Options and support for homeschooling boom
(N.C.) Working math problems and writing essays at the kitchen table are not new features of the American educational landscape.
What is new, however, is the explosion over the past two decades in the numbers of American children who are being educated at home and the tremendous growth in the technologies, materials and supports to aid them in this endeavor.
Today more than 1.7 million children in the U.S. are being homeschooled – a number that has almost doubled since 1999, according to a 2011 survey from the U.S. Department of Education.
Leading the surge is the state of North Carolina, where the number of children being taught at home has jumped more than 25 percent in the last two years, growing to nearly 100,000 students – a figure that outnumbers those attending private schools.
Although this upswing coincides with the state’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards – which remain controversial among the electorate’s mostly conservative majority – it is unclear what is driving families to homeschool.
Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, said that because states define homeschooling differently and have no common reporting standards, it’s impossible to be precise about homeschooling statistics.
“The number of homeschoolers can vary a lot from state to state and the numbers collected aren’t always perfect,” said Coleman, whose organization was founded by homeschool alumni and advocates for the interests of homeschooled children, particularly those susceptible to abuse and educational neglect.
She said that in many states, North Carolina being one, parents need only file paperwork with the state declaring themselves a homeschool. No further reporting or statement of reason is required.
In the past, Coleman said, homeschoolers generally fell in to one of two camps. One, the “unschoolers” —parents who homeschool their children for pedagogical reasons, believing that public schools stifle creativity by insisting that all children learn the same thing at the same time.
“The idea was to free the child from the school to embrace child-led, parent-facilitated learning,” Coleman said.
The second, and much larger group, according to Coleman, are those who homeschool for religious reasons. These Christian evangelicals or fundamentalists represented the majority of homeschools from the 1980s into the 2000s.
“The argument was that the public schools are not only secular places where there is no religion,” Coleman said, “but are actively anti-religion in a way that can lead children away from God.”
In the past decade, due in part to a greater acceptance of school choice, a third group has developed, Coleman said, largely accounting for the overall increase in homeschooling numbers.
“Pragmatic homeschoolers,” as she calls them, have tried public schools and found them unable to meet their children’s needs. These are parents who might consider private schools, charter schools, virtual schools or homeschooling to find a good fit.
The findings from the Education Department’s 2011 National Household Education Survey confirm that parents’ motivations for homeschooling are as unique as individual families. Twenty-six percent of respondents said the most important reason for homeschooling was a concern about the environment of public schools while 20 percent said they were dissatisfied with academic instruction at public schools.
Another 17 percent said they homeschool primarily to provide religious instruction. A smaller percentage of those surveyed were motivated by a desire to provide a nontraditional approach to education; to better respond to a child’s physical or mental health problem; or a wish to provide moral instruction.
Fully 22 percent, however, didn’t provide details saying only they homeschooled for “other reasons.”
While the homeschooling option has posed significant challenges to parents in the past – in terms of organizing and executing curriculum – families today benefit from a wide range of educational models.
“We’re in a climate of increasing school choice where different approaches to learning are seen as more accepted and more normalized,” Coleman said.
Just as working adults are becoming more flexible in how they work – such as part-time from home or on flexible schedules – society is becoming more open to flexible educational models, as well.
One, the traditional homeschool model, is where the parent selects the curriculum and acts as their child’s only teacher. This remains a popular pathway for many who wish to have no attachment to the government-run school system, but it is quickly being eclipsed by another model in which homeschoolers receive part of their education at home but join the local public school for certain classes, social events or athletics.
“Allowing a parent to enroll a child in chemistry and band at the local high school can really help fill in places where there might otherwise be gaps and also provide these children with more social outlets,” Coleman said.
In addition, the advent of digital learning has given rise to virtual charter schools in many areas, most notably the state of Florida, which allows students to complete online classes at home.
Other models have a student learning at home for, perhaps, three days a week and then joining other homeschoolers in a classroom setting for the remaining days.
While no state offers parents funding for homeschooling purposes, many districts do allow parents wishing to teach their children at home to register with the district, which then receives full state funding for that child. A portion of those funds are then passed on to the parent to pay for teaching materials, extra-curricular activities and other educational expenses.
And, thanks to the Internet, these parents can spend their homeschooling dollars in a burgeoning marketplace for homeschooling resources.
“There are all sorts of online resources now,” Coleman said, “and it really has expanded parents’ options in terms of curriculum and the things they can provide for their children.”
According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, U.S. households with broadband internet access increased from 3 percent in 2000 to 70 percent in 2013. Such widespread connectivity, along with a multibillion dollar market for educational technology, has given homeschooling parents the ability to tap into a greater variety of teaching tools and curricular materials than ever before.
From math games and phonics practice to online, self-paced courses, there is little to no educational content that homeschooling families can’t access via the Internet.
Coleman explained that prior to the digital age, parents interested in homeschooling had to contact what she refers to as a “gatekeeper” organization, a regional homeschooling association, that often touted an evangelical Christian viewpoint. Such groups would respond to queries with information packets that would generally contain, in addition to legal information and advice on starting a homeschool, recommendations for religious curricula and methodologies.
Today, parents can “just Google” to access a rich market of homeschooling resources that haven’t had to pass through a gatekeeper organization.
The Internet has also allowed homeschooling families to network with each other, a boon in the effort to combat the social isolation often associated with this form of schooling.
Connecting with other homeschool families is as easy as setting up a Facebook page. Networking through social media makes it easy for families in a given community to plan social activities, organize extracurricular opportunities for their children and ask for advice.
“It really does allow this sort of organic networking that doesn't have a gatekeeper because it doesn’t really matter what your religious beliefs are or why you’re homeschooling,” Coleman said. “It makes getting connected into a community easier.”