June 5, 2006
The Gilded Age of Home Schooling
By SUSAN SAULNY
In what is an elite tweak on home schooling — and a throwback to the gilded days of education by governess or tutor — growing numbers of families are choosing the ultimate in private school: hiring teachers to educate their children in their own homes.
Unlike the more familiar home-schoolers of recent years, these families are not trying to get more religion into their children's lives, or escape what some consider the tyranny of the government's hand in schools. In fact, many say they have no argument with ordinary education — it just does not fit their lifestyles.
Lisa Mazzoni's family splits its time between Marina del Rey, Calif., and Delray Beach, Fla. Lisa has her algebra and history lessons delivered poolside sometimes or on her condominium's rooftop, where she and her teacher enjoy the sun and have a view of the Pacific Ocean south of Santa Monica.
"For someone who travels a lot or has a parent who travels and wants to keep the family together, it's an excellent choice," said Lisa's mother, Trish Mazzoni, who with her husband owns a speedboat company.
The cost for such teachers generally runs $70 to $110 an hour. And depending on how many hours a teacher works, and how many teachers are involved, the price can equal or surpass tuition in the upper echelon of private schools in New York City or Los Angeles, where $30,000 a year is not unheard of.
Other parents say the model works for children who are sick, for children who are in show business or for those with learning disabilities.
"It's a hidden group of folks, but it's growing enormously," said Luis Huerta, a professor of public policy and education at Teachers College of Columbia University, whose national research includes a focus on home schooling.
The United States Department of Education last did a survey on home schooling in 2003. That survey did not ask about full-time in-home teachers. But it found that from 1999 to 2003, the number of children who were educated at home had soared, increasing by 29 percent, to 1.1 million students nationwide. It also found that, of those, 21 percent used a tutor.
Home schooling is legal in every state, though some regulate it more than others. Home-school teachers do not require certification, and the only common requirement from state to state is that students meet compulsory-attendance rules.
Scholars who study home-schooling trends, business owners who serve home-schooling families and abundant anecdotal evidence also suggest that private teaching arrangements are on the rise. Some families do it for short stints, others for years at a time.
Bob Harraka, president of Professional Tutors of America, has about 6,000 teachers from 14 states on his payroll in Orange County, Calif., but cannot meet a third of the requests for in-home education that come in, he said, because they are so specialized or extravagant: a family wants a teacher to instruct in the art of Frisbee throwing, button sewing or Latin grammar. A family wants a teacher to accompany them for a yearlong voyage at sea.
"Sailing comes up at least once or twice a year," Mr. Harraka said.
Parents say in-home teaching arrangements offer unparalleled levels of academic attention and flexibility in scheduling, in addition to a sense of family cohesion and autonomy over what children learn. To them, these advantages make up for the lack of a school social life, which they say can be replicated through group lessons in, say, ballet or sculpture.
Jon D. Snyder, dean of the Bank Street College of Education in New York, said his main concerns about this form of education were whether tutors and students were a good fit, and whether students got enough social interaction.
"From a purely academic standpoint, it goes back to a much earlier era," Dr. Snyder said. "The notion of individual tutorials is a time-honored tradition, particularly among the elite."
Think Plato, John Stuart Mill and George Washington. Philosopher kings and gentleman farmers. Because of the cost of in-home tutoring, the idea will probably not spread like wildfire, and just as well, Dr. Snyder said.
"Public education has social goals; that's why we pay tax dollars for it," he said. "When Socrates was tutoring Plato, he wasn't concerned about educating the other people in Greece. They were just concerned about educating Plato."
On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Krystal and Tiffany Wheeler earn high school credits in adjacent pastel bedrooms after breakfast. The teachers come to them.
Their mother, Charlene Royce, said she wanted her girls to experience the benefits of a personalized education but did not feel comfortable teaching herself.
"I feel that education is better this way, one on one," said Ms. Royce, whose expertise is in finding electronics companies in which to invest. "It was never an option for me to do it — I wouldn't know how."
For help, she turned to a Manhattan business, On Location Education, which took care of the logistics, providing her with curricula and teachers. Ms. Royce gets weekly progress reports and a visit every couple of months from a woman she calls "the mobile principal."
To meet their social needs — and for exercise — Tiffany and Krystal attend dance and piano classes, among other things, and belong to a gym.
Lisa Mazzoni takes acting and dance classes in Hollywood. She is also enrolled in a school for distance learning that provides a curriculum for her tutor, Rob Cox, of Professional Tutors of America, to teach.
"I do love the fact that instead of waking up at 5:30 every morning I get to wake up at 8:30," said Lisa, who is 17 and attended private school until this year.
"It makes life so much easier," Lisa continued. "I don't have to worry about missing tests and if I really wanted to, I could bring the work with me — because it's all in the computer — if I'm in Florida visiting my dad or going to a boat race."
When Nick Niell, an investment banker, and his wife, Sarah, moved to New York from East Sussex, England, for about a year in 2003, four teachers would come on weekdays to Mr. Niell's townhouse on 69th Street near Madison Avenue to teach his three school-aged children. Mr. Niell said he could not find a British school in the city and wanted his children to study the same things they would have studied in England. A floor of the house was converted into classroom space.
"It was quite good fun," said Mr. Niell, whose teachers came through Partners with Parents, a Manhattan in-home tutoring service.
The families embracing the one-on-one home-school model are turning the original concept on its head. Dr. Huerta said the popular notion is that home-schoolers leave schools they see as troubled, certain they can do better as teachers themselves. Hiring teachers for full-time instruction is not typical.
The new and more expansive definitions of home schooling irritate some traditionalists who want to keep the model simpler. "People use the term home schooling for all sorts of interesting things these days," said Celeste Land, a member of the board at the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers. "Obviously it's not pure home schooling."
But the growing number of home-school support groups has made it easier for the new model to develop. And tutoring is more in the public consciousness these days in part because of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which includes a tutoring component, and the vast array of test prep tutoring services being pitched to an increasingly tested national student body.
Companies that supply teachers and curricula are abundant, also making it easier for families to step away from traditional schools, experts say. And though many who follow the new model are wealthy, increasing numbers of middle class families more sociologically and racially diverse have begun to school their children at home, according to education officials and tutor-service companies.
Laurie Gerber, president of Partners with Parents, said she started to get requests for in-home teachers about three or four years ago.
"Our tutoring business started to become a huge percentage of home-schooling clients, as opposed to tutoring," Ms. Gerber said. "We started a whole home-schooling wing."
The teachers who are hired to home school say the job is great.
"I love it; it's a dream come true," said Mr. Cox, who tutors Lisa Mazzoni. He is a former television and radio news reporter as well as an actor and a certified teacher.
"If you want to travel or have some other business to attend to, there isn't a school system dependent on you being there," he said. "It's your own individual school that operates according to your needs."
Tiffany Wheeler's tutor, Nancy Falong, retired a few years ago after 32 years as a teacher in the New Jersey public schools. Now she works for On Location Education. Sitting next to Tiffany last week, their two world history books turned to the same page on the Marshall Plan, she expressed a sense of delight. "This is pure teaching."
And Tiffany, looking relaxed with bare feet under her bedroom desk, said, "It's fun."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company