This project was designed to explore the motivations and goals of parents who are home schooling their children. Because the home schooling movement is reported to be growing at an increasing rate, the reasons for this growth become all the more interesting and important in exploring the ramifications of the movement. The survey was designed to draw out the more “gut reasons” for home schooling – to find out not just who’s doing it and what it looks like, but what the families doing it feel about their experiences, in both positive and negative ways. By examining these less quantitative aspects of the home schooling movement, it was hoped that a more accurate and personal sense of the nature of the movement could be gained.
Methods and Procedures
Because information of a more in-depth nature was sought, a survey was designed which contained many open-ended questions.
Basic information about numbers and ages of children, educational backgrounds of parents, religious affiliation, and economic status was sought in order to formulate a demographic picture of the sample.
Reasons for home schooling were explored directly through questions asking parents to rate the importance of several factors in their decision, and indirectly through questions probing the formats of their programs, the advantages and disadvantages they perceived in home schooling, their children’s likes and dislikes, and the responses of their friends and families to their home schooling.
Because the information received was largely narrative in nature, responses were coded and tabulated strictly in terms of frequency. detailed statistical analysis was deemed inappropriate due to the nature of the responses and the limited nature of the sample.
The survey population was drawn from the directory of the Growing Without Schooling (GWS) magazine published by Holt Associates in Boston, Massachusetts. A systematic random sample of 257 names were drawn from the name list published in Issue #48 (December 01, 1985) of the magazine.
While home schoolers of a wide variety of backgrounds and viewpoints subscribe to GWS, the readership is likely slanted towards the ideological underpinnings of the organization’s founder, John Holt. His “unschooling” approach to education, and emphasis on integrating learning with all aspects of life, are likely to be shared more by the readership of GWS than by the home schooling movement as a whole. Thus, the survey sample is not completely broad based, but rather fairly specific.
Despite these limitations, the results of the survey did reveal a wide variety of philosophies and backgrounds. While the findings are perhaps limited in some respects, they do provide worthwhile information.
From the sample of 257, 13 were undeliverable and 147 surveys were returned, for a response rate of 60%. Of these, 143 were deemed usable, and these were analyzed and coded for numerical analysis, and the open-ended answers logged for close study and comparison.
The survey respondents had an average of 2.2 children per family, with the average age of the children being 8.7 years. Parents began home schooling their children at an average age of 6.4 years, but a substantial minority of the respondents (37%) declined to give a starting age, saying rather that home schooling had begun at “birth,” or even at “conception.” This emphasis on learning as a life-long journey, and reluctance to separate learning from “real life” was present in all areas of the survey’s responses, and reflects perhaps the Holtian approach to learning expected from this sample.
The largest group of parents (49%) did not know when they would cease home schooling, with many commenting that they would continue as long as their children wanted to, or as long as it seemed the best educational approach for their children. Of those who did indicate a definite stopping age (30%), the average was 14 years of age, and answers ranged from 5 to 18 years of age. This relatively late stopping age cited by these parents seems to indicate a belief that home schooling is not simply a temporary measure to ease their child into formal schooling, but rather an important, and perhaps the only, phase in the child’s education.
Fewer than a third of the children attended conventional schools prior to home schooling, and those who did spent an average of only one year there. In many families, only the oldest child had been exposed to formal education. Some parents indicated that this first child’s experience in school convinced them that conventional schooling was not appropriate for their children, resulting in younger children never being sent to conventional schools at all.
Only 13% of the children had returned to formal schools. this small segment of the survey population in formal schools may have two possible implications. It was unclear from the responses whether this small number returning to formal schools reflected a genuine commitment to home schooling for the children’s entire education, or merely the young average age of the sample (8.7 years), or some combination of both.
Thirty-four percent of the parents (34%) indicated that they had no religious affiliation. Among the 66% who indicated an affiliation, the largest groups were mainline Protestant (including Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, etc.) (17%), independent/fundamentalist Christian (13%), and Catholic (8%). Twenty-two percent of the respondents fell into no easily classified group, stating that they were Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or part of churches such as “Self-REalization Fellowship” or “Reformed Congregation of the Goddess.” Another 4% of the respondents classified themselves as part of the “Spiritual-Unity” movement.
In terms of religiosity (i.e., how “religious” respondents described themselves to be), the Fundamentalist Christians and Spiritualists were the most religious. After these two came the Catholic respondents and those of mainline Protestant denomination. The group classified as “Other” also had a similar level of religiosity as these latter two groups.
Educational Background of Parents
Parents in this survey were very well educated, with the majority of both mothers (59%) and fathers (72%) having completed college or graduate degrees. Another third of the mothers and 23% of fathers had some college, with the remaining small fraction having only a high school education.
Responses to the income level question revealed a middle to upper-middle class sample. The largest group of families (45%) placed themselves in the $15,000 to $30,000 range. Thirteen percent earned less than $15,000, 20% fell in the $30,000 to $45,000 range, and 22% were in the $45,000 and above range.
Reasons for Choosing Home Schooling
The second section of the survey asked parents to rate the importance of seven different factors in their decision to home school their children. The highest ratings were received by three factors; these three were “belief that home schooling offers better quality teaching than other available schools,”
” . . . better moral atmosphere,” and ” . . . better social atmosphere.” Ratings for these three were remarkably similar, and they were well above that of the next most important factor.
The next most highly rated reason was the “belief that our children were too young for out-of-home schooling.” Slightly lower in the ratings was parents’ desire to give their children a religious education. This relatively low importance of explicitly religious teaching is perhaps again a reflection of the Holtian slant of the sample, since the author’s own experiences, as well as other research, has shown religiously motivated home schoolers to be a fairly large group.
Formats of Home Schools
This section explored whether or not the type of education offered by home schools, both in terms of content and structure, was markedly different from that offered by traditional schools, or whether home school was, in fact, “school at home.”
When asked what subjects they offered, a fifth of the parents answered that they taught “no subjects,” “only life.” Those who did list subjects, however, revealed the usual spread of reading, math, science, history, art, and music. Half the families offered subjects which could only be classified as “other,” and which included special activities such as woodworking, helping out with the family business, or instruction in special knowledge areas of the parents.
Sixteen percent of the parents listed “Bible” as a subject area, and another 15% included some forms of ethics or values instruction that was not explained in explicitly religious terms. Thus, nearly a third of these home schoolers offered some type of formal religious or ethical instruction to their children.
Given the high importance of the “better moral atmosphere” of home schools, the relatively small incidence of such instruction is somewhat surprising. However, answers to later questions as to the advantages of home schooling revealed a commitment to integrating moral and religious instruction into all activities and teaching, so that learning is from example, and not necessarily by explicit teaching.
Foreign languages were taught in 16% of the homes. Even this small frequency is somewhat impressive, when one recalls that the average age of the children in this sample is 8.7 years.
Questions about the number of days per week and hours per day of home school again revealed a substantial group (over one third) of parents who refused to call their schooling “formal” instruction, or who answered that they had school all day, every day. Parents who did answer with exact numbers of days and hours revealed an average home school program of 4.6 days per week, and 3.1 hours per day. Of these, however, 26% said the number of days varied, and 37% said the number of hours varied. The wide range of responses to these questions (e.g., numbers of hours per day ranged from .5 to 7) is likely to reflect differing views on the part of parents as to what constitutes “school.” Some included only formal parent-child instruction, while others included “imaginative play” or other such informal learning opportunities.
An open-ended question about the format of home school programs revealed a majority of 65% with highly informal or flexible structures, while only 30% indicated in their answers that they had formal lessons or instruction. Twenty-seven percent included in their answer some indication that there was “no school, only life,” by now a familiar theme in the responses.
