Laura J. Lee
Center for Research in Educational Policy; The University of Memphis, firstname.lastname@example.org*
Six homeschooled adolescents, who were previously enrolled in a Mid-South city’s public school gifted programs, share their experiences in this qualitative study. Although the participants received some differentiated education services in school, their parents felt the accommodations were inadequate for their abilities and needs. This collective case study relied on semi-structured interviews with the adolescents and observations of homeschooling co-op classes. Five themes related to beneficial gifted education practices emerged from the analysis of transcripts, including talent development opportunities, varied learning environments, diverse socialization opportunities, self-paced/ self-guided learning, and view of self as ‘learner.’ Journals from the researcher’s observation of homeschooling classes revealed teaching strategies employing Socratic dialog, collaborative learning, and small classes that met for extended time periods. The goal of this study is to provide information to parents and educators from the perspectives of gifted students regarding what has most helped or hindered their educations and to reveal homeschooling instructional practices that support gifted students.
Keywords: homeschooling, homeschool, home education, gifted, talented, special needs, adolescents
Homeschoolers have long been portrayed in the media and pop culture as “different.” They are the “sheltered” children—the socially awkward kids from huge, devoutly religious families who live off the grid and weave their own cloth. Or, they are the “brainiacs”— the odd, pasty kids who build robots in their basements (Boo Radley meets Albert Einstein). They might even be a combination of primitive and prodigious, as one homeschooler was described in an article entitled “Goat Boy Goes to Harvard” (Colfax & Colfax, 1988). Regardless of how homeschoolers are depicted, they are the “others,” and are often mischaracterized and misunderstood. Research on homeschooling is limited, and many of the books and articles on the subject are anecdotal accounts written by homeschooling parents (e.g., Alexander, 1992; Wallace, 1983). One reason for this deficiency is that definitions of “homeschooling” vary from state to state. Some states consider homeschooling private education and do not count homeschoolers separately from students who attend private schools. Other states allow homeschooled children free access to public school classes and activities, such as foreign language classes or sports teams, which blurs the distinction (Lines, 1991). Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Education (2009) reports that homeschooling is the fastest-growing form of education in the United States, with an estimated 2 million children homeschooled in 2008. If homeschooling is so “weird,” why are so many people doing it? Is this simply “helicopter parenting” to the extreme? With more and more families choosing alternatives to public education, it is important to investigate the reasons why and, furthermore, how. This study seeks to answer those questions through qualitative inquiry with gifted adolescents from a large urban community in the Mid-South who have been in both public school and a homeschooled environment.
Although not all families who homeschool are dissatisfied with public education, many reportedly feel that public schools in their area either cannot adequately support their children academically or cannot protect them from negative peer influences (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). Some studies estimate that approximately 20% of homeschoolers are gifted students who found public education inadequate, either because of academic deficiencies, social issues, or both (Kearney, 1989; Meadows, Abel, & Karnes, 1992). In such cases, parents often search for external support or allow their children to self-direct their homeschooling experience (Kearney, 1989). This approach to homeschooling gifted children is not new; in A Mother’s Letters to a Schoolmaster, a mother of a gifted child presents her side of a correspondence with her son’s principal in 1923, detailing why she felt the need to withdraw him from school and how she used a child-directed approach to education at home (Scherman, 1928).
The current study was conducted in a large urban community of over 600,000 in the Mid-South. Although public schools in this city offer gifted programs featuring twice-a-week pullout sessions, there exists a community context of lower-than-average academic achievement, compared to national or even state averages (Urban Child Institute, 2013). In 2013, 67% of this county’s kindergarten students entered school below age-level proficiency in reading readiness and the gap between the higher and lower achieving students widens over time (Sell, 2013). This community offers an “optional school” program, which consists of “schools-within-schools.” Certain academic requirements must be met, and a limited number of spaces exist per optional school.
With schools performing poorly throughout the district, the focus is on reducing the achievement gap. The assumption that gifted students are meeting standards and, therefore, require fewer interventions than struggling students can ultimately result in significant underachievement for top students. For example, several national longitudinal studies have indicated achievement gains for all students except those in the top ten percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013; Xiang, Dhalin, Cronin, Theaker, & Durant, 2011). This leads to the question of whether top students are “maxing out,” or whether there are environmental or personal factors that are stifling their performance. According to Gagné’s (2003) differentiated model of giftedness and talent, there are environmental (including parents, teachers, peers, and programs) and interpersonal catalysts (such as self-management abilities and personality traits) that move an individual from merely having high potential to fully realizing her talents.
