Hooky by the Book

Natalie Rieland
January 01, 1999

Ann and Ted's kids can get up for school whenever they want to. So can Kim and Mark's, and Sue and Sam's. The children's teachers let them sleep in a half hour if they want to. Sometimes, they even let them wear their pajamas to class. These kids are home schooled by their parents.

Up until 1988, home schooling was illegal: Truant officers legally could arrest the parents and place the children in foster care. Some teachers' organizations still oppose the practice, though it's now legal through the 12th grade, with some 1.5 million homeschooled children in the nation.

"According to the national averages of standardized tests, kids who home school do as well as—if not better than—kids who attend public schools," says Eve Shellenberger, a graduate student in the College of Education. "Professional educators are scared. It makes them nervous that parents who aren't certified teachers can do just as good a job as those who are." Shellenberger herself is a certified teacher. She taught for 14 years in public schools before enrolling at Penn State. But after completing an ethnographic study of homeschooling, she has become a supporter of alternative education.

With Madhu Prakash, Penn State professor of education, Shellenberger was able to study the schools of the Amish of Central Pennsylvania. Shellenberger found that Amish women with no more than eight years of school were educating their children—and that the children scored very well on standardized tests. When Shellenberger looked at home schooling outside of the Amish community, she found the same phenomenon. Some parent-teachers had high-school diplomas; none had a college degree in education. Yet, on the average, their pupils scored as well as (and sometimes better than) children who attended public schools.

During the 1995-96 academic year, Shellenberger chose three families (the couples mentioned above) to focus on for her ethnographic case study. She attended their classes, participated in their extracurricular activities, and conducted hundreds of hours of informal audio-taped interviews. She found that the families organized numerous events in order to create a social community for their children. The families came together as a group for athletics and band practice. They organized swimming trips and put on plays. Their children participated in a science fair that was displayed in the rotunda of the Capital Building in Harrisburg, and they spoke to legislators about the benefits of home schooling. "The homeschool parents met weekly to discuss the curriculum and social activities, and they were very involved with one another," she says.

How did these parents teach their children physics and calculus or Spanish and Latin? Where was the computer expert? "They hired someone qualified to teach upper-level courses if need be. Some families hosted exchange students for short periods of time so they could teach their children about different cultures."

One problem the home schoolers seemed to share was that "they were still constrained by the idea of what school should be like," Shellenberger says. "Ann used to play school. She took a room in the house and turned it into a school room. She'd wear different hats to represent different teachers for different classes."

Shellenberger believes the teachers' organizations that oppose home schooling have "an unrealistic fear that everyone will pull their kids out of school." As Shellenberger's study shows, they can probably quit worrying: Most parents simply don't have enough hats.

Eve Shellenberger is a graduate student in curriculum and instruction in the College of Education, 107 Chambers Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1458; esc110@psu.edu. Her adviser is James F. Nolan, Ph.D., associate professor of education, 148 Chambers Bldg.; 865-2243; n78@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 01, 1999