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Homeschooling in America: Lessons for educators

JHomeschoolingoe Murphy, professor of education at Vanderbilt University, is one of America's foremost scholars of school leadership and improvement.  His 2012 book, Homeschooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement, offers the most comprehensive look to date at one of the nation's fastest-growing school choice options.  Murphy's book makes it clear that what we know - and don't know - about homeschooling offers deep lessons for professional educators.

In Homeschooling in America, Murphy offers a thorough, detailed, and easy-to-read examination of existing research.  The portrait of American homeschooling is of a movement that is skyrocketing in popularity (as many as 4% of school-aged children are now educated primarily at home).  Murphy traces modern homeschooling to the democratic and free school movements of the '60's, though religious conservatives came to quickly dominate the ranks of homeschoolers by the 1980's

While the demographic portrait of today's homeschoolers is largely heterogeneous (white, middle class, religiously and politically conservative, and better educated than the average American family), as the movement has grown in popularity it also has become increasingly diverse, and secular homeschoolers also occupy an large and important segment of the homeschooling population.

Homeschoolers report a variety of motivations, though they typically cluster around a desire for more family time and to effectively pass on the family's values, coupled with a concern that their children will be harmed academically, socially, or spiritually by traditional schooling.  Pedagogical approaches are strongly associated with whether homeschooling families are religiously motivated (with religious-oriented homeschoolers tending toward more traditional approaches to teaching and learning) or not (in which case families tend toward more student-centered methods, such as "unschooling"). 

Murphy provides a thoughtful overview of research on the effects of homeschooling, noting that the dearth of sophisticated, controlled studies prevents researchers from concluding that the same child learns more in a homeschooling environment than she would in a traditional school setting.  However, data is clear that homeschooling does no harm in that, on a variety of measures, homeschooled children perform as well as their traditionally-school peers.  On the other hand, numerous studies show that homeschooled children from families of color, and of lower incomes and educational levels, typically perform higher than their demographically-similar peers in traditional schools.

The most commonly-expressed argument against homeschooling is surely a concern that homeschooled children will not be properly socialized.  But Murphy describes how research effectively rejects this hypothesis, demonstrating that, based on multiple socialization measures, homeschooled children are just as adept socially, and in fact experience much higher levels of interactions with adults and engage in far more community-based activities.

Homeschooling in America makes it clear that more research should be conducted on this important movement.  But it also shows how this diverse, growing, and overwhelmingly positive phenomena poses a major challenge to the traditional regime of public (and private) schooling.

Based on my reading of Murphy's book, I believe the homeschooling movement should be taken seriously by educators and the general public because it represents yet another crack in the structure of traditional public schooling - a structure that no longer serves its purpose and that should be dismantled and replaced.  As prominent education scholar Richard Elmore puts it, all efforts at improving the present structure of schooling amount to "palliative care for a dying institution."

Schools aren't failing because teachers aren't working hard (a common trope in media debates about education) but because, no matter how hard teachers work, you cannot meet the needs of America's diverse children through a one-size-fits-all, state-run monopoly on education.  The nature of central planning required for the government to deliver a public good like education requires a kind of standardization that prohibits schools from tailoring learning to the needs and preferences of individual children and their families the way normal markets meet the great diversity of consumer demands.  As the experience of other countries indicates, the promise of public education does not have to depend on a monopoly of state-run schools.

Furthermore, the homeschooling movement demonstrates that children can be effectively educated without these structures, and without the benefit of a vast, expensive cadre of professionally trained teachers and administrators.  The implications of this fact for people who make their living off the traditional school structure - as I do - are enormous.

As more and more families demand educational options that address their values, academic preferences, and individual learning needs, the traditional structures of schooling will become largely irrelevant.  Professional educators can use their considerable political clout to resist this inevitable demand (paternalistically insisting that they know better than families, and denying those families their desired choices), or they can embrace personalized learning, truly innovative models of instruction, and school choice.

The greatest educators in the 21st century will very likely not work in traditional schools.  But that doesn't mean there will be no place for professional educators.  On the contrary, true educators will discover new venues by which to deliver the public good of education, and provide a far more meaningful learning experience for children than they were ever allowed in a traditional school. 

This prospect should appeal to the millions of hard-working teachers who surely did not pursue their careers so they could work for a unionized government monopoly, but rather to transform the lives of individual children and leave a personal legacy of service.  The success of homeschooling families offers the promise that such a vocation could still exist, even for those who still teach "school."

UPDATE, 1/3/2014: I am greatly honored to have a version of this post republished on Penelope Trunk's homeschool website.


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Terry Freeman

I'm rather nervous whenever I see "public good", since it is usually followed by a method to use force to extract funds and compel participation, which has no real accountability. We've got a wealth of experience which shows that political "accountability" is a pale shadow of the real thing, taking one's child and one's money away from inferior producers - an option not available when government is deeply involved.

It is quite proper to view home education as a natural experiment. One of the most important lessons to be learned is that the traditional structure - 180 days per year, 6 hours per day, times 12 years - is completely and utterly without rational basis. When many home-schooled students are ready for college at age 12 or 14, the "12 year" paradigm is nonsense. When many spend an hour or two or three doing formal study, instead of six plus the time for homework, the traditional method is obviously inefficient. The fundamental idea behind government education is to control the process, including the teachers, with a barrage of intrusive tests. The idea behind home education is to teach to the individual child, wherever the child may be, and to pitch all formal tests except, where mandated, an annual standardized test. What replaces those tests? Micro-tests comprised of a single question or two. Can Johnny read? Ask him to do so. Listen for any problems and provide immediate, targeted advice. Give Johnny lots of time to read, and occasional feedback, and he'll improve. In a similar way, ask a question and listen to how Susan solves math problems. A brief targeted conversation can carry more math content than a week of lectures.

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