In addition to inadequate academic interventions, gifted students may receive negative social messages both from teachers and peers in public school settings that correspondingly impede their achievement. Studies show that teachers often hold unrealistic expectations for gifted students or place inappropriate demands on them, such as acting as teacher’s helpers or as tutors for struggling students (e.g., Delisle, 1992; Kolb & Jussim, 1994; Weiner, 1994). Also, gifted students may particularly suffer socially in middle and high school, when underachievement tends to be reinforced by the peer group, especially among girls and minorities (Brown & Steinberg, 1990). Some research suggests that homeschooling can protect girls from the “crisis of confidence” that often accompanies adolescence in a traditional school setting (Sheffer, 1995).
Although much has been written detailing parents’ motivations for homeschooling and examining academic achievement in gifted homeschooled children (e.g., Kantrowitz & Rosenberg, 1994; Kearney, 1984; Kearney, 1989; Schnaiberg, 1996), the literature is limited with regard to the voices of children who are homeschooled. Children are rarely consulted about educational policy issues, and this study attempts to counter that. Another motivating factor for the current study is the lack of research surrounding gifted students in high-poverty urban environments. The focus of reform in this city has generally centered on raising test scores and supporting struggling students who come from impoverished conditions (e.g., Peske & Haycock, 2006; Pohlmann, 2010), while the problem of underachievement among gifted students often goes unrecognized.
My intention with this study was to learn from gifted homeschooled children who previously attended local public schools what, in their estimation, has helped and/or hindered their education, from within a phenomenological framework. Phenomenology is a theoretical lens in qualitative inquiry that seeks to understand shared experiences from the first-person perspectives of others (Moran, 2000). The participants in this study share a community context and experiences within the public school system as well as a current homeschooling method of education, which fits Denzin and Lincoln’s definition of case study (2003). Information revealed in this study may provide additional perspectives for parents and educators of gifted children regarding how these students should be supported, particularly in urban environments with underachieving schools.
I recruited participants through purposeful random sampling by contacting a local tutoring service that specifically served homeschooled middle and high school children and obtaining a list of e-mail addresses of all of the families who utilized the service, for a total of 56 families. I sent all of the families an e-mail that explained the purpose of my study and the qualifications for participation. I also posted a notice of the study on a social media website for homeschooling families in the area. The qualifications for participation were to be between the ages of 11 and 18 and currently homeschooled, but previously enrolled in a public school gifted program. I chose this age range because I wanted the participants to be mature enough to reflect on their personal education experiences and to answer some hypothetical questions that required advanced reasoning skills (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969). I chose to use involvement in public school gifted programs as a qualification for identification because those students would have met the requirements for specialized instruction established by the school system, either by showing accelerated academic abilities or identification by psychological testing as intellectually advanced. This was admittedly not a perfect method, but it eliminated the possibility of subjective evaluation by the parents or myself. I was interested in students who had previous experience in a public school setting because they would be able to compare their current learning environments with an alternative.
I was surprised by some of the responses I received, in which some parents wrote long letters denouncing the term “gifted” as a construct imposed by educational institutions. One parent stated, “The mere mention of labeling the student as ‘gifted’ is one of the reasons I cringe regarding the modern ‘traditional school’ setting…. In our experience, the traditional school was more interested in labeling, evaluating performances, crowd control, and busywork. The gifted program only meant making it a bit more fun,” (P. Miller, personal communication, October 27, 2013). Some parents agreed to allow their children to participate only if I consented to give a short presentation to their homeschooling group about the research process; as one parent said, “When you homeschool, you tend to see everything through a ‘learning opportunity’ lens,” (K. Forrester, personal communication, October 31, 2013). Six parents responded to my e-mail request for participation and indicated that their children would like to be involved in the study. No external funding was provided for this study.
Approval for this study was obtained through the Institutional Review Board at my university*. Other than initial e-mail correspondences, interaction with the parents was limited; some simply referred their children’s e-mail address to me and appointments for interviews were worked out with the children directly. After parents and participating children signed informed consent and assent forms, the children were given pseudonyms.
At the time of the study, “Emily” was a 16-year-old senior in high school who had been home-schooled since the 5th grade. She enjoyed writing and music. “Karen” was a 14-year-old freshman in high school and had been homeschooled since 2nd grade. She played several instruments and was interested in one day studying medicine. “Mandy” was a 16-year-old junior in high school who had been homeschooled until the third grade, attended a traditional school through eighth grade, and then began homeschooling again in 9th grade. She was very interested in literature and theater and wants to become an English professor one day. “Susan” was a 17-year-old senior who had been homeschooled since the 7th grade. She is very involved in theater and enjoys horseback riding. “James” was a 13-year-old 7th grader who had been homeschooled since the 4th grade. He enjoyed computers and history. “Autumn” was an 18-year-old college student who had been home-schooled since the 2nd grade. She enjoyed horseback riding and studying foreign languages. Although Autumn was not currently home-schooled and technically fell outside the parameters of participation requirements, she was interviewed to provide an additional perspective as a homeschooler who had transitioned to college. Additional homeschooling students were observed in homeschooling classes, but were not interviewed as participants for this study.
