More than 1.2 million students are now being taught at home, more students than are enrolled in the entire New York City public school system. Paul T. Hill reports on the pros and cons of learning at home—and the effects home schooling will have on public schools.
Home schooling, not a present threat to public education, is nonetheless one of the forces that will change it. If the high estimates of the number of children in home schools (1.2 million) is correct, then the home-schooling universe is larger than the New York City public school system and roughly the size of the Los Angeles and Chicago public school systems combined. Even if the real number of home schoolers is more like 500,000, less than the lowest current estimate, there are more children home schooling than in charter schools and public voucher programs combined.
Home schooling is not a new phenomenon. In colonial days families, including wealthy ones, educated their children at home, combining the efforts of parents, tutors, and older children. The rural one-room schoolhouse was created by families that banded together to hire a teacher who could substitute for parents but who would use the same mixture of direct instruction, tutoring, and mentoring by older students.
There is nothing un-American about home schooling. Home-schooling families are, however, breaking a pattern established since colonial times—education has been becoming increasingly institutionalized, formal, and removed from the family. How important is the contemporary home-schooling movement and what does it portend for American public education? No one can say for sure. It is difficult even to estimate the numbers of children being schooled at home, and evidence about student learning and other outcomes is mostly anecdotal.
It is, however, possible to draw three conclusions about where home schooling is likely to go and how it will affect the broad public education enterprise—which for the purpose of this article includes charter schools and publicly funded voucher programs as well as conventional district-run public schools.
- Home schooling is part of a broad movement in which private groups and individuals are learning how to provide services that were once left to public bureaucracies.
- As home-schooling families learn to rely on one another, many are likely to create new institutions that look something like schools.
- Although many home-schooling families are willing to accept help from public school systems, the families and the schools they create are far more likely to join the charter and voucher movements than to assimilate back into the conventional public school system.
Developing New Teachers
Parents who decide to school their children at home commit time and energy to an activity that was once left to specialized professionals. Even in the states with the most permissive home-schooling laws, parents must learn what is normally taught to children of a given age, find materials and projects that teach specific skills, and learn how to use their own time and that of their children productively. The vast majority of home-school parents hope their children will attend college and so must also learn how to assess their children’s progress against higher education admission standards.
Even a casual perusal of the home-schooling literature reveals the scale and intensity of home-schooling parents’ search for ideas, materials, and relevant standards of performance. Home-schooling web sites continually post new ideas and materials for teaching subjects from math to drama. Parents can find advice about what kinds of programs are likely to work for their own children and can enter chat rooms with other parents struggling with the same issues.
Without making a quality judgment about these resources, it is clear that many serious people are putting in a great deal of effort. The materials available are not amateurish: They come from universities, research institutes, mutual assistance networks, school districts, and state education departments. People who contribute to home-schooling web sites and association meetings are also conducting serious research and development. Home schooling is a very large teacher training program, and many tens of thousands of people are learning how to teach, assess results, and continuously improve instruction. It also must be one of the biggest parent-training programs in the country.
Like charter schooling, home schooling depends on the creation of new human capital. People have to learn how, in new contexts and under new rules, to teach and motivate students, take advantage of complementary adult skills, find resources, and make effective use of scarce time and money.
Critics charge that much of this effort is wasted and that at best all the new human capital developed at such cost can only duplicate what already exists in conventional public and private schools. Unlikely. Although the new people will undoubtedly reinvent some wheels and some may go down blind alleys, these initiatives bring new blood and new ideas into a stagnant education sector that was previously dominated by civil service cartels and was thus rule-bound and risk-averse.
Collaboration and Evolution
Home schoolers are not all recluses living in log cabins. Growing numbers of home-schooling families live in or near cities, are well educated, and hold down normal jobs. They are not all afraid of the modern world; many are inveterate users of the Internet, and large numbers of West Coast home-school parents work in the computer and software industries.
Although large numbers of home schoolers are Christian fundamentalists and Mormons, many other religions are represented as well. There are active home-schooling organizations for Lutherans, Catholics, and Jews. In Washington, Oregon, and California, many of the new urban home schoolers are not active members of any church.
Home schoolers’ fierce independence rarely leads to isolationism. Increasingly, parents are bartering services—the mother who was a math major tutors children from several families in return for music or history lessons. Families come together to create basketball or soccer teams, hold social events, or put on plays and recitals. Growing numbers of home schoolers value the expertise of professional educators and are readily accepting help, advice, and testing assistance offered by school districts.
