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Michigan Radio's Grading Michigan Schools is a multi-part series that takes an in-depth look at education in Michigan. We hear why one college student feels let down by the public school system in the state. We find out about "unschooling," an education philosophy that abandons textbooks and a curriculum. We also look at how the public school system is serving at-risk students through education for the very young and early intervention for kids with special education needs.Support for Grading Michigan Schools comes from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a founder of the Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative, and The Skillman Foundation, a voice for Detroit children since 1960.



Nov. 27, 2007
Some parents have rejected the traditional school setting for their children's education. For unschoolers, the classroom is the world around them.

On a weekday morning during the school year, many households with children are empty and quiet.

But not at the Buchbinders.

This is a work day at the Buchbinders. And Bailey and her sister Carly are pounding fence posts and rolling out wire fencing - helping to build a new pasture fence at the family's small farm.

Dawn Buchbinder is Carly and Bailey's mom. She says the night before, Bailey had to put her math skills to work to get ready for today's project. Her daughter first paced out where the fence would go.

"And then she had to find out how many posts were in between those steps, and then how many feet - yards, actually - were in an average step," says Buchbinder.

"Then she had to figure out how many rolls of fence we would need and how many posts we would need. So, she got her calculator out and worked on that one for awhile."

Buchbinder says working on projects like this gives her daughters a context for learning. She says when the girls start hearing terms like "perimeter" and "surface area," they'll remember putting up the pasture fence, and those ideas will have meaning.

She says learning is going on all the time at the Buchbinder home - although sometimes she has to remind her daughters that they ARE learning - just like their traditional-school friends and relatives.

"Our niece was visiting, and she was saying that she got an A on her science test," says Buchbinder, "and after she left Bailey was really disappointed: 'Mom, how come I can't learn science?'

"And at the time they were raising pollywogs on the front porch, she had caught a baby turtle, she had some cocoons that were in a cage wrapped around the back porch pole.... I mean, there were science projects all over the house, but she didn't realize it was science."

It's difficult to pin down the number of families practicing unschooling - in Michigan or elsewhere. Some estimates peg the number of home-schooled students in the state at 70,000 to 100,000.

But Michigan does not require home-schoolers to report to the state. There are no attendance requirements, no teacher qualification requirements, and no recordkeeping or testing requirements.

That makes Michigan one of the most permissive states in the country. And some critics say that hands-off attitude means parents are not held accountable for their children's education.

But Michigan's home-school climate wasn't always so liberal.

"Before the DeJong case, Michigan was one of the most heavily regulated home school states in the country," says Western Michigan University education professor James Muchmore.

Muchmore has studied the home school movement. He says the DeJong case resulted in a watershed state Supreme Court ruling in 1993 that overturned the convictions of Mark and Chris DeJonge. They were arrested and charged with criminal truancy for home schooling their children without being certified teachers.

Muchmore says since that decision, public attitudes have warmed to home-schooling.

"People aren't considered as weird as they used to be when they're home schooling. We're kind of developing a more accepting attitude now toward home-schoolers, and un-schoolers," says Muchmore.

Muchmore says that shift in attitudes, and favorable court rulings, have helped unschoolers come out from underground. They're setting up online forums to swap ideas, and education co-ops so kids can take advantage of other parents' expertise.

Bailey Buchbinder has taken advantage of that networking. She's in a band with other home-school kids, where she plays the flute, the clarinet, and the tuba. And eight-year-old Carly is now picking up the clarinet.

But learning instruments or deciding what they want to read or learn about is really up to the girls.

Dawn Buchbinder says her job as a mom and teacher is mostly to help her girls figure out what they want to do, and then give them the tools to help them get there.

"That's a lot of what I teach here with all the work we do is those things - character and integrity and self-discipline and perseverance - those are the things that lead people to become successful, no matter what it is that they're doing," says Buchbinder.

She says those traits helped her oldest daughter, Ayla, get into Eastern Kentucky University on a scholarship. And they helped 13-year-old Bailey land an internship at a petting farm.

The youngest daughter, Carly, says she's mostly interested in playing right now. She says what she likes most about being unschooled is her teacher.

"I just like you can snuggle up on a couch with your mom as a teacher, and you don't have to go to a school with a teacher who isn't your mom."

Contact Sarah Hulett at sarahhu@umich.edu © Copyright