All of the participants were White and lived in city or the surrounding metro area. Information such as educational attainment and socio-economic status of the parents was not obtained; however, one participant mentioned that both of her parents had doctorate degrees and that both worked outside the home. Four of the six participants were interviewed in their homes, and casual observation led me to assume all of those families were in the upper-middle class range. For example, the homes were spacious with swimming pools, grand pianos, and were in areas I knew to be exclusive neighborhoods in the city. I did not ask the parents directly about their occupations or obtain any personal information. Also, the participants described high-cost extra-curricular activities (e.g., competitive horseback riding), which led me to believe they were of a high socio-economic status. This is notable because this city has a great number of private schools that may not be options for many families due to cost, but that did not appear to be the case with the participants I interviewed. Some participants had, in fact, tried private schools as well and were still dissatisfied.
One of the participants mentioned involvement in a church youth group but none of the other participants spoke of a religious affiliation, and none used faith-based curricula. In the initial e-mail exchanges with the parents, all stated that they began homeschooling due to dissatisfaction with the available traditional schools, both public and private. As one parent said, “We began homeschooling 7.5 years ago as the institutionalized academic setting’s pace and environment was not a good fit…. Despite the fact that she had been accelerated a grade level, she was still not being challenged enough,” (K. Forrester, personal communication, October 30, 2013). All of the participants had been previously involved in gifted or accelerated programs and three participants had skipped a grade while in public school.
I began my research by observing several homeschooling lessons and classes. The first lesson I observed was a middle school-level math lesson that was conducted one-on-one by a parent. My second observation was an Anatomy and Physiology class that was held in an individual’s home. I also visited a math tutoring facility for homeschoolers and observed a drama class. I wanted to witness a variety of homeschooling methods in action and record my reactions before interviewing my participants so that I could have a more accurate understanding of the classes they were taking as they described them.
After the parents replied to me via e-mail, I sent consent forms and an interview guide for their review (included in the Appendix). Parents were given the opportunity to ask questions prior to the appointment and several e-mails were exchanged as a general conversation about education developed. The parents were not present during the interviews with the participants. In the cases of the 17- and 18-year-old participants, their mothers initially responded and then gave my contact information to their daughters, and I thereafter communicated only with them and set up appointment times directly with those participants.
I began each interview with a short introduction of myself and a description of the qualitative research process. After going over the consent forms, all participants indicated to me verbally that they understood they could stop the interview at any time or refuse to answer any questions. I also explained to the participants that no names or identifiers would be used and that no one, other than myself, would hear the interview recordings. Each participant engaged in two interviews that each lasted approximately 1 hour. I followed up with the participants through e-mail as I coded the transcripts so they could comment on the accuracy of the themes that emerged.
All of the interviews were audio-recorded and I took notes during the conversations when participants brought up points upon which I wanted them to expand. I used the same semi-structured interview guide for all participants, which included questions about their current homeschooling experiences and classes, their experiences in public school (that is, notable memories; some participants had not been in a traditional school setting for several years), and questions about their social experiences and how they maintained friendships. I also asked questions that required some personal reflection regarding the students’ views of an ideal school setting.
I transcribed the recordings and made notes regarding recurring ideas that the participants discussed. Initially, I used descriptive coding to write a word or phrase that captured the topic of a paragraph, and from these words or phrases, topics were isolated (Wolcott, 1994). These included, in part, “hobbies,” “class variety,” “independent learning,” “free time,” and “misconceptions/ stereotypes.” From those words or phrases, axial coding was used to reduce the initial number of topics and organize them into conceptual categories (Saldaña, 2013). According to Strauss and Corbin (1998), the goal of axial coding is to achieve “saturation” so that no new information seems to emerge in the data. I found that, although the participants engaged in a variety of learning environments and had considerably different lengths of experience with homeschooling, there were five prominent themes that emerged from the data. These themes were “talent development opportunities,” “varied learning environments,” “diverse socialization opportunities,” “self-paced/ self-guided learning,” and “view of self as ‘learner’.”
During my observations, I wrote descriptions of the setting, the students, the teachers, the classroom management behaviors, and recorded pieces of conversations that I could hear. My notes revealed a tendency toward a Socratic teaching style, designed to stimulate discussion through questioning (Paul & Elder, 1997) and continuous interaction between teacher and a small class of students. I also kept a journal and recorded my personal impressions after each interview and observation. From these journals, the recurring trend I wrote about regarding the students was “maturity.” I was repeatedly impressed with the students’ thoughtful responses to my questions and their engaging personalities.
