John A. Fegley
Schaghticoke Middle School
New Milford, Connecticut
111 Chambers Road
Danbury, Connecticut 06811
Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, Connecticut.
ATTITUDES OF PARENTS about public schools have been seriously affected by many factors: these include the perceived increase of secular humanism (i.e, the public institutionalization of humanistic values), drug usage, teenage pregnancy and sexual promiscuity, and concern about the attainability of former President Bush’s national goals for education (e.g., the United States will be first internationally in math and science by the year 2000). The 22nd Annual Gallup Poll on Education indicated that during the period from 1980-1990, there was a decline in the approval ratings given to local public schools by a representative sample of adults across the country. For example, when parents were asked in 1990 if the public schools in their community have “improved from, say, five years ago, gotten worse, or stayed about the same,” fewer parents said that the schools had improved in 1990 than in 1988. Further, the number who said that the schools were worse went from 19% in 1988 to 30% in 1990 (Elam, 1990, p. 53).
One response that disillusioned parents may have to the negative outcomes of public schools is to send their children to private school or to teach them at home. A recent cover story for U.S. News and World Report summed up the response of many parents; ‘There is a deepening perception that the entire enterprise of public education is foundering without any real hope of rescue, especially in the nation’s cities” (Toch, et al., 1991, p. 66). Five alternatives to public schools were featured in the article in U.S. News and World Report: parochial schools, preparatory schools, home schools, Afrocentric schools, and for-profit schools. It is estimated that these alternative schools are attended by over three million students nationwide. The remainder of this paper will focus on one of these alternatives— home schools.
THE PRESENT STUDY of home education focuses on home schooling in the state of Connecticut. The study examines the characteristics of home schooling families in Connecticut, the reasons parents cite for home schooling their children, and home schooling parents’ relationship with their local public schools. Although the demographic and educational characteristics of home schooling families have been studied on the national level (cf., Ray, 1990), few studies have been done to compare state or regional characteristics with national findings. Thus, one purpose of this paper is to present these comparisons using data from the state of Connecticut. A second purpose of this study was to investigate home schooling families’ interactions and relationships with the public schools officials to see how a closer relationship may be fostered to improve the educational program of home educated children.
MICHAEL FARRIS, PRESIDENT of the Home School Legal Defense Association, has stated that Connecticut is a particularly interesting state to study. Farris says that “Connecticut is in constant turmoil” (1990, p. 167) because of the vagueness of its compulsory attendance law and the 1983 Connecticut State Department of Education Guidelines. These guidelines required home schooling parents to submit a request to provide a home-based educational program to the local board of education. The request would include evidence that the child would receive an equivalent education to that offered in the public schools, and would include a written program of instruction. The state expected that a child would remain in public or private school until the request was approved. The board of education would consider the qualifications of the instructor, the hours of instruction, and methods of evaluation in determining whether to approve the request. These guidelines were called into question by a public school superintendent who wanted more guidance from the state on what was required to prove equivalence.
The superintendent’s questions prompted the Connecticut Commissioner of Education to convene hearings to develop new procedures for home education. The outcome of the hearings was a new set of guidelines (Royce, 1990). The new guidelines were instituted in November 1990.
In order to comply with the new guidelines, it is only necessary for parents to submit a letter of intent to the local public school system within ten days of the start of a home education program. The letter must list the subjects to be taught, the primary instructor, the total number of days scheduled for instruction, methods of assessment of student progress, and the date when a nonevaluative portfolio review is to be completed. Local administrators or boards of education are not empowered to approve or to deny the letter of intent, but must check it for completeness and pass it along to the state department of education. Generally, the new guidelines are perceived to be more favorable to home education by home schooling families. Given the recent changes, this is an important time to study home schooling to see what, if any, impact the new guidelines will have.
In addition, the state of Connecticut has seen a dramatic increase in the number of approved home school programs. According to the Connecticut State Department of Education (1990), the reported number of home schooled students increased 32% from 258 students in 1988-1989 to 341 students in 1989-1990. In the Fall of 1991, a state department of education official reported that the number of home educated children had increased to 500. It is important to note that over the five-year period for which enrollment figures are available from 1983-1984 to
1987-1988, the total school enrollment of students in the state dropped 5.4% from 562,974 to 532,321, while the number of home schooled children increased. Compared to the total number of children enrolled in schools throughout the state the number of children who are taught at home is not substantial, but the home schooling movement is significant and appears to be gaining momentum.
