It’s a heckuva time to be a homeschooling researcher.
As part of an advocacy and research organization that promotes choices in schooling, I am used to hearing from families that would like to homeschool but can’t because of financial or logistical roadblocks. I never in a million years thought that in the course of a week, millions of families would be forced into homeschooling involuntarily.
Homeschooling is hard. The decision to homeschool is not one that is taken lightly. Families have serious discussions, weigh their various options, and often agonize over whether homeschooling is the best environment for their child. COVID-19 changed that calculus.
Around dining room tables across the country, parents are asking, “So what do we do now?”
Understanding why homeschoolers do what they do might actually help families get started now that circumstances have pushed them into the deep end. For those concerned about their ability (or inability) to keep their child pushing forward academically, it might be reassuring to realize that juicing academic performance is not the primary motivation of most homeschoolers. When the U.S. Department of Education surveyed homeschooling families, only 17 percent listed their primary motivation as “dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools.” By far, the most popular response—given by just over a third of all homeschooling parents—was “a concern about school environment,” things like safety and negative peer pressure.
One of the fastest growing groups of homeschoolers is African-American families. Lisa Puga, a researcher from Rutgers University, has done detailed fieldwork with African-American homeschooling families who believe that traditional schools are not nurturing places for their children. They find them impersonal and mechanistic, with lowered expectations and unfair stereotypes. African-American families are increasingly looking to homeschooling to provide a safe and nurturing environment. Yes, academics are important, but creating a space that is engaging, respects their children and their abilities, and, perhaps most importantly, keeps them safe is priority number one.
Families shouldn’t feel pressured to try and keep up, or even surpass, the rate of academic progress of their traditional school. It’s much more important to create a place where children can get some respite from the scary world outside of the door. Trying too hard to keep kids engaged academically could serve to push children away during a time when families can come closer together. A couple of hours a day of academic work should be plenty.
What if your school district isn’t providing resources or e-learning and you have to make it up on your own? Fear not, there are resources out there.
The decision to homeschool is not one that is taken lightly. ... COVID-19 changed that calculus."
It seems like every day a new organization has put its content online for free. If you need a high-quality, soup-to-nuts curriculum, and you have the time to play a more active role, the Core Knowledge Foundation’s complete curriculum is online and available for free. If you can’t play as active a role, the Khan Academy is working with families and providing robust support to help folks access its online platform. Museums and zoos are putting new video content online every day.
Brainpop, Commonlit, LearnZillion, and too many others to list have made their engaging and usually fee-based lessons, videos, and quizzes available for free. So what do you do with the rest of the time?
Multiple homeschoolers I have interviewed over the years have talked about “the gift of time.” The traditional school day is often at odds with the rhythms of family life. In normal times, many students are out of the house early in the morning and are then occupied by after-school activities only to come home to slam down some dinner before doing their homework and going to bed. Families don’t have the opportunity for quality time, and children grow up before parents even realize it.
Homeschoolers are able to control their schedules and put plenty of entirely non-academic family bonding time into their days. They can understand their children’s rhythms and have them work on specific tasks at the time of the day that is best for them. Children can play outside and can have unstructured time to develop their own games and satisfy their own curiosities. Children can get more sleep when they need to. They can take breaks when they are frustrated. They can go to a quiet corner and read. The standardization required in running a traditional school simply doesn’t allow for this.
This massive homeschooling experience can be seen as an opportunity for families to come closer together. I know that sounds crazy right now as parents scramble to work from home or meet all of their commitments and adjust to the new normal. But rather than seeing it as “having” to be with your kids during the school day, see it as “getting” to spend time that you’re never going to get back. It’s a blessing in disguise, but a blessing, nonetheless.
And let’s be clear, children are going to learn a lot in the next couple of months. Parents have the ability to model ethical behavior by looking after neighbors and older relatives, practicing social distancing, and making the sacrifices that will be necessary to cope with the coronavirus. If we can demonstrate selflessness to our children and explain to them that we’re taking these steps to help protect people who are more vulnerable than we are, we can imprint massive lessons in moral development that will stick with kids far longer than most of the academic content we would try and teach them.
If you are being forced to homeschool against your will, I am sorry. It is an incredible burden to have to bear, particularly in light of all of the other upheavals wrought by the coronavirus. But our children are watching. We can let difficult circumstances get the best of us. Or we can faithfully stand in the gap for a couple of months until things are back to normal.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2020 edition of Education Week as Lessons From a Homeschooling Researcher