I utilized member checks with the participants at each stage of analysis to ensure an accurate representation of their descriptions of experiences and thoughts about their educations. For example, with certain comments surrounding extra-curricular activities such as involvement in theater, I asked whether they considered that a “talent development opportunity,” “socialization opportunity,” or both. Some categories fit into several themes; for example, taking classes at a homeschool co-op provided a “varied learning environment,” opportunity for “self-guided learning,” and an opportunity for “socialization.” Ultimately, my goal was to present the shared experiences of my participants, so I did not view representation in multiple themes or multiple categories housed in one theme as problematic. All of the participants were in agreement when they viewed the resulting themes and my explanations of how their quotations fit within those themes.
Through data analysis, five themes emerged from the interview transcriptions. Additionally, notes from my observations and journals revealed particular teaching styles in the classes and a high level of engagement between the teachers and students. My personal understanding and beliefs about homeschooling and education in general had shifted as well. The themes are presented below, followed by discussion of my personal observations and impressions.
Theme 1: Talent development opportunities are more readily available to children who homeschool, which is especially important for gifted children.
Homeschooling provided the participants in this study with more free time than they had while in public school. Even though all of the participants attended co-op classes outside the home, each class usually met only once or twice a week. A typical student in this study might attend 2 or 3 days of homeschool classes and either take courses at the local university or pursue hobbies, such as writing or playing an instrument, during their free time. As Susan, age 17, stated, “In sixth grade (at public school), I had a lot of problems with homework. I would have hours of it to do every night. But, it was nothing new… I had multiple classes where I’d be repeating assignments that I had done the year before, two years before, like projects I had in Science class; they had me do the exact same thing in sixth grade that I did in fourth grade.” Others reported that added free time allowed them to expand their skills in activities that they otherwise would have participated in to a very limited degree. Karen, 14, reported, “I take lessons for flute and piano and violin, and I play saxophone and clarinet in the (homeschool) band.” Emily, 16, said, “I’m writing my second novel. I’m also taking a screenwriting class.”
Susan, 17, was one of two of the participants who was heavily involved in community theater. She explained, “I’ve had internal conflicts about how to best spend my time. It was Hamlet that convinced me, that after all of the existentials [sic], the short of it was I’m going to do what I love. I had more and more time for theater and started working on shows, working backstage, mainly. I stage-managed a few months ago. Now, I’m in a show. It’s really nice.”
Theme 2: Students utilized a variety of learning environments.
The participants in this study all participated in structured homeschooling co-op classes. These are classes of homeschooled students that are organized around a particular subject and taught by an individual with some expertise in that subject; one co-op I contacted required that teachers hold at least a 4-year degree in the subject they taught. Some also took courses online or college-level classes at the local university. Others studied certain subjects completely independently or were tutored by a parent or a hired professional. Additionally, students reported participating in community educational offerings, such as classes provided by local art museums. None of the participants were exclusively taught at home. As Karen, 14, reported when asked about her activities for a typical week, “It depends on the day. In my co-ops, classes are about two-and-a-half hours long. Friday, we have (a homeschooling) band from 9 am to 2 pm.” Mandy, 16, said that she was on the yearbook committee for her homeschooling group and worked a part-time job during the day on Mondays and Fridays.
Most of the co-ops or homeschooling classes the participants described had between 3 and 15 students, but around 5 or 6 students per class was most common with the participants’ current experiences. All of the participants said that they appreciated the small class sizes offered through homeschooling co-ops and the opportunities for forming friendships with their teachers; many called their teachers by their first names. Susan, 17, said, “I like having a classroom setting that’s not overwhelming and being able to e-mail my teachers and have a relationship with them.” Susan was also taking two university classes and said that in those classes, there was much less participation among the students. “In Psychology, there were opportunities where we could’ve had interesting discussions, but the weird thing is—I think there were 17 people in there, not big, but to me is a huge amount of people. Seventeen people, everyone could talk if they wanted to, but no one did. I find it very interesting because I’m highly a teacher’s pet; if there’s a question asked in class, I will answer it. But I didn’t do that in either of my college classes. She would ask a question, I’d be sitting there knowing it, but the entire room would be sitting there in silence. I don’t know where that mentality comes from. I find it very intriguing.”
