3c. Why do families homeschool?
Many studies have attempted to pinpoint the answer to the question of why families homeschool, although with little success. When asked to identify the most important reason they homeschool more than a third identified moral or religious instruction as their primary reason, followed by “school environment” at 21% (Planty et al., 2009). But other researchers have realized that any attempt to classify parents’ reasons for homeschooling runs into a series of nested ideas – when three potential reasons are presented they can be seen as a subset of each other, as “poor learning environment” could be a subset of “concern about school environment,” which could itself be a subset of “desire to provide moral or religious instruction” (Spiegler 2010). In addition, there could be a variety of factors interacting (like the quality of local schools and parental beliefs about standardized testing), and reasons for homeschooling can also change over time.
Religion is Important to Many Homeschoolers
It is true that the majority of homeschoolers are Christian, and primarily Protestant; the low estimates are around 57% of all homeschoolers and may be much higher (Ray 1997). Not surprisingly, they are also overwhelmingly Republicans; possibly on the order of 50-90% (Murphy 2012). Homeschooling families tend to be larger than non-homeschooling families – while nationwide 44% of families have three or more children, fully 62.1% of homeschool families do (Bielick et al. 2001).
So yes, the stereotypical highly religious, politically conservative homeschooler with a large family is actually pretty true!
But that’s not to say that there aren’t other types of families homeschooling. Some of the secular Facebook homeschooling groups I’m in are pretty big and growing. Liberals tend to be more drawn to an unschooling approach through the writing of John Holt, although this is not universal – there are certainly liberals who follow curricula and the occasional religious conservative who unschools.
The reason for this split is grounded in the ways in which people from different backgrounds view children: liberals tend to view children as inherently ‘good’ and both capable of and having the right to pursue their own interests. The educational environment should thus bend to the learner’s needs and not the other way around, which leads liberals to reject school for “pedagogical” reasons and create a flexible, child-centered learning environment.
Religious homeschoolers, by contrast, dislike the secular approach to education: they see religion as an inherent part of what they want their children to learn in life, not separate from it. Traditional family values and a belief in parental authority lead the majority of religious homeschoolers to prefer a “school at home” approach with heavy use of curricula.
Given the inherent inefficiencies of school (several of the homeschoolers I interviewed noted how much waiting around there is in school) it is not surprising that the heavy focus on academic work by the majority religious homeschoolers is responsible for the high standardized test results of the homeschooled group as a whole, which typically surpass the performance of students attending school. Unschoolers tend to score below average performance on these tests, possibly partly because they are unused to taking tests, and also because the tests have no relevance to the material they will have been learning in their non-curriculum-based environment. We’ll dig into this research further in the module on “how do homeschoolers turn out?”. It is quite common to adjust the approach to homeschooling once the family starts it – the usual form this takes is for the family to initially start with the “school at home” approach because that’s what the parent is most familiar with, and for this to get relaxed over time (in the absence of religious criteria that require the parent to remain in an authoritative position) as the parent becomes more comfortable with learning in the absence of curricula.
All this is to say that there are two quite divergent approaches to homeschooling based largely on a person’s political and religious affiliations, and that this can shape homeschooling families’ ability to find and make friends. Homeschooling Mama Erin lived in Michigan for many years before her recent move to California, and recalls find it difficult to find a ‘tribe’ that wasn’t either very conservative or very liberal. The people who may find it most difficult to find a sense of community are those who fit in the center of the political and religious spectra. You might consider how well you fit in your local community now – if you’re very politically liberal and surrounded by conservatives then your problems of finding someone to socialize with while homeschooling are going to be pretty acute – and vice versa. Parents may find some consolation in online support groups (Facebook is a particularly popular gathering place), although younger children may feel this absence.
Bielick, S. (2008). 1.5 million homeschooled students in the United States in 2007. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.
Murphy, J. (2012). Homeschooling in America: Capturing and assessing the movement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Planty, M., Hussar, W., Snyder, T., Kena, G., KewalRamani, A., Kemp, J., Bianco, K., & Dinkes, R. (2009). The condition of education 2009 (NCES 2009-081). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.
Spiegler, T. (2010). Parent’s motivations for home education: The influence of methodological design and social context. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education 3(1), 57-70.
Ray, B. D (1997). Strengths of their own: Home schoolers across America. Salem, OR: National Home Education Research Institute.