by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
How many children are homeschooled?
According to data recently released by the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education, an estimated 135,749 students enrolled in homeschools last year, a 6.2 percent increase over the previous school year. Since 2010, North Carolina’s homeschool enrollment has surged 66.5 percent.
National data on homeschooling can be hard to find. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) recently published, “Parent and Family Involvement in Education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2016.” Researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of families to gauge their involvement in a range of educational activities. Based on the responses of 13,523 public school and 552 homeschooled families, the researchers estimated that 1.7 million children were homeschooled in the United States in 2016. Citing some of the shortcomings of the NCES report, researcher Brian Ray argued that as many as 2.3 million children are homeschooled nationwide.
Aggregate data on homeschooling aside, only North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Virginia, and eight others track and report homeschool enrollment in their state. The owner of a homeschool information website uses this data to construct a model that generates annual homeschool enrollment estimates for the 50 states. According to these estimates, only three states – California, Texas, and North Carolina – have over 100,000 homeschoolers, and New York and Florida are not far behind. If one calculates homeschool enrollment as a percentage of the school-age population, North Carolina earns the top spot.
Based on NCES data, homeschool families are typically white, two-parent, and college-educated households who live in an urban or suburban community and have one parent in the labor force. Obviously, not all homeschool families look like this. Two in 10 homeschool students live in a household with an annual income that is below the poverty threshold, and 15 percent of homeschool parents are not high school graduates. There have been slight demographic shifts in recent years. For example, the number of Hispanic students enrolled in a homeschool has increased significantly. In 2016, an estimated 26 percent of homeschool families were Hispanic, up from 15 percent in 2012.
Why do they choose home education?
Interestingly, homeschools in North Carolina appear to focus less on religious instruction than they have in the past. In 2010, the Division of Non-Public Education estimated that around 66 percent of students enrolled in a homeschool that had a religious focus. By 2018, that figure dropped by seven percentage points. I suspect that it is a reflection of the growing diversity in the homeschool movement. What was considered a refuge for evangelicals has blossomed into a movement that has welcomed families from across the ideological, political, and religious spectrum, although not all progressives are happy about it.
In the NCES report, 34 percent of parents identified “concern about the environment of other schools” as the primary reason why they chose to homeschool. Seventeen percent were most concerned with academic rigor. Only 16 percent identified religious instruction as their top reason. Another 11 percent responded that personal and logistical factors, such as family time, finances, travel, and distance, were their primary motivation. The remaining 22 percent prioritized moral instruction, nontraditional learning, and providing an alternative educational environment for special needs, disabled, or ill child.
Where do homeschool parents obtain instructional materials?
In an earlier NCES study, “Homeschooling in the United States: 2012,” American Institutes for Research scholars found that homeschool families access instructional materials from a range of sources. Around 77 percent of families used a homeschooling catalog, publisher, or individual specialist. The same percentage used non-retail websites. Public libraries, retail stores, and education publishers were also used by over half of the families in the survey. Obtaining materials from homeschool organizations, churches, school districts, and private schools were less common.
How do homeschools perform academically?
Apples-to-apples comparisons require adjusting for differences in the public and homeschool populations. If one fails to account for demographic and socioeconomic factors, for example, the results may reflect the differences in the groups rather than their performance.
Moreover, public school teachers in all major subjects use state-mandated academic standards, but homeschools do not. (They choose to leave the public system to escape standardization in the first place!) As a result, standardized testing based on a set of academic standards would disadvantage the homeschooled group.
Complicating any comparative study of student achievement is the fact that homeschool and public school students seldom take the same standardized tests until college admissions tests become necessary. The first problem is that it also precludes comparisons of students in the elementary and middle school grades. Second, home and public school students who take the ACT and SAT are self-selecting groups of mostly college-bound students, rather than representatives of the “typical” student from each group.
The very limited empirical research on the subject tends to find that the performance of homeschool students exceeds the performance of their counterparts in public schools. For example, in a 2015 Journal of School Choice article, Brian Ray found that Black homeschool students scored 23 to 42 percentile points above Black public school students. As is usually the case with educational research, however, the matter is far from settled.
Is homeschooling harmful to children?
Finally, there is the question of whether homeschooling invites psychological and physical harm. In a 2013 Peabody Journal of Education article titled “Homeschooling and the Question of Socialization Revisited,” Richard Medlin concluded, “Compared to children attending conventional schools, however, research suggests that they have higher quality friendships and better relationships with their parents and other adults. They are happy, optimistic, and satisfied with their lives.” Albert Chang’s 2014 Journal of School Choice article, “Does Homeschooling or Private Schooling Promote Political Intolerance? Evidence from a Christian University,” found that “greater exposure to homeschooling is associated with more political tolerance.” In the end, the widespread notion that homeschool students lack social skills, empathy, or tolerance is more myth than fact.
What questions remain?
Many. Will Tomlinson, who was homeschooled and is a summer intern with the John Locke Foundation, reminds me that we have very little data on homeschool cooperatives, which are a major component of contemporary homeschooling. The use of social media by homeschool parents to collect and disseminate information also warrants closer examination.
Should you homeschool?