Home-schooling parents have long maintained that their children are not only academically accomplished, but also socially well-adjusted.

A new study puts some serious teeth on their claims.

The Fraser Institute, a public-policy think tank in Vancouver, British Columbia, released results from its study — “Home Schooling: From the Extreme to the Mainstream” — last October. The study found that home-schooled children outperform their peers by four grade levels by the eighth grade.

It also found that home-schoolers are friendlier and have higher self-esteem than their public- and private-school peers.

According to the study, home-schooled students in Canada placed between the 82nd and 92nd percentile in reading and reached the 85th percentile in math. Overall, test scores for home schoolers placed between the 75th and 85th percentile. Public-school students scored at the 50th percentile, while private-school students' scores ranged from the 65th to the 75th percentile.

Home-schooled students also surpassed the national average on both of the major college-entrance tests, the ACT and the SAT, the research revealed.

In the United States, about 850,000 children are home schooled, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Not everyone is convinced by the recent spate of good press home schooling has enjoyed, however.

“I can take any sample of kids at my school and make it come out any way I wanted it to,” says Paul Young, principal of West Elementary School in Lancaster, Ohio. “I'm suspicious of these studies.”

A member of the National Association for Elementary School Principals, Young says he knows many home-schooled students who demonstrate poor social skills. He adds that, when he sees a student taken out of school and put into home schooling, he worries that the youngster's social skills will decline.

The principals' association, based in Alexandria, Va., has a document posted on its Web site stating that public schools need to work with home schoolers because many end up back in the public-school system.

The association also maintains that home schooling children may deprive them of important social experiences, isolate students from other social and ethnic groups, deny students the full range of academic experience and not permit effective assessment of academic standards.

Fringe Benefits

Mothers who home school say such concerns are both common and valid — but shortcomings are the exception rather than the norm.

Lori Brown, a mother of six who has been home-schooling for 10 years, says home-schooling parents are committed to making sure their children receive the best education both academically and socially. Her children are involved in a variety of activities outside the home, from church choir to Little League sports, that allow them to frequently interact with the community.

She also says that, if home-schooling didn't work, it would eventually show up in the grades.

“If you are too lenient on the grades, it will show up in the SAT and the college-entrance exams,” says Brown, of Springport, Ind. Her home-schooled son earned an academic scholarship to the University of Dallas.

And then there are the fringe benefits.

While religious education is usually taught one period per day at private Catholic schools, Brown says she can integrate the Catholic faith into all her children's studies, whether it's talking about Catholic history or stopping everything to call upon the Holy Spirit for help if one of her children is having trouble with an assignment.

“I'm here 24-7 with my kids and I can capture the teachable moments,” Brown says. “I realize that a [formal school setting] may not be able to do that. There are just too many students for each to get the one-on-one attention.”

Home-schooling mothers also say their children have plenty of opportunities to play with other children, including those from public and private schools, after school and on weekends.

Anne Welch, a mother of six from Greenwood, Ind., says her children interact with kids from all age groups — not just kids their own age. For example, her 14-year-old son is often asked to help his 5-year-old sibling with school work.

Welch points out that, in a formal school setting, students rarely interact with students outside their own age group.

Welch began home schooling her daughters due to academic pressures at their school. They seemed stressed about having to learn so much at once, she said. Now all her children are home schooled.

However, she doesn't blame the schools for not meeting the individualized learning needs of her children.

“I don't blame the teachers,” says Welch. “They have no other option. They are trying to teach 24 kids at once. I have the greatest respect for teachers. After teaching my own kids, I don't see how they teach that many or could give individualized attention like a home-school atmosphere can.”

Smart and Socialized

Principal Young doesn't dispute that home-schooled children get more individualized attention than their public-school peers.

Still, he believes that formal school settings provide skills that home schooling cannot. He said public schools provide a “silent service,” especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, by showing children what it means to be an American.

The National Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association declined to comment for this story, stating that they do not follow home schooling because it is not related to public schools.

Children who are home-schooled say they see no differences between themselves and their peers. Kristina Welch, 17, has been home-schooled since fifth grade. She has many friends who are in public or private schools; her younger brothers often play with the neighborhood kids.

While she agrees with most of the Fraser study, she doesn't think home-schooled children are more socially developed than their peers in the schools. “We're as socially developed,” she says.

Still, she is glad that she is home-schooled.

“If I had gone to a regular school, I would not have turned out to be the same person, because of peer pressure,” she says. “I would have turned out to be the person my friends wanted me to be, as opposed to who I really am. Home schooling saved me from all that.”

The Fraser study confirms not only the real-world experiences of home-schooling parents and children, but also a previous study. In 1994, a study by the Educational Resources Information Center in Bloomington, Ind., found that home-schooled children “gained the necessary skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to function in society at a rate similar to that of conventionally schooled children.”

Jennifer Del Vechio writes from Franklin, Indiana.