In such an atmosphere, it is highly likely that parents will come together to collaborate, specialize, and exploit comparative advantages. It is too soon to say whether many such collaborations will ever become elaborate enough to include cash payments for services or the hiring of coordinators to schedule, integrate services, and exercise quality control. But some home-schooling collaboratives have already advanced to the point that groups of parents find themselves running organizations that look much like schools. In Colorado, Arizona, and Michigan, several such groups have won charters and are operating as new public schools. Some home-schooling groups have also created management firms offering to create new schools that coordinate parent efforts and incorporate many of the values and processes of home schooling.
The advantages are obvious: Parents can limit their time commitments and get for their children the benefits of others’ expertise. They can also get public funds to pay for materials, facilities, management time, Internet hookups, and testing. Those that have mastered a subject or learned a great deal about instructional methods can even decide to become paid teachers.
However, home-schooling parents would be skittish and demanding clients. Many have learned exactly what they want for their children and are unlikely to stick with an arrangement that does not deliver. But all the preconditions exist for the emergence of new schools based on what home-schooling families have learned.
Although growing numbers of home schoolers are receiving valuable assistance from local public school systems, mass returns to conventional public schools are unlikely. Most home-schooling parents fled something they did not like about the public education system—variously perceived as lax discipline, bad manners, low standards, unsafe conditions, or hostility to religious practice.
In general, their web sites make it clear that home schoolers dread bureaucracy, unions, and liberals. Parents complain about teachers who would not adjust to individual children’s needs and about principals who insist that district rules prevent using better methods, changing children’s placements, accelerating instruction, or replacing bad teachers. Web sites also complain about liberal social agendas, particularly those associated with homosexuality and perceived attacks on the family.
Although home-school web sites are full of ideas about learning projects and what conventional educators would call “authentic” performance measures, parents are openly suspicious about forms of student-directed “progressive” education used in public schools. They strongly favor reading, writing, and debating. Web sites are full of resources for teaching classic liberal arts subjects (including rhetoric) and suggestions for study of primary sources.
Complaints about state standards and performance-based education are far less prominent in home-schooling materials than in religious-right political agendas. Educated home schoolers are concerned about preparing their children for the real world and are open to state standards and testing programs that guide action and give measures of progress.
These concerns, and the fact that many families began home schooling after what they perceived as “takeovers” of their local public school systems by “progressive” academics and left-of-center parents, make it unlikely that large numbers of home-schooling parents can readily return to public schools. Some home schoolers will get by with the help available from public school systems, and others will seek to create charter schools. Some—the numbers depend on costs and the availability of private subsidies—will also be attracted to specially constructed private schools such as those now being created by the conservative Christian Heritage Schools.
Given American families’ reliance on dual incomes, it is unlikely that home schooling will continue to grow indefinitely. But it will almost certainly continue to attract families that cannot find comfortable places in conventional public schools, and it will continue to be a channel through which parents become attached to private and charter alternatives.
What’s the Harm?
What could be wrong with a movement that leads tens of thousands of people to spend vast amounts of time and money learning to teach, working closely with children, developing new instructional materials, and subjecting them to real-world tests? Critics charge that three things are wrong with home schooling: harm to students academically; harm to society by producing students who are ill-prepared to function as democratic citizens and participants in a modern economy; and harm to public education, making it more difficult for other parents to educate their children.
- Student Learning. The very nature of home schooling makes it difficult to quantify student performance. But the best available evidence is strongly positive about home-school student learning. Consider these results from the Bob Jones University testing service for home schoolers:
- Almost 25 percent of home-school students are enrolled one or more grades above their age level peers in public and private schools.
Home-school student achievement test scores are exceptionally high. The median scores for every subtest at every grade (typically in the 70th to 80th percentile) are well above those of public and private school students.
Students who have been home schooled their entire academic life have higher scholastic achievement test scores than students who have attended other educational programs.
However, these results are drawn from a small, self-selected group of home schoolers who sought a university’s help in assessing student progress. Although there is no known profile of home schoolers against which to compare the sample, it is almost certainly a better-educated, higher-income, and better-supported (e.g., by church membership) group than home schoolers as a whole.