Emily, 16, said that she appreciates her homeschool teachers’ attitudes toward classroom management and the respect that is shown toward students. Regarding her Literature teacher, Emily said, “She doesn’t treat us like… I don’t want to use the word because it sounds derogatory, but she doesn’t… she treats us like we’re on the same level. I feel like I’m more comfortable in those environments and I feel like I have more freedom to express whatever I wish because I don’t like having to pretend that scary parts of the real world don’t exist. Even in high school (in public school), there’s still the mentality that’s sort of sheltering the children. I feel like, you know, students would feel more independent and take a bigger responsibility for their education if they were treated like adults. They would take more ownership in their education.” When asked about experiences in her “gifted” special classes in public school, Susan, 17, said, “The teacher didn’t know how to handle the students’ quirkiness. It was a mess. She wanted everything to be very organized and we’d want to ask questions and go off-topic, and she didn’t know how to handle that.” Susan added, regarding public school, “I feel like there’s sort of a mentality of… like there’s a separation between the teacher and the student. The teacher is higher up than the student. I understand that there could be problems with respect, but I feel like the respect should be reciprocal. In my favorite class, I’m friends with the teacher. She treats us like adults.”
Theme 3: The participants reported more diverse socialization opportunities than they had in public school.
The participants in this study all said they had heard stereotypes of homeschoolers having poor social skills, and Susan commented, “I don’t enjoy saying that I’m homeschooled; maybe I’m just expecting people to have misconceptions. I’m expecting people to think that I go to church every day of the week and have 12 brothers and sisters. I know tons of homeschoolers whose lives are nothing like that.” Susan added, laughing, “I asked a friend of mine to be my date to the homeschool prom this year. He said, ‘You want me to spend an evening with a bunch of homeschoolers? I told him, ‘It’s really fun!’”
The participants said that they enjoyed the multi-age classrooms and going to a variety of co-ops and interacting with different people throughout the week. Also, the added free time for hobbies led to meeting people the students would not have met if in a traditional school setting. As Mandy, 16, said, regarding her friends who were in public school, “I see different people every day. Like, there’s this ‘world of school’ for my friends in public school and then there’s a different world (when they go home). I don’t really have that.” The participants also said that they had heard about bullying and cliques from friends who were in public schools; Mandy added, “I don’t think that microcosm is healthy.” However, when pressed about whether there was a down side to homeschooling, Mandy said, “I kind of feel like I’m missing out sometimes; I don’t have a homecoming. I don’t feel a spirit or pride like you would (at a public school). I feel like everyone will have fond memories of their high school and I won’t,” (laughs), “I’ve probably watched too many episodes of ‘Dawson’s Creek.’”
Susan, 17, who is heavily involved in theater, reported that homeschooling changed her views of her community because of the socialization opportunities she now has. “I never liked living in (this city) until I homeschooled. I never really felt a big connection to the city until I started doing theater and I started spending time (downtown) and making really good friends down here and I realized just how much I do love living in the city.” She added that she had always felt like an outsider in public school, which was a recurring sentiment expressed by the participants; many said they felt like they found their “niche” after they left public school. Emily, 16, said, “I don’t want to sound ‘high and mighty’ but the people I went to school with were just sort of… in general, had different values than me. Like, I’d be really excited about doing something and they would kind of scoff, like, ‘oh, this is a ridiculous thing.’” With regard to socialization in public school, Mandy added, “Just little things like… I would always be really embarrassed to say that I love Shakespeare because everyone would give me a weird look, and I didn’t like the whole ‘country boy’ mentality. That’s fine for them; that’s great. I just got tired of socializing with them and between various bad, negative experiences, falling out with people. I just, basically, stopped socializing with them. I still talk to some of my old friends, but I’m not really close to any of them.” These are statements that many high-achieving young people can relate with; after leaving middle and high school and going into the “real world,” there are more opportunities to find like-minded individuals and an enhanced self-concept (Kinney, 1993). Some may question whether homeschoolers can be appropriately “socialized” without a traditional high school experience, but these students say that their socialization opportunities were, in fact, broadened.
Theme 4: Homeschooling gave the students a chance to engage in self-paced and self-guided learning.
As stated earlier, three of the participants had skipped a grade while in public school and still did not feel challenged. With homeschooling classes open to any child of any age, opportunities for tailoring their education to meet their interests and abilities were now possible. Also, some students reported taking up certain subjects on their own; James, age 13, said, “I’m learning German on my own this year and I study world religions on my own.” Mandy stated that her younger brother, a 10-year-old who would be in 5th grade in a traditional school, enrolled in a Chemistry class with homeschooled high school students because “he really loves science.”
Participants also said they believed their homeschooling co-op classes, which usually met once a week, were beneficial for encouraging self-guided learning and personal responsibility. Autumn, 18, said, “I think taking once-a-week classes really helped me learn the time-management that I need for college.” When asked about her transition to college and her perceptions of her classmates, Autumn said, “It was a bit of a surprise. There were people that just… I never saw them after the first class and I was like, ‘This is new.’ It certainly was a new experience. It definitely was. I’ve never missed any classes; I was a few minutes late for one class one morning. Other than that, I’ve been there for every second of every class.”
