Homeschooling a Personal Choice not a Movement
by Rebecca H. Davis - May 16, 2005
Based on personal experience with homeschooling and with participation in homeschool support groups and co-ops, the author offers insights into the diversity of reasons that motivate individuals to choose to homeschool, criticizing recent commentators and media pundits who suggest that the choice to home educate is part of a "movement" or "revolution." The author briefly reviews evidence suggesting the academic and social efficacy of homeschooling and suggests that while methodological questions remain in the extant literature, it is aparent that home educators are experiencing at least as much academic and social success as are public schools without benefit of public funds. Homeschooling thus makes a positive contribution to the educational system which should be acknowledged in future policy debates surrounding educational choice.
Every year, when I plan my childrens birthday parties, I have a moment of panic when I think What if no one can come? Im wondering if this is what members of the US Department of Education are now thinking in the wake of the agencys admission that the number of homeschooled children is growing at a rate ten times faster than the rate of growth of the general school-age population.
It was not long-ago that homeschooling was considered a radical choice embraced by small minorities of people largely on the far-left (inspired by John Holt) and far-right of the political, social and theological spectrum. Today, homeschooling has gone mainstream (Basham, 2001). I see this in my own life as I reflect on the fact that Ive chosen to homeschool my two children despite the fact that I was raised in a home in which I was taught that the civic duty of all good adults included voting, donating blood and supporting the local public school system (and, lest you think me a complete rebel who didnt appreciate the good home I was raised in, Ill point out that I still vote and give blood).
Though the number of homeschoolers in our country is growing at a noteworthy pace, I believe it is a mistake to refer to homeschooling as a revolution or movement. A movement implies that the group is collectively organized for the purpose of pursuing a commonly-held agenda. Many non-homeschoolers who seek to understand homeschooling choose to describe homeschooling in this language. One commentator recently wrote about two well-developed strains within the homeschool movement complete with distinct organizational structures, cultures, and rituals (Stevens, 2001). There are many homeschool organizations, most of which are support groups that largely exist to foster social opportunities such as park days and proms for homeschooled children and to offer fellowship for homeschooling parents (usually moms). There are also a number of co-ops (co-operative teaching ventures) designed again to offer social opportunities for children as well as to share responsibility for teaching classes that parents might feel unqualified to teach (such as foreign languages) or under funded to teach (such as lab sciences). Many of these organizations (especially the support group types) are very loosely organized, and participation can be erratic. The suggestion that these are part of an elaborate social movement (Stevens, 2001), does not square with my own observations, having participated in five different homeschool support groups and four different co-ops in two different communities and having been a member of numerous other homeschool virtual communities. Homeschoolers often have little in common with one another other than a commitment to providing an educational alternative to the public school for their children.
There are those homeschooling proponents who are part of a movement. These include the Alliance for the Separation of School & State (which now boasts about 26,000 members nationwide) and the Exodus Mandate. The Alliances stated goal is to end, rather than reform, government-sponsored education (which the Exodus Mandate calls Pharaohs education). Reportedly the Alliance indicated that reform of the school system was not possible because compromise was not possible. Their website reportedly once stated, Compromise is not possible: Some want prayer in school, some want condoms. Printing prayers on condoms satisfies nobody. Communities are split (Foster, 2002). Its not clear how many of the signatories to their Proclamation for the Separation of School & State are actually homeschooling.
In early 2002, Focus on the Familys James Dobson called for the removal of children from the public school system in California and in other places where the schools are teaching homosexual propaganda (Cutrer, 2002).
These homeschooling proponents with a larger social reform agenda are only a small minority of homeschoolers, though. Research from The Barna Group says that only one out of every seven homeschooling families is homeschooling for these reasons. The overwhelming majority are from a contingent that is politically moderate and not driven by a compelling personal relationship with Christ (The Barna Group, 2001).
The reality is that homeschoolers are a group of diverse people who are motivated to remove their children from the public school system (or never place their children inside the public school system) for a wide range factors, many of them personal, idiosyncratic, or specific to their local settings. As explanation for their decision to homeschool, the hundreds of homeschoolers I have met usually offer some combination of the following reasons.
