Teaching children at home

Sep 08, 2011

On Parenting blogger Janice D'Arcy discusses why more D.C. parents are choosing to educate their children at home instead of more traditional school settings.

Hi.  My name is Farrar and I have two young second graders who I'm home educating in the District.  I'm a former school teacher.  I blog about our home schooling as well as about children's books at I Capture the Rowhouse.

Welcome to our chat about home-schooling. Farrar Williams, a D.C. home-schooling parent, joins me, Janice D'Arcy, to talk about today's Post story "A home-grown movement" and about home-schooling in general.

Look forward to a lively chat!


I used to think the only kids being schooled at home were the ones who were racing through the grades and on their way to graduate from college years before any of their neighbors would reach high school. I assume that is not the case today (if it was ever true). But, I do wonder how these kids learn how to deal with others if they spend all of their time in their own homes. Part of going to school involves making friends, working with others and navigating the social landscape. I know that these kids can still play group sports and other after school activities, but is it the same thing?

No, socializing as a homeschooler is not "the same" as in school.  Many of us feel it's better.  There are a lot of negative behaviors and peer pressures in schools that homeschooling helps keep kids away from.  Of course, getting out and doing things, finding a peer group for your kids can be a challenge.  In an area like this one though, with a little effort, it's not so hard.  My kids participate in numerous activities.  We're a part of two small co-op groups with families we've known for years who we see on a very regular basis.  We see friends at least 3 days a week and usually more.  Basically, the "socialization question" is a non issue for us.

To second Farrar, my interviews suggested that many home-schooling parents, especially urban ones, are part-of established co-ops and informal groups so that their children spend much of the week learning alongside other children. That said, this is still one of the major issues when/if home-schoolers transition into the school environment.

Are there qualifications for teaching kids at home? I know I am not an expert in all subjects and would worry that my lack of knowledge would hurt my child.

Many states, including DC, require a high school diploma, though you can apply for a waiver.  Teachers are not experts in absolutely every field either.  To be a good educator, I think the primary thing you need is a desire to learn along with your children (or sometimes a little ahead of them!).  Homeschool parents tend to be lifelong learners.

How come you don't see more home-schooling parents opening little mini private schools for kids in other families in the neighborhood? It seems like there is a big hole in the education market there.

My guess is that the regulations are prohibitive.  As far as I know, there are not provisions for home educating a child other than your own in DC (as there are in other states).

I'd like nothing more than to teach my kids (now 5, 4 and 2) at home, but I'm a HS grad with minimal skills and knowledge (not a great reader) and am wondering, how the heck do I get started? Thanks!

There are lots of ways to get started.  There are great online communities with people to help out.  Two I go to are Secular Homeschool and The Well-Trained Mind Forums, but there are many others.  There are also good books to help you get started, such as Rebecca Rupp's Home Learning Year by Year.  And there are structured curricula, such as Calvert or Sonlight, which basically provide school in a box for parents who are nervous about their own ability to organize their children's education (or simply for the convenience).  Home schooling isn't for all parents, but I think almost anyone with a real committment to doing it can find a way to make it work.


My cousin and his wife homeschool eight kids in NC, none of which can read or do math on grade level, but they can quote all kinds of scripture. They ignore the mandates to test every year because it costs too much, so no one knows how these kids, ages 1-16 are doing. Who pays attention to home schooled kids? What should concerned relatives do in such a situation?

This is a state-by-state decision in terms of oversight. Many states mandate that students are periodically tested and/or are part of a group that oversees home-schooling. D.C. happens to have very little oversight in this regard. Home-schooling parents are required to keep a portfolio of their child's schoolwork and officials reserve the right to review the portfolio.

One might argue that education in general needs more standards and oversight.

In college the expereince and dealing with the the GMU bureaucracy was jsut as important as anything I learned in class. If your child isn't properely socialized, a term from canine training, aren't they going to have issues later on? I have had to fire a several recent college grads because they were home schooled and had problems dealing with customers and coworkers who didn't "believe."  By the way, one told me I wasn't going to heaven and was a heathen. "Shame on me," I told him. Jesus was a Jew and Catholic and never was a Christian. He also didnt like the photo from 1918 of my Irish revolutionary Catholic uncle hanging in my office. Any calls for recommendations come directly to me on these individuals.