Participants also commented on now feeling free to work up to their full potential. As Mandy, 16, commented, “In (traditional) school, you can’t make higher than an ‘A,’ right? So when you do that much, why try harder?” Mandy added, regarding her experience in public school, “You get stuck in not trying. I never studied for exams in middle school because I didn’t have to.” This statement supports the growing evidence of underachievement in gifted students; if the goal is “proficiency” at a level that is below a student’s abilities, the student may not be encouraged to perform any higher (Weiner, 1994). Emily, 16 said, about her motivation in public school, “I didn’t lose by passion for learning, but I lost the… trying to do extra, trying to do more. If you did more, you would get made fun of in school, and nobody likes that. I don’t think I ever lost it. I just lost… being proud of it.”
Theme 5: Participants reported viewing themselves as “learners,” in every aspect of their lives.
This was, perhaps, the most salient and critical theme that emerged. The participants dismissed the idea that “learning” takes place in only one context. They were also scornful of grades as motivators for learning. Mandy, 16, said, of her friends who were in traditional schools, “They seem primarily motivated by grades. They feel defined by their grade point average. It’s not healthy; you’re motivated… not to learn more. You’re motivated to have a 4.0. I don’t worry about that because I don’t feel like that’s all there is to me; I have other things to be proud of.” Susan, 17, said that while she currently views herself as a “learner,” that was not the case when she was in public school. “I tended to get really bored in school. I didn’t really engage. If I can learn at my own pace, that’s really helpful for me. Being able to tailor (school) to fit my needs in a way that’s radically different from what public school provides, I find that very helpful.”
When speaking with the participants about their education plans, I wrote in my notes that they seemed to “light up” when they spoke about the future. Mandy, 16, said, “I like Emily Dickinson. I like Shakespeare. I’m actually going to Italy this summer with the (university) to study Shakespeare. It’s in Rome, and I’ll be traveling to Venice, and… everywhere.” Several participants spoke of their excitement about visiting colleges. Emily, 16, said, “I’ll probably stay in college for ten years because I’ll want to take every class!” When asked whom he thought homeschooling would benefit the most, James, 13, said, “Homeschooling probably works best for people who are self-motivated and enjoy learning. In my family, we all really enjoy learning.” When asked the same question, Susan, 17, said, “I don’t think there are any kids who shouldn’t be homeschooled. I think there may be parents that shouldn’t homeschool, but I think any parent who’s willing to put in effort and find a style of doing it that works for their kid… I think they can do it.”
Conversations with local public school teachers, independent of this study, revealed that some believed the biggest problem in our community that affected education was the parents’ views that “learning happens at school” and that the parents seemed to believe they were “doing their job” if they made sure their children were at school on time (Anonymous, personal communication, April 8, 2014). With homeschooling, parents take on the responsibility of their children’s education, whether they provide direct instruction or not. Likewise, homeschooled children must reorganize their mental image of “education.” It no longer takes place in a separate space or necessarily in the same space from year to year; instead, it becomes a constant presence in their lives, wherever they may be. Many of the participants reported working on subjects independently throughout the summer as well, although the co-ops followed a traditional school calendar. When asked about any negative aspects of homeschooling, Karen laughed and said, “We don’t get snow days.”
I was able to observe several homeschooling classes thanks to references from some of the parents who were especially interested in this study and wanted to be helpful. They provided contact information for the teachers, and the teachers agreed to allow me to observe after obtaining permission from the parents of their students. When I learned of my participants’ busy schedules of classes, I thought, “This doesn’t sound much different from ‘regular’ school….” On the contrary, there were many differences; the only similarity between the homeschooling classes I observed and classes I’ve observed in public schools (either in my child’s school or through my own work as a substitute teacher) was the label.
The first notable difference that was common to all of the homeschooling classes was that every student was engaged. The students were there to learn, and it seemed unlikely that discipline issues ever came up. Also, the class size was very small—about 5 students. In the Anatomy and Physiology class, taught by a former teacher of gifted students in the public school system, students sat around the teacher’s dining room table in her home, which had been turned into a “classroom” with a white board, projection screen, overhead slide projector, and other teaching accessories. The teacher said that she had registered her school as an incorporated entity and was able to buy supplies at a lower cost than a typical homeschooling parent could.
The class was dissecting cats at the table (the teacher remarked each specimen cost between $65 and $85 from a supplier). When I came to observe, they were continuing their dissections from the previous week. The teacher moved around the table and questioned the students about their progress and the functions of the muscles they were observing. The teacher asked for their scores from an at-home exercise they had completed and she recorded them in a grade book (without looking at them, I noted). Two students said that they had made a 91 percent on the exercise and one said that she had made a 100 percent, and the others murmured their approval.
