At School, at Home: Homeschooling in D.C.

What's it like to homeschool in D.C.?

My twin sons, who turn six today, are among the approximately 1.5 million American children currently being educated at home.

Rather than attend a traditional school five days per week, they spend their days doing projects, reading and being read to, and going through a curriculum designed by my wife, a former teacher with an advanced degree in education.

Homeschooling is a rapidly growing phenomenon in the U.S., and it is sometimes misunderstood. There are many kinds of homeschooling -- from the relatively small number of parents who run a traditional school in miniature inside their homes, to "unschoolers" who believe the best approach is to give children access to enriching experiences and let them learn as they will -- with a wide array of approaches in between.

In our own home school, we use some formal materials, but rely more on experiments, projects, and books from the library. Our sons do take classes, but at a range of institutions around the D.C. area, not at one school. We are also involved in two cooperative groups with other homeschooling families, with regularly scheduled meetings and activities. Children like mine may not necessarily be doing something "academic" at 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon -- but they might be at 7 p.m. on a Saturday.

The D.C. area is arguably the best in the country for homeschooling. There are roughly 200 homeschooling families in D.C. proper, and hundreds more in the vicinity, and not only do we have a wide range of world-class museums, but they are also free. If we lived in New York, I’d be loath to take my young sons to the Museum of Modern Art or the Met because of the expense. In Washington, I often take them to a gallery or a museum on a typical afternoon, since we can dip in and out without going broke. They adore the Hirshhorn.

Homeschooling was pretty much the norm in the early history of the U.S., when public schools did not exist. But the positive development of universal educational opportunity around the start of the 20th century changed that. Tax-funded public education helped end the abusive practices of child labor, and ensured that everyone would be able to get a basic education regardless of economic status.

Later, however, some parents and educators began wondering if they could do better outside the system. Foremost among these was the author and educational philosopher John Holt, who challenged the entrenched educational establishment in 1964’s “How Children Fail” and 1967’s “How Children Learn.”

During the 1970s, Holt and other educators proposed other methods, including education at home. Later, Christian conservatives, distressed by the values they felt were being taught in public schools, took up the banner, creating an odd alliance of left and right that is today’s homeschooling community.

Homeschooling is not right for every child, nor is it right -- or practical -- for every family. But along with other recent innovations like charter schools and online classes, it is an increasingly common option for families who seek to direct their children’s education in their own ways.

As NBC Washington’s Education Nation week continues, tomorrow I’ll share the experiences of some other D.C.-area homeschooling families.

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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