Home schooling is a term used to refer to the education of children by their parents or guardians in a setting other than a public or private school, most often in their homes. Home schooling styles vary substantially; there is no typical home schooling day. Methods of instruction include, but are not limited to the parent directly instructing the child, the child watching a video recording or satellite feed of an actual classroom, completing self-study workbooks or computer programs, some types of online instruction, or reading literature (Clements, 2004). Additional activities may include field trips, volunteering, scouting, organized sports, or taking classes through a home school cooperative in which parents teach groups of students. There is a practice often described as unschooling in which no traditional educational activities are employed, but students are encouraged to learn through life experiences (Clements, 2004). An example might be learning geometry, physics, drawing, and economics through the planning and construction of a structure such as a cabin or small home.
Parents' right to direct the education of their children is founded on the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as interpreted in Pierce v. Society of Sisters. In 1925, after the state of Oregon adopted a law requiring all children to be educated in public schools, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that private schools have the right to exist and that parents have the right to direct the upbringing and education of their children (Bloom, 2003). This decision has been commonly used to support home schooling, as have several legal opinions since (e.g., Troxel v. Granville, decided June 5, 2000, as cited in Bloom, 2003).
State legislatures, influenced by repeated legal challenges from home schooling families, gradually changed their laws to permit the practice of home schooling as it grew in popularity during the 1980s. By 1993 home schooling had become legal in all 50 states in one form or another. The increased availability of home schooling as an educational option and reduced stigma toward home schooling since the 1980s partially explains its estimated annual growth rate of 15 to 20 percent during the 1990s (Lines, 2000). As of 2003 home schoolers constituted approximately 2.2 percent of the total school-age population (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2006). However, attempts to pin down the actual number of home schooled children found that 2 to 3 percent of the school-age population remained unaccounted for in either home school or traditional school reporting, so the number could actually be closer to 5 percent. Because not all states require registration of home school families, the exact number of children being home schooled is difficult to determine (Lines, 2000).
Home schoolers have traditionally been thought to consist primarily of very conservative or very liberal families. Religiosity is significantly associated with both private schooling and home schooling. Evangelical Protestant parents are more likely to home school than are other groups of parents, but do not constitute the majority of home schoolers (Isenberg, 2007). Since the rapid increase in home schooling during the 1980s and 1990s, families from many religious and political persuasions are found among those home schooling (Reich, 2002; Romanowski, 2001). The typical home schooled child comes from a two-parent household in which parents have an above-average level of education, according to the U.S. Department of Education Trends in Schools from 1993–1999 (NCES, 2003). Compared with private school children, however, home school children tend to come from less affluent and more rural households.
After completing an empirical study investigating parents' reasons for home schooling, Green and Hoover-Dempsey stated, “Homeschool parents appear to decide to home-school not so much because they believe that public schools cannot educate their children but because they believe that they are personally responsible for their child's education and they are capable of educating their children well in ways consistent with their priorities” (2007, p. 278). According to Brian Ray (2006), president of the National Home Education Research Institute [NHERI], primary goals prompting families to home school include the following:
Teach a particular set of values, beliefs, and worldview
Accomplish more academically than in schools
Customize or individualize the curriculum and learning environment for each child
Use pedagogical approaches other than those typical in institutional schools, enhance family relationships between children and parents and among siblings
Provide guided and reasoned social interactions with youthful peers and adults
Provide a safer environment for children and youth, given problems in schools with physical violence, drugs and alcohol, psychological abuse, and improper and unhealthy sexuality
The National Home Education Network publication Reasons to Home School listed spending more time together as a family as the number one reason to home school. In 1999 and 2003, the National Household Education Surveys Program (NHES) collected responses from a nationally representative sample regarding reasons people choose to home school. The top reasons were “concerns about the environment” of other schools (31%), “to provide religious or moral instruction” (30%), and “dissatisfaction with academic instruction” at other schools (16%, NCES, 2004, p. 2). Isenberg (2007), by combining several sources of data on reasons for home schooling, supported the idea that approximately 30% of parents home school primarily for religious reasons (25% to 52%, depending on the year of data collection) but that educational reasons are more often cited as reasons for home schooling. These include dissatisfaction with current public schools as well as disability or exceptionality of the child being home schooled.
Many parents who choose to home school cite a weakening of emphasis on the teaching of traditional school subjects such as writing and mathematics in public schools and a promotion of certain social constructs such as tolerance. For example, as states enact legislation that mandates teaching tolerance regarding such controversial subjects as homosexuality, parents who object to those subjects being taught to their children become more likely to remove their children from public schools. This exodus from schools, seen as many educators as sheltering children from developing a broader world view, is seen by home schooling parents as a chance to both teach children their own world view and protect their children from indoctrination with competing views.
