The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition
By DANIEL GOLDEN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 11, 2000
Jason, who is 17 years old, was home-schooled by his mother. After he scored 1,570 out of a possible 1,600 on his SAT college-admissions test -- with a perfect 800 in math -- Oglethorpe invited him to compete with other top applicants for five scholarships valued at about $100,000 apiece. Of the 94 prospects in the Jan. 22 contest, eight were home-schoolers, each with SATs above 1,300.
The high scores are no fluke. As the movement grows larger and more diverse, evidence is mounting that home-schooling, once confined to the political and religious fringe, has achieved results not only on par with public education, but in some ways surpassing it. Though home-schooling may never be feasible for most families, the data offer little comfort to those who advocate a standardized curriculum as the best hope for improving American education. After all, each home-based pupil follows a unique lesson plan.
Jason's twin brother, Jeremy, also home-schooled, scored 1,480 on his SAT. "I was afraid we were the rogues of the education community," says Jeremy, who plans to attend the University of Georgia or the Georgia Institute of Technology. "It isn't that way anymore. People know that if we've been home-schooled, we'll do a little better than everyone else."
Though it is hard to track a movement that remains partly underground, advocates say that 1.5 million children nationwide are being taught at home; independent researchers put the figure closer to one million. The federal Education Department estimated the total in 1996 at 700,000 to 750,000; it expects to issue a revised count soon. In any case, home-schoolers far outnumber the 400,000 students attending charter schools, a more mainstream alternative. Total public- and private-school enrollment in the U.S. is about 50 million.
The growth in home-schooling reflects not only religious or educational concerns, but also alarm over school violence. Soon after last spring's Columbine High School murders, one home-schooling magazine ran the headline: "Tragedy in Colorado: Isn't It Time Your Kids Were Safe at Home?" This past September, the start of the first new school year since the slayings, the number of registered home-schoolers in Colorado surged 10.1%.
The SAT and the ACT, the nation's other major college-entrance test, have begun asking exam takers whether they were home-schooled. The 3,257 ACT takers and 2,219 SAT takers who last year identified themselves as home-schoolers are fewer than might be expected if a million or more students are being educated at home. But researchers say such students often are reluctant to declare themselves for privacy reasons or for fear of discrimination. Moreover, many taught at home in lower grades later attend high school.
Nonetheless, self-identified home-schoolers have bettered the national averages on the ACT for the past three years running, scoring an average 22.7 last year, compared with 21 for their more traditional peers, on a scale of one to 36. Home-schoolers scored 23.4 in English, well above the 20.5 national average; and 24.4 in reading, compared with a mean of 21.4. The gap was closer in science (21.9 vs. 21.0), and home-schoolers scored below the national average in math, 20.4 to 20.7.
On the SAT, which began its tracking last year, home-schoolers scored an average 1,083 (verbal 548, math 535), 67 points above the national average of 1,016. Similarly, on the 10 SAT2 achievement tests most frequently taken by home-schoolers, they surpassed the national average on nine, including writing, physics and French.
Income and Achievement
With average family incomes of $40,000 to $50,000, lower than the $50,000-to-$60,000 median rung, the home-schoolers defied the demographic correlation between high incomes and high SAT scores. They also contradict the stereotype that they are strictly rural white fundamentalists. Nearly 4% are black. Another 4% are Hispanic. And their parents have more education than the national norm.
Maralee Mayberry, chairwoman of the sociology department at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and author of a book on home-schooling, warns that the data only document the existence of a top tier of home-school whiz kids; there also may be an unstudied bottom layer of failures. Still, she says, research has shown that the key elements in effective education are small class size, individualized instruction, and a disciplined, nurturing environment -- all characteristics of home-schooling.
Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says the test data don't cast doubt on the value of teachers. "Why draw any grand conclusions?" she asks, since so few home-schoolers take the SAT and ACT. "I just say I'm happy for them. These are parents who are very highly motivated, teaching their kids at home and doing a very good job," she says. She adds, however, that public schools need to do more to challenge gifted students if they are to avoid losing some of them to home-schooling.
