it. Christopher really had to work through some issues when he went back, and he has. He’s turning into a man. But I am convinced that if it wasn’t for homeschooling that he would have been so downtrodden by the junk that kids do to each other that he wouldn’t have been able to reach this point.”
Helen has homeschooled Patrick from the beginning and wants to keep it that way. “Some people say, ‘I’m doing this forever,’ and it’s a way of life for them, but I just think it’s a year-by-year decision, and child by child,” she said. “But from what I can see right now, I would like to homeschool Patrick all the way through high school. But we’ll see; it depends. You see, he’s a different kind of kid. The way he learns doesn’t correspond to the way schools are set up.”
Helen explained some of her teaching strategies to me. “It’s always a struggle to balance the day-to-day stuff of life with getting them to do their work,” she said. “One of the downsides of homeschooling is that there really aren’t any consequences. I’m not going to humiliate my son in front of his peers, as they do at school. And he’s not going to get bad grades. Even if he had bad grades, I wouldn’t show them to him because I don’t believe that that’s going to help in the long run. We do have a schedule. Every year it’s different. This year, he’s out of the house for about half of the week, doing other things with other homeschooled kids. For example, on Wednesdays, a bunch of Catholic families get together and the whole purpose is to get them together to learn religious principles and apply them and to have fellowships together and for the moms to have input with each other. We pray together and then break off and do stuff. We also have park days where we all meet. And then the dads meet sometimes.
“Hillary and Chris have said that when they were at home, homeschooling was harder. You hold up higher standards for your kids because they’re your kids!”
She may sound invincible, but Helen admitted to some hardships. “From the kids’ point of view, I would say that the only drawback is when they’re getting to puberty and they want to be around friends. If you don’t provide that, then it’s a real struggle. You also have to wear so many hats and can never go home from it. A teacher can give an F, but I can’t do that. How could I?”
Both Patrick and Hillary speak fondly about homeschooling. They are bright, cheerful, and polite kids — healthier in body and mind than I was at their age. I asked Patrick how he liked homeschool. “It’s okay,” he said. “I like not having too much homework, because I just do it during the day. I don’t like math; I kind of like reading, if it’s a book I like. Fantasy books.” On the average day, he said, “I eat breakfast, then I do things like math, English, religion, and some other things. Sometimes I wish I could be in school. I hope I get to go to high school. But if I stay in homeschool all the way through, my mom said she would take me to places in Europe. I would basically get the same things I get here except more homework at school, but I might have more friends there.” Patrick said his main interest right now is drama. He’s been in four plays in youth theater. He added a final thought: “It’s nice that my mom focuses so much on what I do. I like that.”
Hillary started by saying, “When I did homeschool, I hated it. The first year I loved it, but then when my friend went off to normal school, I got sick of it and hated it ever since. There was nobody to see. It finally got boring just being with my brothers. Then my mom finally let me go in eighth grade. It’s really cool; I love school and seeing my friends and stuff.”
But she slowly came around. “Sometimes I want to come back. I could sleep in, and also I think the education is better at home. I think that it’s like the teachers are so involved in giving work so that we get smarter, but at homeschool you don’t do so much book work; you actually have to think. We do a lot of busywork in school. When I was doing homeschooling, I didn’t enjoy it. But looking back, there were good things. You learn more; you get to stay in your pajamas all day; and you get more free time. It’s weird, at homeschool I felt like I had more time but that I learned more. At school, you have to budget your time so much.
“Also, homeschooling turned me into a better person. At school, there’s so much cussing and drugs around. You don’t have all that stuff around at home. My parents taught me morals early on, and now that I’m in high school, I’m pretty much shaped.”
Whether or not you support homeschooling, whether or not you think that religion should play any role in education, and whether or not you believe that Helen has been heavy-handed with her children does not change the fact that her kids are squared away. And Helen knows this.
“I think homeschooling can be learned,” Helen told me as I walked toward the door with my bibliography in hand. “Most of the parents that I know are hungry to learn, but what I’ve seen over and over is that once a mother — because it’s usually the mother — gets involved in this, they realize what they can do with their children and they get involved in learning about learning.”
