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Homeschooling & Unschooling: What Does It Mean For Your Child?

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by Mary Jessica Hammes
May 03, 2009

It didn’t occur to me that my son would eventually go to school until around six months ago.

“B-A-K-E-R-Y,” Tommy announced one night at dinner in a restaurant, looking at the antique-looking sign on the wall. “What’s that spell?”

My husband and I looked at each other, our eyebrows somewhere near our hairlines. At the time, he had just turned 2.

Soon after, he was able to spontaneously identify sounds with letters, unprompted. “Door,” he’d say thoughtfully. “Door starts with ‘D.’ So does Dada and dog!” And so on.

Tommy’s a bright enough kid, and because my nerd genes are anything but dormant, I’ve had a lot of fun watching him learn every day with the intense curiosity that all children have. At a certain point, I realized that he might be getting just a bit bored with me, so I looked into local preschools—and quickly found that all of the ones I liked the most were way out of our price range.

I don’t live in an area where getting into the right preschool is this pressure-filled, stressful notion like I know it is in some major cities. (Check out the 2008 documentary Nursery University if you want to see the connection some people make between top-notch preschools and the Ivy League.) Honestly, I had never even wondered where or even when my child would go to school; I didn’t even know what school district we lived in. My brain works in interesting ways: I was all about fun meal preparation, growing vegetables in our yard and teaching Tommy to sew. But apparently I never once thought about his formal education.

I asked my mom-friends if most preschools were this expensive. It turned out that the answer was yes, and that several of us were in the same financial boat. Some e-mails flurried back and forth in one of my local parenting listservs, and someone suggested forming a home schooling pre-school co-op—we’d meet once a week for a few hours for some socializing and laid-back activities, we’d pool our resources and talents to pay for supplies and lead lessons, and (best of all), our main co-teachers had years of experience teaching school.

I don’t know if Tommy will be homeschooled all his life, but we’re certainly enjoying it now.

Homeschooling stats
According to a 2006 report issued by the National Center for Education Statistics, the estimated number of children being home schooled in 2003 was 1,096,000, which was a 29 percent increase from the estimated 850,000 children in 1999. That sounds like a lot of people, but the percentage of the student population being home schooled was only 2.2 percent, up from 1.7 percent in 1999.

Some news might indicate that home schooling is becoming more popular thanks to the economy. A recent Houston Chronicle article suggests that the U.S. economy is inspiring Texas families who would otherwise pay for private school to choose home schooling. The article says that a “more-than-normal” amount of Texas children are moving from private school to home school, and that paid membership in the Texas Home School Coalition had a 20 percent jump in just the last year.

Some parents might choose to home school because they want to avoid the high-stakes testing culture in a public schools, a result of the No Child Left Behind act. Under that act, National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments happen every two years in middle school reading and mathetmatics. The NAEP’s Nation’s Report Card released its findings April 28, and there was good and bad news.

The sort of good news: reading and math score for 9- and 13-year-olds are up since 1971—but not by much: the reading scores for 9-year-olds moved up 12 points while those for 13-year-olds moved up only 4 points.In math, scores for 9-year-olds were 24 points higher than in 1971, and 15 points higher for 13-year-olds. What troubled many of the commentators of a recent New York Times analysis is that the average reading and math scores for 17-year-olds are “not significantly different from that in 1971,” says the report.

“If I were the education czar, I’d give group comparisons benign neglect for awhile, and push toward all students reaching at least a basic level of competence,” said Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in the Times article.

A new trend: unschooling
Along with homeschooling, a new trend has emerged, one more difficult to define: unschooling, which advocates completely following the child’s innate interests and letting education happen naturally (and passionately, say followers) from there. That, too, seems to be growing in popularity—one 2006 article said that the number of unschoolers in the U.S. could be anywhere between 100,000 to 200,000, and is growing by 10 to 15 percent each year.

What does home schooling and unschooling look like? Take a look at the lives of these parents— almost all of whom currently teach or previously taught in the public school setting—who have embraced alternative education.

A Waldorf inspired co-op
Meg Hines is an assistant professor in gifted and creative education at the University of Georgia in Athens; before that, she was a public school teacher in Charleston, S.C. At the moment, her 2-year-old son is part of a Waldorf-inspired homeschool co-op for seven children ranging in age from 2 to 4. (An older daughter attended a similar co-op in Charleston and now goes to a Montessori school; Hines also has an infant daughter).

“I’m a teacher by trade and a firm believer in public school,” says Hines. “But I felt like for my approach to parenting, I wasn’t ready to stick my 2-year-old in a program.”

Hines hosts the co-op at her house, where children gather once a week around 9 a.m. At 9:30 a.m., they sit in a circle to sing and welcome each other. The rest of the day has activities interspersed with times in which the children play as they wish. Meals are a staple grain plus supplemental snacks like cheese, nuts, and fruit. Every fourth meeting they bake—quick bread loafs or muffins or pretzels. In the winter, each child brings a vegetable to make soup. Children learn from example.

There are advantages for both child and parent, says Hines. “The children—I especially see it with older kids, the 3- and almost 4-year-olds—they love to come,” she says. “They walk in my door and their faces light up. The children really need a time with other kids doing things.”

And parents can find a support network of like-minded adults who can share the load of planning, modifying, and assessing activities for a group of children.“Unless you’re superwoman, one poor mom could not do all of those things,” says Hines.

  • Sandra Dodd

    Ren Allen has a knack for explaining unschooling energetically and beautifully. I have a collection of her writings, and will add this blogpost there too. A conference talk she and I gave together can be heard (link on the same page):

  • Teri Cole-Smith

    I agree with Sandra that Ren Allen does a wonderful job of explaining unschooling! This beautifully describes the unschooling experience that I had with my older son. People always used to ask me “When did you begin to homeschool?” and my answer always was “As soon as he was born; we have never NOT homeschooled…” One thing that wasn’t available in our community, though, was a group of kids doing what we were doing. We had plenty of volunteer and social interactions but really missed being a part of a like minded community of learners. I love being with people, expecially kids, that are discovering and learning and doing. I think that The Freedom to Grow (un)School is my way of creating a space for that “like-minded community of learners” who (for any myriad of reasons) would like their child to be part of a larger social and learning environment but would like it to blend as seamlessly as possible with their own family’s lifestyle.

  • Ren

    Wow! Thanks for the feedback guys and thanks for writing such a lovely article Mary! Nicely done.:)

  • pam

    Thank you for all the information. It is certainly interesting to hear the point of views from parents who previously taught in the public school system and now support alternative education.