The United States is in an educational quagmire toward the end of the century. Public school officials find themselves plagued with myriad problems from finding funds to repairing run-down buildings to quelling unprecedented acts of violence to dealing with taxpayers’ irritation over declining test scores. Consequently, many American parents are eagerly embracing proposals such as charter schools and voucher programs, as alternatives to the current government school monopoly. One non-government alternative that is gaining growing public acceptance, especially over the last decade, is the educational option known as “homeschooling.” Homeschooling has been defined as the “education of school-aged children at home rather than at school” (Lines, 1991, p.1). Researchers estimate there are approximately 1.1 to 1.5 million students who are homeschooled on any given day (Ray, 1992, 1999).
Families who choose to homeschool have become a curiosity—often seen as a throwback to another era. Lines (1991) has noted that because they are going against the status quo, homeschoolers have received a great deal more media attention than their numbers might warrant. Upbeat stories about homeschoolers have been featured in such media powerhouses as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today.
Due to this publicity, it could be deduced that the media have played a role in promoting a countercultural trend, such as homeschooling, to large segments of the American population. Homeschoolers, whether as individuals or as a group, make for an intriguing human interest story to many reporters. One journalist has theorized that homeschooling is an appealing topic to write about because “it offers a slightly contrarian view of education and journalists like the contrarian point of view” (Eric Goldscheider, Boston Globe correspondent, personal communication, April, 1999). The upshot of the attention is that the media has demonstrated that homeschooling is legal, doable, and practiced by a wide swath of Americans from coast to coast.
The purpose of this study was to determine the impact of the press, specifically the print media, upon the public’s perception of homeschooling. The body of homeschool research is small but growing and, as a rule, scholarly studies are not of much interest to the general public. Therefore, much of the general understanding (or misunderstanding) about home educators is likely to come from the media. In a fast-paced information age, such as ours, when the citizenry frequently forms its opinions about cultural and educational trends via the narrow lens of the media (though many rightfully complain about media bias or media errors), it is important to the future of homeschooling to determine how its past has been recorded and reported.
Method and Materials
In this study, a random sample of 340 newspaper and magazine articles from all over the United States were collected. Articles, written between 1985 and 1996, from local newspapers, regional newspapers, national newspapers, regional magazines, and national magazines were randomly selected. The criteria for selection was simple: that some aspect of homeschooling was the main story.
The process of building up even a small archive is long, but not difficult. Articles that were clipped or photocopied were read, filed, and catalogued. Articles were downloaded by the researcher through internet computer services (e.g., America Online).
Several national organizations were contacted (e.g., Home School Legal Defense Association) that had a reputation for being homeschool advocates or in whose membership ranks were sizeable numbers of home educators. Of the organizations contacted, four of them (i.e., Eagle Forum, St. Louis, Missouri; The Moore Foundation, Camas, Washington; The Family Research Council, Washington, DC; and Growing Without Schooling, Cambridge, Massachusetts) agreed to place in their publications an announcement about this project and the researcher’s request to receive articles.
These notices generated a positive response. Articles were received from a diverse array of individuals, from an Oklahoma congressman to a Colorado homeschool leader to a retired public school teacher from Wisconsin.
Local newspaper clippings about homeschooling came from a selection of newspapers in eastern and western Massachusetts, the Berkshire Eagle for example, which has a circulation in the tens of thousands.
Regional newspapers included large city editions and smaller dailies from all over the continental United States. Examples of regional newspapers whose circulation ranged in the hundreds of thousands are The Miami Herald and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. National newspapers included those with the largest circulation in the country, in the millions, such as the Wall Street Journal.
Regional magazines, which are usually a supplement to newspapers, included Nashville (Tennessee), Parent Magazine, and Sunday/Detroit Free Press (Michigan). National magazines included Time, Newsweek, and People.
Of the 340 pieces collected, 95 stories (29%) were national in scope, and 245 stories (71%) were local in scope. Sixty-seven articles were opinion pieces about homeschooling, with 53 (or 79%) of that pool being in favor of homeschooling and 14 (or 21%) being unfavorable toward homeschooling.
In general, articles about home education can be divided into the following six categories: general information, homeschooler of distinction, legislative/legal victories or losses, homeschooling as a grass roots movement, first-person accounts, and opinion pieces. More specialized articles focus on such topics as homeschooling and computers, controversial homeschoolers, or homeschoolers trying to gain access to public school sports teams.
After the newspapers and magazines were catalogued, the next stage of the research involved a content and qualitative analysis of the articles. The analysis’ purpose was to identify the topics, themes, and people that made up the substance of the news stories. This process allowed the researcher to develop analytic categories based on the examination of the material, and draw conclusions concerning the overall print media treatment of homeschooling.