Lesley Payne, 36, recently sent me an e-mail to let me know she had been accepted to the Teacher Education Program at UCSD. She was excited and proud; in part, I suspect, because the acceptance vindicates her educational philosophy. She homeschooled her daughter Jennifer, 18, and still homeschools her son, Chris, 13. “In the teacher education classes I’m taking,” she said, “they are stressing two big things: letting the kids learn inductively, figuring things out for themselves rather than being talked at, and making learning child-centered. If they really believe this, then it makes sense that they are open to homeschooling, as homeschooling fits these perfectly.” She has managed to homeschool despite being a single parent (“two different fathers” whom “the kids don’t know a thing about” and “pretty much never ask”), working as a medical transcriptionist, and finishing her BS in biology at UCSD. And she homeschools despite the vigorous protests of her mother, Linda, who has always thought both children should attend normal school.
Lesley homeschools well, with the same care and aptitude as Nancy and Helen, but because she’s a working, single parent, the road has not always been smooth for her or her children. She knows as much about learning and homeschooling as anyone I spoke with; she quotes freely from the literature and serves as an editor of the Catholic Home Educator, a quarterly published by the National Association of Catholic Home Educators, based in Montrose, Alabama.
In February, I drove to Linda Payne’s house in Tierrasanta in the middle of a violent hailstorm to meet the whole family. Lesley had warned me that her mother might try to interfere, but she didn’t. Linda greeted me politely and then disappeared into her office. She interrupted just once, to say, “Remember, God is listening.”
Lesley, Jennifer, Chris, and I sat in the comfortable living room and talked. At the time, something struck me about the way the Paynes communicated with each other, besides that they constantly interrupted and corrected each other (though in a loving, lighthearted way). I didn’t figure out what it was until later.
“I moved to San Diego from Maryland when I was 16,” Lesley told me. “I found it terrible here. I didn’t really keep my grades up and I found it hard to motivate. I didn’t even go to my graduation. There was nothing to do. I was in a calculus class but there was no real teaching; it was just drilling for the AP exam.” But Jennifer’s experience in school, not her own, led to Lesley’s decision to homeschool.
Jennifer went to a local Catholic school, St. Therese Academy in Del Cerro, for kindergarten and first grade. “It was the greatest little school,” Jennifer recalled.
Lesley said, “She didn’t like her first-grade experience; the teacher was not nice.”
“The teacher didn’t like me; she just didn’t like me,” Jennifer agreed. “I don’t know if she liked kids at all.”
“Some of her discipline methods were very questionable,” Lesley explained. “She was an older laywoman — she wasn’t a nun — and it was the typical stuff. She would shame Jennifer and make her sit in the corner.”
“She made me face the corner,” Jennifer said, “and told the rest of the class that I was a ghost and did not exist for that period.”
“This was because she was talking to her friends,” Lesley explained.
It was then, Lesley said, that she began considering homeschooling, though she worried that she wouldn’t be able to do it as a single parent. Lesley thought things would get better for Jennifer. “There was this sweet nun teaching second grade,” she said, “and I hoped that maybe Jennifer’s bad year was just a bump in the road.
“But I met some homeschoolers toward the end of her first-grade year, and I began thinking that I could do it. I began to think that maybe some of the problems with Jenny’s first-grade year had to do with her, that maybe it was because I had worked when she was younger. I thought that maybe I should make up for lost time by keeping her at home for a few years to give her some nurturing that she had missed out on. And I thought it would be easy to teach second and third grade.”
Lesley sent away for materials from a Catholic program called Our Lady of the Rosary Curriculum. They mailed her all the materials she needed for about $400 a year. “We would send them stuff every month and they graded it,” Lesley remembered, “so I didn’t really have to do much.” Lesley said that religion didn’t play a big role in her decision to homeschool at this point. “I wasn’t a very critical-thinking Catholic; I just figured priests and nuns know everything, so I wasn’t going to criticize that.
