Currently, 2.9% of all US students are not attending school, but rather educated at home and within their community – the homeschoolers. But is homeschooling a real alternative to the traditional school setting or just a movement that will fade with time? Research findings suggest that homeschooling is here to stay. Both academically and in other domains, homeschooled students seem to significantly outperform public school students. The more unstructured homeschooling variant called ‘unschooling’ on the other hand correlates with weaker academic performance.
- Homeschooled students significantly outperform public school students in nearly all subjects.
- Unschooled students lag behind structured homeschoolers and possibly also public school students with regards to academics.
- Homeschooled students appear to be happier with their jobs and their lives, participate more often in protests and go voting more frequently.
As a kid, you probably spent around one third of your waking time in school. That is about 15,000 hours (Source), which is a tremendous amount of time if you think about it! A teacher of yours may be the reason you decided to study a certain thing and many of your longstanding friends went to school with you. Now imagine spending those 15,000 at home and in your community rather than going to school. All those teachers who will never have an impact on you, all of your friends who you will never meet. Wouldn’t your social and academic skills suffer greatly?
Despite these potentially harmful outcomes a growing number of parents in the US and other western countries are educating their kids at home. There are many variants of homeschooling and what they all have in common is their attempt to to avoid school. I find homeschooling to be very exciting because of how radically different the lives of homeschoolers can be compared to public school students. Homeschooling is an exciting experiment that could teach us a lot about our own schools to what extent they contribute to our academic and social skills.
In this post, we’ll:
- give a general introduction to homeschooling, what homeschooling variants exist and who decides to homeschool their kids in the first place,
- look at scientific studies on how homeschoolers perform academically compared to public school students,
- look at how they differ from public school students in other aspects of life,
- and what these findings might imply for our education system.
Homeschooling is Nothing New – Historically Speaking
For most of human history, homeschooling was actually the rule, not the exception. Knowledge was passed down from one generation to the next, either by the family or the community (i.e. farmers boys became farmers). More theoretical knowledge such as the arts or natural sciences were reserved to the lucky few who were rich enough to pay for private tutoring. The institutionalisation of education only happened much later during the industrialization when more skilled and educated workers were needed. Suddenly, reading, writing and mathematics became a prerequisite for sustaining yourself and your family. School became the only place where you could acquire that knowledge and it often times became mandatory. That was a good thing because it allowed us to create more educated modern societies. Today, schools are nearly impossible to think away. After all, who would argue with 300+ years of gathered knowledge on how to teach and socialize youngsters in the best possible way? School is mandatory, so it must be good for you. And after all, it holds the promise to a better life if you perform well.
The truth is that school is not the only choice for education anymore. Information has become ubiquitous with the internet. You can tune in to the lectures of the very best teachers. School is not necessarily mandatory anymore and many universities are already accepting homeschooled students. And the argument that a critical part of our socialisation happens in school is just an assumption. Therefore, an increasing number of parents have decided to homeschool their children. According to the National Center for Education Statistics there were about 1.5 million students (2.9%) in the US being homeschooled in 2007, while there were only 850,000 students (1.7%) in 1999 (Source). The figure below depicts this trend quite nicely.
Parents who homeschool their children are often seen as religious fundamentalists who don’t agree with the secular nature of public schools. Although this is still a major reason for why parents homeschool their kids, there are a number of other reasons for kids are being homeschooled. For example, parents are dissatisfied with the quality of education or want to protect their child from harmful experiences (i.e. bullying) (see below).
What types of homeschooling exist? There are endless variants, but they can roughly be put on a spectrum of how much structure is imposed over the students’ daily routine. On the one end of the spectrum lies the all-in one curriculum, where parents try to basically replicate school at home. Parents act as the instructors, buy the relevant books and follow a class schedule. On the other end of the spectrum lies the unschooling movement, which strips any form of structure from the students’ learning experience. Here is a quote by John Holt, an American educator and author who had a significant impact on the unschooling movement in the 1970s:
“… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.” (Source).
Parents see themselves as facilitators rather than instructors who help children learn what they wish to learn.
Between all-in one curricula and homeschooling, there are endless variations of how homeschooling can be done. Is there an instructor? If yes, is it the parents or a tutor? How much freedom is given to the student with regards to what they learn? Does the student go to school for at least a few hours per week or is there no connection at all?
DOCUMENTARY ON UNSCHOOLING
RESEARCH ON HOMESCHOOLING
All of the data that I’ll be presenting refers to the US because there is virtually no research done on homeschooling in other countries. But even in the US there is surprisingly little research available. This is due to a lack of available data (Source). Homeschoolers have been fighting for minimal regulation of their childrens’ education since the 1960s. This includes opting out of general state and nation wide statistics that could have been valuable to assessing the success of homeschooling. I can imagine that the homeschooling community feared that collected data could be used to reinforce regulation over their childrens’ education.The only available data that can be used to compare homeschoolers to public school students are standardized test scores (SAT) that both have to take for getting into universities.
I’ll present 2 studies that use standardized test scores to compare homeschoolers with public school students. The first one is the largest study on homeschooling and it was conducted by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which was founded in 1983 to “…defend and advance the constitutional right of parents to direct the education of their children and to protect family freedoms.” It goes without saying that the following results should be taken with a grain of salt due to their biased stance towards homeschooling. Furthermore, the following results are based on the HSLDA 2009 Progress Report, which is not a scientific paper. Therefore, I had very little insight into how the study was actually conducted and what results may have been left out!
