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Chuck Carney
Indiana University School of Education

Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009

New book provides insight into growing homeschooling movement

School of Education professor chronicles families for two years

Aug. 25, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In a new book that Publishers Weekly says "puts a human face on Christian homeschooling," a professor at the Indiana University School of Education chronicles the stories of six conservative Christian families from across the country and analyzes the growing homeschooling movement.

Kunzman photo

Kirkwood Photo Lab Portrait Studio

Robert Kunzman

Write these Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling (Beacon Press) is written by Robert Kunzman, associate professor for curriculum and instruction. Over two years Kunzman followed families in Los Angeles, Vermont, rural Tennessee, Oregon, and northwestern Indiana as they homeschooled their children.

Kunzman -- whose research started with the basic questions: "What are homeschoolers doing all day, and why are they doing it? -- said that the astonishing growth in homeschooling over the past several years piqued his interest. Federal statistics released in December 2008 showed a 74 percent increase in homeschoolers between 1999 and 2007.

In the book, Kunzman notes that the federal estimate of 1.5 million homeschoolers is almost certainly low, since many homeschoolers are unwilling to participate in government surveys. Nearly a quarter of states don't require families to notify the government that they are homeschooling.

While total numbers are a guessing game, most observers agree that conservative Christians make up the largest subset of homeschoolers. Kunzman figured much of the conservative Christian growth had something to do with a desire to shape the general culture.

"While there is a thread of that running through, I found it was much more of a talking point for organizational advocacy and promoters of homeschooling than a practice I saw in day-to-day lives of families," he said. "Instead, what I saw most powerfully in the lives of families -- and I think this holds true beyond conservative Christians or religious homeschoolers in general -- is the fundamental conviction that parents should have the sole authority over the raising and education of their children, and the state has no business interfering in that."

The title of the book, Write these Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling, reflects the sense of solemn duty these homeschool parents have. Several mentioned a verse from the Bible, Deuteronomy 6:6-9, when speaking of their motivation. "It talks about how you need to learn God's commandments and write them on your hearts," Kunzman said. "And one of the mothers paraphrased it for me as 'we're supposed to write these laws on our children.' So that was sort of the image that came up again and again in these conversations with parents. It's not just about an academic education; it's something far more significant to them and extends to the whole of their lives."

Through portraits of the families, Kunzman explores issues the growth of homeschoolers has created. He points out that regulations regarding homeschooling vary widely from state to state. "The conclusion that I reached is that much of the attempt to regulate homeschooling is misguided, if only because it's impractical, and I don't think regulation sets out to do what it says it will do," Kunzman said.

He recommends basic skills testing to ensure that children's basic educational interests are being served. "I suspect the large number of homeschooled families would meet those expectations, and then we can focus our concern on the perhaps small number of families that seriously neglect their children's education," he said. "As it is now, I think that many states ask for too much data from homeschoolers that can't really be verified, and thus end up letting the most troubling homeschool situations slip through the cracks. And those children ultimately end up paying the price."

The book illustrates a variety of homeschooling experiences within the families, and a range of quality as well -- among them, an Oregon family who learns biology by butchering elk on their ranch; a young Los Angeles girl whose learning disability is overlooked by her mother; a Vermont teenager who memorizes entire books of the Bible verbatim; and a 12-year-old from Tennessee who still does simple math on his fingers.

Kunzman's handling of the positives and negatives surrounding homeschooling are drawing critical praise from reviewers. "The book has a remarkably balanced tone," according to Publishers Weekly. Booklist calls it "an important, thoughtful contribution to the literature on homeschooling in particular and the literature on education in general."

The book is an extension of continuing research on homeschooling Kunzman has done over the last several years. He has recently established a Website to provide easier access to homeschool research and scholarship. The site features a compendium of more than 1,000 homeschooling studies, as well as a "Frequently Asked Questions" section and other links. Kunzman created the site to combat what he says is a consistent misrepresentation of existing studies on homeschooling.