“Religion was part of the curriculum, and I saw that as an added bonus, but if there had been no religious curriculum, I would have gone with it. I was actually kind of a new Catholic at that point. I had converted in high school, but then I had fallen away, so when this was going on I had recently rediscovered Catholicism. I was really gung-ho about it when I first started homeschooling.” Lesley paused to think about this, then concluded, “Deciding to homeschool, it was an emotional thing really. Homeschooling was always more of a family thing for me than a Catholic thing. Jennifer was unhappy in school, and I wanted to have her home.”
Just when Lesley decided to start homeschooling, in 1990, she moved Chris, then two, and Jennifer with her to Maryland. “For a year,” Lesley said, “we lived in my father’s house, which he couldn’t sell.”
Looking off into the distance, Chris reminisced, “I had a perfect view of the harbor, and every once in a while I walked to my grandfather’s house.”
“Well, he sold the house,” Lesley said. “The next year we found a place nearby.”
The Paynes returned to San Diego in 1992 and moved in with Linda. Over the next several years, things got complicated and the kids were in and out of school. Linda and Lesley battled at home and in court over Jennifer. Linda even fought to legally emancipate Jennifer from Lesley’s custody. Lesley clarified some things for me in an e-mail a couple of days after we talked:
“By 1995, my mother was fed up with the homeschooling and said I had to put the kids in school or move out, which I did. In 1997, my mother convinced Jennifer to try to get emancipated (she was 14) so she could go to Serra High School. My mother had been working on Jennifer for a while, with bribes and promises that, at Serra, Jenny would be a cheerleader and homecoming queen. When the emancipation case hit, I moved to Monterey (where I had some friends with an apartment to rent) to protect Christopher. After a few months, my mother tired of Jennifer and sent her back to me. We lived in Monterey, then nearby in Salinas, until November of 1998. My mother and I worked out a truce and I moved back to San Diego.”
Linda continually pressed Lesley to send her kids to school. “My mother promised Jennifer a car if she would go to Serra for 11th grade,” Lesley said, “so Jennifer stayed at my mother’s house and Christopher and I moved into a condo. Jennifer moved back in with me in May of 2000. She was unhappy with the car my mother got her. Part of the problem is my mother’s constant undermining of my homeschooling attempts with Jennifer, and part of it is the fact that Jennifer has long considered herself to be an adult, with nobody having the right to boss her around, not even me. This is probably related to homeschooling, although not having a father is probably part of it too.”
I asked Jennifer what she thought about homeschooling versus public school. “School was okay and all, but it wasn’t great. I did much better learning on my own, sitting and reading on my porch than in a classroom. Classrooms are the tiniest things, and you just get a little lunch break and a few minutes between classes. I liked learning outside. It was open and free.”
Lesley, who does some student teaching in the classroom, said that the same is true for teachers. “It’s hard to get used to having to teach in 55 minutes. I just want to sit down with the kids and work with them, and put things in context. The classroom is so restrictive.”
Getting back to her point, Jennifer laughed and said, “We’re into unschooling.”
“We’re not really,” Lesley corrected. “Look, I beat my head against the wall trying to get her to do stuff. Sometimes I thought of creative ways, like field trips and projects; and sometimes I would just give up and think it was ridiculous. For the first two years I used a full-service curriculum and I did problems on the blackboard and I followed the teacher’s manual. But I quickly saw that the science books, especially, were useless. She learned a lot more science just by watching shows on pbs. I figured that by our third year, I would just pick and choose — that I would buy an English program here and use library books for science. It would be what homeschoolers call an ‘eclectic’ curriculum.”
I asked Lesley how she tested whether Jennifer was learning. “You can tell,” she answered. “She was above her grade level in both reading and math, so I wasn’t worried about her. I was thinking that she was just a natural learner and that I had to somehow keep her interested. We did use some books and manuals to help though. The curriculum was loose and it got looser as we went on.”
