The last two decades have ushered in a revival of what was once one of America’s typical forms of education. More and more parents are adopting home schooling as a means for rearing and educating their children. Although not a totally new nor unusual phenomenon in American history, what is new is the context in which the reemergence of home schooling as a viable educational alternative is occurring (Pitman, 1987). The current home school movement is embedded in the context of universal compulsory schooling for the first time in American history. The revival of home schooling within this context causes one to consider and ponder a number of questions. Why are parents choosing to educate their children at home rather than in any kind of formal institution? What role does the context of universal compulsory schooling play in the decision to home school? How are the parents and families involved affected by home schooling? What is the nature of today’s home school as a context for the cognitive, affective, and social development of the children involved? Investigations into these questions will provide valuable insight concerning the reasons for and implications of the move to home school.
The question, “Why home school?”, has been the focus of a number of studies during the 1980’s. One can find numerous personal accounts and case studies in early research of individual families which tell of their home school story (Knowles, 1987; Reynolds, 1985; Reynolds & Williams, 1985; Schemmer, 1985). Other researchers have described the characteristics of home schoolers in an attempt to develop a profile of those most likely to home school (Gustavsen, 1980; Linden, 1983).
A second question deals with the effect of universal compulsory schooling. The literature suggests one possible effect of the context of universal compulsory schooling on parents’ reasons for home schooling. Studies focusing on the religious beliefs and backgrounds of home schoolers have concluded that parents are “defensively” home schooling in an attempt to protect their children from “anti‑Christian” influences (Curry, 1985; Rose, 1985; Shepherd, 1986). Likewise, others have concluded that parents have adopted the defensive position of protecting their children from the negative influences and potential psychological and social damage incurred through a public education (Knowles, 1987; Linden, 1983). In both cases, parents are characterized as reactionaries who choose home schooling as the best line of defense against negative influences.
On the other hand, other recent studies suggest that parents’ reasons for home schooling may be less defensive than has previously been assumed. Pitman (1987) has identified three categories of home schoolers in her research‑‑religious, progressive, and the academic.
To these families, home schooling simply makes sense. What does not make sense is to send their young children off to an institution to join dozens of other youngsters in a round of activities largely unrelated to their lives at home in order to learn information that can be learned at least as well and probably better in their own home environment. (p. 283).
Likewise, Van Galen (1986) has identified two broad types of home schooling parents‑‑the Ideologues and the Pedagogues. Ideologues “home school because they believe that public schools teach values that are anti‑family and anti‑Christian” (p. 289). One can clearly see some evidence of a defensive posture on the part of the Ideologues. On the other hand, Pedagogues “home school primarily because they believe their children learn best in the informal environment of the home” (p. 289). Although a number of parents have, indeed, based their decision to home school on a defensive premise, these findings suggest that home schooling parents have various reasons for choosing the home school alternative, many of which are “offensive” as opposed to “defensive” in nature.
This paper will describe Phase I of the author’s ongoing study of parents’ reasons for home schooling (Resetar & McCown, 1987). Phase I was conducted as an exploration into various aspects of home schooling. (This study was conducted in 1987. More recent research on parents’ reasons has been published since [e.g., Knowles & Browning, 1990 and Mayberry, 1990].) The primary focus was an investigation into the reasons parents had for home schooling. We were also interested in addressing the possibility that the reasons some parents have for home schooling are subject to change and may evolve over time as the parents make meaning of their home school experiences. That is, we believe the broad categories of the Ideologues and Pedagogues may represent parents at different stages in their development as home schoolers rather than differentiating between two distinct types of home schooling parents. This hypothesis was not generated on the basis of previous research findings. Rather, it was developed out of the first author’s prior discussions and interactions with home schooling parents. Many of these parents indicated that they had indeed chosen to home school for reasons we have previously characterized as being defensive. But, as they experienced success and satisfaction with their choice, parents came to realize that home schooling much than a means by which they could protect their children from negative influences. This suggested that the reasons parents give for home schooling may be a function of the amount and type of home schooling experience they have had. Results from our first phase tend to support this hypothesis.
