Shaghayegh Setayesh and MingTsan Pierre Lu
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
We all have heard or known of families who homeschool their children. We have our assumptions about why they choose homeschooling, and how they do it. In this study, two current homeschooled families with over one year of homeschooling experience in a border city in a southern state in the United States were observed and interviewed. We investigated their reasons for homeschooling and their perspectives and perceptions on advantages and disadvantages of homeschooling. Qualitative data collection methods, such as participant observations, semi-structured questionnaires, and one-on-one in-depth interviews were implemented. We used thematic analysis to analyze data. It was found that the reasons vary but religious studies, special need and attention, family bond, and children’s moral education were the main ones. In terms of perceived advantages of homeschooling, the participants revealed that they enjoyed the flexibility of homeschooling in addition to the strong bond, healthy eating habits, and the free time they have for other activities. As a caveat, the participants in the study stated that lack of time management skills can be harmful to homeschoolers. In terms of perceived disadvantages of homeschooling, missing on some school events such as science fairs or proms could be an issue for some families. We discussed the study’s limitations and practical implications.
Keywords: homeschooling; advantages and disadvantages; southern state USA; parent perception
According to the Institute of Education Sciences (NCES, 2009; NCES, 2013), homeschooled students are defined as: school-age children (ages 5–17) in a grade equivalent to at least kindergarten and not higher than 12th grade who receive instruction at home instead of at a public or private school either all or most of the time. It is important to understand the homeschooling phenomenon in the United States as study showed that the number of families who choose homeschooling is rapidly increasing, especially in remote areas (Berry, 2013; Murphy, 2012). Parents choose to homeschool their children for various reasons, for instance, they do not approve of the school environment, are not satisfied with the level of academics at school and want a more advanced curriculum, want a more rigorous religious studies for their children, try to protect their children against bullying at schools, desire to emphasize moral values, have a child with special needs who requires more time and attention, or other reasons (Murphy, 2012; Noel, Stark, & Redford, 2013 ). Collom (2005) explains that motivation for homeschooling may vary from one family to another and even within one family from one child to the next (as cited in Murphy, 2012). Parents who choose to homeschool their children have their reasons and can explain their perceived advantages and disadvantages of this route of education based on their authentic experience. The purpose of this study is to investigate experienced parents’ reasons for homeschooling and their perspectives on the benefits and disadvantages of homeschooling in a border city in a southern state in the U.S.
Background and Interest of the Study
One of the investigators decided to homeschool her middle school daughter for one year because of her dissatisfaction with the academic and unpleasant environment of the school her daughter attended. The warning she received from many non-homeschooling parents was the lack of socialization her daughter would face. It seemed as if there is a general assumption that homeschoolers are either antisocial or socially deprived. The feedback and reactions to the homeschooling decision made her concerned about whether she made the right choice and how to compensate for the lack of class interaction. She and her husband conducted informal research to find the most suitable homeschool program for their daughter. Yet, it was not successful at first because, though there are numerous homeschool programs available, there is very limited information regarding the evaluation or feedback on those programs. Therefore, it was difficult to unveil the reality about the programs. As expected, all the developers claimed that their program was the best. This confusion and uncertainty led the investigator to find parents who had homeschooled their children and ask for their guidance. Only then the investigator could narrow down the research to two to three programs and eventually choose the one that she felt was the best fit for her daughter. That was when she realized that there is a need for a study to reveal the advantages and disadvantages of homeschooling from those who have experienced it for some time. Families with experience in homeschooling could clarify if issues such as socialization exist, how they integrate social activities into their children’s lives, and if such activities are proper alternates to what traditional schools and interaction with other classmates offer.
As a result of a political movement of “countercultural critique of the public education system,” homeschooling became more known and defined to American families in the early 70s (Gaither, 2009). Other reasons that Gaither (2008) associated with the initiation of homeschooling in America were: the suburbanization, the American cult of a child which was the idea of liberating children from the rigorous plans and institutions, and the growth of schools that caused them to be more detached and less communicative with parents. Since then, this alternative route of schooling has increased and diversified. Different states have different laws regarding homeschooling, thus giving a wide range to the continuum of homeschooling. Gaither (2008; 2009) described the extreme ends of this continuum, one being unschooling, a term used by John Holt and supported by progressivism, and the other end being school in a box, which was mainly supported by conservatives. Through extensive research, Murphy (2012) describes two essential parts of the homeschooling movement; one from the liberal left and the other one from the Christian right, founded and led by John Holt and Raymond Moore, respectively.
According to Martin-Chang, Gould, and Meuse (2011), one of the main reasons for homeschooling was parents being dissatisfied with the traditional public school education. Gaither (2009) and McReynolds (2007) provided some of the reasons for homeschooling that varied from religious, learning disabilities, student athletes or celebrity, to issues at schools such as bullying. Carlson (2009) added the desire of children being raised bilingual and bicultural to the list of the reasons. Moreover, Wichers (2001) identified the multiculturalism as one of the reasons for homeschooling in addition to the positive aspect of individualized education that homeschoolers receive. In addition, parents may not believe in their school systems such that the schools do not offer curricula or courses that help students develop fully (McReynolds, 2007) or that the schools’ emphasis is on excessive testing and memorization which deprived students from critical thinking and having free time for other activities or for family time (McReynolds, 2007).
