As the politicians and teachers’ unions debate how to “fix” America’s public schools, one fact seems undisputable: homeschooling is on the rise. According to the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), more than 2 million students—about 3.8 percent of the K-12 population—were being homeschooled in America in 2010. This figure represents a jump from 2007, when the Department of Education estimated that 2.9 percent of school-age children were being educated at home.
NHERI President Brian D. Ray, Ph.D., isn’t surprised that home-based education is trending up. “The public perception of public schools does not seem to be improving. I think we are going to see [homeschooling] continue to grow for the next half decade,” he says. But Ray adds that dissatisfaction with public schools is just one of the “fundamental issues” driving the homeschool movement. Some parents opt to homeschool because they want to spend more time together as a family or because they want to customize their children’s learning experience.
That was the case for Laura Clark, a Baltimore mother who currently homeschools her two elementary school-aged sons (a third son was homeschooled until he reached high school). Clark’s oldest son started out in a traditional kindergarten, but she decided to try homeschooling when he entered first grade. Homeschooling allowed her son to move forward in math at his natural pace—which tended to be speedier than the pace he would have found in a traditional classroom. But Clark says that the pacing of education was only part of her decision to homeschool. She also liked the “flexibility of it; having more family time, the flexibility of choosing the direction of education.” And, Clark adds, an extra bonus of being a homeschooler is vacationing without crowds. Until her oldest son went to high school, “we always took spring break in the off season,” she says.
Helen Hegener, the editor and publisher of Home Education Magazine and the mother of five grown children (all of whom were homeschooled), says that homeschooling just “makes sense.” “It’s a good way to raise kids, and schools are doing things that parents are not happy with,” she says. But even so, Hegener acknowledges that homeschooling is often misunderstood by the general population—particularly by those who fear that homeschooled children miss out on socialization or that parents won’t be able to teach their kids.
Hegener says that socialization, though “such a common concern” for those outside the homeschool community, is largely a nonissue for most homeschoolers, many of whom refer to it in jest as the “S-word.” For homeschoolers, church meetings, athletic teams, book clubs, volunteer activities—even trips to the grocery store—can provide children with natural opportunities to interact with other kids and adults. “The world is a pretty social place. … It’s hard to be antisocial these days,” says Hegener.
As for the concern that parents aren’t equipped to teach their children, Ray says that this too tends to be overblown. “Many adults believe they are incapable of anything other than something they were specially trained to do,” he says. “[But] you don’t have to get a bachelor’s degree in homeschooling to get involved.”
Clark agrees. A physician’s assistant by training, she says that while she never felt intimidated teaching her sons elementary-level math and science, history and English were a different story. “I was completely unqualified to teach history on my own, but I just learned it along with my kids. … And I loved it,” she says. And, Clark points out, parents can always engage an online tutor for subjects that are particularly troubling—that’s what she did when she felt that her older sons needed more help with their writing than she could provide. Clark and her sons also belong to a homeschool co-op, a collection of local parents and students who meet once a week to trade expertise.
Hegener adds that it’s natural for a family’s homeschool experience to change over time. “People come with all different preconceived ideas about what homeschooling should be,” she says. “But there are levels of understanding that only come after a while.” This is something that two million homeschooled students are likely learning every day.