Flexible homeschooling is entering the mainstream post-COVID

Perhaps the best validation of our family’s decision to homeschool our son was his acceptance into five of the eight colleges he applied to, each offering a scholarship for success. While our tour of charters, homeschooling, and private schools—along with observing other people’s experiences with traditional public schools—convinced us of the academic benefits of a self-designed education, college applications were the final test of our approach. It passed with excellent marks.

But homeschoolers are a diverse group, driven by different motivations, taught by different methods, and measured by their own standards of success. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened curriculum wars of recent years, a broad field of DIY education called “homeschooling” was gaining popularity. Now it has broken out of the fringes and into the mainstream of American life.

“It was mid-morning, mid-week and mid-winter in South Dakota’s remote Badlands National Park — about as far as you could get from the schoolhouse,” Patti Waldmeier wrote earlier this month for Financial Times. “Yet, through this surreal moonscape of rainbow rock formations in the Midwest, I kept coming across families with school-age children. Why weren’t they in class? The answer was always the same: This is our classroom. We homeschool.”

It’s no secret that homeschooling has boomed. How many it bloomed vaguely. The National Center for Education Statistics points to data showing that, from 2.8 percent of students in 2019, homeschooling has grown to 5.4 percent in 2021. The Census Bureau says the number of homeschooling households has doubled to 11.1 percent in the same period. There’s a lot of wiggle room.

“The US Department of Education bases its estimate on a questionnaire it sends to a nationally representative sample of parents every few years. However, more than a third of those surveyed in 2019 did not return the questionnaire, which introduces the possibility of undercounting if homeschooling parents returned the questionnaire at lower rates than other parents,” noted Daniel Hamlin of the University of Oklahoma and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University in a recent issue Education Next. “It is clear that home schooling is on the rise. Even conservative 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 data from the 2019 NCES Family Homeschooling Survey, “more than two-thirds of homeschooled students had parents who chose one or more of the following as reasons for homeschooling: concerns about the school environment, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure (80 percent); desire to provide moral guidance (75 percent); emphasis on family life together (75 percent); and dissatisfaction with academics at other schools (73 percent).”

For a single person most important reason for homeschooling, responses ranged from the school environment to academics to religious education. None was claimed by more than 25 percent of respondents.

Pandemic politics and fierce battles over lesson content have created more reasons for homeschooling. Many frustrated parents are justifiably convinced that they can do better than the chaos they see in public institutions.

“During the pandemic, an increasing number of families in California and across the US have chosen to homeschool,” Laura Newberry reported last year for Los Angeles Times. “The reasons for this are varied, complex, and span the socioeconomic and political spectrum: schools implementing too many or too few safety protocols for COVID-19; the polarizing conversation around critical race theory; neurodivergent children struggling with virtual instruction; and an overall weakening of faith in public school system.”

With motives so diverse, and sometimes diametrically opposed, it stands to reason that the methods are equally diverse. In fact, there isn’t just one way to take responsibility for your children’s learning.

“Homeschooling is generally understood as a child’s education occurring exclusively at home—but homeschooling is a continuum, not an all-or-nothing choice,” Hamlin and Peterson note in Education Next. “In a sense, everyone is ‘homeschooled,’ and there are many ways families combine homeschooling with school attendance. Parents may choose to homeschool one year, but not the next. They may teach some subjects at home , but send my child to a school for others, or I can teach all subjects at home, but enroll my child in the school’s sports or drama program.”

For our family, homeschooling meant field trips to familiar places, as it did with the children Waldmeier met in the Badlands. It also includes online lessons in Spanish and math, lab science through the community college, college-level composition and history, and literature assigned by my wife and I. It also included a tour through private schools, martial arts and hands-on projects.

Other homeschooling families we met follow prepackaged curricula, engage in student-driven unschooling, hire teachers, or recreate a one-room school with micro-schools. Traditional schools are getting in on the action with hybrid programs that combine part-time attendance and family-oriented study. It has become common to encounter people comparing DIY approaches to their children’s learning.

And yes, homeschooled kids are doing well.

“Home-schooled students had lower depression scores and higher self-reported academic success,” JSTOR DiaryKatie Gilbert, 2021, observed research on homeschooling outcomes. “They were also more likely to rate their overall educational experience more positively.”

“College grades, persistence rates, and graduation rates are generally no different for those who were homeschooled than for those who were educated in other ways,” according to Hamlin and Peterson. “Trends in employment and earnings for former homeschoolers also indicate that they tend to do as well as others.”

Its growing popularity and positive results mean that, as Gilbert says, homeschooling has “evolved from subversive to mainstream.” Only one of the colleges Anthony applied to had a problem with his homeschooling experience (after their fourth inquiry, he crossed it off the list). One rejected him, one is still processing applications, and five accepted him with no fuss, including offers of merit scholarships, admission to the honors program, and credit for college-level courses he took.

He will study engineering at the University of Arizona next fall.

“Homeschoolers, once thought of as traditionalists clinging to the past, may be progressives moving toward a new educational future,” Hamlin and Peterson comment.

To their credit, the world seems ready to embrace the pioneers of that future of homeschooling.

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