Thus, it is still impossible to say whether, on the whole, home-schooling students are doing much better than their public and private school counterparts. However, it is also totally unwarranted to argue that home schoolers are doing badly. The available evidence certainly seems to indicate otherwise.
Preparation for Adult Life. Nobody knows whether home schooling produces any different mixture of geniuses, socially adept individuals, academic failures, or misfits than do conventional public schools. For that matter, nobody has a good grasp on what the distribution of those outcomes is—or ought to be—in the population as a whole.
Some educators worry about the agendas of conservative religious leaders and parents, assuming they want children to become intolerant, insular, hypercompetitive, or convinced of religious or racial superiority. There is little basis for these fears, other than the long-standing tensions between religious groups (both conservative and mainstream) and the academic left.
Others avoid the trap of assessing schools in terms of current pedagogical orthodoxies but worry that home schooling (along with private schooling, charters, and vouchers) pulls children away from the socially centripetal experience of the common school, in which people of all races and backgrounds are educated together to common standards. This concern too has little empirical basis. Home schoolers certainly do not experience “common schools,” but neither, apparently, does anyone else. Whether they attend private or public schools, the vast majority of students are likely to attend classes and associate with others very like themselves.
Moreover, contemporary public schools do not meet the aspirations of those who expect them to be incubators of young democrats. Graduates of private (including conservative Christian) schools are more likely than demographically similar public school graduates to express tolerant attitudes, volunteer time and money for social causes, and participate in civic debates.
None of this proves that home schooling meets every aspiration Americans have for their children. But it does place the worries about home schooling in perspective, and it suggests the basis on which home schooling should be evaluated: It needs to be compared to the real performance of conventional public schools, not to some idealized aspiration.
Harm to Public Education. Home schooling limits public school enrollments and therefore reduces the amounts of money state governments provide to local school districts. It also reduces the numbers of parents who expect to enhance their own children’s education by voting for taxes and bond issues. On the other hand, home schooling reduces the burdens on public school systems and, in areas with growing populations, decreases pressure for new buildings and staffs. Unlike charters and public vouchers, home schooling does not force an overt transfer of public funds from an incumbent bureaucracy to a new rival organization.
Like charters and vouchers, home schooling is also criticized for weakening the common civic enterprise represented by the public school system. To some, deliberation about education is a necessary means of making one society out of many groups. They think that people who demand freedom from regulations, educate children themselves, or pay for private schools weaken critical public forums. A contrary view is that intellectual and values diversity are so important to a democratic society that questions about education should never be settled authoritatively. People who hold that view point to legislatures’ susceptibility to capture by interest groups and their inability to settle deeply controversial issues. They have reason to think that state standard-setting processes have degenerated into logrolling sessions among advocates for different subjects and that states have pretended false clarity about what skills young people must have in our boisterous, competitive, fast-moving, technology-driven, and unpredictable society.
Again, in a situation where so little is understood, the potential harms of home schooling seem far smaller than the harms of trying to prevent or thwart it. Every issue raised here is amenable to evidence, but abstract arguments and fears do not stand up against home-school parents’ First Amendment rights and their evident willingness to back up conviction with money, time, and effort.
The issues raised above are far from resolved. Scholarly and political discussions about home schooling are burdened by an unrecognized ambiguity in our use of the term public education, which in some instances refers to a commitment to use any means necessary to ensure that every child learns enough to participate fully as a citizen, earner, and parent and in other instances refers to a specific set of political bargains, rules, programs, job rights, and bureaucratic oversight mechanisms. The difference between these two definitions of public education is evident everywhere but most painfully in the big cities. There, aspirations for student learning, racial justice, and introduction of disadvantaged students into the mainstream of society are high. Political and educational leaders talk endlessly about the importance of high standards. But students fall farther behind the longer they are in school, and more than half of them drop out before gaining a regular high school diploma.
Our dialogue about home schooling, charters, and public vouchers, then, is frozen by confusion over means and ends. The people who run and staff conventional public schools are convinced that the current arrangements are public education. The question—put into play by home schooling and related reforms—is whether that definition is too narrow. It is time to ask whether home schooling, charters, and vouchers should be considered parts of a broad repertoire of methods that we as a society use to educate our children.
A longer version of this essay will appear in a future issue of the Peabody Journal of Education.
Paul T. Hill is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution; a member of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education; and a research professor, Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington.