Five youngsters are drowned by their mother in their bathtub. Three teenagers are killed in a murder-suicide. A 14-year-old runner-up from a previous year wins a national spelling bee. A Web search for "home schooling" would have turned up all of these stories.
Home schooling, which has boomed in popularity over the last decade, is still the subject of debate among educators and psychologists. It has come under renewed scrutiny after a string of headline-grabbing tragedies involving families who taught their children at home.
Is it a practice that allows children to reach their fullest potential, away from the distractions of other children and freed from the shackles of an education system that sometimes seems to seek the lowest common denominator?
Or does it cripple children socially, unnaturally withdrawing them from their peers, and put dangerous pressures on both youngsters and their parents, creating an environment that leads to tragedies such as Andrea Yates' alleged drowning of her children, the murder-suicide of three Warren children in North Carolina, or the standoff between police and the McGuckin children in Northern Idaho?
The answer, according to experts without a partisan interest in the subject, would seem to fall somewhere in between.
"It's probably not true in the extreme that children who are home-schooled can't socialize — that's just intuitively not true," said Janine Bempechat, a senior consultant at the Tufts Program for Education Change Agents and a project development manager at the Education Development Center. "But what they're missing out on is the culture of childhood as most people know it in America."
‘Adults Need Contact Too’
Judith Wagner, a professor of child development and education at Whittier College, said that parents considering home schooling their children should ask themselves, "What am I doing by making my child so different from all the other kids in the neighborhood?"
"One of the most powerful drives of childhood and adolescence is to be like other people," she said.
But the effect that home schooling will have on youngsters isn't the only issue that parents need to consider before deciding to educate their kids around the kitchen table, she said.
"What is it about the mother when she's got four or five kids, what is it that compels her into that kind of commitment within four walls? Adults need contact as well. There could be some kind of lack of balance there as well," she said.
If so, it's a lack of balance that's gaining appeal. As public schools come under increasing attack for failing to provide a quality education, more and more people apparently are deciding that questions about socialization or pressure on the family are beside the point. They are taking matters into their own hands and teaching their children themselves.
A Department of Education study last week estimated that 850,000 youngsters are now home-schooled, while the National Home Education Research Institute estimates nearly twice that many are being educated at home.
The reasons parents keep their kids out of school are less clear. According to the government, which based its study on a telephone survey of some 55,000 homes, quality of education is the primary concern for these parents, with religious reasons coming in second.
The NHERI, which conducts annual studies of home schooling, again came up with a different picture.