The study (Source) was conducted in 2007 and is based on 11,739 participants from all 50 US states.The result is quite startling:
“In the study, homeschoolers scored 34–39 percentile points higher than the norm on standardized achievement tests. The homeschool national average ranged from the 84th percentile for Language, Math, and Social Studies to the 89th percentile for Reading.”
- Parent education hardly had an effect on the performance of homeschooled kids. Irrespective of whether one, both or none of the parents of the homeschooled student had a college degree, their kids always performed better than the average public school student.
- Teacher certification didn’t matter as well. Students with parents who didn’t have a teaching certification performed equally well to students with certified teacher parents.
- Family income hardly made a difference between homeschooled students, while it is very established that income plays a major role in academic performance (Source).
- Gender didn’t make any difference as opposed to in public schools (Source).
Let’s think about this for a second. Homeschoolers avoid the one place that is supposed to prepare us for standardized tests and they actually perform BETTER than public school students. Furthermore, the parents’ education, the families’ socioeconomic status, the students’ gender and having certified teacher parents had no effect on the academic success of the student.
The study also has two major drawbacks:
- Public school students took standardized tests on a mandatory basis, while homeschoolers volunteered. It may have been that homeschoolers scored so high relative to public school students because only parents who were pretty sure that their child would perform well actually signed them up.
- The study was conducted by the HSLDA, an institute that advocates homeschooling. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but their report is not as transparent as a published research paper and it may be that some significant aspects of the study were left out. In any case, we can’t check.
The study (Source) had 4 advantages over the first one:
- The study was conducted by an independent researcher group from Canada.
- Both public and homeschoolers were recruited on a voluntary basis.
- Students from public schools were matched with homeschoolers based on (1) similar family income and (2) similar parental education, to ensure that the differences between those groups are not due to these factors.
- The researchers differentiated between structured homeschoolers who are more inclined to replicate school at home and unschoolers who don’t impose any structure over their children.
One major disadvantage is that the study only had 37 public and 37 homeschooling participants, which means that there is a large probability that the findings of the study are simply due to chance. Keep that in mind when considering the following results.
- Structured homeschooling students were at least one grade level ahead of public school students in 5 out of 7 test areas (word identification, phonic decoding, science, social science, humanities), almost half a year ahead in math, and slightly, but not significantly advanced in reading comprehension.
- Unstructured homeschoolers performed significantly worse than structured homeschoolers. In 5 of 7 areas, the differences were substantial, ranging from 1.32 grade levels for the math test to 4.2 grade levels for the word identification test.
- Unstructured homeschoolers perform worst than public school kids, but the difference is statistically not significant.
The authors argue that homeschooled students may benefit from multiple aspects. They usually have smaller classes, often even one-on-one classes. Therefore, the instructions they receive may be more tailored to them. They may also be spending more time in general on academics. With regards to the relatively bad performance of unstructured homeschoolers (unschoolers) one could argue that students need some kind of structure or guidance to learn effectively. Alternatively, it may also be that unschoolers never took standardized tests before and therefore lack test-testing abilities.
What About Non-Academic Effects?
Sadly, I was only able to find one survey study by the HSLDA that asked homeschoolers many years later about their day-to-day lives (Source). Here are the most striking results:
Homeschoolers are happier with their lives than public school student
Homeschoolers are happier with their jobs than public school students
Homeschoolers participate more in protests or boycotts and they vote more often than public school students
The large majority is very satisfied with having been homeschooled and would homeschool their own children as well.
Shouldn’t all of us Homeschool their children?!
The evidence that speaks FOR homeschooling is very appealing, no doubt. However, none of the studies had a level of scientific rigour and quality that could have made me into a blind homeschooling believer. I would feel very unsafe with making such an important decision based on these 2 studies. There is still a mountain of work to be done in order to establish homeschooling in the education landscape as a real alternative to public schools. Important questions might be: how much structure contributes to the advancement of the student and and what point does it become counterproductive? What factors are absolutely necessary for homeschooling to work? How can the quality of their education be measured in order to ensure equal access to jobs and higher education?
Although unschoolers performed bad relative to structured homeschoolers and public school students, it doesn’t mean that unschooling is generally a bad thing. Unschooling is a movement that resulted out of a growing dissatisfaction with the rigours and grade-focused school system. The philosophy that every child has an inborn curiosity is most certainly true and it is hardly disputable that many lose their curiosity due to the setup of the school. Unschooling is simply the extreme end of a ‘structure spectrum’. It will be up to researchers to figure out how much structure is beneficial and how much is counterproductive for the advancement of the student. Many schools are already experimenting with less structure by giving students more agency over what they learn and how they learn it (Source).
Before schools existed, students learned at home and within their community. The concept of schooling emerged in order to make information more accessible. Nowadays, information is ubiquitous and available in palatable forms such as online courses and study software. Students are performing better academically when staying outside of the one institution (school) that was specifically designed to advance them in this regard. Critics of homeschooling often argue that homeschoolers would not be socialized enough, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I would never have expected to find research studies that speak so clearly in favour of homeschooling. Given these results, I am very surprised that researchers are not taking this domain more serious by running more studies. There are hurdles, primarily the lack of data, but these can surely be overcome.
I think that we trust our school system too much and ourselves too little, which is why the homeschooling movement will most likely stay small for now. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore it. On the contrary, we should try to learn from it. If we could find out what makes homeschooling so great we could bring these aspects into the classroom. We already have a great education infrastructure with buildings, teachers and financial resources. We should try to manage all of our resources in a better way. That’s what we can do with the help of the homeschooling community. I am very curious to see how the homeschooling movement develops further. Maybe my kids won’t go to school, who knows!