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Report card on home schooling in US

Study finds children taught by parents perform above national average.

High-schooler Jennifer Bridges doesn't need to worry about getting straight A's or taking tests. Her mom is her teacher.

"She knows what she needs to accomplish and structures her own day," says her mother, Annette Bridges, who has been home-schooling Jennifer for six years at their cattle ranch in Tioga, Texas. The flexibility allows Jennifer to spend more time in dance class - not to mention helping out with ranch chores.

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The Bridges family is part of a growing group of Americans who've found that home is where the mind is.

Home schooling is emerging as the fastest-growing alternative to public education. As it breaks old stereotypes - as an easy out for students who can't cope with academic demands, or as an alternative for religious families who want strong moral instruction along with ABCs - evidence is mounting that kids taught at home are doing just fine.

In fact, as a group, home-schooled children score significantly better on standardized tests than students in public or even private schools, according to a growing body of research.

Like charter schools and voucher programs, the home-schooling movement is fueled by parents fed up with large class sizes, low academic standards, peer pressures, and the high cost of private education.

"Parents want strong academics for children," says Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, an independent organization based in Salem, Ore. "They want ... closer relationships ... they want guided and reasoned social interactions."

About 1.2 million - roughly 2 percent - of school-age children are educated at home, experts say. The number of home- schoolers has increased by 15 to 20 percent a year since 1985.

It's truly a grass-roots movement, says Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va. "Parents pick home schooling over other options because they see other families who've been successful."

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This week, the association released a study showing that students taught at home scored higher than their public- and private-school counterparts in every subject of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Based on 20,000 home students, the report said kids in Grades 1 to 4 perform one grade level higher than their public- and private-school peers. By eighth grade, the average home student performs four grade levels above the national average.

Still, critics say children taught at home are missing out on some of the basics that can come only with a classroom education: learning to get along with others and taking part in group discussions or team activities. Parents don't always make the best educators, they argue, because they lack objectivity or proper qualifications.

"Anybody can drill facts into students' heads that will allow them to do better on tests," says Jackie Palka, an education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and a former elementary-school teacher. "We're preparing them for a world where they have to go out and talk to other people. Part of that is bouncing ideas off of each other...."

ONE reason for the rising number of home-schoolers is that laws only recently started allowing the approach, says Scott Somerville, a lawyer with the Home School Legal Defense Association. "It's only been legal in all 50 states since 1993," he says. As recently as 1980, "it was illegal in 30 states."

State regulation of home schooling varies, Mr. Somerville says. Parents typically must first notify their school districts, and their children must take courses similar to those in public schools. Often, home-schooled children must pass standardized tests, he says.

If neighbors once eyed home-school families with suspicion, that attitude has been softening. Of parents who teach at home, 88 percent have studied beyond high school (compared with 50 percent of parents nationwide). Indeed, 1 in 4 children taught at home have a parent who's a certified teacher.

Sage Cole of Manchester, Mass., has never known anything else: Her mother has been her only teacher. The teen doesn't feel she's missing out on the roller-coaster highs and lows associated with high school social scenes. "What I hear [about high school] is mostly negative," Sage says, "and the positive stuff doesn't seem worth. it."

She's studying Italian and calculus at home, and English composition via an online class through California's Stanford University. Home learning, she says, lets her practice violin more. And she carves out social time with peers at Boston's New England Conservatory, where she takes instruction.

Researchers expect home schooling to flourish, especially as it becomes more mainstream. Many home-schooled students go on to college, and given the Internet's potential to broaden the scope of the movement by expanding curriculum options, scholars predict it will continue to gain momentum.

"Like any form of schooling, it doesn't always work for everyone," says Donald Erickson, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has studied home schooling. "But I think it's been vastly underrated. Study after study says [these children] do exceptionally well."

*Stephanie Cook is on the Monitor staff.

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