Homeschooling is a very diverse group, more than public schools.  I think, just as you would not judge all schooled children by the actions of a few, nor is it fair to judge all homeschoolers by interactions with a few.  Many of us homeschool to introduce our kids to the world, to not shelter them.  Nor are all homeschoolers religious.

Do you know if homeschoolers have a good experience transitioning into either public or private schools? Do you think private schools welcome those previously homeschooled?

I know of people who have successfully put children in school, both public and private.  When I worked in a private school we did welcome previously homeschooled students.  Homeschooling is very diverse.  I've heard of students who are way ahead of their peers and others who are behind.  One thing I'll add is that I've heard that it can be difficult because of transcript issues to enter a homeschooled child back into high school.

To follow up on the question about why more home-schoolers aren't opening up small private schools, I actually think you are seeing much of this in D.C. in the form of charter schools. It's how many charters start out. If they are successful, they might expand and become one of the established schools that are difficult to get into, like the Chinese immersion public charter Yu Ying.

I am a little alarmed by the poster who describes herself (or himself) as a person with "minimal skills" who is "not a great reader" who wants to teach very young children at home. Isn't it crucial for children that age to have a teacher who is a strong reader? I am not questioning this parent's love and commitment, but it seems that they might not be in the best position to teach.

I understand this concern, but I think there are many things that can help compensate these days.  Many out of the box curricula sold to homeschoolers are extremely structured and organized.  They're scripted.  With love and patience and an ability to follow directions, they can be used by parents who may be unsure of their own skills.  Also, a parent who lacks academic skills may have other good skills to bring to the table - abilities in the arts, music, physical education, creativity, or other things.  Plus, with classes, co-ops and other community opportunities, much of a parent's job can be overseeing instead of directly teaching.  I readily agree that not everyone should homeschool.  Parents have to look at themselves and decide.  However, I'm also hesitant to tell anyone who has a desire to that it can't be done.  Nor do I like the idea of increased regulation for parental credentials.  After all, some "mere high school graduates" know a great deal.

Hi. I did not get to read the entire article this morning, but what was it about your neighborhood school that you didn't like? I am curious because I have seen plenty of high-needs schools that educate children very well, and other high-income schools that don't (and vice versa, of course!). It also seems to me that homeschooling generally works best when the system fits the child very well, i.e., the choice to homeschool because the child's needs are met through this unique environment -- not because of one's religion or lack of adequate public school options.

The answer to this depends on the particlar family. In general, the families I interviewed in this particular group of neighborhoods did not think their local school was safe and/or that it's test results were far below their own expectations.

These are neighborhoods were the perception of residential ammenties is better than the perception of the schools and parents have long sent their children to out-of-boundary schools with good reputations. The issue for them now is that they can no longer get into the out-of-boundary schools because they are filled with in-boundary students.

You may be right on the reality of how schools educate, but like everything, these choices are based on perception (and test results.)

There are many new options available now like the Inspired Teaching School which uses a child-centered approach. Very different from what you see in the public school system.

Having taught in both large and small schools, I can say that while I'm thrilled that new charter models are opening and I desire for parents to have as many choices as possible, none of these are like homeschooling.  Even the school where I taught with only 30 students is very different from having just a couple of kids to teach in your home.

Yes, but there is such a demand that the schools that develop a good reputation quickly fill up.

Our neighborhood school is fantastic. Wonderful. However, there are still those in my neighborhood, because of their family needs, because of other reasons, that have decided to home school. W e are not there at the moment, but I've been looking into it and if things change, I would most definitely go down that road. Sometimes, it's just that the school isn't a good fit. It doesn't mean it's a bad school.

This is a great point. Educational needs vary by child. A school with the right reputation does not mean it's right for a particular child.

That said, there have been a number of comments here about poorly executed home-schooling. Home-schooling can be a great educational experience, but it's not for every family.

I think homeschooling can be fabulous for lots of reasons, though I don't do it myself. However, I know a "homeschooling" mom who is not putting in the hours with her son. I know she means to do it but she works full-time and talks all the time about how when she gets home she's so exhausted she goes to sleep for hours. The kid is home all day with her live-in boyfriend, who has his own issues, so he does not do any schooling and probably provides only minimal supervision. The kid is in middle school, and this just seems to be a recipe for disaster. I guess it's not just an issue of him not getting proper education but also being in a bad family environment. I'm just a nosy neighbor, not a really close friend, but it seems *someone* should do something here. Is there anything I can do? I'm really reluctant to do anything like call Children and Family Services, but what other steps are there?

