Embracing quality education
Geoff Metcalf interviews home-schooling expert and author Isabel Lyman

Editor's note: "Home-school" is a dirty word to the people running the National Education Association. But to thousands of families across the United States, educating their children at home is vastly preferable to the proliferation of gangs, sex, drugs and ideological indoctrination that has become so pervasive in America's public schools, and even some private schools. Indeed, barring some sort of tax break or school-voucher program, most parents cannot afford to send their children to private school even if they want to. As a result, parents are turning to the home-schooling option in record numbers. And, by most reports, the children in these learning situations are doing very well.

Today, Geoff Metcalf talks with author and home-schooling expert Dr. Isabel Lyman about the current trends in the home-schooling movement including what benefits and problems parents need to be aware of and the resources and opportunities that are now available to home-schooling families. Dr. Lyman's insights have been published in numerous print and online publications and she has over a decade of actual teaching experience.

By Geoff Metcalf

Question: You once started a school with your husband, right?

Answer: Yes, I did -- in the late '80s.

Q: Was that out of desperation, because you couldn't find anything adequate?

A: Oh, not at all. It wasn't really so much for our children as for the children in the community that I live in -- which is Amherst, Massachusetts. It's the People's Republic of Amherst.

Q: Yeah you are in the belly of the beast in western Massachusetts.

A: You betcha! We felt that we needed an alternative in this community although we spend beaucoup money on education. We wanted to provide a solid back-to-basics education for the children of the community who wanted that. And we also wanted a moral framework to work within.

Q: Once upon a time, not too long ago, home-schooling was viewed as kind of strange. It was something that some religious groups embraced -- I think largely because of the problems in the public school environment, outcome-based education, Goals 2000, yada, yada, yada -- more and more people are embracing it. Is it really, as you suggest in the title of your book, a "revolution"?

A: Oh absolutely. When John Lennon said, "You say you want a revolution," I don't think he had home-schoolers in mind. But I think that's exactly what has happened.

Q: What is the structured opposition? I mean, you are talking about poaching on a lot of money in the education "business." I've been griping for years that Jimmy Carter's Department of Education should be obliterated because it is such a colossal waste of money. What kinds of obstacles are placed in the way of home-schoolers? If a family decides, "OK, I'm going to home-school my child." -- what kind of problems do they encounter?

A: In terms of from state officials or local officials, it really depends on where you live. For example, in Oklahoma, if you want to home-school, you just start home-schooling. You don't have to tell anybody. In my state, Massachusetts, you have to report to the public officials, which would be the school superintendent and give him a game plan -- to let him know what you are doing. That is one form of opposition. Sometimes, unfortunately, opposition comes from family members who don't understand or agree with what you are doing. It is still out there in many forms, but certainly not as much as it used to be.

Q: We have a mutual friend in the east bay across from San Francisco, California, who actually introduced us ...

A: Pam Kelly.

Q: She has done a remarkable job home-schooling her kids. Her daughter just recently entered the Army.

A: Correct. Fiona, right?

Q: Yeah. And I guess the recruiters weren't quite sure how to respond when she showed up, but she did really, really well on all the tests. She actually scored some nice money bonuses because they really wanted her. And not to take anything away from Fiona or Pam, but she actually isn't the exception when it comes to home-schoolers is she?

A: Oh no, not at all. I mean, a credit to Pam and her husband -- but Fiona is a great example of someone who is doing something innovative -- Mandarin Chinese -- I believe she is a tutor in the subject. No, she is not the exception at all. This is what happens when you have a dedicated parent or parents and you have a child who is motivated. You can do all kinds of marvelous things.

Q: The most obvious question is, hey, if this works so well at home (and it does), why can't the same types of things be applied to a broader spectrum? While, in the meantime, government whizzes away billions of dollars to yield substandard results.

A: Well, that's the problem -- "broader" is the problem. You have a situation where you can have too many kids, a teacher who may care about them but just doesn't know them and love them like mom and dad know the kids. Plus, you're stuck in a system that compels you to be there everyday from eight to three. I think that's as boring as going to a bad part-time or full-time job. So, I think kids get bored and they get into mischief.

Q: Or they get medicated on Ritalin?

A: Exactly. It's just the institutionalization of children. Home-schooling says we don't have to institutionalize you. We can do it how we want to -- as little as we want to, as much as we want to. If we want to apprentice you, if we want to send you to trade school -- there are just so many ways to home-school.