Phase I of this study also addressed the following questions:
1. What degree of comfort and willingness do parents have in conveying their choice to home school to others?
2. What are the academic achievement results for the children involved in these home schooling families (overall total, reading, math, and language arts achievement levels)?
3. How has home schooling affected the parents?
4. What other potential questions can and need to be developed for future research efforts?
Methods and Results
To answer these questions a questionnaire and a cover letter were mailed to the approximately 300 families that received the Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Newsletter. Due to the nature of the legal problems associated with home schooling in Pennsylvania at the time of the survey, all participants were allowed to remain anonymous when responding to the questionnaire. The first part of the questionnaire was designed to obtain basic information about the numbers and ages of the children, the year home schooling began for each child, the children’s prior educational experience, and the parent’s religious affiliation in order to formulate a demographic picture of the sample. Seventy‑six families, representing 244 children, responded by returning the completed questionnaire. The 244 children included in this study ranged in age from 1 to 20 years of age (mean age 9.4). Some of the families have been home schooling for over 10 years, while others reported that they had only recently decided to home school. Sixteen percent (12) of the families indicated that they had no religious affiliation. Among the 84% (64) who reported an affiliation, the largest groups were nondenominational Christian (22), Protestant (15), Presbyterian (9), Baptist (10), and Roman Catholic (8).
The second part of the questionnaire contained closed and open‑ended questions because in‑depth information was desired concerning the reasons parents had for home schooling. Respondents were first given five possible options and were asked to choose that option which best exemplified their initial reasons for deciding to home school. Then, they were instructed to explain their reasons in narrative form. The responses were categorized on the basis of the main initial reason given by the respondent for deciding to home school. The responses are reported in percentage terms below:
We initially decided to home school because:
15.8% A. we are concerned about the quality of public education.
30.3% B. of our religious convictions and beliefs.
9.2% C. of academic and intellectual reasons.
34.2% D. we felt we could give our children the best possible education.
10.5% E. of another reason.
9.2% E1. felt it was too early to put their children in formal education.
1.3% E2. said their son was a good student that was ostracized in public school.
In order to determine if the reasons for home schooling go through a process of developmental change, parents were then asked if their initial reasons had changed. Respondents who indicated a change in their reasons were directed to describe the nature of that change in narrative form. Follow‑up phone interviews were conducted in cases where a response was not clear or incomplete. Thirty‑three percent (25) of the respondents indicated their reasons were now different. The following percentages reflect the percentage of those who changed their reasons, according to what reasons they changed to:
60% now feel that they can give their children the best possible education.
20% said it is now a matter of religious convictions and beliefs.
12% said that their reasons have deepened and become stronger.
4% are now concerned about the quality of public education.
4% said that home schooling has been more rewarding than they had anticipated.
Analysis of the respondents reporting such a change show that 84% (21) had been home schooling for at least two years. Analysis of the 51 (67%) of the respondents who had not changed their initial reasons show that 27 (53%) had been home schooling for less than two years. This suggests that the reasons for home schooling are more likely to change Has one accumulates more home school experience‑‑at least 2 to 3 years.
After all changes in reasons were taken into consideration, the percentages reported above were recalculated to give the final reason percentages which follow:
We are home schooling because:
7.9% A. we are concerned about the quality of public education.
26.3% B. of our religious convictions and beliefs.
5.3% C. of academic and intellectual reasons.
53.9% D. we felt we could give our children the best possible education.
6.6% E. of another reason (E1‑5.3%, E2‑1.3%).
These percentages reflect the reasons the total sample gives as their current reasons for home schooling. That is, if asked “What are your present reasons for home schooling?,” these are the responses which would be given at the time the survey was administered.
