School Choice & Charters

‘Hybrid’ Home Schools Gaining Traction

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 07, 2012 7 min read
In this 2011 photo, home-schooled student Rebecca Lobach, left, studies while her mother, Mary Lee, teaches her siblings in Durham, N.C. Today, more home-schoolers are dabbling in "hybrid" approaches that blur the pedagogical and legal lines of public and private education.

Emmy Elkin’s school day starts with a cooking show.

The 10-year-old and her mom, Jill Elkin of Peachtree City, Ga., are up at 8 a.m., making breakfast along with “Iron Chef America” and chatting about algebra. Last week, Emmy left home after breakfast to meet a new Japanese tutor, around the time her sister Kayla, 14, dragged herself awake to get her independent mathematics study done before a friend came over for a joint British literature course. The sisters spent the afternoon working through a chemistry course online, with Jill Elkin giving more individual coaching to her younger daughter.

Kayla and Emmy are part of the modern generation of home-schooled students, piecing together their education from their mother, a former Fayette County math teacher, other district and university teachers, parent co-ops, and online providers.

Education policymakers and researchers have largely ignored the tremendous growth in home schooling, particularly among these sorts of “hybrid” home-schoolers willing to blur the pedagogical and legal lines of public and private education, said Joseph Murphy, an associate dean at Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University and the author of Home Schooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement. The book, an analysis of research on the topic, is being published this month by Corwin of Thousand Oaks, Calif.

“Historically home school was home school, and school was school,” Mr. Murphy said. “Now … it’s this rich portfolio of options for kids.”

Menu of Choices

Baywood Learning Center in Oakland, Calif., a private school for gifted students, has offered hybrid home-schooling programs for the past three years. The school has a la carte classes on individual subjects once a week, as well as a multiage class that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays to cover core academics. Director Grace Neufeld said demand for the latter has grown 50 percent in the last year, to about 40 students ages 4 to 17.

State Laws

States vary widely in monitoring home schooling. Some states require parents of home-schooled children to notify public school officials and then provide test scores or other professional evaluations of their children’s academic progress; others require no parent notification at all.

37homeschool C1s

SOURCE: Home School Legal Defense Association

“Parents usually design a patchwork quilt of different classes and activities for their children,” she said. “What I see is they sign up for various classes being held in various locations like science centers or museums or different places. They also add things like music lessons, art lessons, sports, or martial arts.”

Similarly, more home-schooling parents are developing formal co-ops, like the Inman Hybrid Home School program in Inman, Ga. Founder Holly Longino, a former health teacher at Carver Middle School in Inman, left public teaching to home-school her four children, but last year started the group classes a few times a week with five students and a handful of retired public school teachers. The teachers provide video lectures for students to use as well as in-class projects. Ms. Longino said some parents also take their children to courses at the local college and science museum, but would never consider forming a charter school.

“There’s a lot of freedom in home schooling,” she said. “I don’t ever want to be a school, because I don’t want to lose the parental control we have.”

Diversifying Population

With the modern schoolhouse only in place since the late 1800s, home schooling is hardly a new idea. But the number of home-schoolers has more than doubled since 1999, to more than 2 million as of 2010, representing nearly 4 percent of all K-12 students, according to Mr. Murphy’s book. More than 90 percent of the families are two-parent, one-salary homes, and the mother continues to be the most likely parent to stay home.

While conservative religious parents, predominately Protestants, still comprise the majority of home-schoolers, there has been an increase in the number of moderate and liberal families choosing to teach at home, and concerns about the social environment of schools, including bullying and teaching practices, have now edged out religious values (31.2 percent to 29.8 percent) as the top reason parents teach their children at home, according to Mr. Murphy.

“Pioneer home-schoolers a decade ago had to be rather strong in their personalities and commitments to do this, and had to really go against the culture,” said Brian D. Ray, the president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore. “Now, what I’ve seen is an increasing portion want to be more like conventional schooling—which is what the first 30 years of the modern home-schooling movement had not wanted to be.”

Michael P. Donnelly, a staff attorney and the director for international affairs at the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., said many parents still choose to have nothing to do with public schools—for ideological, political, or religious reasons, among others—but the line has gotten a lot blurrier. For example, many parents whose children attend a state public virtual academy—as the Elkins did, for awhile—consider themselves to be home-schooling, but by law would be considered full-time public school students. But what to make of a student who takes French at the local school, biology at a public community college, and core math and reading courses via a public online school? That child’s designation might differ from one state to another.

The hybrid approach has become “very, very typical, particularly at the middle and high school level,” said Yvonne Bunn, the director of home-school support for the Richmond-based Home Educators Association of Virginia. “It used to be it was very difficult to get materials; now we have people all over the place who want to sell to home-schoolers because they are such a good market.” About half of state legislatures now require school districts to allow home-schooled students to enroll part time if they want to, and both Mr. Ray and Mr. Murphy noted that the current budget crunch may have given districts more reason to offer programs to home-schooling parents, which can generate additional revenue.

“Public schools have figured out that home-schooling people aren’t the devil, and vice versa,” Mr. Murphy said. Ms. Elkin agreed, noting that Kayla’s 1st grade teacher was the first to recommend that her mother consider removing her from school, because of the district’s limited support for highly gifted students. “A lot of home-schoolers have a really negative feeling toward the public school system, but I don’t feel that way. I feel like I got nothing but positive support and feedback from the local school system,” she said.

Home Achievement

Mr. Murphy said research on the effects of home schooling has been limited—many parents choose home schooling in part to avoid testing—and it’s often conducted by advocates, using self-reported information and samples that are not necessarily representative of the students at large. Across the board, though, the studies to date of home-schooled children’s academic achievement suggest they perform at or above average on nationally normed tests. A 2005 study by Clive R. Belfield, an assistant economics professor at Queens College, City University of New York, found students identified as home-schooled by the studies performed significantly better on the SAT college-entrance test than did public school students, even after controlling for differences in family background and other characteristics.

“The question is, can a reasonably competent person do a better job one on one—in a loving relationship where you own that child’s time—than someone who walks on water but comes into a room full of 30 kids?” Mr. Murphy said. “It would seem to me the evidence would suggest this is a reasonably positive effect on kids.”

A little less than one in five home-schooled students also are enrolled in a public school, though most for less than nine hours a week. On average, Mr. Murphy found students taught at home are engaged in coursework only three to five hours each day, but have more individual instruction than students in school. Time-on-task studies in traditional schools have found students engaged with their studies only about a third of each day, he noted. “If you’ve really got engaged time for 130 minutes, you’ve probably added 30 minutes to what kids get in school.”

Ms. Elkin said she uses the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for her daughters, mainly to guide her own instruction, but she sees more academic development in the way they put together their own learning; Emmy decided to learn Japanese, following her interests in origami and sushi, while Kayla is working on her third novel.

“The kids learn to work on their own and figure things out for themselves,” Jill Elkin said.

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as ‘Hybrid’ Home-Teaching Options Grow in Popularity

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