Health reasons: Some parents I know have pulled their children out of the public school system because their children were sick all the time while in public school. Some of these children are medically fragile.
Giftedness: Many people who homeschool have gifted children who are not adequately challenged by the public school system.
Special needs: While many public school systems strive to serve the needs of special needs kids, many fall short. Frustration with Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) conferences that often turn adversarial, with school systems inadequately committed to serving the special needs of their kids orsometimeswith other students treatment of their child are reasons cited by parents who homeschool children with special needs.
Special interests: Some people homeschool their children because their children have strong, special interests (often interests not well-covered in the traditional curriculum of the average public school). One family I know, for example, has a daughter who is very gifted in ballet. When the daughter wanted to increase the amount of time she was taking dance lessons, she begged to be homeschooled so that she could complete her school instruction more quickly than she would in the typical 7-8 hour school day so that she would have more time to pursue dance instruction.
Peer pressure & Socialization: Many homeschoolers are motivated to remove their children from the public school system because they dont like the values prevalent in the public school system and dont want their children exposed to them all day long, every day. Interestingly, there is a range of values considered objectionable. Not all who homeschool are interested in shielding their children from the same set of values. Some homeschoolers offer a refrain of the lament about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll while others decry materialism, apathy, and other values prevalent in our countrys child/teen culture. Personally, as someone with a background in research and teaching in womens studies, I embrace a strong desire to keep my pre-teen daughter from the peer pressure/socialization experiences of our culture that teach that its more important for a woman to be thin and pretty than smart. Ive seen studies that show that young boys emerge from middle school with enhanced self-esteem while young girls are devastated by the middle school public school experience. As a feminist, Id like to raise a strong, confident, bright, capable woman who is not obsessed with her external physical appearance. Im not convinced that the public school (or her public school peer culture) is an ally in that process.
Family commitment: Many people homeschool because they want their family unit to be strong, and they believe that togetherness is key to realizing that goal. I have also heard more than one homeschool family say that back in the dark days when their children were in public school, all of their families evening family time was consumed by the imperative of doing meaningless homework assignments.
Geography and rural life: Many who live in very rural and remote places homeschool because of the difficulties of transporting a child to public school and of participating meaningfully in the life of a public school when they do not live close to that school. Homeschooling is the dominant mode of education in Alaska. In the rural community in which my children last went to public school, we were expected to place our small children on the school bus at 6:15 a.m. each day. If they had ridden the bus, they would have arrived home around 4:45 p.m. each day. Where is the time for exercise, creativity, play (and homework) if so many hours of each day are spent commuting to our local schools?
Academically weak public schools: Many people who homeschool choose to do so because their school systems are weak. I write to you from South Carolina which consistently ranks as one of the nations weakest public school systems.
School safety: Concerns about things like Columbine and Jonesboro, AR, sure, but also about garden variety bullying and sexual harassment, which can be quite traumatic to the children who experience them, propel parents to remove their children from public schools.
Educational/Pedagogical Philosophy: Many who homeschool believe that the reasons that the public schools dont work isnt that the teachers dont care or that the system isnt trying; many believe that the educational approach is fundamentally flawed, that kids simply dont learn the way that we teach them in the public school system. Often homeschoolers who reject the public school system for this reason embrace unschooling or more child-directed learning approaches.
Religious Reasons: This is probably the best-known of the reasons that people choose to homeschool. Many people who homeschool (though it is a very large mistake to assume all who homeschool) object to what they see as the removal of God from the public school system. Often, these homeschoolers do not want their children taught evolution. Sometimes these homeschoolers are concerned about their childrens (and families) beliefs and values being ridiculed or unsupported in the public school environment. Among these homeschoolers are not only Christians but also persons of other faiths (such as Muslims) who are minorities in largely Judeo-Christian communities.