The purpose of examining this body of material was to answer two questions: Has homeschooling, a countercultural movement, been depicted by the press in a positive or negative light? Have the media played a role in convincing the American people of the validity of homeschooling as an educational option?
To determine the answers to those queries, written media accounts were analyzed by focusing on the following: article themes, motivating factors in choosing homeschooling, organizations cited, authorities cited, frequently debated points, headlines, photographs, students’ comments, and sidebars. Analyzing these aspects of this print media sampling, it was possible to determine the bias of the stories and determine if the articles were generally positive or negative.
Conventional wisdom says that journalists do not tell people what to think, but they do tell people what to think about. As the Center for Media and Public Affairs has observed, “Journalism is notoriously susceptible to fads and fashions, as it beams its narrow searchlight over the vast expanse of the social and natural world, pausing to highlight first one problem and then another” (Lichter, Amundson, & Lichter, 1991, p. 1). From that vantage point, homeschooling, as a solution to the problems facing conventional schools, fits into the category of the unusual news story. It is the type of story the media, with its bent towards the controversial and sympathy for the underdog, delights in covering. It is no surprise, then, that the homeschooling story included elements of conflict between homeschoolers and educational bureaucrats and harsh critiques of public education. Less controversially, it also showcased high degrees of parental involvement in their children’s lives and the growth of homeschooling as a populist movement.
But the homeschooling story has been fundamentally a story about academic success—the story of a modern educational revolution which often features modestly educated mothers teaching their offspring how to read and write at kitchen tables. Teaching them without the social and political distractions with which the institution of public schooling is hampered.
Homeschooling authorities, such as a staff attorneys for the Home School Legal Defense Association, were heavily used in the stories. In over 300 articles, homeschooling proponents were quoted 31% of the time, compared with anti-homeschooling opponents, such as a public school superintendent, who were quoted only 5% of the time. The positive theme of a “day in the life of a homeschooling family” was the number one article theme in 26% of 310 articles that were analyzed.
The most frequently debated issues were how well homeschooled students performed academically and socially compared to their conventionally schooled counterparts. Despite these two concerns on the part of the media, the subtle message that “homeschooling is good” dominated 60% of the 310 articles analyzed. The message that “homeschooling is not good” figured in only 6% of the articles. Statistics of homeschoolers’ high test scores, numerous homeschool success stories, the ease with which learning materials are acquired, and the movement’s network of homeschooling support groups accounted for the favorable “spin” from journalists.
The message that “homeschooling is good” was also reinforced by the high percentage of positive headlines (57%), positive photographs (94%), positive comments from homeschooled children about their lifestyle (53%), and opinion pieces that were sympathetic to homeschooling (73%). Based on the particular results of this random sampling of articles, homeschooling has been depicted by the mass print media in a positive fashion.
The media leaves little doubt that homeschooling is growing in numbers and popularity and that the most dominant reason to homeschool, cited in over 200 articles, was parental and student dissatisfaction with the current state of public education. Public school administrators, when they were quoted, often criticized homeschooling instead of acknowledging that the shortcomings of their own programs may have resulted in steering parents toward becoming their child’s primary teacher.
Those reporting about homeschooling, however, have noted the concerns of many Americans regarding public education and have not ignored the fact that a precarious situation exists. Concurrently, the print media has written about the homeschooling alternative in a sympathetic and largely unbiased manner. The journalistic body of work surveyed strongly suggests a “yes” answer to the second question as to whether the media has played a role in validating homeschooling as a viable educational opportunity for willing parents.
In 79% of the articles, the mother was acknowledged as the primary home teacher. The media, in this random sampling, advanced no articles or opinions about what could be construed as a backlash against the forces of feminism that promote a modern woman’s place as largely in the workplace and not in the home. This pro-workforce attitude of some feminists is especially entrenched in women’s studies programs on college campuses. At Southeastern Connecticut University (1999), for instance, the reasons to major in women’s studies are to “to enter, advance or change our careers” and “to improve our preparation for careers in academe, law, government, journalism, social work, the arts, advocacy agencies, counseling, librarianship, education …” Daphne Patai (University of Massachusetts/Amherst professor, personal communication, May, 1999), author of Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women’s Studies, agrees that these feminist-driven programs have nothing to say about women who choose a full-time vocation as a homemaker and mother.