Jennifer added a thought about her year in Monterey. “I found a really good independent study program there through the local department of education, and I whizzed through tenth grade in four months,” she said. “I got straight A’s. My grandmother even has my transcript of that year.”
“Jenny didn’t go through me,” Lesley explained. “She performed to please this lady who came once a week and who she liked. The only reason she was willing even to do this is because it was the only way for her to get her driver’s education certificate and her license.”
“As far as having friends goes, that was never an issue,” Jennifer told me. “I like having a small circle of very, very close friends. Plus, I do very well on my own. I would rather be with one person all day than with 20 classmates around me all day driving me up the wall. Plus, I did Girl Scouts.”
Up to this point, Chris had said very little, but I could see that he was paying attention and waiting for a moment to speak. He said, “You know, Jen, that you have a better chance to get into college if you have Boy Scout or Girl Scout badges.” Jen rolled her eyes and sighed.
Jen also figure skated when she was younger, until she was 12. “But I quit for the dumbest reason,” she explained. “I got jealous of her,” she said, pointing at her mother. “I realize now that I probably should have stuck it out.”
I looked at Lesley for an explanation. “I started landing my axels,” she said.
“I couldn’t believe she was landing her axels,” Jennifer said. “It made me mad, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. But I made friends at the rink and I spent a good deal of time there. I always had friends. I read a lot and I did a lot of puzzles. My favorite subject is English. I actually would love to major in English someday. I also love world history and American history.”
Jennifer doesn’t have a high school diploma. “I took the high school proficiency test and I missed by 11 points,” she said.
“Yeah, she’s going to do it again,” Lesley explained. “She would have passed that test, but she put on her teenage face and refused to study for the math section, which she didn’t do very well on.” Lesley added, “She used to write just for fun. She would sit down and write small plays and novels.”
“And if I didn’t like it I would start over,” Jennifer said.
Chris added, “And she used to write lyrics; she would listen to a song and write down the lyrics.”
Several months ago Jennifer got engaged. (She and her fiancé, Jacob, plan to homeschool their children.) I asked her if she intended to get her diploma and go to college. “At this point,” she said, “I decided that I’m going to get married, start a family, and settle down. I do want to go to college, and since we live in Santa Cruz, we have so many options. From what I’ve learned, it’s a disaster to go to college before you’re ready.”
Lesley started to homeschool Chris when he was two. “By the time he was school-age,” she said, “we were thoroughly engaged in the homeschooling lifestyle. He would hang out with homeschoolers, and all our friends and support groups were homeschoolers.”
Chris is smart, kind, precocious, and very thorough and specific. “I did go to school for the last bit of fourth grade and I loved it,” he said. “My teacher was really fun. There was one time when he made us write down the instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; he pretended he didn’t know how. So, like, 30 kids started writing, ‘Spread the peanut butter on the bread.’ Anyway, then I did one trimester of fifth grade and hated it. I don’t know if it was me or my teacher. My mom says my teacher was a nice lady, but she was the devil. She hated me; she made me face the corner. She actually made me turn my desk around every ten minutes.”
“She was strict,” Lesley added. “She was trying to prepare the kids for middle school, where they were going to sink or swim. Also, he didn’t understand the codes of school, like don’t play with anyone who’s younger than you are. So he would go out on the playground and play with kids from our neighborhood who were in first and second grade.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know that code?” Chris asked defensively.
“No,” Lesley said, “you did the right thing. You were nice to those kids.”
“The code of school is not always right,” Chris added.
Chris, who is in seventh grade now, never returned to school. “The great thing about it,” he said, “is when all those kids are waking up to their alarms at six in the morning, I can stay in bed and still do all my work and not be late.” Chris described his average day. “It would be something like this: wake up, lay around in bed. I usually don’t eat breakfast — just lunch and dinner and a snack in between. I work out of a math book doing algebra. I go to some of my mom’s physics classes at ucsd, and I understand a lot — sometimes more than she does.”
“Well,” Lesley explained, “we go over problems in the book together.” Chris is interested in solving problems, Lesley told me. “At the rock-climbing gym at ucsd, he tries to figure out how all the pulleys work, how they bear weight and things like that.”
