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My home-school days

Stefan Merrill Block, the author of "The Story of Forgetting," was home schooled in Plano, Texas.

When I tell people that I was home schooled, I frequently encounter an amalgam of awe, pity and curiosity. I can see the false images materializing behind their eyes -- a childhood spent idling in front of the TV in my pajamas, or spent subject to the fanciful whims of a flighty New Age mom, or spent imprisoned by my parents’ ignorance and severity.

These myths have alternately amused and annoyed me, but now it seems they threaten the very survival of home schooling in California. After all, only misperceptions like these could fully explain the recent absurd ruling of the state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal: California will henceforth uphold and enforce a long-ignored law that requires all children to be instructed by state-certified teachers. After statewide outrage, the court agreed to rehear the case; oral arguments will be in June.

If left to stand, this ruling would render home schooling illegal as it is practiced by the families of an estimated 166,000 children in the state. And it could set a precedent for how other states will treat home schooling, a movement that has expanded with such astonishing speed since it took hold in the 1980s -- more than 1 million students strong and growing -- that it might be fair to call it a revolution.

Home schooling’s successes remain obscured by suspicions, so it is worth repeating the argument that many, many home schoolers have made before me and that I have had to make too many times to count: The common myths about home schooling don’t stand up to empirical scrutiny.

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To the belief that home schoolers miss out on core knowledge or skills: Statistical inquiry repeatedly reveals that home schoolers are working above their expected grade level. A 1998 analysis of more than 20,000 home schoolers’ scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency found that they generally ranked 15 to 30 percentile points higher than the median. Critics will say that these results are skewed because not all home schoolers are required to take such tests, but surveys of college-entrance exams, such as the ACT and the SAT, also show home schoolers get above-average scores.

To the concern that home schoolers won’t be prepared for college: By sampling several undergraduate student populations, the Wall Street Journal in 2000 found that former home schoolers achieve normal to above-average GPAs.

To the fear that home schoolers don’t learn to socialize: A 2003 study by the National Home Education Research Institute suggests that former home schoolers are happier and more engaged in their communities than are their traditionally educated peers.

The lingering myths about home schooling, I believe, largely grow from two realities. The first is the fact that many parents home school for religious reasons; a 2003 survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that more than 70% of parents cite it as one of their motivations. (The other top reasons cited were the environment at schools and dissatisfaction with the academics.) Fears of home schoolers indoctrinating their children, however, seem to me overblown and hypocritical. I grew up in the Bible Belt, where I saw that indoctrination persists regardless of curriculum; a child of fundamentalist parents probably won’t reconfigure his view of the cosmos on the day that his science class teaches him that we all come from slime.

Further, if home schooling’s critics are so concerned about indoctrination, then why aren’t they also worried about denying an alternative to the state’s absolute control of children’s education?

The second cause of concern is more legitimate: the rare horror story of abused and malnourished children locked away from peers and adults under the false premise of home schooling. Home schooling, of course, can go wrong, and I believe states have a responsibility to send inspectors to check up on kids’ physical, psychological and intellectual well-being. Mostly, the statistics assure us, the state will be delighted with what it finds.

The shadowy home-school myths draw their power from a lack of visibility and dialogue. And so, though I can speak only to my singular experience, I feel an irrepressible impulse to attest to what I would have lost had California’s dreadful home-schooling laws applied in Texas when I was a kid.

I could rhapsodize about the many benefits of my own home-schooling experience, but they are all based upon a single, simple, revolutionary idea, an idea that other forms of education explore but only home schooling can fully express: that students’ individual needs and interests should determine their educations. My parents understood that curiosity is the sacred heart of learning, and they gave me the time and space to put my hand on it and learn its rhythms. Each school day began whenever we woke and ended whenever we went to sleep, with the hours in between generally filled only with what interested us.

For two years, medieval European history fascinated me, and I studied it meticulously. It’s true that during this period I wasn’t exposed to every state-approved fact and concept chosen for my traditionally educated peers, just as it’s true that I was not forced to navigate the complex, often traumatizing society of a middle school. But I do not believe there is anything natural or inherently essential about the facts and the social milieu forced on schoolchildren. It baffles me that a culture that must medicate a huge number of its kids into sitting still in order to learn is not more open to alternatives.

Most adults, flipping through an eighth-grader’s textbooks, will have a disquieting realization of the vast knowledge they have forgotten. We often forget what we learn, but we remember what that learning felt like, creating early associations that set patterns for how we will relate to knowledge and to work as adults. Now 26, I can no longer offer a decent guided tour of a 13th century fortress, but I can tell you what holding those books about fortresses felt like: vertiginously giddy with imagination.

My parents, in home schooling me, showed me to my own freedom. Thankfully, unlike the parents of 166,000 children in California, they didn’t have to fear being prosecuted for it.


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