Q: You touched on something that a lot of people who hear "home-schooling" probably don't understand. The immediate thing you get from some people is, "It's not fair to the kid. They are being denied the socializing aspects -- for good or ill -- and they are living in a cloistered environment." But I know some people who home-school for a few days a week and the kids go to another school for a day or two.

A: Oh, absolutely.

Q: How does that work?

A: I think that's a big myth about home-schooling -- and I also think it's a terrible indictment of the public-education system when you boil it down to, "Is your kid getting socialized?" That's just such a terrible, unfair assumption. Any community in the United States today -- from Bowman, Montana, to Parker City, Oklahoma, to Miami, Florida -- basically has a support group for home-schoolers. Those are very easy to find. A lot of parents use these support groups as an opportunity for the kids to mingle with others, take classes and go out on field trips. That's one avenue opened to home-schoolers. The vast majority of home-schoolers are involved in their community in sports, volunteer work, charity work. Sometimes they take classes at public schools.

Q: Under the category of questions, rather than complaints, some people will say, "I know I can do a better job of educating my kid than a school can, but I want him to play on the football team or I want her to be a cheerleader."

A: It all depends on the school system. In fact, in Massachusetts, we have access to public-school sports and my friend Daniel, who just graduated, was asked to be the high-school quarterback. He had a long history of being home-schooled, but they wanted him for his sports ability. It just depends on the community you live in and it depends on the laws. There are so many opportunities now for a nice mixed-and-matched system -- depending on your child's interest, depending on your family. Some families don't want anything to do with the public schools and that is certainly a valid thing. It just depends on what your particular flavor is for a home-schooling family. And that's the beauty of it -- you can be whatever you want to be.

Q: When I was in the Army, whenever we would ask a tactical question, the answer was always the same, "It depends on the situation." I know the same type response will be the answer to some of these questions, but what opportunities are there for integrating and mixing and matching -- in other words, "I want my kid for three days, then a school can have him for a couple of days." How does that work into synthesizing a curriculum where a student can keep pace with his contemporaries but still have the benefits of home-schooling?

A: That's a great question. I think that is especially important as the kids approach high-school years. If the parent and the child want the child to be college bound, then you do have to consider if there are certain subjects that I can't teach. Then you may want to join a co-op where you have, for example, the local physics professor who is offering the class for the home-schoolers in physics. That's an option -- or perhaps taking a class at community college, taking on-line classes -- there are no limitations. We have such a great opportunity in this country. There are so many ways to home-school.

Q: This next one is a spin off of the title of your book, "The Homeschooling Revolution." There is a lot that has happened in just the last 10 years -- especially in the Internet arena. Some universities are actually offering degrees on-line -- virtual classrooms in which you never go into a brick and mortar building. So let's talk about on-line opportunities. There are kids that can and will go beyond their peer group.

A: Absolutely. There are so many good on-line courses you can take through reputable on-line services. There are universities that offer on-line courses like Regent University, Virginia Beach, and Brigham Young -- there are so many opportunities now. I think those are especially good for people who live in remote areas who can't get to all the culture and activity that someone in Chicago does.

Q: Or, someone who lives in California and wants to restrict their children from certain elements of culture and activity.

A: There you go. And don't want to fight through traffic and what not -- I'm a firm believe in computers -- of course, supervised by parents. But I believe they can open the window for children if it is done in the right way.

Q: One phrase we hear a lot is -- and I don't think some people understand this about the home-school arena -- it is a "movement," isn't it?

A: Oh yes! I personally think it is the greatest populous movement of the 20th century.

Q: There is a lady I have interviewed a few times and I always mispronounce her name -- Berit Kojas.

A: OK, I know who you are talking about.

Q: We've talked to Berit and, just recently, we talked with Charlotte Iserbyt ...

A: Another great lady.

Q: Charlotte's another New Englander. She's up in Maine.

A: That's right ... that's right.

Q: How organized or disorganized is the home-schooling movement?

A: Well it is both. I mean, you can be very much in the mainstream of it ...

Q: ... Kind of like united anarchists?

A: Exactly. You can link up to some of the national home-schooling organizations like the Home School Legal Defense Association -- or you can just stay in your house and never bond with any home-schoolers because your kids like the outdoors -- again, it is your call. But the opportunities to network with home-schoolers are out there. I mean, there are home-schooling networks for Muslims, for pagans, for Jews -- whatever your particular style and interest is, there is a group for you.

Q: OK, so someone says, "I'm going to home-school my kid until such-and-such a point -- but maybe around high school, I want to integrate him into a more structured tract toward college, to get more socialized -- so he can get lucky with a girl or whatever.