“Yeah,” Jennifer added, “he’s really smart.”
“Regarding history,” Chris said, “I usually get that from the History Channel.”
“He will sit and watch the History Channel all day,” Jennifer said.
“Can I describe Chris’s day?” Lesley chimed in. “Lately, he’s been coming over here,” meaning to Linda’s house. “They’re remodeling and the workers let him help. And also he built a shed out back.” Later, Chris led me around to the back of his grandmother’s house to show off his shed. It’s sturdy and a respectable piece of craftsmanship, made of two-by-fours and particleboard.
“Yeah, I’m pleased with it,” Chris said.
“The television has become a real problem for Chris,” Lesley had said earlier. “We didn’t always own one and now it’s a problem for him. On the other hand, he does watch a great deal of the History Channel and the Learning Channel. I’ll be talking to him and he’ll say something out of the blue. Like, the Iwo Jima statue. He knows which divisions were involved in raising the flag. He loves that kind of stuff.”
“Yeah,” Chris agreed. “Animal Planet’s cool too. I’ve learned some interesting facts about animals.”
“Nowadays he’s over here all the time,” Lesley said. “When he comes home, I make him do some textbook work. Every night we always read. We just read Narnia and 1984.”
“Big Brother’s watching,” Chris said.
“But Chris’s frustration is that he can’t read at that level,” Lesley said. “My mother blames it on the whole homeschooling thing. But I’m not really sure yet. I did take him to an optometrist, and they said he has a real condition, more with writing than with reading.”
“I can look at a word and know what it is,” Chris explained. “I can look at really difficult words and know what they are. I just can’t spell them.”
Lesley said, “My mother’s main point is that if he really does have a condition, they would have identified it if he had gone to school and would have given him therapy. Well, maybe, maybe not.”
I asked Chris if he missed school. “Well, sometimes I feel like I don’t have many friends,” he said.
“One thing about Christopher,” Lesley said, “is that he fits in everywhere. Whoever he talks to he makes friends with — the lady next door, the workmen, the mailman.”
“Yeah, I liked the mailman in Monterey,” Chris said. “We would exchange birthday presents and Christmas presents.”
Chris told me that he likes being independent. “I’m not a team guy,” he said. “I have no clue what I’ll be, but I’ll go to college. I could be a TV repairman or an astronaut. I could be a basketball player. Or I could be an engineer. I’m good at Legos; it takes me only ten minutes to construct a massive Lego structure.”
Seeing how excited Chris gets when he talks about learning, I asked Lesley if she ever thinks about sending him back to school. “He wouldn’t be prepared for things like essay writing,” she said. “If we were to send him into ninth grade, for example, I think that would be really traumatizing for him, and I don’t want to squelch his love of knowledge.”
Clearly Lesley’s approach to homeschooling deviates from Helen’s style. Though she thinks a great deal about Chris and how he learns, she lets him determine his course of study, and in many ways Chris, though the youngest, acts like the family patriarch. He corrected Jennifer and Lesley many times while we spoke, and he also extinguished any hot moments before they turned into fights. Chris learns, but by his rules. “My children,” Lesley said, “have always thought that they were adults. And they are. I mean, Jennifer has gone to Japan by herself to learn Japanese. They’re both like little adults, but they don’t understand limitations. They don’t see why I should be able to tell them to stop watching TV and do algebra. That’s challenging. But then when they go to school it’s no better. So is it better to let them stay at home and let them learn the hard way that if they don’t do their algebra that they won’t go to college, or is it better to send them to school where they’ll sit in a principal’s office?”
In some ways, Chris contradicts everything people say about homeschooling. Socially, he’s way ahead of most kids his age; he talks deliberately and listens intently to adult conversations. But, as Lesley herself admitted, he’s slightly behind academically. Is one trait more valuable than the other?
