Elizabeth and Teddy Dean are learning about the Italian scientist Galileo, so they troop into the kitchen, where their mother Lisa starts by reviewing some facts about the Renaissance.
Elizabeth, 11, and Teddy, 8, have never gone to school. Their teachers are primarily their parents, which puts them into what is believed to be the fast-growing sector of the U.S. education system—the home-school movement.
For their science lesson, Teddy and Elizabeth are joined by three other home-schooled children and their mother, who live down the street in their suburb midway between Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Before the lesson starts, all five kids change into Renaissance costumes—long dresses and bonnets for the girls, tunics and swords for the boys.
“We definitely have a lot more fun than kids who go to school,” Elizabeth said.
Nobody is quite sure exactly how many American children are being taught at home. The National Center for Education Statistics, in a 2003 survey, put the number that year at 1.1 million. The Home School Legal Defense Association, which represents some 80,000 member families, says the figure now is quite a bit higher—between 1.7 and 2.1 million.
But there is no disagreement about the explosive growth of the movement—29 percent from 1999 to 2003 according to the NCES study, or 7 to 15 percent a year according to HSLDA.
This growth has spawned an estimated $750 million a year market supplying parents with teaching aids and lesson plans to fit every religious and political philosophy. Home-schooled children regularly show up in the finals of national spelling competitions, generating publicity for the movement.
Parents cite many reasons for deciding to opt out of formal education and teach their children at home. In the NCES study, 31 percent said they were concerned about drugs, safety or negative peer pressure in schools; 30 percent wanted to provide religious or moral instruction while 16 percent said they were dissatisfied with academic standards in their local schools.
The movement remains overwhelmingly white and middle class but it is growing fast among black and Hispanic families and becoming more politically and religiously diverse as well.