Once in college, home-schoolers appear to be living up to their test scores. Those enrolled at Boston University in the past four years have a 3.3 grade-point average, out of a perfect four. Similarly, Georgia's Kennesaw State University found that its home-schooled students had higher-than-average GPAs as college freshmen.
At Kennesaw State, both the president and the vice president of the student government were educated at home. The president, John M. Fuchko III, whose mother began teaching him after he was labeled hyperactive in kindergarten, says home-schoolers will change college as much as college changes them. He predicts that they will pressure colleges to individualize instruction and stop insisting on survey courses as prerequisites for more advanced studies.
"In home-schooling, you don't have to sit for half a year studying something you already know," says the 22-year-old senior. "If you're prepared to go to the next level, you take it to the next level. Home-schooling breeds enterprising people."
That enterprise has impressed many secular colleges, and most have modified their admissions policies to accommodate home-schoolers. A recent survey by the National Center for Home Education, a Virginia-based advocacy group, found that 68% of colleges now accept parent-prepared transcripts or portfolios in place of an accredited diploma. That includes Stanford University, which last fall accepted 27% of home-schooled applicants -- nearly double its overall acceptance rate.
"Home-schoolers bring certain skills -- motivation, curiosity, the capacity to be responsible for their education -- that high schools don't induce very well," says Jon Reider, Stanford's senior associate director of admissions.
Despite such inroads, religious colleges still draw a disproportionate number of home-schoolers. For example, at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., 309 students -- more than 10% of the student body -- were home-schooled for at least a year. Oral Roberts offers a $2,000 scholarship for home-schoolers, while Nyack College, a Christian school in Nyack, N.Y., provides as much as $12,000. And this fall, Christian home-schoolers are planning to open their own college in Purcellville, Va.
Skepticism about home-schoolers' credentials lingers, however. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers warned members last December that the rise in home-schooling creates "significant potential for conflict" with applicants because colleges may need "supplementary materials" to gauge academic preparedness.
In 1997, North Carolina and New Mexico restricted public colleges from asking home-schooled applicants to submit more test scores than regular applicants. But that same year, Georgia's board of regents tightened state-college admissions rules for home-schoolers, requiring them to pass eight SAT2 subject tests, which are entirely optional for other students; they also face hurdles in getting financial aid. Georgia's Hope scholarship program pays all tuition at state colleges for Georgia high-school graduates with B averages who don't get federal financial aid. But home-schoolers qualify only retroactively, if they earn a B average as college freshmen.
Exploiting a Niche
The disparity has angered home-schoolers -- and helped created a niche for Oglethorpe, which hopes to boost full-time enrollment to 1,000 from 800 and its endowment to $100 million from $32 million. "When we started going after home-schoolers, I thought it would be a gold mine," says Admissions Director Barbara Henry. "The trouble is, other colleges started accepting them, too."
Mrs. Henry, who says she used to dismiss home-schoolers as "crackpots" before she got to know them, has positioned Oglethorpe as their home away from home. The school hosts home-school curriculum fairs on its faux-Oxford campus, lets home-schoolers use its athletic facilities, and encourages precocious 14- and 15-year-olds to enroll part time. To stay ahead in the recruitment race, it also has started including home-schoolers in its annual scholarship competition. Last year, for the first time, a home-schooler won one of the full scholarships.
Maggie Bryson, the winner, had become so bored in fifth grade that she refused to go back to school. Her mother, a nurse, shortened her own work hours and began home-schooling her daughter. When Maggie was 13, her mother sent her for physical education to Oglethorpe, where track coach Bob Unger had started a weekly track-and-field class for home-schoolers. Two years later, Maggie began taking academic courses there. With a 1,430 SAT score, including 800 on the verbal, she applied to eight colleges and was accepted at seven, including Oglethorpe.
