Unhappy in Class, More Are Learning at Home
NYT November 10, 2003
By JANE GROSS
In Penny Kjellberg's modest living room in Stuyvesant Town,
one of her 11-year-old twins conjugates French verbs while
cuddling a kitten. The book shelves sag with The
Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, "The Complete Idiot's
Guide to Understanding Einstein" and Ken Burns's videos
about the Civil War. Ms. Kjellberg's other daughter devours
a book about Ulysses with periodic romps outdoors when she
The Kjellberg twins, Caroline and Jessica, were in a highly
regarded public school until two years ago. But they were
bullied, their mother said, and referred to psychiatrists
when, miserable, they misbehaved in class. So Ms.
Kjellberg, neither a hippie nor a fundamentalist, decided
to educate them at home.
"I was always too afraid to take that giant step outside
the mainstream," she said. "But now that circumstances have
forced us out, our experience here on the sidelines is so
good that I find it harder and harder to imagine going
The Kjellbergs' choice is being made by an increasing
number of American families - at least 850,000 children
nationwide are schooled at home, up from 360,000 a decade
ago, according the Education Department. In New York City,
which compiled citywide statistics for the first time this
year, 1,800 children are being schooled at home.
Newcomers to home schooling resist easy classification as
part of the religious right or freewheeling left, who
dominated the movement for decades, according to those who
study the practice.
They come to home schooling fed up with the shortcomings of
public education and the cost of private schools. Add to
that the new nationwide standards - uniform curriculum and
more testing - which some educators say penalize children
with special needs, whether they are gifted, learning
disabled or merely eccentric.
"It's a profound irony that the standards movement wound up
alienating more parents and fueling the growth of home
schooling," said Mitchell L. Stevens, an educational
psychologist at New York University and author of "Kingdom
of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling
Movement" (Princeton University Press, 2001).
"The presumption of home schooling is that children's
distinctive needs come before the managerial needs of the
schools," he said. "And, it's easier to do than it was 10
years ago, because the ideologues were so successful in
making it legal and creating curriculum tools and
In addition to dissatisfaction with schools, Mr. Stevens
and others say, social trends have fed interest in home
schooling. More women are abandoning careers to stay home
with their children. And many families yearn for a less
frantic schedule and more time together.
"This may be a rebellion of middle-class parents in this
culture," Mr. Stevens said. "We have never figured out how
to solve the contradiction between work and parenting for
contemporary mothers. And a highly scheduled life puts a
squeeze on childhood."
Laurie Spigel, of the Riverdale section of the Bronx, chose
home schooling for her 13-year-old son, Solomon, because he
"He was taking ballet and piano and begging for flute," she
said. "We'd already given up bedtime stories. He was tired
all the time. We had no family life left. And all the
wasted time seemed to be at school."
She had already given up on public school. A first-tier
private school was so intense that "fourth grade felt like
high school." So she chose home schooling, as she had for
Solomon's brother Kalman, now in college.
Julia Attaway of Washington Heights made the home-schooling
decision because the first of her four children was reading
chapter books and counting to 100 by seven before
kindergarten. "This is a very intense kid," Ms. Attaway
said. "She dives into something until she has a sense of
completion. It was so obvious that school was not going to
The Kjellbergs, Spigels and Attaways fit the profile of
home-schooling families from a 1999 survey by the National
Center for Education Statistics, considered the only
authoritative snapshot of home schooling. Nationwide, a
majority of home-schooled children come from white,
two-parent, one-income families with three or more
The top three motivations for home schooling in the survey
were the prospect of a better education (49 percent),
religious beliefs (38 percent) and a poor learning
environment in the schools (26 percent).
Home schooling is legal in all 50 states, although there
are widely different regulations. New Jersey, for instance,
requires virtually no oversight. In New York, parents must
notify their school district, file an instructional plan
and quarterly reports and submit to annual assessments,
alternating between standardized tests and portfolios.
The success of home schooling is hard to determine. Some
Ivy League admissions officers say home-schooled children
have high SAT scores and adjust well to the demands of
college. These admission officers also are impressed by
accounts of prodigious accomplishments: A family with three
home-schooled children at Harvard. A youth with a
best-selling novel. First, second and third second place in
the 2000 National Spelling Bee.
But Clive R. Belfield, associate director of the National
Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at
Columbia Teachers College, urges caution. The only
published study comparing test scores, on the Iowa Test of
Basic Skills, shows home-schoolers scoring in the 70th to
80th percentile; no reliable data exists for the SAT's
because of shifting definitions of home schooling. And Dr.
Belfield notes that any test score comparison may pit the
cream of home schoolers against average students.
"It is possible some of them are fantastically educated and
some are not, and all we're seeing in the data is the
fantastically educated," he said.
In the debate about home schooling, socialization is more
of an issue than achievement. Dr. Belfield said there was
no research in this area but much anecdotal evidence that
home-schooled children had plenty of social contact,
benefited from being outside the dog-eat-dog world of
school and were kinder to one another as a result.
Most worrisome, Dr. Belfield said, is the occasional
child-abuse case, like the one in New Jersey in which four
home-schooled children were said to have been starved by
their adoptive parents. Having children show up at a public
place - like school - is one way to see that that type of
mistreatment does not happen, he said.
Without hewing to a public school curriculum, responsible
and resourceful parents can cobble together teaching
materials that cover all the bases. In New York, they start
with a great library system, where families can order
online something as esoteric as Aboriginal dance videos, as
Mrs. Attaway did. They were delivered to her local branch.
The newest resource for home schoolers on a tight budget
is the Internet. "You can Google a third-grade English
lesson plan, a ninth-grade chemistry textbook and an
11th-grade study guide to Hamlet," Ms. Spigel said. "It's
all there for the cost of an AOL account."
New York City home-schoolers rave about the educational and
cultural institutions here, many free and just a subway
ride away. "This city is a cornucopia of opportunity," Ms.
Kjellberg said, adding that even costly extras do not
approach two $25,000 private school tuitions. "Home
schooling is a misnomer, because we're hardly ever at
Caroline and Jessica take French classes at a Midtown
language school that charges half its hourly rate of $30
because home schoolers come at off-peak hours. They are on
a track team with a coach hired from the Road Runners Club.
Solomon takes jazz, tap and ballet and has an internship in
marine biology at the Hudson River Project. When the
Attaway children study the ancient Code of Hammurabi or the
breeding of silkworms, they visit the Museum of Natural
History or the Japan Society.
Following New York State's rules demands careful
record-keeping. But Ms. Spigel welcomes it. "The reporting
keeps me focused on milestones," she said. "I have the
information for college transcripts. And the boys learn
about being organized."
Her current method is a week-at-a-glance calendar, with
Solomon's subjects listed on the left side and the days of
the week across the top. Both mother and son notice a row
of empty spaces and adjust accordingly, she said. "There's
all this extra science," one or the other will say. "What
happened to social studies?"
"Solomon and I put these squares on the page together," Ms.
Spigel said. "This is a team effort. We both make it
happen. We both find a way to make it work."