I think it's hard to know what's really happening in a home where you don't know it that well.  It may, indeed, be a big problem.  Or, it may be that the middle schooler works online through a program, does his work in the middle of the night (I know a couple of families with kids who school at odd hours) or is having a purposeful break or deschooling time.  Of course, if you really suspect abuse, then calling CFS is a good idea.  However, if you only feel that the child might not be getting the best education, then I think that's very hard for you to assess.

I was homes chooled for three years, went to a public magnet high school for four, and did private school for the balance of my K-12 education. I now have two degrees and a life I'm content with, so I believe my schooling worked for me. However I don't think it would have worked nearly so well if my parents weren't both masters educated and one with a strong science, math and technical background. It really helped that my father could quickly acclimate himself to whatever I was learning in Geometry, etc. I know a home educator who has a college degree in math and teaches math at her local co-op. And enrolling in something like that makes more sense to me than a parent who hated math and did the minimum in high school (which will in no way prepare a child for any STEM degree or career), trying to struggle his or her way through a pre-calculus course with his or her child.

What a great experience you had. One thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority (experts estimate 70%) of home-schooled children transition into a formal school by high school. Many of these families are providing the more generalized education of early grades.

It seems like these home-schooling parents are being selfish. They think that the public schools aren't good enough, but if they all participated, they would enhance the quality for ALL kids. Comments?

I've heard this argument many times.  I understand the idea that by working within the school system, parents can influence more change.  I'm glad there are some parents who want to do that.  However, I, like others, don't see that I would make enough of a difference in my own children's education.  Not only that, but for me, the anger and effort of doing that work would probably do me in.  We're people, we're not examples to be made or sacrificed to some future improvement in the system.  As I said in another answer, even if the schools were to become the innovative, amazing places I wish they were, they would still be nothing like homeschooling, which is really a unique educational experience.

Thanks for the response about charter schools. I am the person who posted the original question about mini private schools. A charter school sounds like a much bigger organization than what I was asking about. I was imagining, let's say a home-schooling parent has two kids and a couple of neighbors have two kids each that also attend the home school, making a total enrollment for the whole home school six kids. Is this really against the law? Thanks again.

It's not against the law, but forming a "school" requires much more -- not just in terms of building codes and insurance, but also in terms of testing and curriculum -- than having a few families meet several times a week in a homeschooling co-op. The latter is a very typical arrangement.


A lot of inspiration that I received to foster my love of learning came from a variety of teachers all the way from first grade through college. Are you ever worried that you won't be the sort of teacher who will inspire your children to learn? If you find the experience falling flat, will you transition your children to a school where there are teachers who may fit the bill?

My kids have a variety of teachers.  They have me.  They have my husband.  They have the other parents in our co-ops, who teach them twice a week.  They have their ballet teachers.  Their art teacher (well, they did last year), their summer camp counselors, their Destination Imagination coach, their soccer coaches.  They have the people in our community and the docents at the museums.  So...  no, I'm not worried!  If I ever encounter something I'm having trouble teaching, I'm not afraid to find a new teacher for it either.

I can see that allure of keeping kids at home and home schooling, and I have known some very successful kids who were home schooled. But I will not make that choice for my child (now 1) and future kids because I believe that public schools really need parents like me and my husband and children like my child. We are all part of a community. If everyone stayed home with their kids we would lose out on so much.

These last two questions come from the same interesting premise. It's an argument that often gets voiced in the voucher debate.

The other perspective is that children are individuals and their educational needs are individual. Is it "selfish" to send a special needs child to a specially-designed school or another child to a language-immersion program.

The overall concept may be worth debating, but many (most?) parents make choices for their children based on individual family needs.


I see what the families are worried about. However, as an educator, I would invite them to consider the well-replicated studies that show that the single biggest factor affecting elementary children's test results are the socioeconomic level of their parents. Therefore, even when test scores may be low, parents should not be too quick to dismiss a neighborhood school. Of course, the safety issue cannot be addressed so easily. I completely understand a parent not wanting a child to attend a school with a lot of discipline referrals, suspensions, etc.