My notes from the observation reveal the high level of exchange (often friendly) between the teacher and students:
Teacher moves to students 2 and 3, “You’ve still got some fascia here…” She helps them cut into their cat. Grunts (as if it is difficult to cut). “Sometimes these cats are like marble… You’ve got to visualize and see where the lines are as best you can… It’s like Michelangelo, he said there were angels to be exhumed from each statue… Ooh, this cat stinks…” Students laugh. Students 2 and 3 continue to work on their cat. Student 2 is cutting while Student 3 holds part of the cat out of his way. Teacher says to Students 2 and 3, “Yours is covered with fat. He liked his kibble. There we go…” Student comments, “Wilbur…” Students 4 and 5 continue to work on their cat. Teacher works with Student 1 on her cat. “Let’s just open him up. Your cat is not wanting to cooperate. See that line there?” Student 1: “Mm-hm… The one that’s medial is the teres, right?” Teacher: “Did you guys see your intercostals under your serratus ventralis?” Student 1: “No, not really…”Teacher, “They aid in breathing… otherwise your ribs would not expand and contract.” Teacher points out muscles on Student 2’s cat. Teacher continues to talk with Student 2 and 3. Teacher walks back to Students 3 and 4. “Y’all having fun over here?” Student 1, “Where’d my scalpel and my probe go?” Teacher, “Did I steal it?” Student 2, “The cat ate it.”
I noted a high level of cooperative learning taking place, and no individual workspaces. The students have independent work to complete at home, but it is on their schedule, since their classes typically meet once a week. While in class—most last at least 2 hours—there is almost constant interaction between students and teacher.
I also observed a drama class, taught by the director of several community theater productions. He also taught a script writing class that was popular. The class was rehearsing A Christmas Carol, which they planned to perform for their families and other homeschoolers who attended the tutoring center. As they rehearsed, the students who were not in the scene sat in chairs next to the teacher, as the audience. When the scene finished, the teacher asked the students seated with him to give feedback. They began noting positive qualities of the performance (“You seem to really be connecting with the character more this week,” “Great interaction between you two!”) before offering criticism. The students viewing mentioned that one of the actors needed to “do something” while waiting for his lines (“You look like you’re waiting to speak—like, when do I come in?—I think it would be better if you could busy yourself with something.”). The teacher agreed with the praise and critiques and asked the actors how they felt about the scene, what they were proud of, and what could be improved.
Like the Anatomy and Physiology class, I noted the high degree of interaction among the group, and also a very supportive atmosphere that felt different from traditional classrooms. In my personal journal, I noted how mature the students seemed. I was also reminded of the comments from my participants that they did not feel as if they “fit in” in public schools. I thought about some of the public high schools I had visited in the poorer areas of my city, with their metal detectors at the entrances, dark hallways, and grounds littered with papers and cigarettes. No, I wrote, they would most definitely not “fit in.”
I became personally interested in the subject of homeschooling through my previous work with individuals with disabilities. Many of the mothers with whom I spoke had begun homeschooling because they said the public schools could not accommodate their children. One “accommodation” offered to a mother whose son had seizures was the suggestion that she come to school with her child and accompany him from class to class, ready to intervene because the school did not employ a nurse. As a parent myself, I was well aware of the problems surrounding my city’s public school system, and the options for a challenging, supportive environment for my twice-exceptional child seemed very limited. I was among the campers vying for a slot in an optional school, but even that turned out to be a poor fit for my daughter. She is now in a private school that is beyond my financial means, but I felt that I had no other choice. I began to wonder if there were other parents who had found another way. I knew that there was a homeschooling community in my city, but I was skeptical. I believed that homeschooling meant parents taught their children all subjects at home, and thought how arrogant people must be to think that they, alone, could provide a well-rounded education to their child. My views changed after my first observation of a homeschooling co-op class. I realized that there were many ways to approach homeschooling, and that the name was a bit of a misnomer; “customized schooling” seemed a better descriptor.
I asked the participants what their “perfect” school would look like, and Susan said, “I wish there was more of a way to tie together a traditional school environment of structure, socialization, and organization with the independence of homeschool… I feel like homeschool is probably one of the best options currently available. But, if education could be some sort of marriage between the two—like giving more options, more independence, encouraging more responsibility and respect with the students. I guess that would be kind of revolutionizing the way public schools work. But my opinion is that the government should be investing the maximum amount financially possible into education; it frustrates me that they don’t do that.” Without “revolutionizing” public education, one recommendation I would make, from talking with and observing the participants in this study, would be to allow students to enroll in any class their school offered, so that multi-age classrooms were the norm. Another recommendation would be allowing advanced students to create their own goals and independent projects and greatly reducing the amount of homework so that students have more free time to pursue their own interests.