There is abundant evidence that home school students tend to be quite successful academically and socially. Home schoolers' average test scores have been well above that of their public and private school counterparts on average. In fact, as of 2008, no study indicated lower achievement (Lines, 2000) or poorer adjustment of home-schooled children. However, just as there is difficulty obtaining an accurate number of children being home schooled, there is difficulty ensuring the representativeness of data reporting on the effectiveness of home schooling. It is possible that those parents who are more successful at home schooling are also more likely to respond to surveys, report achievement data, have their children participate in standardized testing, and have children who apply for college admission.
Home Schooling and Achievement. In 1998 Lawrence Rudner of the University of Maryland conducted a study of 20,760 home schooled children who took the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills or the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency. Among the findings were the following:
The median scores for every subtest at every grade (most in the 70th to 80th percentile) were well above those of public and private school students.
Almost 25 percent of home school students were enrolled one or more grades above their age-level peers in public and private schools.
On average, home school students in grades 1 to 4 performed one grade level above their age-level public/private school peers.
The achievement test score gap between home school students and public/private school students widens from grade 5 upwards.
Students who have been home schooled their entire academic lives have higher scholastic achievement test scores than students who also have attended other educational institutions.
Rudner's findings are not atypical. An earlier study by Ray (1997) showed higher standardized test scores among home school students than among the general population. A separate study found that home school children in the state of Washington consistently scored above the national average in reading, language, math, and science. Of course, these are data from children who participated in these assessments. Nothing is known about children who were not tested.
In a survey of adults aged 18 to 24 who had been home schooled, more than 74 percent have taken college-level courses—as compared with 46 percent for the general U.S. population. An overwhelming majority of them report that they are glad they were home schooled (Ray, 2006). In a related study, it was found that, while the potential for success in college did not differ significantly between home school graduates and conventional-school graduates, home school students did earn higher scores on the ACT English subtest (Ensign, 1997).
Perceptions of home schoolers applying for college admission became more favorable between 1993 and 2008. As of 2004, approximately 75 percent of institutions had a home school admission policy, and the vast majority of college admissions officers responding to the survey reported that they expected home-schooled students to do as well or better than non-home schooled students. In fact, no significant differences are typically found between home schooled and traditionally schooled first-year college students on ACT score, GPA, or retention.
The home schoolers' achievements that have gained the most public attention have been spelling and geography bee wins. In 2001, the winner of the National Spelling Bee was the third winner in five years to have been home schooled. Ten percent of the 2001 spelling bee contestants were home schooled (which is significant given that home schoolers made up less than 5 percent of the student population with some estimates as low as 2 percent). In 2000, eight of the finalists had been home schooled, with home schoolers taking the top three places.
Home Schooling and Socialization. The primary concern expressed about home schooling does not involve academic achievement, but tends to be related to students' socialization or more accurately lack of socialization. Those concerned envision home schoolers as being isolated with their parents, having little cultural exposure, little opportunity to interact with other children, and having minimal contact with the world beyond their homes. In truth, for many home schoolers the opposite is true. Some have such an excess of social and extracurricular activities that having time to complete their studies can be challenging. Many, if not most home schooling parents supplement academic material with extracurricular activities such as music lessons, sports, scouting, church activities, and other endeavors that engage children with their peers (Clements, 2004).
Not only are findings about socialization of home-schooled children not negative, several researchers have found an overwhelmingly positive picture of the socialization of home school students (see, for example, Medlin, 2000). Home schoolers are provided opportunities that foster positive interaction and they also are protected from many sources of negative socialization (Lines, 2000; Romanowski, 2001; Shyers, 1992). Richard Medlin of Stetson University found that self-concept was higher for home school students than for public school students, and in a blind, controlled study comparing 70 home school with 70 non-home school children, the former had fewer behavioral disorders (Lines, 2000).
Home Schooling and Homogenization. One goal of public education is to provide common experiences for children with the goal being some degree of homogenization of citizens. Along with fears about lack of socialization in home schoolers, an additional criticism involves an alleged lack of homogenization of home school children. Some, such as Rob Reich (2002) of Stanford University, believe that children should be exposed to a common set of ideas and have a common set of experiences. He sees a civic peril in insulating children from certain ideas. However, the same argument could be leveled against public schools. The practice of prohibiting the expression of religion in public schools—particularly Christianity—is an example. It is unlikely that a child whose parents have never introduced him or her to Christian beliefs would learn about them in public school. The argument for exposing the child to a broad range of ideas thus breaks down. Reich goes on to argue that children should learn decency, civility, and respect. However, the perceived absence of these values in the public school environment is a common reason that parents remove their children from public schools in favor of home schooling.