What are the factors leading to increases in home schooling families? For many families, home schooling is perceived as an ideal way to educate children. That perception of home education has been summarized by Pedersen and O’Mara (1990):
Home schooling both preserves the sense of learning as a vital and exciting experience and places that learning in the context of personal and family experience. It provides a model of learning that, more than others available, accurately reflects the diversity of who we are as a people as well as who we are as individuals. Instead of the question “What school do you go to?” home schooling encourages the focus of “What did you learn today?” (p. xxi)
Focus on Connecticut
This study focused on the state of Connecticut because of the recent revision of the guidelines that home schooling families must observe to be in compliance with the compulsory education statues. In addition to studying the impact of these changes, it is important to investigate why the number of children being home educated is increasing despite the educational reforms enacted in Connecticut over the past eight years. These reforms include the Educational Evaluation and Remedial Assistance Act, Connecticut General Statutes Annotated (C.G.S.A.) 10-14 which provided for mastery testing of students in grades 4, 6, and 8; C.G.S.A. 10-25 7 which provided for minimum salaries for teachers; and C.G.S.A. 10-145 which increased the requirements for teacher certification, required testing for beginning teachers to be certified and required continuing education for experienced teachers to maintain their certification.
Connecticut has the highest paid teachers and the third highest per pupil expenditure in the United States (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1991). Seventy-five percent of Connecticut’s high school graduates—the largest percentage in the U.S.—took the Scholastic Aptitude Examination in 1988 (U.S. Department of Education, 1991). Despite the previously mentioned reforms and the important status that education enjoys in Connecticut, the number of children being home schooled that is reported to the state increases on a yearly basis.
Although the number of home educated children currently registered with the state is approximately 500, personal interviews with the 41 home schooling families in this study, suggests that a figure of over 2,000 children being home schooled may be more realistic. This figure is, of course, conjecture as no one is sure of how many home schooling families there are in Connecticut. The estimate of 500 home educated children in the state in the Fall of 1991 by an official in the Connecticut State Department of Education was based on the number of letters of intent that had been filed. This official did not believe that there were any more children than 500 who were currently being home educated because “Connecticut is too small for home schooling families to~ hide from the state” (Marie Della Bella, personal communication, September 16, 1991). The 16 “underground” families participating in this study contradict that assertion.
THE METHODS SELECTED for this study were on-site, semi-structured interviews and mailed questionnaires. Forty-one families were interviewed by the researcher and 25 families completed mailed questionnaires.
The sample was demographically representative of the state by counties. That is, the number of home schooling families in the state was proportional to the population of each county.
After the first two respondents were located through a local public school system, the remaining respondents were referred to the researcher by home schooling families participating in the research. It was decided initially that at least 50 families would be invited to participate in the study. However, the “snowball technique” in which respondents refer other respondents worked so well that data from 66 families was obtained. Only three families who had agreed to participate in the study subsequently refused to participate.
On-site interviews in the homes of the respondents gave the researcher an opportunity to experience the home schooling environment. For example, the assertion of those families who stated that their home education program was “structured” could be verified using the questionnaire and through inspection of physical evidence in their home (e.g., classroom environment, books, workbooks). On-site interviews also provided the respondents with a comfortable and relaxed environment in which they felt in control. The presence and participation of the children, albeit a potential limitation, provided information about the family that would be unavailable relying solely on a mailed questionnaire (e.g., relationships, vocabulary development, and social ability).
A questionnaire provided an efficient means to obtain other necessary data. Miles and Huberman (1984) cite four rationales for prepared instrumentation. First, a questionnaire or prepared plan is advisable if the researcher knows in advance what data to obtain. Second, structured instruments focus interviews, preventing superfluous information and data overload. Third, using the same instrument across studies permits comparison of the data. Finally, validated instruments are a safeguard against bias, unreliable observations, and skewed conclusions.