Likert‑type items were designed to assess the degree of comfort and willingness parents have in conveying their choice to home school to others. These questions produced mixed results. Sixty‑five of the respondents (84%) reported that they are comfortable in telling others about their home schooling versus seven (9%) who are not (Six [7%] were undecided). On the other hand, thirty‑two (42%) of the respondents said that they do not initiate discussion of home schooling unless the other party first leads the conversation to a suitable topic (such as schooling or education). An equal number of the respondents (32% to 42%) reported that they would initiate such a discussion, while thirteen respondents (16%) were undecided.
The academic achievement of the children in these home school families was assessed by having the respondents supply their children’s most recent standardized achievement test scores. The test name and the total reading, total language arts, total math, and overall total percentile ranks were reported where available (Table 1).
Overall Total Total Total
Total Score Reading Lang Arts Math
Number of Scores Reported 44 47 41 46
Mean Percentile Rank Score 82.9 82.3 82.7 80.9
for all Reported Scores
Percentage of Scores
One Standard Deviation Above
the Normative Mean (Above
the 84th Percentile) 61.4% 70.2% 60.0% 45.7%
Percentage of Scores Two
Standard Deviations Above
the Normative Mean (Above
the 98th Percentile 25.0% 19.2% 24.4% 15.2%
Percentage of Scores Above
the Normative Mean (Above
the 50th Percentile) 90.9% 87.2% 82.9% 93.5%
Three chi‑square tests were run for each of the four categories of scores reported‑‑a comparison of the observed and expected frequencies of scores above and below the normative mean, a comparison of the observed and expected frequencies of scores one standard deviation above the normative mean, and a comparison of the observed and expected frequencies of scores two standard deviations above the normative mean. Chi‑square tests indicated that the observed frequencies were significantly higher than the expected frequencies for all twelve tests (df=1, p=.001). Grade‑equivalent scores were reported for an additional sixteen children. Fifteen of these sixteen children scored at or above the normative mean score for their given grade level.
We were also interested in learning what the parents would report concerning how home schooling has affected them and their families. Open‑ended questions were used for two reasons. First, we wanted to give the respondents the opportunity to provide rich descriptions of the experiences they deemed to be most important. Second, we wanted to avoid prompting and/or leading respondents to answers they did not develop on their own. Common themes were developed through the data analysis process by sorting responses according to main ideas. Those respondents voicing similar ideas were initially grouped together and separated from respondents addressing distinctly different concerns. Common themes emerged as a result of repeated comparisons between the groups representing distinct ideas and between respondents voicing that particular idea. Due to the format of the question, respondents could voice more than one main idea, thereby requiring inclusion in more than one of the common themes. The common themes that appeared among the responses are given along with the percentage of respondents that stated each particular idea. The questions asked were:
1. How has home schooling affected you, the parent(s)?
2. How has your family been affected by your decision to home school?
47.4% Home schooling has brought the family closer together and has caused us to spend more time together.
27.2% The parents are learning too and their own hunger for learning has been rekindled.
23.7% Home schooling is draining and time consuming, but it is worthwhile.
19.8% It is a joyous challenge that has motivated and excited us‑‑it gives us peace and confidence and we feel rewarded and fulfilled.
18.4% We, the parents, have become more attentive and considerate of the needs of each individual family member.
14.4% We, the parents, have been forced to take time and reflect upon what really matters‑‑it has clarified our direction and priorities as a family.
13.2% Home schooling has caused the parents to become better organized.