Some Explanations for the Success of Home Schooling. Available data suggest a number of hypotheses as to why home-schooled children excel academically. These include parental involvement, the education level of the parents, and the benefits of one-on-one instruction. Romanowski of Ohio Northern University and Hoxby of Harvard, among others, attribute home schooled students' success to the high degree of parental involvement. There has been a great deal of research supporting the benefits of parental involvement in children's education. In fact, teacher training programs and schools routinely recommend techniques for soliciting parents' involvement within public and private schools for this reason.
A second possible explanation for the academic success of home schoolers is that home-schooled children tend to have more educated parents (Romanowski, 2001). As mentioned, home schooling families tend to have parents with more years of education than public and private school families. Either the value placed on education or the intelligence that enabled those parents to complete more education could contribute to their children's academic success.
An additional reason for the success of home schooling is that one-on-one instruction has traditionally been thought to be more effective than traditional group schooling. In a typical home schooling scenario, a parent may teach only one or may teach multiple children, but the lessons for each child are tailored to that child. This is of particular benefit to children who learn more rapidly or more slowly than most children in their age group. In group schooling teachers usually teach to the majority which tends to be composed of children achieving at the average rate, leaving slow learners behind and causing rapid learners to lose interest. One-on-one instruction has also been found to be beneficial to children with attention deficits. Having fewer people in the learning environment reduces distractions, thereby helping the student to stay focused on learning.
Research has accumulated over several decades showing numerous benefits of home schooling; however, it is not possible for all families who would like to home school their children to do so. Most, but not all, of these reasons are economic. Families who must have two incomes or families in which a single parent is the only income earner have difficulty home schooling. However, there are non-economic reasons as well. There are families in which the parent or parents do not have the education or temperament to be able to effectively home school (Clements, 2004). For these, a group schooling setting may be their only option.
Bloom, I. (2003). The new parental rights challenge to school control: Has the Supreme Court mandated school choice? Journal of Law & Education, 32(2), 139–183.
Clements, A. D. (2004). Homeschooling: A research-based how-to manual. Lanham, MD: ScarecrowEducation.
Ensign, J. (1997). Homeschooling gifted students: An introductory guide for parents. ERIC Digest #543 (No. EDO-EC-95–6). ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, Council for Exceptional Children, 1920 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191-1589.
Green, C. L., & Hoover-Dempsey, K. V. (2007). Why do parents homeschool? A systematic investigation of parent involvement. Education and Urban Society, 39, 264–285.
Hoxby, C. M. (2001). Rising tide. Education Next, 1(4), 68–74.
Houston, P. D. (2003). Time to re-public the republic. School Administrator, 60(8), 10–12.
Isenberg, E. J. (2007). What have we learned about homeschooling? Peabody Journal of Education, 82(2–3), 387–409.
Jones, P., & Gloeckner, G. (2004). A study of admission officers' perceptions of and attitudes toward homeschool students. Journal of College Admission, (185), 12–21.
Lines, P. M. (2000). Homeschooling comes of age. Public Interest, 140, 74–85.
National Home Education Network. (n.d.). Reasons to homeschool. Retrieved April 17, 2008, from http://www.nhen.org.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2003, May). Trends in school choice 1993 to 1999: Statistical analysis report. U.S. Department of Education: Institute of Education Sciences (Report No. NCES 2003–031).
National Center for Education Statistics. (2004, July). Issue brief: 1.1 million homeschooled students in the United States in 2003. U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, NCES 2004–115.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2006, February). Homeschooling in the United States: 2003: A statistical analysis report. U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, NCES 2006–042.
Ray, B. (1997). Strengths of their own: Home Schoolers across America: Academic achievement, family characteristics, and longitudinal traits. Salem, OR: National Home Education Research Institute.
Ray, B. (2006, July). Research facts on homeschooling. Salem, OR: National Home Education Research Association. Retrieved April 17, 2008, from http://www.nheri.org.
Reich, R. (2002). The civic perils of homeschooling. Educational Leadership, 59(7), 56–59.
Romanowski, M. H. (2001). Common arguments about the strengths and limitations of home schooling. Clearing House, 75(2), 79–83.
Shyers, L. E. (1992). A comparison of social adjustment between home and traditionally schooled students. Home School Researcher, 8(3), 1–8.
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