The media story that is invisible is the one about hundreds of thousands of American women who are leading rich lives based on their accomplishments via the hearth, as opposed to their prowess in the workplace. It is these women’s homeschools which are successfully preparing their sons and daughters to enter college and/or the labor force. Researchers’ interviews with adults who were homeschooled revealed that “most were earning relatively moderate incomes, none were unemployed, and none were on any form of welfare assistance” (Knowles & Muchmore, 1995, p. 50). Ray’s (1997) nationwide study of homeschoolers, which included 232 homeschool high school graduates, noted that of this group, “69% went on to postsecondary education and 31% into employment.”
Picking up on the familial theme, no articles addressed the fact that the majority of homeschooled children featured live in two-parent homes, and the fact that the majority of the pro-homeschooling advocates quoted are male. Surely, in a time when raising children in single-parent homes has become rampant, the story of these involved fathers deserves more attention.
The National Fatherhood Initiative (1999), a grassroots organization whose purpose is to encourage men to be involved fathers, posits that an estimated 24.7 million children in the United States do not have a biological father living with them. A federal agency reports the devastating results of children growing up without a father’s influence: “Girls without a father in their life are two and a half times as likely to get pregnant and 53 percent more likely to commit suicide. Boys without a father in their life are 63 percent more likely to run away and 37 percent more likely to abuse drugs” (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 1999, p. 1).
A discussion of ethnic or racial minority homeschoolers was also overlooked in these articles. Minorities were photographed or quoted in only 6% of 305 articles analyzed. In light of the melting pot of cultures, races, and religions, that is a hallmark of the United States, scant effort has been made by the media to interview people of color who have initiated interesting homeschooling endeavors. For instance, The Drinking Gourd, a multicultural home education magazine, was founded by Donna Nichols-White, a black homeschooling mother. Muslims and Orthodox Jews, who have established homeschooling support groups, newsletters, and web sites, are also a vibrant part of the homeschooling movement that receives little media attention.
In only 2% of the 310 articles, was the issue of homeschool graduates a story theme. Given that the modern-day homeschooling movement is two decades old, there is a dearth of coverage about twenty-something homeschool graduates who are launching careers, starting families, attending graduate school, playing professional sports, joining the military, or even becoming homeschooling advocates, in their own right, by working for national homeschooling organizations. Also, given the media fascination with how homeschoolers socialize, the attitudes of these young adults toward the popular culture, the institution of schooling, and the role of the nuclear family merits some in-depth magazine and newspaper articles.
The homeschooling community has been spared the type of scrutiny usually given to political candidates: there were no negative pieces focusing in on the differences, sometimes heated, between “right-wing” homeschoolers and “left-of-center” unschoolers nor were there any articles featuring families who are homeschool drop-outs.
Overall, homeschoolers should be satisfied that they have received abundant and positive print media coverage. Indeed, the print media has likely played a prominent societal role in manipulating public attitudes favorably toward home education and affirming its place in the educational mainstream.
Proponents of homeschooling should take advantage of any opportunities they have to get their message out by making themselves available to reporters for interviews, crafting press releases, writing letters or opinion pieces, participating in public meetings, or running for political office. As a respected homeschooling activist once advised, “The press and other media have been virtually without exception friendly to home schooling and home schoolers; I cannot recall a single interview or report that was hostile. But it will be important during the coming years for home schoolers to keep the media well informed of what we are doing, to answer any questions they have about our work and progress and to make as many allies among them as we can” (Holt, 1981, p. 36).
Holt, John (1981). Teach your own. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.
Knowles, Gary J. and Muchmore, James, A. (1995). “Yep! We’re grown-up, home-schooled kids—and we’re doing just fine, thank you! Journal of Research on Christian Education, 4 (1), 35-56.
Lichter, Robert and Amundson, Daniel, and Lichter, Linda (1991). Media coverage of global warming: 1985-1991. Washington, DC: Center of Media and Public Affairs.
National Fatherhood Initiative. (1999, March). What does prime time network television say about fatherhood? Online www.fatherhood.org/nfitv/index.html.airs.
Ray, Brian D. (1992). Marching to the beat of their own drum: A profile of home education research. Salem, OR: National Home Education Research Institute.
Ray, Brian D. (1997) Strengths of their own—homeschoolers across America: Academic achievement, family characteristics, and longitudinal traits. Salem, OR: National Home Education Research Institute.
Ray, Brian D. (1999). Home schooling on the threshold: A survey of research at the dawn of the new millennium. Salem, OR: National Home Education Research Institute.
Southeastern Connecticut University, Women’s Studies Department. (1999). Online http://scsu.ctstateu.edu/~womenstudies/
United States Department of Health and Human Services. (1999, March). HHS launches “Be Their Dad” parental responsibility campaign. Online www.hhs.gov/news/press/1999pres/990326.html.