Finally, we gave the respondents the opportunity to add any additional comments or suggestions. The responses in this section could not be easily categorized. These five ideas were expressed by at least three of the respondents:
1. It would be easier if we did not have to be so pressured by the local school district authorities.
2. We need to educate the public and the superintendents about home schooling.
3. The family feels much more at ease since getting a legal okay from the authorities to go ahead and home school.
4. We are currently undergoing a court battle and are being charged with criminal truancy.
5. We have remained “underground” by not reporting our decision to home school to the local district.
Conclusions and Implications
Keeping in mind the limitations of survey research, in general, and in retrospective responses elicited by subjects, in particular, the present findings tend to support the hypothesis that the reasons for home schooling are subject to change over time. Where twenty‑two of these families explicitly stated in narrative responses that they initially chose to home school for what could be labeled as defensive reasons‑‑fear of anti‑Christian influences and/or concern about public education, the data suggest that experience in home schooling has resulted in a reevaluation of their motives. Therefore, previous studies categorizing home schoolers on the basis of one survey response at one point in time may have done so prematurely. Such studies could be misinterpreting the differences in reasons for home schooling which are representative of particular phases in the experiences of the home school parents as exclusive types of home schooling parents. Many Ideologues may simply be Pedagogues in the making as suggested by Van Galen (1988) in her most recent work: “By the end of their first year, many of the Ideological parents…grew frustrated with the commercial programs they had assumed would simplify their teaching and began making more of their own (pedagogical) decisions about how the materials should be taught (p. 63)…The parents develop more confidence in their ability to make adequate choices about their children’s education, and learning becomes more spontaneous and self‑directed in their home schools (p. 67).” Longitudinal studies are needed to document this developmental change home school parents seem ttreat
o experience. Understanding these processes and the characteristics representative of different points in the developmental progression may help us, as educators, to not only relate more effectively to home schoolers, but may provide valuable insights into the development of the pedagogical skills of all educational practitioners.
Interestingly, parents overwhelmingly reported being comfortable with telling others about home schooling but do so hesitantly. The question of whether or not the parent would initiate a discussion with another party about home schooling split the respondents into two equal groups. Many parents stated they were leery of being too public about home schooling because of the volatile legal status of home schooling in Pennsylvania at the time of this study. As a result, respondents from districts seen as extremely hostile reported feeling isolated and often went to great lengths to remain “underground.” These results and the comments made in the last part of the questionnaire suggest that home schooling in Pennsylvania was in the “confrontational phase” as identified by Knowles (1988) in his phases of the home school experience. Recent changes in Pennsylvania state statutes limiting the previously unlimited and discretionary power of school district superintendents could facilitate the “consolidation phase” of home schools which is characterized by the networking of home schoolers for support and assistance. If so, future studies conducted in Pennsylvania and in the numerous other states enacting similar legislation should show that support groups and networks will flourish as ever increasing numbers of parents adopt the home school alternative.
Where other studies conclude that home school children generally score around or above normative averages (Gustavsen, 1980; McCurdy, 1985; Ray, 1988; Wartes, 1987, 1988; Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, 1985), the results of this study show significant differences in all the reported areas of academic achievement. These results more closely approximate the findings reported by the Hewitt Research Foundation (1986a, 1986b) which state that home schoolers involved in their programs average at the 80th percentile. Apart from standardized achievement test data, we know very little about the home school as a context for the cognitive, affective, and social development of the children involved.
Apart from the external pressure the parents identified as coming from authorities and the time consuming nature of home schooling, parents report that home schooling is primarily affecting families in positive ways. Parents reported that home schooling has helped them to develop sensitivity and consideration of others and to become more involved, child-centered, and reflective in their parenting. The parenting literature (MacCoby & Martin, 1983) suggests that these factors foster the development of cognitively precocious, self‑reliant, well‑adjusted children who grow up to be functional adults. If home schooling parents are indeed predominantly authoritative in their parenting styles, one could argue that it is what home school parents do rather than the setting in which it is done that is of primary importance. On the other hand, it may very well be that the nurturant context home schooling parents provide for the optimal development of children, especially through their formative years, cannot be replaced by or duplicated in institutionalized child care arrangements. The design problems that would have to be overcome in order to carry out a controlled research study which would appropriately test this hypothesis are almost insurmountable. However, it is the author’s contention that the recent and continued resurgence of home schooling provides a unique opportunity to research educational and developmental questions that are imperative but remain, as yet, unanswered.
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