This version was published in 2004. An updated version is available from 2011.
Home schooling has often been dismissed as a fringe activity, its practitioners caricatured as head-in-the-sand reactionaries and off-the-grid hippies. The most vocal and organized home schoolers have tended to be religiously motivated, most often conservative Christians. But a newer breed of home schooler is emerging, motivated not by religious belief or countercultural philosophy. Uppermost for such parents are concerns about violence, peer pressure, and poor academic quality in their schools.
Back in 1980, home schooling was illegal in 30 states. It was not until 1993 that all 50 states made the practice lawful. But in recent years, the practice of home schooling has taken off. Consider these statistics—in 1999, the federal government estimated the number of students being home schooled to be around 850,000 (Bieleck et. al., 2001). By 2003, the number had jumped to somewhere between 1.7 and 2.1 million students, according to data from the National Home Education Research Institute. While reliable numbers are hard to come by since states define and track home school enrollment differently, some experts argue that home schooling is the fastest-growing form of education in the country (Ray, 1997, 2001).
So who chooses to home school their children and why? Data from the U.S. Department of Education suggest that although families who home school represent a wide spectrum of racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, most are white, religious, and conservative. Most are also well educated, middle-class, and have two or more children. According to a survey of parents who home school their children, almost 50 percent say they do so because they believe they can offer them a better education at home. Another 38 percent cite religious reasons. About a quarter say they want to avoid exposing their children to what they consider traditional schools’ “poor learning environments” (Bielick, et. al., 2001).
Although some research has indicated that home-schooled students perform better on standardized tests than children in traditional schools, the claim that home schooling offers children a superior education is much disputed. One study of more than 20,000 home school students found that students’ median scores on standardized tests were typically in the 70th to 80th percentile, well above the national average. The study also found that 25 percent of home schooled students were enrolled one or more grades above their age-level public and private school peers (Rudner, 1999). These findings mirrored those from a 1997 study, which found that home educated students scored, on average, at or above the 80th percentile in all areas on standardized achievement tests (Ray, 1997).
But such studies have drawn intense criticism from some educational researchers. For example, the students in Rudner's study were predominantly white and Christian and, critics argue, did not accurately represent the overall population of home-schooled students (Welner, 1999). Scholars also point out that these studies have only proven that home-schooled students perform well on standardized tests. But the studies have no way of indicating whether the same students would have scored equally as well on those tests had they been attending conventional schools.
Opponents of the movement worry that there is no way to assure that all home-schooled students receive a quality education. In the eyes of some public school teachers and administrators, this lack of quality control makes home schooling a dangerously deregulated enterprise. For example, according to the Education Commission of the States, most states do not require parents to obtain any sort of teaching certificate in order to home school their children. Only half the states monitor home-schooled students’ educational progress by requiring any sort of evaluation, either a test, portfolio, or teacher evaluation. There are some exceptions; New York, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania require home-schooled students to take tests and require parents to submit their curriculum for approval as well as undergo professional evaluations (Education Commission of the States, 2004).
Generally, however, most states have no systematic approach to regulating the practice of home schooling. As a result, organizations such as the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union, have come out against home schooling (Lyman, 2003).
The general public has some concerns about a lack of regulations, as well. In a 1997 Gallup poll, 88 percent of respondents agreed that home schools should “be required to guarantee a minimum level of educational quality.” In a 1999 poll, 92 percent of respondents said home-schooled students should take the same state and national assessments required in public schools. And although the number of people opposed to home schooling has dropped over the years, the majority, 57 percent, still regarded it as a “bad thing,” in 1997 (Rose and Gallup, 1997 and 1999).
Students who have been home schooled tend to disagree. Recent research suggests that many home schoolers are happy with their parents’ decision to educate them outside the traditional school system. In 2003, the Home School Legal Defense Association commissioned a survey of over 7,000 adults who were home schooled and found that 95 percent were glad they had been home schooled. Ninety-two percent believe their home schooling has been advantageous to them as adults and over 82 percent say they would home school their own children (Ray, 2003).
While debates over the benefits and risks of removing children from traditional learning environments continue, the home school movement has carved out its place in America’s education system. Every state has now established at least one home-schooling association and several states have begun to develop regional associations. Public programs that offer support to home schooled families are also popping up around the country. Alaska sponsors a program whereby teachers can communicate with home-schooled students all over the state via email, telephone, and home visits. California has developed an independent-study program for home-school students. Iowa and Washington now require schools to admit home-school students part-time (Hardy, 2001).
Nationwide, it is estimated that 18 percent of home-school students enroll in public schools at least part time (Bielick, et.al., 2001). In addition to state initiatives, parents of home schoolers are banding together to organize group activities, such as sports events and field trips, for their children.