Lifestyle Reasons: Many who homeschool for these reasons dont want to hurry their children out the door each morning. They often decry the pressure of the public school system and want a more relaxed, holistic, less artificial (perhaps less structured) lifestyle for their families.
Money: Some who homeschool reject the public school system and would like to send their children to an academically accredited private school but lack the economic resources to do so. Still others raise money as an issue as they point to the ways that poverty effects participation in the popular culture of student bodies. Some of these people are living lives of intentional poverty or voluntary simplicity and dont want their children involved in a public school culture that doesnt respect this choice/lifestyle.
One of the most significant things that I think the non-homeschooling public needs to understand about the motivations for homeschooling is that in almost every case, the reasons are multiple. Of the many homeschoolers Ive questioned about their motivations for homeschooling, Ive yet to hear a single-reason answer cited as a response.
Of further importance, I believe, is the fact that I have yet to hear a homeschooler articulate his or her motivations for homeschooling without expressing that they gave the issue considerable, careful thought. Ive yet to hear a homeschooler say that they didnt know why they did it or that they tried it on a whim. The decision is usually taken after a careful (sometimes lengthy) process of deliberation, research, and (often) prayer.
Further, as the collection of people who homeschool grows, there is likely to be a multiplier, take-off type of effect. Many people who begin homeschooling point to a personal relationship with someone else who is homeschooling or has successfully homeschooled (a sister, sister-in-law, friend in their church, neighbor ). These exemplars are not cited as if it were a so-and-so is doing it so I thought I would to, but more of I learned about the positive benefits of homeschooling from or I never thought that I could do it until my [friend, sister, etc.] explained to me how its done Homeschooling success is going to beget other homeschooling success.
As I consider the public debate surrounding the public school system, I am completely baffled by the fact that anyone wonders why people homeschool. The public school system has a huge PR problem. George W. Bush can channel hundreds of thousands of dollars to friendly conservative pundits like Armstrong Williams to tout No Child Left Behind but it wont make a dent in the crisis of confidence in the public education system.
For decades, political pundits and policy analysts have been talking about the failures of our educational system. Unless a member of the American public has lived in a cave, s/he has no doubt been inundated with stories about declining SAT scores, grade inflation, bullying, sexual harassment, sexual molestation, rape, student violence, teacher violence, and the international superiority of other countrys educational systems. After twenty-three years of teaching first grade, one of my family members retired from the public school system of a South Georgia county. While her years of teaching were filled with stories of adoration for and pride in her students, I rarely heard her speak about her public school teaching experience without also speaking about the intractable problems of the public school systemincluding racism, incompetent administration, ineffective bureaucratic intrusions in the classroom, inadequate resources, behavioral discipline, lack of parental support, and poor teacher morale. Though Ive heard these stories most frequently (and luridly) from this particular family member, I know few public school teachers who dont confess experience with similar frustrations.
From my perspective, the fact that the number of homeschooled children in our country has grown to, by some estimations, over two million is hardly surprising. Homeschooling is legal in all fifty states of the country, though the regulation of the practice differs markedly from state to state. One Canadian study revealed that homeschooling is a model of efficiency, especially when contrasted with the public school model. That study found that the average homeschooler spends about $550/child each year while the public school system, in contrast, spends almost $5,325/child (Bashram, 2001).
A number of studies comparing the academic performance of homeschooling to the public school system have argued that homeschooling produces superior academic results. On average, homeschoolers SAT scores are 80 points higher than their public school counterparts (Ray, 2003; Rudner, 1999). These same studies have shown the superiority of homeschool test scores (to their public school counterparts) to be independent of
whether or not the homeschooling parent has a college degree or educational background,
whether or not the state in which the homeschoolers operate heavily regulates the practice of homeschooling, and
a familys personal wealth.