Vocal and Direct
Now a freshman, Ms. Bryson has an A-minus average and is teaching herself Arabic and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in her spare time. But she still is adapting to classroom etiquette. "We home-schoolers tend to be very vocal and talk to the professor directly," she says. "It might bother other students a little bit."
Jason Scoggins is no intellectual wallflower, either. He was so infuriated at being ineligible for a "star student" honor given by a teachers' union -- the award is based partly on class rank -- he consulted a lawyer. He has written to Georgia state universities, criticizing extra testing requirements for home-schoolers. Both he and Jeremy, who have entered into a friendly test-taking rivalry, aced the SAT2 subject tests and have taken so many advanced-placement tests, which are scored on a one-to-five scale and confer college credits, that they could enter college as sophomores.
"I've taken eight advanced-placement exams and gotten fives on all of them," says Jason. "He's taken seven and gotten fives on four of them."
"He can't stand for me to score better than he does," Jeremy shrugs. "So far, I haven't."
Financial aid is likely to determine where the twins go to college, and whether they can afford to live on campus. Their father, Mickey Scoggins, who didn't attend college, supports his wife and five children -- the twins; Joshua, 15; Jonathan, 9; and baby Joanna -- with his job as a furniture-store manager. But the Scogginses, who own a modest house on a three-acre wooded lot in Monroe, 35 miles east of Atlanta, say they don't have enough money for college tuitions.
The twins have been taught at home since fourth grade by their mother, Ellen Scoggins, who is also teaching Joshua and Jonathan. A devout Christian and former public-school teacher, with a master's degree in education, she believes that academics come first; neither twin may have a girlfriend before college.
At first, Mrs. Scoggins used a curriculum from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., which sells texts and educational services for home-schoolers. Later, she experimented with other materials. The family spends $3,000 a year on textbooks, computer programs and exam fees and makes extensive use of the local library. The twins use the Internet as well, dissecting virtual-reality frogs for biology. Their mother grades their schoolwork. Jason's grade-point average is 3.97, marred only by a B in Latin. Jeremy is a close second, at 3.91.
In his spare time, Jason participates in 4-H and Gavel Club, a public-speaking organization, or watches his favorite TV show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" To his regret, he is a year too young to be a contestant. But he can pursue another lucrative prize -- the Oglethorpe scholarship.
In the lobby of the Oglethorpe performing-arts center, many of the contestants are fidgeting, aware that their comments in two seminars, and a writing assignment, will determine their financial aid. (Losers are guaranteed $10,500 a year, or $42,000.) But Jason seems serene. "It's almost like a nice philosophical debate with some friends," he says.
Once they split into groups for the first seminar, he is ready. His head cocked to one side, Jason listens as other students begin discussing a subject he has considered before: the travails of American education -- and, specifically, the work of E.D. Hirsch Jr., a leading proponent of the idea that schools are failing because there is no national canon.
Jason has another view: Public schools will never excel because they lack "intellectual capital" and have to compensate for too many social problems. "They have drug-education programs that take away from the three R's," he says. "I haven't been in real schools very often. But when I've seen them, they're wild. The parents don't care enough. I know it's said that schools should be agents of socialization. But that's not their role. Their role is to impart knowledge."
The other students gape, astonished by the attack, and somewhat defensive. "My friends are all ghetto kids," says Joseph "Jo Jo" Brisendine from Rockdale County High School in Conyers, Ga. "They're smarter than you give them credit for."
The next day, an ice storm shuts down Oglethorpe's phones. But Dennis Matthews, dean of enrollment management, reaches the Scogginses on a cell phone with the news. Jason has tied for the top score and won a full scholarship. Less demonstrative than the TV millionaires, Jason quietly says, "Thank you." Then he gives his mother, who is coaxing the baby to take a nap, the thumbs-up sign.