A: The time you really want to home-school ...

Q: ... whatever the reason is. How do you make that transition and how difficult is it on the child?

A: Again, it depends on the child. If you have a real social butterfly, that child probably will want some kind of social activity. And you don't necessarily have to cave in and send him to school or classes. You can try to find that through a support group or a job or a church youth group -- there are a lot of opportunities because teenagers are a special breed and they do like being with other teenagers. And again, the parents have to stay involved throughout the whole process. You can't just say, "Well now they're teenagers and I'm not as involved anymore." But they do have to continue to be leery and look for the right friends and companions for those young people.

Q: One image -- and I suspect it is an incorrect one -- is of a parent and a child in one room going through a little, red school-house type thing and I kind of get the impression from the folks I've talked to that there is a lot more informal networking going on between different home-schoolers.

A: Well, there is that aspect of it where some mothers get up every day and at eight o'clock they salute the flag and say a prayer and then the children work for three to four hours out of a curriculum or from textbooks. That is an aspect of home-schooling. In fact, that's how some of those children go onto great brilliance -- because they have great structure and great discipline in their lessons. But, then again, there are people who say, "Aww, two hours of this is enough -- now it's time to go on and experience real life," and they go out on field trips, or invite other people into their home, or they get involved in cultural activities, or they take trips or they go sailing. There are just so many ways to do it -- and that's the fun of it. But I do think there should be some order and structure to the academic segment of it.

Q: How do they handle that transition -- whether it is abrupt or gradual -- when you are moving from the strictly home-schooling environment into either a private school or a public school -- how difficult is it? And here's the biggie: All the kids I have met who have been home-schooled are much more mature than their contemporaries, smarter, seem to have a broader base of knowledge and, arguably, if you were to pluck them out and drop them in a contemporary classroom with their chronological peers they are going to be so far ahead of everyone else that they would be bored. So how do you affect the transition? Do these kids end up getting advanced faster? Or is it better to put them in with their peers in say the fifth grade class?

A: Yes there is that element where children who go back into the public schools are somewhat bored because they are going be dumbed down. Let's face it: Public schools dumb kids down ...

Q: That's their job!

A: That's exactly right. But I will tell you just from my own experience of having a private school -- we had home-schoolers come into our school and we never had any trouble having them adjust to the classroom setting. It took a week or two -- but it's a fairly short process. I guess the aspect of public ridicule -- all of a sudden you are in a school setting and if you don't do well you have other people looking over your shoulder. And that takes a little adjustment. But these kids are so competent they can adjust beautifully to just about any situation. I think they have been taught from early on independence and self-motivation and those skills will carry them through any situation.

Q: The school that you and your husband ran for 11 years, was it an "alternative" school?

A: Yes, it was in the sense that we really promoted a back-to-basics, meat-and-potatoes academics and we also had a vocational component where, in the last five weeks of the school year, we sent kids out into the community to get their hands dirty, so to speak. They would go out and apprentice at a farm or a classroom or in a town hall -- what was the interest of the child -- and we gave them credit for that.

Q: You are a Ph.D. A dear friend of mine who is another talk-show host has a great line that I have stolen. He says that academia is fascinating. When you think about it, as you move along the academic path, you learn more and more about less and less (because the topics get narrowed). So you learn more and more about less and less until eventually you know everything about nothing.

A: The esotericness of it all -- yes, I agree with that. I agree.

Q: Having gone through academia's structure and having taught in a small private school that was outside the norm, do you think kids are better prepared or less prepared for the culture shock of something like a masters program?

A: Well, there have been a lot of kids already who have gone through that and, from what I understand, they do quite well. I mean, the famous family is the Colfax family. There was a home-schooled boy who lived in remote northern California and several of those children. I think three of the boys went on to Harvard -- went on to Medical School. From what I understand, these kids did beautifully. And that's not an exceptional story. We have kids who are graduating from the Naval Academy and from Yale. Again, the home-school child is very adaptable and academia is not really a hard thing. You can adapt to it pretty easily.

Q: OK, I've got a few procedural questions for you. First off, why home-school?

A: Why not?

Q: OK, you're going to be like that -- smart aleck. If a parent decides, "OK, I want to home-school my child," how do they get started?

