A Home-Grown Success: Inside the Home-School Coup

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - From principals to teachers to superintendents, the reaction was unanimous and undiluted: "Your kids will fail."

That was 20 years ago. Michael Farris was mulling the idea of pulling his children out of public school and teaching them at home.

Seemed harmless, really. But at the time, home-schooling was shrouded in suspicion, and Farris heard the howling of public school officials certain he was wadding up and throwing away his children's future.

The criticisms rained in again two years later when Farris founded the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va.

"They have stopped making those arguments now," Farris said.

For good reason.

Once the red-headed stepchild of education, the home-schooling movement is using the ESPN-televised stage of the National Spelling Bee to demand the attention of a country that's slowly - and grudgingly - giving it respect.

This year's winner was home-schooled most of his life, and all three finalists last year were taught at home.

Even more telling: Recently, home-schoolers made up 10 percent of the bee's participants - while just 2 percent of the nation's school-age children are home-schooled.

And last year's champion and runner-up at the National Geography Bee were home-schoolers.

Sorting Through the Stats

A home-schooling coup? Depends on whom you believe. Spelling bee officials pooh-pooh the home-school hullabaloo.

"I think that's trying to read tealeaves," director Paige Kimball said. "Ten percent, 2 percent, it doesn't matter. We're doing spelling bees; we're not into statistics."

Some critics publicly or privately wonder if home-schoolers have an unfair advantage at national bees since they can dedicate uncounted hours to niche subjects.

"I think part of the reason is that home-schoolers emphasize rote memorization," said Jamie Horrowitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. "Certainly, it's important for all of us to memorize dates and spelling. But in general, education has moved beyond that. Most experts find it's important for students to think critically."

Regardless, the recent success has become a hallmark, a badge of legitimacy, for the nation's 1.2 million home-schoolers.

"For someone who has seen home-schooling for so many years," Farris said, "this validation - and the closing of our opponents' mouths - is very gratifying."

The Conley Case

Sean Conley and home-schooling were a perfect match.

At 18 months, he taught himself how to read. By 2, he was using a computer. His mother, Bry Conley, tried to get him into kindergarten a couple years early. School officials didn't think he could read. So he proved it on a test. They shook their heads, bewildered.

"We realized kindergarten wasn't going to be appropriate," Bry Conley said.

The family gave home-schooling a try, and by the time Sean won the National Spelling Bee last week, the 13-year-old had written two computer games and dabbled in a few college-level Spanish and computer programming courses.

"You have to look at who's in home-schooling," said Bry Conley, who also teaches Sean's two younger brothers at home in Shakopee, Minn. "In the bell curve of people, the vast majority go to public school, and it works well for them. But for those who don't fit in there - those at the end of the bell curve - home school works well.

"I look at where my kids are each year and go by that. We don't follow a set curriculum. That one-size-fits-all idea is really bad."

It's that flexibility and one-on-one attention that trumps traditional education, supporters say.

As Conley puts it: "It's the difference between a mass-produced product and one that's custom-made. The quality is better."

Academically, yes. Some 25 percent of home-schoolers are one or more grades ahead of their peers and score significantly higher than private school students, according to a 1999 study.

Furthermore, the College Board last year released figures that gave home-schoolers even more statistical fortitude. Home-schoolers averaged 568 verbal and 532 math scores on the SAT - above national averages of 505 and 514, respectively, for traditional students.

Social Outcasts?

Still, the stigma that haunts home-schooling is what Conley dubs the "s-word": socialization.

Critics contend the cloistered home environment hardly gives kids the peer-to-peer interaction they need. Even if they participate in church groups, sports and Boy Scouts, some question whether home-schoolers miss essential social training.

"There are home-schoolers who will win spelling bees and go to Harvard. There are home-schoolers who will never fit into society and never be able to attend a college because they didn't get a proper education," Horrowitz said.

If Sean Conley didn't get enough social experience before, he's getting a crash course in it now as home-schooling's impromptu posterboy.

He's appeared on morning TV shows, gotten an invite from the Minnesota Twins to throw the first pitch and been asked to pose for pictures with strangers. "People recognize him on the street," Bry Conley said.

Sure, Conley concedes, Sean is a shy kid. But home-schoolers as social misfits?

"You don't just sit around the kitchen table with your mom," Conley said. "You get out and see the world."

Or, in Sean's case, you conquer it.