This last findingthe independence of a familys personal wealthis of particular interest to many because of the sharp contrast to the results of the public school system in which the wealth of the neighborhoods served by the school system have been shown to play a significant role in the performance of the school system. Other interesting findings about the academic performance of homeschooling include the suggestion that children with (at least some) learning disabilities may achieve greater academic success as homeschoolers than in the public schools, even if their homeschooling parent has no special education training whatsoever. One study finds that ADD children who are homeschooled, for example, perform better on academic tests than do their public school ADD counterparts (Stevens, 1996).
Of course, no sooner do homeschoolers win the academic performance argument then someone is compelled to say the s-word, What about socialization? Were inevitably asked. Here again, homeschoolers stand on solid ground, vindicated by a growing body of social science research. In fact, some studies suggest that this, too, is an area where homeschoolers are outperforming their public school counterparts. Studies show that homeschool children are confident, self-assured, and adept with peer relationships (Ray, 2003). Some of these same studies show that homeschooled children are less likely to engage in aggression in social settings and that, after being homeschooled, young adults are more likely to engage in volunteerism.
Proud homeschoolers and homeschooling proponents have been quick to herald these findings and to offer hypotheses for why we might see superior academic achievement among homeschooled children including the fact that homeschool instruction is often (though not exclusively) one-on-one, and the teacher-to-student ratio is widely believed to play a role in the academic success of students. Others caution, however, that these studies have frequently been conducted by homeschool proponents like conservative think tanks.
Methodologically, there are some additional problems with these studies. For example, is it really that the homeschool instructional methods (which are diverse) are superior or is it that the children who are homeschooled are the same children who would have succeeded in the public school system (if they had been in the public school system)? The overwhelming majority of homeschool parents care passionately about their childs educational experience. (There are significant differences in how that passion manifests itself. For some, for example, the passion for their childrens education manifests itself as a preoccupation with the child receiving a religious rather than secular humanist education. For others, as another example, this might manifest itself in a child-directed educational experience such as unschooling. Certainly, these two examples of ways that the passion for education among homeschoolers manifests itself are far from exhaustive). For the sake of discussing the body of studies that purport to show the academic superiority of homeschooling, the point is that this is a characteristic that is common to most homeschoolers. If their children were in the public school system, might they still care passionately about their childrens education? Might they be the very involved public school parents that might ensure that their children had a superior educational experience inside the public school system? And, if this is the case, might the exodus from the public school system of these homeschooling parents actually further depress the academic performance of the public school system? (Note that this last thought brings in additional methodological questions about a comparison of the current public school system sans homeschool population with the current homeschool population). These are questions that we are not able to answer from available studies. No doubt additional studies are warranted.
While the reasons that homeschoolers cite for their decisions are numerous, diverse, and often particularistic, homeschoolers embrace homeschooling in an era in which the public school system is experiencing a crisis of confidence that it is not likely to overcome in the near future (or ever). No small part of understanding the growth in the number of homeschoolers is understanding this environmental variable. Homeschooling has emerged as a successful alternative to a system that is largely believed to be a failure.
Despite lingering methodological questions about homeschool versus public school comparative studies, what is clear is that homeschoolers are doing at least as well as the public school system without public school money and without need of government oversight. Its been suggested that homeschoolers may be saving the public millions annually. The government and the public at large should thank us and leave us alone.
Barna Group. (2001, August 20). Home school families have different backgrounds than commonly assumed. The Barna Update. Available: http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=96
Basham, P. (2001). Home schooling: From the extreme to the mainstream. Public Policy Sources, 51
Cutrer, C. (2002, August 5). Get our kids out. Christianity Today, 26 (9), 15
Foster, J. (2002, April 16). Anti-public school movement grows. Worldnet Daily. Available:
Rudner, L. M. (1999). The scholastic achievement and demographic characteristics of home school students in 1998. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 7 (8). Available: http://epaa.asu.edu
Stevens, M. (2001). Kingdom of children: Culture and controversy in the homeschooling movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Stevens, S. (1996). Homeschooling LD/ADD children: Great idea or big mistake? In S.H. Stevens. The LD child and the ADHD child: Ways parents and professionals can help (pp. 216-231). Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair Publisher. Available: http://www.ldonline.org/