Field trips were cited as important features by 47% of the families. Meeting with other home schooling families for shared classes, field trips, or simply play time were cited by 45% of the families.
Overall, responses to this section reveal that formal lessons and schedules are not particularly important to home schoolers, while flexibility is. The opportunity to take advantage of “teachable moments” whenever and wherever they occur seems of more value to home schoolers than completing a required number of academic exercises each day. A wide variety of formats and philosophies regarding structure and content was revealed, however, so that any broad generalizations about home schoolers would be inappropriate in this area.
Advantages of Home Schooling
Answers to this question about the advantages of home schooling were coded into eight basic categories, and then tabulated according to frequency. Parents could list more than one advantage, and the average parent listed three. REsponses were often difficult to differentiate, but an effort was made to categorize answers according to the specific advantages mentioned, rather than according to generalizations. Since some responses were more specific than others, the categorizations should not be viewed as having a high degree of statistical accuracy, but the frequency of these particular responses does point to definite trends in parents’ goals in their home school programs.
In general, answers to this question revealed an overwhelming concern with the totality of a child’s development, not just academic progress. Academic advantages were cited, but always in connection with others, such as individual attention, lack of competition, and so forth.. Home schooling parents show a fierce devotion to providing their children with an educational environment offering them the chance to develop freely and fully in all areas of their being, not just academically.
Avoid negative influences.
Avoiding negative influences was the most frequently listed advantage; it was mentioned by 47% of the respondents. Included in these influences desired to be avoided were peer pressure, competition, materialistic values, and different stresses associated with the social environment of traditional schools. This category is distinguished from the “moral development category” (see following) in that all of these responses cite the avoidance of specific things as advantages (as opposed to citing more general moral advantages).
The most frequently mentioned avoided influence was peer pressure. Many cite home schooling’s contrasting supporting environment, in which children can freely develop values and character traits, instead of being destroyed by the influence of their peers. Also frequently mentioned was the avoidance of the social atmosphere of schools – the competition, mean-spirited behavior, and the teasing and other stresses caused by immersion into a large group of peers.
The flexibility offered by home schooling was cited by nearly as many parents (i.e., 46%). Answers in this category cited the opportunity to follow the child’s interests, instead of a prescribed program or schedule, both in terms of subject matter and daily scheduling. Again, these responses revealed a child-oriented approach to learning (i.e., following the child’s interests in setting curriculum guidelines which along the lines of Holt’s philosophy). The high frequency of this response corresponds with the large number indicating that flexibility and informality were important parts of the formats of their home school.
Going at the child’s speed.
Another frequently mentioned advantage closely related to flexibility was pacing learning according to the child’s readiness. Forty-three percent of these parents found it extremely important to be able to personalize their child’s education, offering extra help when needed, or moving along quickly when concepts were easily understood. Many parents recounted stories of their children being labeled as “slow” in traditional schools, and beginning to fail because they internalized these labels, only to see them thrive on the personal attention and non-competitive environment at home.
Behind these top three advantages, two others were mentioned by 31% of the respondents: moral development and individual attention. the moral development category includes both the inculcation of specific religious values and doctrines, and also of inexplicit religious morals. These answers cited the active development of positive morals in children, not merely indirectly through means such as avoiding materialistic influences. Answers in this category frequently cited the amount of time spent with parents and family, rather than peers or even educators, as crucial in role modeling the desired values. Parents had the full attention of their children, rather than being forced to compete with eight hours of daily influence from other sources from a traditional school.
In the category of individual attention, parents cited specifically the value of the one-on-one teaching offered in the home. The one-on-one approach results in a variety of benefits to the child, primarily in the area of academics, but in moral and social development as well.
The advantage of developing independence and self-esteem in children was cited by 27% of the parents. These parents valued the opportunity to develop independent and critical thinking in their children, free from the pressures to conform to the ideas or values of their peers, or even their teachers. Many related this character development directly to the avoidance of influences such as peer pressure or competition, and when such specifics were mentioned, answers were coded into the “avoid negative influences” category instead.
