Perhaps the best endorsement of our family’s decision to homeschool our son was his admission to five of the eight colleges to which he applied, with each offering a merit scholarship. While our tour through charters, homeschooling, and private schools—along with observation of others’ experience with traditional public schools—had convinced us of the academic advantages of self-designed education, college applications were the final test of our approach. It passed with flying colors.
But homeschoolers are a diverse bunch, driven by different motivations, teaching by varied methods, and measuring success with their own standards. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened curriculum wars of recent years, the broad field of DIY education termed “homeschooling” was growing in popularity. Now it has broken out of the fringes and into the mainstream of American life.
“It was mid-morning, midweek and midwinter in the remote Badlands National Park of South Dakota—about as far as one could get from a schoolhouse,” Patti Waldmeier wrote earlier this month for the Financial Times. “Yet throughout this surreal Midwestern moonscape of rainbow rock formations, I repeatedly ran into families with school-aged children. Why weren’t they in class? The reply was always the same: This is our classroom. We are homeschooled.”
That homeschooling has boomed is no secret. How much it has boomed is unclear. The National Center for Education Statistics points to data indicating that, from 2.8 percent of students in 2019, homeschooling grew to 5.4 percent in 2021. The Census Bureau says the number of households homeschooling doubled to 11.1 percent in the same period. There’s a lot of wiggle room.
“The U.S. Department of Education bases its estimate on a questionnaire that it mails to a nationally representative sample of parents every few years. However, better than a third of those surveyed in 2019 did not return the questionnaire, which introduces the possibility of undercounting if home-schooling parents returned the questionnaire at lower rates than other parents,” the University of Oklahoma’s Daniel Hamlin and Harvard University’s Paul E. Peterson pointed out in a recent issue of Education Next. “Clearly, homeschooling is on the rise. Even cautious estimates indicate a doubling of the practice during the pandemic, and the actual shift could be greater,” they add.
People have always had different reasons for DIY education. According to NCES survey data of families homeschooling in 2019, “more than two-thirds of homeschooled students had parents who selected one or more of the following as a reason for homeschooling: a concern about school environment, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure (80 percent); a desire to provide moral instruction (75 percent); emphasis on family life together (75 percent); and a dissatisfaction with the academic instruction at other schools (73 percent).”
For the single most important reason to homeschool, answers ranged from school environment to academics to religious instruction. None were claimed by more than 25 percent of respondents.
Pandemic policies and furious battles over lesson content have created more reasons to homeschool. Many frustrated parents are justifiably convinced they can do better than the chaos they see in public institutions.
“During the pandemic, a growing number of families in California and across the U.S. have chosen to home-school,” Laura Newberry reported last year for the Los Angeles Times. “The reasons for doing so are diverse, complex and span socioeconomic and political spectrums: schools implementing too many COVID-19 safety protocols, or too few; the polarizing conversation around critical race theory; neurodivergent kids struggling with virtual instruction; and an overall waning faith in the public school system.”
With motives so varied, and sometimes entirely at odds, it makes sense that methods are equally diverse. In fact, there’s no one way to take charge of your children’s learning.
“Homeschooling is generally understood to mean that a child’s education takes place exclusively at home—but homeschooling is a continuum, not an all-or-nothing choice,” note Hamlin and Peterson in Education Next. “In a sense, everyone is ‘home-schooled,’ and the ways that families combine learning at home with attending school are many. Parents may decide to home-school one year but not the next. They may teach some subjects at home but send their child to school for others, or they may teach all subjects at home but enroll their child in a school’s sports or drama programs.”
For our family, homeschooling has meant field trips to sites of note, as with the kids Waldmeier met in the Badlands. It also includes online lessons in Spanish and calculus, laboratory science through a community college, university-level composition and history, and assigned readings by my wife and me. It has also involved a detour through private school, martial arts, and hands-on projects.
Other homeschooling families we’ve met follow packaged lesson plans, engage in student-driven unschooling, hire tutors, or recreate the one-room school with microschools. Traditional schools get in on the action with hybrid programs mixing part-time attendance and family-directed study. It’s become common to meet people who compare DIY approaches to their children’s learning.
And yes, homeschooled kids do just fine.
“Homeschooled students had lower depression scores and higher reports of academic success,” JSTOR Daily‘s Katie Gilbert observed in 2021 of research into homeschooling outcomes. “They also tended to rate their entire educational experience more positively.”
“College grades, persistence rates, and graduation rates are generally no different for those who were home-schooled than for those educated in other ways,” according to Hamlin and Peterson. “Trends in employment and income for former homeschoolers also indicate that they tend to do as well as others.”
Increasing popularity and positive results mean that, as Gilbert puts it, homeschooling “evolved from subversive to mainstream.” Only one of the colleges to which Anthony applied had any concerns about his homeschooling experience (after their fourth query, he crossed it off the list). One rejected him, one is still processing applications, and five accepted him with no muss and no fuss, including offers of merit scholarships, admission to honors programs, and credit for the college-level courses he’s taken.
Next fall, he’ll be studying engineering at the University of Arizona.
“Homeschoolers, once thought of as traditionalists holding onto the past, may be an advance guard moving toward a new educational future,” comment Hamlin and Peterson.
To its credit, the world seems ready to embrace the pioneers of that homeschooled future.