A: I would highly recommend they sit down and first talk with another home-schooling family. Hear their story. If they can't find one in the neighborhood, call somebody, e-mail someone -- there are plenty of people out there who will give you support and help -- no doubt about it. Just hear how they do it, what they have learned -- what is hard, what has worked. That's the best place to start. Buy some books -- for example, some of my favorites when I was getting started were the books by Raymond and Dorothy Moore. They are considered the grandparents of the modern home-schooling movement. I think anything they have to offer would be great for an intro course to home-schooling 101.

Q: Most parents don't know textbooks. I mean, the kids go to school and textbooks just show up. How do the parents find the textbooks they need to get started?

A: Again, as you get these resources -- the home-schooling magazines, the books, the mentoring by other families, they are going to point you in the right direction. There are a good number of curriculum distributors. For example a famous one is Calvert in the Baltimore area -- which has been correspondence and home-schooling for a number of years -- a reputable organization. They'll send you a whole kit -- even the pencils, if you need that. And will explain for you how to teach kindergarten, first grade, second grade, all the way through. Those kind of curriculum distributors are available -- and there are probably at least 25 that I can think of off the top of my head.

Q: And, no doubt, any on-line search with Yahoo, Google, etc. will reveal all kinds of resources?

A: Absolutely. The library will have reference books if you don't have a computer and again, home-schooling parents are your best source of support and information.

Q: How do you evaluate both your child's progress and your progress?

A: If you want to be the person to evaluate -- some people don't want school to be school in that way -- but there are the standardized tests: The Iowa, the SAT and all those things that are out there -- which, by the way, home-schoolers do well and above the national average. They outscore public and private school kids all the time on those things. You can do that. You can certainly give home-made tests to see how your kid does. I think there is a lot of opportunity, especially if you are a new home-schooler and you are using a so-called "canned curricula" to help you evaluate what your child is learning. And you'll know ... just by sitting down every day with your child, you are going to learn very quickly if your son or daughter is learning ABCs or Calculus or whatever the subject is. And you are going to find yourself learning a great deal.

Q: I've got a three and half year old who amazes me everyday.

A: And you're going to home-school him?

Q: Probably half and half. But I came home one day and he recited the entire Pledge of Allegiance to me.

A: Aww, that's great!

Q: I am so concerned about putting him in a school environment -- I mean, first off, there ain't no way he's going into a public school ...

A: Don't do it!

Q: Not going to happen. But a few friends who used to be teachers in private schools have said, "This kid might be 'gifted' and you should get him tested." But I'm reluctant to do that. He is such a sponge, I'd rather just see how much he can absorb -- but I am concerned about how do you keep track to determine how he is pacing?

A: Again, you are going to know. If today your child recites the Pledge of Allegiance he has learned something. Already you are seeing it and living it. You are going to see that with your child. If you spend time with him -- and that's the key to it -- quality and quantity. He's just going to unfold before you. If you need a guide, like curriculum, then you are going to use that -- but it's going to happen.

Q: I'm bragging, but at three years old, this kid can recite the Jabberwocky!

A: That's outstanding. Geoff, that's a time when kids learn, when they are little. By the time they are in high school, they are burned out. You really have to grab them when they are elementary-school age. They are like sponges. You can teach them a language, you can teach them the piano -- but definitely follow their interest. Don't force-feed them into something they are not interested in.

Q: At some point, there is going to have to be some communication between the home-schooler and the evil establishment.

A: It depends where you live, again. If you live in Oklahoma you have to have absolutely no communication with the evil establishment.

Q: Yeah, but if your kid is going to go to college, at some point, you are going to have to enter into "academia"?

A: Why? Why would they have to? Your child could take a college test and get a G.E.D. and go onto community college and still have no contact with the evil establishment. You can bypass that whole system. You can have your child at 14 taking community-college classes and getting credit and, again, you bypass the system. You don't have to -- if you don't want to -- ever see these people.

Q: You have called this a home-schooling "movement." Has anybody been able to quantify how large it is?

A: That's a tricky question.

Q: That's why I asked it.

A: Right. It's a good question. Some advocates say there are currently two million children being home-schooled. Some put the number much lower, at a million. I would say at least one million.

Q: Percentage wise -- because I haven't the foggiest idea?

A: Yeah, that's like one or two percent. It's still a low number when you consider the number of children out there. But it's a movement that seems to grow and grow and grow. One of the things I see with home-schoolers is, you see a lot of people who are not afraid to try it for a short-term situation. I think it is becoming more popular to at least try home-schooling for at least a year or two or a semester -- and I think we are seeing more of that and that is why the movement is growing.

Q: I would be remiss if I didn't ask you to address certain pitfalls that seem obvious. Discipline, order, structure -- things like that and the things that most people don't like about school that are, nevertheless, necessary evils?