During the interview process, the respondents completed a questionnaire while the researcher took notes on further elaboration of the responses in order to clarify the responses and to probe for deeper understanding. At the end of the discussion on the questionnaire, the researcher asked supplemental questions to verify that the answers on the questionnaire were correct and to elicit further elaboration on the responses. Respondents who completed the questionnaire by mail were asked to complete an additional page of supplemental questions.
Home Schooling Families and Home Schools in
Connecticut: National Comparisons
This section presents findings related to the characteristics of home schooling families, with reference to the national study conducted by Ray (1990). The characteristics addressed by this study incorporate Ray’s categories from the national study: family size, principal instructor, parents’ education, religious faith, employment schedule, and family income. Table 1 summarizes some of the findings.
–This table is missing in this web page presentation; you may find the PDF format elsewhere on this web site with the table included—
Table 1. A comparison of data from Connecticut and one nationwide study.
On average, home schooling families in Connecticut have two parents and three children, of which two of the children are of compulsory school age. The size of home schooling families in this study of Connecticut is consistent with the findings of Ray’s (1990) nationwide study of home schooling families and somewhat larger than married-couple families with their own children under eighteen years of age nationally, which contain four people (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1991).
Sixty-three of the 66 home schooling families in Connecticut that participated in the study (95%) are married-couple families, supporting Ray’s (1990) finding nationwide that 98% of home schooling families have two parents. Five percent of the home schooling families in the study are female householder families (single-parent families headed by the mother), compared to about 2% female householder families nationwide in the Ray (1990) study. Nationally, 7% of all households are comprised of women and their children under eighteen years of age (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1991).
Another finding of this study was that the mother is generally the primary instructor for the subjects required under the Connecticut compulsory attendance law, although the father also has a role in teaching at least one subject. In a few instances, people outside the family had a role in teaching one of the required subjects. In most instances, if outsiders are involved in the education of the children, they teach or help to teach music, art, physical education, religion, science, or foreign language. On average, Ray (1990) found that the mother did 88% of the teaching, the father did 10% of the teaching, and someone other than the parents did 2% of the teaching. In Connecticut, the mother is the primary instructor in 91% of two-parent families.
In terms of materials and texts, home schooling families in Connecticut tend to start their home education program using materials from a single curriculum supplier, then supplement these with a variety of resources, especially library books. Ray (1990) found nationally that two-thirds of home schooling parents select major curriculum components. More than half of the home schooling families in Connecticut use a computer as part of their educational program. Ray (1990) found that 58% of the home schooling families have a computer in their home.
Seventy-five percent of the instructors who responded to the question on type of instructional program used consider themselves as having a structured program, but four-fifths of these instructors also believe that they are flexible. Only 14% of the instructors are proponents of the late John Holt’s unschooling movement which advocates programs centered on children’s interests. However, most of the home schooling families studied did not consider themselves to be rigid in their program, but actively seeking the “teachable moments” within the day’s schedule or routine.
About half of the home schooling parents have a college degree, but most of them have taken some college courses. More of the parents have post-college training than those who have
only a high school diploma. Ray (1990) found that one-half of the fathers and one-third of the mothers have at least a bachelor’s degree. About four-fifths (80.6%) of the population 25 years of age or older in Connecticut has graduated from high school and about one-fourth (27.5%) is college educated. Only the District of Columbia (35 n2%) and Massachusetts (28.1%) have a higher percentage of college graduates (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1991). Home schooling parents in Connecticut are more highly educated than the average population and home schooling mothers in Connecticut are slightly better educated than home schooling mothers nationwide.
For those families who participated in the study, roughly one-third of the parents would be considered “born-again’ Christians. Ray (1990) found that about 95% of the home schooling parents nationwide call themselves “born again” Christians. Nationwide, about one-fourth of the population that practices a religious faith would consider themselves “born again.” The percentage of home schooling parents in Connecticut who are “born again” Christians is slightly higher than the national average but well below the percentage in Ray’s study.
Fifty-six percent of the population nationwide is Protestant, 28% Catholic, 2% Jewish, 4% other, and 10% report no religious affiliation (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1991). About four-fifths of the home schooling parents in Connecticut report Christian faiths (i.e., Protestant and Catholic) compared to 84% nationally.
