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.
Most home-schoolers are kept out of the system because of their parents' belief system, and 75 percent to 80 percent of people who home-school "would self-identify as Bible-believing Christians," said Brian Ray of the NHERI. Though he said that not all of those people would say their religion was the primary reason for keeping their children out of school, the institute's studies have found home schooling to be "disproportionately faith-centered."
"It becomes real clear when we do interviews with parents, whether they're new age, agnostic, Christian, Jewish, whatever, they have some world view they want to pass on," he said.
"They feel called upon by God to teach their kids," said Kathi Kearney, who has been a consultant to home schooling families for 23 years. "They often feel they want religious teachings to be part of their child's education."
Whatever their philosophical or religious leanings, educationally home-schoolers seem to be on track. The NHERI's latest study found that home-schooled children scored on average in the 87th percentile on standardized reading tests, in the 82nd percentile in math, the 84th in science and the 85th in social studies.
Pressure on Child and Parent
For many of these people, the argument that their children are missing out on interaction with other youngsters might sound like all the more reason to home-school. And what parent wouldn't want to shield his child from the bullying and abuse so many kids face in schools?
"This is what I would worry about," Bempechat said. "I think it's a valuable part of learning — learning how to deal with the unpleasantness of life is a big part of learning to socialize, and you get a big dose of that in school. Kids socialize one another. It isn't a one-way street."
Wagner expressed the concern the other way around — not just that children miss out by not being around other children, but that they also miss out by not being away from the family unit.
"There's such close proximity between the parents and the child [with home schooling]," she said. "Children need to test their boundaries and experience other adults who care about them. The child is hearing his mom's or dad's point of view and to challenge that is a very different thing than hearing a teacher's view and challenging that.
"It could put increased pressure on a child and it could put increased demands on the parent-child relationship," she said. "It could also bring parent and child closer together."
That's what novelist Denis Johnson, in a recent article for Salon.com, said he has found after three years of home schooling his son and daughter.
"They don't convey the impression I usually get from kids, and must have given my own elders, that they're pretending, wishing — as I certainly did — that grown-ups didn't exist," he wrote. "They live in the same world that we, their parents, live in."
Kearney said there has been "a massive exodus over the last five years of families with gifted kids from public schools," which they feel neglect the needs of the brightest pupils. If those parents cannot afford private schools, they turn to home schooling.
The boom has been helped by the Internet, which offers instant access to a worldwide community, as well as to teaching materials that 10 years ago were difficult to come by. There are now numerous Web sites offering home-school curricula, as well as practical and legal advice.
This access to information and a community has helped dispel the sense of isolation that home-schoolers might have experienced 20 years ago, and it has eased the fears of some parents concerned about whether they are able to educate their children.
"I think it's going to continue to grow," Ray said.