My aim was not to critique any particular style of schooling, nor to deconstruct social inequalities or educational disadvantages that may be present in this city. I do, however, challenge the assumption that economic and/or intellectual advantage inherently negates oppression. “Privileged” and “non-privileged” binaries are more complex than simply economic or racial, although those are usually the factors that receive the most focus in this city when education is discussed (Pohlmann, 2010). All of the families in this study had tried to support public education initially, and several tried more than one school. As one parent remarked, “Having choices is a privilege, yes. Feeling as if we have only one option for education is not,” (Anonymous, personal communication, April 12, 2014).
The parents unanimously expressed that the main reason they felt their children were not appropriately challenged in traditional schools was due to a lack of accommodation to their special needs. As Kimberlé Crenshaw (1997) notes, “It is fairly obvious that treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently,” (p. 285). While public schools in the area do offer gifted programs, they may not be as encompassing or challenging as some students require. The participants repeatedly stated that they felt one of the greatest benefits to homeschooling was having the ability to self-guide their education at an advanced pace. Some argue that homeschooling is ideal for gifted students because it is inherently differentiated learning and meets the recommendations for gifted student education by design (Kearney, 1989). As the number of home-schooling families increases, educational services such as tutoring services or co-ops for homeschoolers are becoming more prevalent. For parents of gifted children, these services remove the challenge of finding appropriate curricula; the student can simply enroll in any class that meets his or her needs. A student in public school, despite “enrichment” or advanced classes, is still limited in choices. Ready for it or not, a 6th grader in a public school cannot take Geometry. A 6th grade homeschooler can.
An important theme was the students’ views of self as “learner.” As it would happen, studies of parents who homeschool report that mothers, in particular, commonly identify as “teacher” (Ensign, 2000). Karen Hurlbutt’s (2011) qualitative study of homeschooling parents found that all of the mothers in her sample were highly educated and worked outside the home initially, but gave up their careers due to the lack of support local schools could offer. For example, one of Hurlbutt’s participants had worked full-time as a physics professor. By the time her special needs daughter was in seventh grade, she was having so many problems in school that she was referred to a different school in order to receive services. As Hurlbutt (2011) reports, “Those ‘teachers’ were actually paraprofessionals with no autism training,” (p. 241). This story exemplifies the common experience in homeschooling families of women sacrificing their own professions in order to become fulltime teachers of their children because they feel the local schools are unsupportive and offers a counter-argument that homeschooling families are “privileged.” As one mother, a professor at the local university with a child with special needs, stated, “Oh my god; we have given up so much to homeschool. (My husband) has passed up many promotions so he can keep working nights and be home with our son during the day. I love my job, but I’m leaving it so we can move to a state with better support for our son,” (M. Bates, personal communication, April 12, 2014). The issue of homeschooling and economics is an area for exploration in future studies; how much are families—usually women– willing to give up financially in order to ensure an optimal education for their children? It may seem secondary, but there are economic implications that have far-reaching effects when public schools are not meeting the needs of all students.
The participants in this study were all White and upper-middle class. Ideally, a more diverse group of individuals would have volunteered. Different recruitment efforts may have yielded a participant set with more varied characteristics. For example, had I posted bulletins at local churches about the study, I might have encountered families with very different homeschooling structures. Other limitations to studying homeschoolers, in general, are the inherent traits common to the parents and how those characteristics might affect their children’s educational outcomes. Although I did not interview the parents or gather any information other than why they chose to leave public schools, there are certainly some shared personal characteristics among parents who take the initiative to learn about and execute education alternatives. The results should not be interpreted as representing “most” homeschoolers, but they do provide insight into how gifted teens in one city are managing and designing their educations, and perhaps school officials and parents can learn something from these students’ experiences.
- What are the educational experiences of homeschoolers?
- Tell me about a typical school week for you.
- How do you measure your progress?
- Tell me about the decision-making progress for choosing what to study for the week, month, or year.
- What are the social experiences of homeschoolers?
- How has homeschooling impacted your friendships?
- Tell me about how you like to spend your free time.
- What are some things that you get to do that your friends in public school do not, or vice versa?
- What are the best and worst things about homeschooling in terms of social activity?
III. Why did you choose homeschooling?
- Tell me about your experiences in public school.
- What are some of the things you miss about public school?
- What is the greatest academic benefit to homeschooling, in your opinion?
- What type of student do you feel would benefit most from homeschooling?
- What, if anything, you would like to change about homeschooling?
- What advice would you give to public school teachers to help them meet student needs better?
*Unstructured interview at this point; let the child be the guide for conversation.
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* Laura J. Lee is a Research Associate with the Center for Research in Educational Policy (CREP), an editorial assistant for the Journal of Forensic Vocational Analysis, and a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at The University of Memphis ¯
* The name of my university and city were purposefully withheld due to education reforms and debates that have dominated my community recently. All participants were assigned pseudonyms.