Learning at Home, Students Take the Lead


SILVER SPRING, Md., May 23 -- It is 10 a.m., and the school buses in this
Washington suburb have long ago finished their rounds. But the O'Malleys'
old house is rocking.

In a living room cluttered with toys, one girl plays while the mother cares
for the 1-year-old boy. Kevin O'Malley, 12, is practicing tai chi in the
living room, and his sister Sheila, 10, is in her bedroom painting her
nails. What they are not doing, at least not this second, is schoolwork.

The parents, Mary and John O'Malley, tell the two older children that
grammar is important but that they can study it at their own pace, in their
own way. The parents made up games to help them start reading and built
treehouses and forts, providing the children with lessons in measuring that
helped steer them into math.

The O'Malleys are engaged in a fast-growing approach to elementary
education -- home schooling -- and in the fastest-growing approach to home
schooling, according to the National Home Education Research Institute in
Salem, Ore. This is called unschooling, or less often, deschooling, eclectic
schooling, organic schooling and relaxed home schooling, where parents
respond to a child's talents and interests in guiding their learning rather
than imposing a conventional curriculum. Like charter schools, magnet
schools, private schools and parochial schools, home schooling responds to
disenchantment with conventional public schools.

Home schooling took hold in the 1980's, largely among fundamentalists and
religious conservatives who were fleeing the liberal education offered in
public schools. Now it is being adopted more broadly, by parents who are
disenchanted with the regimentation of schools, public and private, and the
idea that a child's age, alone, marks the thresholds of learning.

These parents, who typically call themselves unschoolers, account for a
surge in home schooling, said Brian D. Ray, president of the research

Figures for home schooling are sketchy. Many states or local education
authorities require that parents register children to teach them at home,
but some do not keep close tabs on them.

The institute says 1.3 million to 1.7 million, or about 3 percent of all 53
million school-age children, attend school at home. And the numbers of these
children are growing 7 percent to 15 percent a year, far faster than the
school population, Mr. Ray said.

Here in Maryland, where the O'Malleys live, the State Department of
Education said that in the 1990's the number of public school students rose
19 percent, to 850,000, while those registered at home schools jumped to
15,651 from 2,296.

Education experts attribute most of the growth to unschooling, the
antithesis of the religion-based image of home schooling, which follows
school-like schedules and relies for curriculums and textbooks of
fundamentalist Christian publishers. Some studies have shown that
home-schooling families have slightly higher-than-average incomes even
though, typically, only one parent can hold a job outside the home.

Critics fault home schooling for isolating children. They say it discourages
social interaction and development of the skills of teamwork and
collaboration. They say parents can use it to cover up truancy and, by
keeping their children apart from others, to encourage racism. And they say
unschooling lets children indulge their childish whimsies. Children who want
to participate in conventional school activities, like sports, face a
decision about whether to enter conventional high schools.

The National Education Association, the largest teachers union, has adopted
a resolution saying that home schools cannot provide a comprehensive
education and urging that only licensed teachers be permitted to run home

Unschooling parents say they believe that by homing in on their children's
natural talents and curiosity, with texts and curriculums that best capture
their impulse to learn, they can guide them into the three R's when the
children are most ready, not when professional educators say they ought to

Billy Greer of Pasadena, Md., who directs the Family Unschoolers Network
with its 3,000 member families, said, "You tend to pay attention to a
child's strengths, rather than their weaknesses, and build them up."

Educators credit the word "un schooling" to the late John Holt, an author
and schoolteacher in Cambridge, Mass., who provoked a national controversy
in the 1960's and 1970's with his books "How Children Fail" and "How
Children Learn."

In faulting mainstream education, Mr. Holt wrote, "What is essential to
realize is that children learn independently, not in bunches." He urged
"unschooling" and "deschooling" -- removing children from the schools and
teaching them at home. Un schooling has since come to encompass Mr. Holt's
ideas of independent learning.

Advocates say that a home climate of informal learning need not preclude a

"Each kid has his own style and gifts," said Mary Hood of Cartersville, Ga.,
who has been teaching five children at home and has written two guide books,
"The Relaxed Home Schooler" and "The Joyful Schooler."

"One might need to be floating," Ms. Hood said. "The other might need more

The O'Malleys live in a 140-year-old white clapboard farmhouse on 16 wooded
acres in Silver Spring, between Washington and Baltimore.

Scattered amid the living room's underbrush of playthings is a rocking
horse, two children's rocking chairs, a pram for a doll, an upright piano, a
bookcase with World Book encyclopedias, a globe and, on the rug, a Mother
Goose book.