For two-parent home schooling families in Connecticut, the father usually financially supports the family with the mother staying at home to teach the children. The mother is employed outside of the home or in the home in about one fourth of the home schooling families in Connecticut. If the mother is employed, she works part time for an average of twelve hours per week. Ray (1990) found that the average father earns 96% of the home schooling families’ income, so the financial support of home schooling families in Connecticut is consistent with Ray’s findings (1990). For the state of Connecticut, the participation rate in the work force for the civilian noninstitutional population sixteen years of age and older is 80.4% for males and 60.8% for females. Nationally, the civilian work force is 76.4% for males and 57.4% for females (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1991). Apparently, home schooling families have accepted a lower annual income (albeit higher than many other families) in order to educate their children at home.
Three-fourths of the home schooling families in Connecticut have an income of $35,000 per year or more, compared to the 1989 national median income of $34,213. About one-third of the families participating in the study had an annual income between $50,000 and $74,999. Of the 50 states, Connecticut had the highest personal income per capita ($24,683 in 1989) rising from second in 1980 to first in 1990. The per capita income nationally in 1989 was $17,596 (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1991).
Another finding that was similar to the Ray (1990) study was that home schooling families in Connecticut and nationwide have a slightly higher income than average. However, about one-half of the home schooling families in the Connecticut study had incomes greater than $50,000 per year compared to about one-fourth of the home schooling families nationwide.
Finally, home schoolers appear to have a powerful support network. More than four-fifths (86%) of the home schooling families in the study reported receiving educational and emotional support from other home schooling families. Home schooling families also have activities and field trips together. Many home schooling families are currently or have been members of museums, and receive or have previously received one or more home schooling periodicals.
Home Schooling Families in Connecticut
THIS STUDY REVEALED that home schooling parents in Connecticut tend to raise their children in traditional homes where education is a central concern. The parents believe that they are responsible for the education of the children. Both parents tend to be well-educated and both parents are involved in the education of their children, even though the parents have more traditional roles (i.e., the father financially supports the family and the mother is a homemaker). The commitment to a more traditional lifestyle often results in a reduced income level for the family because the mother may work part time, but usually she does not.
Religion is an important facet of the home schooling families’ educational program. It is taught in 97% of the home schools studied and is cited as a reason for engaging in home schooling by over half of the parents questioned. However, religion was cited as the primary reason for home schooling by only about one-fourth of the families. Consequently, it is reasonable to infer that religious values are important to the family, but are only part of the family’s overall values. The impression that home schooling families are “religious zealots” may be incorrect in the case of Connecticut. However, for the 23% of the home schooling families in Connecticut who are so inclined, religion is still a powerful motivator to home school.
As the primary instructor, the mother has acquired a lot of teaching experience—three years or more—and is willing to experiment with different materials and strategies. When field trips and family trips are included as was noted by all of the families in the study, it is clear that a lot of time, thought, and expense often goes into the education of the children.
Home schooling parents in Connecticut tend to be highly educated and upper-middle class. Most of these married-couple Christian parents cite educational or values-related reasons for home educating their children. Although religion is an important part of their home school program, there are other values that are probably equally important. These values include: morality, self-determination of educational program and materials, family unity, and protection from negative influences. Home schooling families are child-centered, traditional families who differ from other similar families only in the way in which they choose to educate their children.
Implications of the Study
HOME SCHOOLING IS not a new invention. Parents have always been the primary educators of their children. Schools outside the home are a relatively new innovation. The recent revival of home schooling has caught some states and local
public school districts off guard. Even though home schooling has been legal since 1986 in virtually every state, the regulation of home schools and enforcement of required standard by local authorities presents difficult issues. One way to regulate home schools has been to give parents legal responsibility for the education of the children. However, that may not be the optimal or the most equitable course of action. Should local boards of education and public school authorities “wash their hands” of home schooling children and not provide any oversight or services?