A final category included responses regarding the strengthening of the family unit facilitated by home schooling. Twenty-three percent of the respondents cited this advantage. Again, many of the answers citing family life advantages were tied closely to other areas, such as moral development. It is also likely, therefore, that many who did not specifically cite the strengthening of their family implied it in their mention of the advantage of spending so much time with their children, modeling moral behavior, providing individual attention, and so forth.
Disadvantages of Home Schooling
Responses to this open-ended question were notably shorter than to the previous one about home schooling’s advantages. Again, answers were categorized and tabulated by frequency.
The most frequently cited disadvantage of home schooling was the time commitment involved, listed by 36% of the respondents. Parents mentioned the problem of burnout and limited personal time for parents apart from their children.
The next most frequent response (27%) stated that there were no disadvantages to home schooling. Some parents stating this did qualify their answer in some way, often by explaining that advantages so far outweighed any disadvantages that they did not seem, by comparison, to be disadvantages at all.
One fifth of the parents cited social isolation as a disadvantage. Some parents mentioned specifically the lack of group participation in specific activities, such as music, drama, and sports. Others felt that being home schoolers, a relatively uncommon phenomenon, occasionally made it difficult to find playmates for their children who shared their interests. Still others worded their answers more in terms of the extra effort required to provide social contact for their children, effort which is not necessary in traditional school situations.
Eleven percent cited the expense of home schooling as a disadvantage. the lack of particular features of traditional schools was mentioned by 8%, and the disapproval of others was mentioned by 6%. Legal problems were said to be a disadvantage by 3% of the respondents.
It is interesting that both of the major disadvantages cited, time commitment and social isolation, relate closely to two of the major advantages, individualized instruction (flexibility according to both interest and ability) and the ability to control the moral environment (via avoiding bad influences, promoting moral development, etc.). Home schoolers appear willing to tolerate the disadvantages of home schooling in favor of the outweighing value of its advantages.
Other questions drew out that only 12% of these families had faced any legal problems as a result of their home schooling. This percentage is likely unrepresentative of home schoolers as a whole, however, since respondents had all agreed to the publishing of their names on the GWS name list. It is likely that families who believed or knew their school districts to be troublesome for home schoolers would not agree to their names being listed in such a manner.
Two fifths of the respondents had had their children take standardized tests, and they reported that their children scored generally above average.
The overwhelming majority of the respondents (83%) said they felt their children had adequate social contact with their peers. Many cited involvement through special sports teams, classes, support groups, clubs, and so forth. Others explained that “adequate” meant something very different than the socialization offered by the traditional school experience, and thus while home schooling may not offer similar social contact, it does offer appropriate contact.
Overall, the survey proved a very effective and helpful instrument in discovering a variety of features about the home schooling movement. Despite the limitations of the sample, the responses revealed much about the motivations of parents who home school, and therefore about what they value and strive for in their children’s educations. The survey revealed many different opinions among these home schoolers, and yet an underlying similarity of concern for the educational welfare of their children surfaced, not only in terms of academic achievement, but also in the development of character and morals.
A wide variety of political and religious viewpoints was revealed in the responses, making it clear that home schooling is not an easily explicable or definable phenomenon. The movement does include many Christian fundamentalists seeking to escape the secular humanism of the public schools. But this survey also revealed parents seeking to remove their children from the too-religious public schools, in order to provide them with a completely secular, or completely different religious experience.
A major theme appearing throughout the responses is that of the integration of learning and life. This approach to learning reflects perhaps the underlying motivation of all home school parents: to provide for their children an atmosphere in which to live, learn, and grow all at once, in a unified, carefully (though not always formally) organized way.
(Editor’s note: The author’s current address is 2066 Whisperwood Glen Lane, Reston VA 22091.)