Mary O'Malley nurses 1-year-old Brian, and Kathleen, 4, bounds about in a
conical cardboard cap. "I am a princess," she explains. Kevin has set aside
his seventh-grade math text to practice tai chi for a martial arts

"I do not want to give the impression that we don't do anything," said Mrs.
O'Malley, who has a nursing degree. About the multiplication tables, "I
said, 'Your life will be easier if you learn this.' " About grammar, she
said, "I'll say, 'I think you need to know this.' "

But it is best, she said, to let children learn those skills on their own
time. Kevin, for example, did not start reading until he was 10. His mother
and father, a computer services employee of the Food and Drug Administration
in Washington, tried various prods, like encouraging him to find all the K's
on the page of a book and constructing words with Scrabble letters.

"We made up games," Mrs. O'Malley said. "But once it becomes tedious or
counterproductive, you put it aside."

"Then all of a sudden," she said, "it all came together for him."

Kevin said, "I picked up 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.' That's by
C. S. Lewis. I was surprised. I could read a page. Within three months, I
went from 50-page books to 400-page books. I can read a 400-page book in two

Kevin has been in classrooms, those of his Roman Catholic church for
religious education.

"I was sitting at a desk," he said, "for like an hour and 15 minutes. I
found it so hard to concentrate."

His sister Sheila, who started reading at 9, keeps a journal and is absorbed
in the study of undersea creatures, said: "You don't have to do something at
a certain time. You don't get detention. I have never gotten detention in my

Nor is she ever tested, graded, ranked, demoted, promoted, scheduled or
required to use texts and workbooks that some board of education deemed the
best for children her age. Neither child has a desk.

All 50 states allow parent-conducted home schooling, with varying degrees of
regulation. Two or three times a year, typically, inspectors are sent to the
homes or parents are asked to bring children's workbooks to school offices
for scrutiny.

While home-schooled students do not get conventional diplomas, studies of
their performance show that they score at least as well as conventionally
taught students on tests like the College Boards and gain admission to the
most elite universities, like Harvard, Princeton and Stanford. Without
grades or class rankings to guide them, colleges put greater emphasis on
essays, College Boards, advance placement courses that students take in
community colleges and the recommendations of unrelated adults.

Lynn Linde, chief of the student services and alternative programs branch at
the Maryland Department of Education, said: "When they go to college, they
seem to be doing well. We haven't done actual research, but the gist of the
anecdotes has been, 'These kids are fine; they're bright kids.' "

In Rockville, Md., Al Palmiter, a computer technician, and his wife,
Martine, are rearing two children, Dean, 12, and Olivia, 9.

One recent afternoon, Dean and two other 12-year-old boys whom he met
through their parents' home-schooling support group, Alexander Gorman and
Ben Crane-Flatt, were having a snack at the Palmiters' kitchen table.

"I'm studying mostly physics, chemistry and astronomy," said Alexander, who
returned to home schooling after a discouraging sixth grade in a
conventional school. "At home school, I can make models, do things with my
hands. At school you just listen."

"My school day begins at 7:30 and ends at 3," Alexander said.

He also studies math, and he must write reports on subjects of his choosing.
"My most recent report was Mongolia," he said. "I read a lot for pleasure. I
like Harry Potter, Charles Dickens. I'm reading 'Moby Dick' right now."

Ben said, "My mom will ask me what I want to study at the beginning of the
year." Once they have settled on a program, he said, "My mom says, 'O.K., I
want you to do nine pages of math, do your English and your chemistry.' " He
is also studying French, in which his mother is fluent.

Dean's course load is similar to Ben's. He plays the piano, collects coins,
has a Web page, reads voraciously. He gets up late, at 9. "I have to tell
him he'd better get his breakfast, his phone calls made and his newspaper
read before 11," she said.

Home-school routines can change by the month, by the minute even, Ms.
Palmiter said. " 'Mom,' " she said Dean told her one day, " 'I got to go
outside and crush some rocks.' So we had to stop our academics and get a
hammer and break some rocks so he could look at what was inside.

"We're trying to bring them into the world, not a building," Ms. Palmiter

But for all the children, the biggest issue is what Ms. Palmiter calls "the
big S," for socialization. Dean, she said, is ambivalent about shifting to a
real high school at 14 or 15. Ben, who loves sports, has decided that he
will go to high school.

He is an accomplished soccer player, but he said children tease him as a
"home school boy" and more vulgar epithets. As a home schooler, Ben said, "I
don't get to see my friends as often. I only get to see Dean and Alexander
about once a week."

But Ms. Palmiter said, "I think I'm more interested in raising really nice
kids." With home schooling, she said, "I think you avoid all the social
problems of high schools."