This is absolutely true.  However, when you're talking about unhappy children, bored children, frustrated parents, or children who simply could be learning more, including many things not measured by standardized tests, then I think it's when we meet up with some of the many limitations of standardized testing.  The metrics that judge our neighborhood schools are pretty limited.

I spent a long weekend with these uneducated home-schooled kids, so I know they are suffering because of their parents. Again, who should a concerned relative contact?

Unless a person suspects abuse, there's no one to contact.  The reverse is also true.  Unless one suspects abuse in a school, it's difficult to affect change for a student who isn't learning.

I would just like to add that many homeschoolers are on a different timetable from the public schools.  A homeschooled 2nd grader who doesn't know who George Washington is might be doing a classical history cycle learning about the middle ages instead.  A family with an 8 year old who is just learning to read may have purposefully allowed her to work at her own pace.

When we became parents we moved to a neighborhood in lower Montgomery county with a great primary school. After a year, it simply didn't work for our child and we started home-shooling. It's been great. It's not for everyone -- not even for a minority of folks -- but it was the best choice for our child. When we really want to send folks around the bend, we tell them that a lot of what we do is "unschooling" (Google it). Of course, considering the lost wages of a parent staying at home, Sidwell Friends would be cheaper! LOL. Hi Farrar!

Some people stumble into homeschooling or unschooling and end up sticking with it because the lifestyle is terrific.  We don't have to worry about so many things - packed lunches, early busses, sick days, fitting in family vacations - that people have to worry about in even the best schools!

The problem with this argument is there is more wrong with public schooling than just the "quality" of the student body. Home-schoolers will always have an advantage over public (government) schools when it comes to flexibility/freedom of the curriculum. Even if 100 percent of the "good" kids were in the public school, it would still be the school board setting the curriculum, not me.

In a literal sense, yes, it is a selfish decision to homeschool because it is done thinking of one's family and children, not other peoples' children.  However, I'm not sure why this is an argument against homeschooling.  I also don't think it's a race.  I'm not educating my kids to "beat" public school kids - I'm doing it for their sakes.  I'm glad public schools are there.  I wish they were better, but I think they do an important job and don't do it nearly as badly as society likes to beat up on them about sometimes.  

was the norm until a few decades ago. Atticus Finch was home-schooled, and he was a lawyer.

As were most of our country's founding fathers!

My observations of h.s. moms, of various religions/reasons, is that they have one thing in common: They are well educated and had careers before becoming moms. As the kids get older, it might seem like being a SAHM is too empty. So they homeschool, thus making a full-time job for themselves. Women, enjoy the time when kids are at school! :)

I enjoy the time when my kids are at co-op.  And when they're in summer camp.  I didn't decide to do this because I'm bored.  And I made my decision long before I had my career or my kids.  Now that I'm not working, I don't find my life especially empty either.

Farrar, I'm surprised you embraced the phrase unschooling. When I was in the home-schooled community the only people who used it were those who were avoiding teaching their kids even the three Rs (at least well) by high school graduation and the rest of us were not fans because it reflected poorly on home education in general. Sure, kids can manage to not learn to read or do addition in all sorts of schooling situations, but parents who choose to "unschool" as an excuse for laziness make me see red....and they do exist!

I'm not an unschooler myself, but I know unschoolers.  I think it takes a lot of effort to unschool, but as a philosophy, I have no issues with it.  Many unschoolers do a lot of teaching with their kids, they just wait for the kids to request it or they leave interesting resources around (called strewing) for the kids to find and look at.  There's definitely an end of unschooling called radical unschooling that I'm less comfortable with, but I recognize that it's not up to me to say.  I trust parents to educate their children and I want people to trust me to do so with mine.

Thanks for all the questions!  I enjoyed answering them!

Thanks for a fruitful discussion. The conversation continues in the comment section below the story -- you can find it online in the Post Local section.


In This Chat
Janice D'Arcy
Janice D'Arcy writes On Parenting, a blog on news and events for parents in the Washington area. Read her story on the growing number of D.C. families who choose to educate their children at home, instead of using the region's public, private and charter schools.
Farrar Williams
Farrar Williams, a former teacher, home schools her twin boys. She was one of the first to join D.C. Area Preschool Homeschoolers, a group formed five years ago to host play groups and field trips. It has about 80 families.
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