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Back to (Home) School

By Eduwonkette — September 02, 2008 3 min read

It’s back to school! Today, more than one million schoolchildren will get up from the breakfast table, strap on a backpack, and trundle off to … the living room. Home schooling has been expanding rapidly over the course of this decade, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, representing approximately 2.2% of the student population in 2003. (The NCES definition of home schooling is children who are schooled at home instead of in a public or private school for at least part of their education, and whose part-time enrollment in public or private schools does not exceed 25 hours per week.) skoolboy hoped to be able to report some new evidence from the Parent and Family Involvement (PFI) module of the National Household Education Survey’s 2007 sample, but those data have not yet been released. Unfortunately, that means that the best available information is from 2003, the prior wave gathering information on the incidence of home schooling. Moreover, only 239 homeschooled children were included in the PFI module of the 2003 NHES, and thus our knowledge about their characteristics isn’t very precise.

There are a lot of misconceptions about home schooling, such as homeschooled children lack normal social graces due to isolation from peers, or they’re all very well-prepared for college. skoolboy has seen no persuasive evidence of any problems of social adjustment among homeschooled children. The reality is that most homeschooled children and youth are not isolated from others; they often participate in homeschooling networks, may participate in extracurricular activities sponsored by public and private schools, and, for a significant fraction, are part of religious communities that provide opportunities for interaction with peers and adults. Homeschooled children and youth probably have fewer opportunities to interact with other youth with differing social characteristics than do students who attend public school; but you don’t need to be a homeschooler to select yourself into settings where you engage almost exclusively with other people who are like you.

It’s challenging to assess the impact of home schooling on children who are home schooled, because families self-select into home schooling, and the kinds of families that choose to home school differ, on average, from those who do not. (And don’t hold your breath waiting for the definitive randomized experiment!) Homeschooled children are more likely to be white than Black or Hispanic; to be in a household with three or more children than one with fewer children; to live in a two-parent household with one parent in the labor force than in another configuration; and to have college-educated parents.

One of the most interesting features of home schooling, from skoolboy’s view, is its implications for defining teaching as a profession. For the most part, parents who home school their children are subject to very little oversight by the state. Contrast this with the rules for licensing teachers who teach in the public schools. Although eduwonkette pooh-poohs my “1950’s” thinking about what defines a profession in the sociological sense, I think she would agree that the fact that the state will allow parents with no formal training, and who are not accountable to other teachers for what they do, to teach weakens the case for teaching as a profession.

In February, a California appeals court held that parents can be prosecuted for failing to ensure that either (a) their children attend a full-time public or private day school, or (b) their children are instructed by a tutor who holds a state credential for the child’s grade level. The case alarmed home schoolers and their supporters across the country. On appeal, that same court ruled last month that “(1) California statutes permit home schooling as a species of private school education; and (2) the statutory permission to home school may constitutionally be overridden in order to protect the safety of a child who has been declared dependent.” The court made clear that it was not taking a stand on whether or not home schooling should be allowed, and blamed the California legislature for a lack of clear legislation on the issue. What counts as a threat to the safety of a dependent child is not inscribed in the law, but physical and sexual abuse (which were alleged in the California case) surely count; skoolboy’s guess is that mediocre instruction would not. (If it did, there’d be an awful lot of usual suspects to round up!)

The opinions expressed in eduwonkette are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.