A: Absolutely. I think the most important thing is you have to have a parent very committed to the process. In most cases, it is usually a woman, the mother. I also call home-schooling the great woman's movement of the day. Because it does require someone to be at home organizing the children or child and organizing the day and making sure they are responsible enough to make sure these children are leading an orderly life.

Q: I didn't realize you were such a sexist?

A: Pro women -- if that makes me a sexist, so be it. You need someone who is going to sacrifice a great deal of leisure time, a career, perhaps a great deal of money -- to do this for their children -- but it is certainly a worthwhile trade off. And you have to be responsible and you need to have a go-get-'em attitude because you are going to find yourself resolving a lot of things pretty much by yourself.

Q: You brought up the money question. How expensive is it if a parent says, "I'm not going to put my kids in that urban cesspool. I'm going to do it myself." How costly is it?

A: In terms of money? Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute says the average home-schooler spends about 500 dollars per year, per child on the academic component.

Q: I spend more than that on toys!

A: Absolutely. Again, we're talking if you have a big expense one year -- like a laptop, or you buy certain kinds of sports equipment -- you have to factor that in. I've spent thousands of dollars on ice-hockey equipment for my children, but that's what parents do. That's the nature of it. We're willing to do that for our kids. But comparatively speaking, the moral and educational benefits far outweigh the monetary cost.

Q: I was an instructor in the military. And it always confused me that, in school, they don't follow the proven model. We would teach to task/condition/standard. We would usually have a pre-test before each component and if someone was already proficient and could basically pass the test on that unit before we taught it, they didn't need it. With the billions of dollars being whizzed away in the U.S. Department of Education, state departments of education, school districts, etc. -- for some reason, they just don't do it the way it works?

A: That is so true. That is one of the biggest problems in our country -- the education melt down, the crisis that is in every state, every city, every town -- people just want to keep throwing money at it.

Q: Now some people, like Charlotte Iserbyt, believe this dumbing-down process isn't an accident of inertia. It is intentional and designed to homogenize everyone to the lowest common denominator -- to make them more malleable and to integrate them into a school-to-work type program where corporations announce, "OK, we need four Johnnies to do this" and the schools train four Johnnies for those tasks. Do you buy into that?

A: Huh. I haven't studied that enough -- Charlotte has. But I will say the quality of the person who goes into education -- again we are talking people who are not rocket scientists -- the quality of that is going to go into your child's life if you've got them in a public school classroom. I mean, that's just the reality of it. Education schools are very easy and they are considered at the bottom of the barrel at most universities. So what can I say -- like begets like.

Q: I suppose the follow up is, if someone is a product of home-schooling education -- hopefully, and statistically it seems to be supported, they will be superior to their peers. What kind of opposition are they going to encounter from the educrats?

A: Well there has been -- I think that every year the National Education Association has their convention and they come out with some kind of a statement against home-schooling. That's probably been the most vocal opposition on the national level. But I think most everyone just ignores them anyway.

Q: What do you do when you find you are over your head? Algebra, trigonometry, calculus -- most home-schoolers may need help.

A: Well you are going to be over your head a lot of times in home-schooling. But the beauty is, you don't have to teach every single subject yourself. You can find a tutor very easily in just about any community. You can take one of those on-line courses. You can take a video course. You can find a young person in your community to teach your child any of the math subjects. Believe me they exist. You just have to know how to find the resources.

Q: Now they have courses out on CD.

A: There you go: CD. Some of these support groups we've discussed have courses within them. My son was part of a home-schooling co-op and he took Spanish and literature. There are people out there very willing to help you.

Q: How do you know which materials are good and which aren't?

A: There is a lady out there named Mary Pride who has written something called "The Big Book of Home Learning" -- and she reviews curriculum in that. There are scads of product of reviews out there of what works and what doesn't. Again, your best bet is to talk to fellow home-schooling parents.

Q: I am posting the URL to your book. If folks have specific questions, is there a home-schooling hotline or anything like it they can call?

A: They can contact me at my e-mail address or go to my website. And if I can't answer questions, I am certainly happy to direct them to someone who can. I'm more than happy to do that for folks. We have to make the effort as parents. It's not just going to come to our door. With education, Americans' seem to have this attitude of delivering the child to the school door and walking away. That's not smart at all -- it's not wise. Home-schooling parents do have to put in the effort, but the resources are out there.

Q: And the rewards are immeasurable.

A: The rewards are immeasurable -- eternal, I would say.