Many home schooling parents, as taxpayers, feel entitled to some kinds of services—either from local districts or from the state. As one parent stated, “Perhaps it is in the best interest of the local district to cultivate an interest in and concern for the children so that suspicion is gradually replaced by mutual cooperation and comfort.” The development of trust will be difficult at first due to the existence of negative attitudes and hostile feelings on both sides. Professional educators and boards of education question the credentials of parents to home educate their children, while many home schooling parents feel likewise or remember their own unhappy educational experiences. Suspicion has bred open hostility in some instances.
One idea may be to set up a liaison office for home schooling families in the Connecticut State Department of Education to represent the families’ interests and to facilitate interaction of home schooling families with local public school officials. Connecticut has been considered as a leader in teacher education, certification, and compensation. This leadership could extend to home schooling.
Beyond home schooling families, at least one parent in this study suggested that public schools could serve as “educational warehouses” where people of all ages could seek self improvement. A prominent education writer, Edward Fiske (1991), proposes a similar idea—learning communities—in his book Smart Schools, Smart Kids. Fiske illustrates his concept of learning communities by pointing out how James Coiner, a prominent psychiatrist at Yale Medical School, who grew up in poverty, but was able to graduate from college. Coiner concluded that he and his brothers and sisters succeeded because of a network of community support, with his mother at the center.
Coiner’s model for “at-risk students” includes overcoming three obstacles presented by the current “factory-model school.” First, schools must respond to the developmental needs of individual children by eliminating the hierarchical structure. Second, Coiner advocates eliminating the alienation between the world of inner-city children and world of schools. Finally, he recommends training teachers to understand the cultural handicaps of poor inner-city children so that expectations at home and at school are not at odds. Schools based on the Coiner model are run by a “governing council” of parents and school staff headed by the principal. Parental involvement leads to a “shared purpose between parents and staff,” and a “mental health team” is established to aid the governing council to address the development needs and problems of children.
Schools following Coiner’s model provide one example of the accountability that the public is beginning to demand of schools that depend on public resources. Home schools already have parental involvement and acknowledge the developmental needs of children. Could the Coiner model of community outreach be broadened to include those who choose—at least for part of their children’s basic education—an alternative form of private education?
CERTAINLY, HOME SCHOOLING parents care for their children. They demonstrate that caring by making physical, emotional, spiritual, and academic concerns a high priority. This is not to say that many parents who have enrolled their children in public or private schools do not share these concerns. However, the approach taken by home schooling families is different. It is “not fair to compare home schooled kids to (average kids in) public schools, but to (those of) parents who really care.” As Guterson has observe, “Teaching is an act of love before it is anything else” (1990, p. 64).
Many parents who have enrolled their children in school have many of the same concerns for their children as home schooling parents. Home schooling families are more like other private schooling parents who have “voted with their feet” and have turned away from tax-based public schools to enroll their children in private school. Unlike other private school parents, home schooling families have made a commitment to reduced potential income which goes against the popular move to dual income families. Home schooling families may be characterized in many situations as a ~~community of learners” as described by Fiske (1991). Pedersen and O’Mara (1990) appear to capture what this study of home schooling families in Connecticut has revealed:
Home schooling reminds us that learning is a much more fluid process than we might have realized; it is a dynamic process that cannot and will not be contained in a room or a book. We learn from the living model of life as it happens. The success of home schooling reminds us that learning is simultaneously more fragile than perhaps we once thought and much easier than we often believe it to be. (p. xi)
Home schooling permits families the opportunity to live life together, with a freedom to experiment and find what works best for them. Through mistakes, perhaps even painful ones, the whole family has the opportunity to grow. Parents have the opportunity to make learning connections to real life that the children may have missed otherwise. Parents have the opportunity, the time and attention needed to perceive the world through the eyes of a child. Home schooled children are given time to pursue interests, such as music, dancing, and community service, and to reflect on what they have learned. In the less personalized environment of the public school, children might miss these opportunities.
Public schools can learn from some of their biggest critics—parents who have removed their children from school to educate them at home. Although there is a lot that our nation’s schools have accomplished, there is widespread agreement that reform is necessary at this time. Perhaps, through the office of a liaison for home schooling families that would be connected to state departments of education, bridges can be built to link public schools with this form of highly individualized private schooling. The lessons learned from successful home schooling can enrich the conversations on reform in public schools.
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