After we met, Lesley sent me another e-mail, clarifying her thoughts about Chris’s future. “I’m torn about what to do about Chris,” she wrote. “I want him to go to some kind of high school to prepare him for college (in terms of discipline, test-taking, time management, etc.). However, I am worried about putting him in school. He’s learning a lot more out of school at this point, although he needs to do more to be prepared for high school and college. John Taylor Gatto would be very happy with my son’s way of learning from the real world — helping the contractors who are renovating my mother’s new house, watching the History Channel for fun, volunteering at a pet hospital, etc. However, at this point, he’s not well-prepared to go to college, and that worries me. I will be taking him to High Tech to talk to someone about what he would need to do to get in there. If it gets his interest, maybe he’ll get motivated and take charge of his educational plan.”
As I drove home from meeting the Paynes, my head was spinning. They disagreed on so many points, and I never pinned down Lesley’s homeschooling philosophy, yet I figured out what had impressed me about how they talk to each other. Lesley, Jennifer, and Chris treat each other as equals. Despite all the hardships they have faced as a homeschooling family with little income, they interact without the barriers of traditional hierarchies. They have achieved an unusual level of harmony when it comes to learning and education. Lesley’s life might have been easier had she sent her kids to school. She would study and work confident that her children were learning. Instead, she dove deep into their heads, far deeper than the average parent ever goes. That might have ended in disaster. But it didn’t. Today, Chris and Lesley educate each other.
When I got home, I found a note from Linda Payne in the pocket of my raincoat. It read, “If you want a real perspective on homeschool from a concerned parent, call me.” I did.
“I won’t say anything to you,” she promised, “that I haven’t said to Lesley monthly, weekly, daily. It’s hard to talk about this without it being a family drama. I have an attitude about homeschooling in general, and then I have an attitude about Lesley’s implementation of homeschooling, and that’s what makes it an emotional issue for us. I think that anyone who undertakes homeschooling has to have an extremely dedicated outlook on life, to be able to set it up and carry through with it day after day after day. It’s very challenging. It’s so easy to be put off by a phone call, a better offer, or to say, ‘Let’s go shopping.’ So that’s part of it. In addition to that, they have to be absolutely certain that they can provide at least as good an education as the public school system can provide. Then there’s the socialization aspect. You have to make a commitment to make sure that your children interact with other children, either through sports or scouts. There’s so much more than saying, ‘I’ll homeschool my children.’
“That brings us to Lesley. Those children have not gotten an education and never will. She is an unschooler, which means you throw some books around and hope your kids pick them up and read them — whatever interests your kids is the path they will follow.
“She continued with it because I opposed it. That’s a big part of it. Lesley is still a teenage girl who has never passed the rebellious age of getting even with her mother. And then Lesley became involved with people writing articles about homeschooling and became quite an important aficionado in the whole arena. Now she could never put her kids in school because she would lose face.”
Linda also worries that Jennifer decided too quickly to get married. “Some of the other things one learns in school besides academics are self-discipline; you learn all those things you need in life. I worry about them making big life decisions.”
I told Linda my impressions of the kids, that I thought they were bright, cheerful, and interesting and they knew things other kids wouldn’t learn until much later. “We spend time together as a family,” she said, “and this comes up every time. Chris plays us; he agrees with whoever’s talking at the time. But he’s a very mature boy, as you know. He’s very diplomatic, a kind of peacemaker between his mother and sister. He’s handling it pretty well. He’s at that age when you tell a kid he doesn’t have to go to school and he says, ‘Oh, cool.’ But I try to drag him away to educational things. We’re building that shed together, he and I, things like that. At least that keeps him away from the television.”
But Linda knows that her protests won’t change anything. “Oh, they’re great kids,” she concludes, “and they’ll be okay.”
In one of her e-mails Lesley told me, “I didn’t hear whether my mother wanted you to call her, but I would caution you about checking on anything she says. She has a reality problem especially where homeschooling is concerned. You heard what my kids had to say and how they said it. They’re both already better educated and better able to function in the world than most high school or even college graduates. Homeschooling has given them a sense of having control over their own lives, rather than being cogs in an educational or industrial machine. That’s 90 percent success right there.”