Homeschooling Types and Concerns
Homeschooling may happen in different forms such as a set curriculum purchased online, virtual classes, and a mix of academic and music or drama classes (McReynolds, 2007). The delivery methods may vary such as learning content all delivered to the homeschoolers alone or as a part of the cooperative learning groups (McReynolds, 2007). Homeschool groups formed by families in the same region where children get together for some classes taught by some of the parents is not a requirement but has been an increasing type of homeschool learning that more families are leaning toward (Gaither, 2009).
The use of technology, the access to Internet, and the opportunity to be involved in the community and to interact with others have decreased the concern of social isolation of homeschoolers. McReynolds (2007) stated that homeschoolers make the world their classroom. Standardized testing for homeschoolers is not mandatory in many states, however, the results of college entrance exams such as SAT, the rate of homeschoolers attending college, and the high recruitment rates of colleges and prestigious universities from the homeschool graduates prove the high achievement rates of this population compared to the public school graduates (Wichers, 2001; McReynolds, 2007). Homeschoolers have the opportunity to take AP classes and dual enrollment courses in high school (Gaither, 2009). Therefore, they do not necessarily fall behind on that aspect of academic work compared to the students in public schools. The study conducted by Martin-Chang et al. (2011) found that homeschoolers who followed a structured curriculum and/or structured academic learning plans scored higher on the standardized tests than public school students did. The same study also revealed that children who experienced an unstructured homeschooling achieved lower than public school students did (Martin-Chang et al., 2011). The study clearly demonstrated the importance of structured curricula to homeschooling. Romanowski (2006) listed four myths about homeschooling; among them were the lack of socialization and the low rate of admission to college. In reality, as Romanowski (2006) argued, homeschoolers have the opportunity to be as social as the students in public schools due to the activities and community involvements that are available. In addition, the reality about college admission agrees with the studies aforementioned such that not only homeschoolers are being admitted to the colleges and universities nationwide, but also college representatives meet with homeschoolers and their families in larger groups to speak about the opportunities of scholarships and college planning (Romanowski, 2006).
Homeschooling and Self-Regulated Learning
Many scholars used Self-Regulated Learning (SRL) models to explain learning in homeschooling as they found strong associations between SRL and homeschooling. Defined by Schunk and Zimmerman (1998), SRL refers to a learning process that results from the learner’s adaptation, thoughts and feelings in order to support the learner’s goals in changing the learning environment. According to Ertmer and Newby’s (1996) SRL model, Expert Learners, there are three phases in the SRL cycle: planning, monitoring, and evaluating. During the planning phase, the expert learner sets goals and makes plans to achieve the goals. In the monitoring phase, the expert learner monitors and checks on the progress made, how closely the phase one plans are being followed, if he/she is staying focused on the learning goal, and if he/she is staying on the schedule and not falling behind. During the evaluation phase, the expert learner evaluates if the plan works and the goal is achieved. To successful homeschoolers, reflection is an important part of SRL that occurs during all three stages of the cycle (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1998; Ertmer & Newby, 1996; Zimmerman, Bonner, & Kovach, 1996; Robinson, 1993; Weinstein & Van Mater Stone, 1993). Figure 1 from “Expert Learners: Self-Regulated Learning” (Ertmer & Newby, 1996) shows the SRL model.
Figure 1: SRL: Expert Learning
(From Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1996). The Expert Learner: Strategic, Self-Regulated, and Reflective. Instructional Science, 24,1-24.)
Homeschoolers have different learning environments and resources from those of the students who attend school. According to the framework, homeschool students must set goals for themselves and make plans, monitor their progress and be aware of not falling behind the schedule, and evaluate how well they follow the plan and whether they achieve their goals. They should constantly reflect on their learning regarding planning, monitoring, and evaluating. They may make their own strategies and try them rather than being instructed by a teacher or having a pre-determined schedule of assignments and due dates as those students in schools have.
As there is little literature focusing on homeschooling in a remote border city with low SES in southern U.S. and on parents’ perceptions of their homeschooling decisions, the study would provide insights on homeschooling and its implementations in a border city in a southern state of the U.S. and augment current literature on these parents’ perceived advantages and disadvantages of homeschooling.
To investigate why parents in the border city in a southern state of the U.S. chose homeschooling, their perceived advantages and disadvantages, and whether their practice of homeschooling met certain conceptual SRL framework, we asked the following questions:
- Why did parents choose to homeschool? How did they homeschool?
- What measures were taken by parents to assure the children were socially interactive?
- How did parents choose a homeschool program for their children?
- What were their perceived advantages of homeschooling?
- What were their perceived disadvantages of homeschooling?
Sampling Plan and Participants
The sampling plan for this study was the criterion sampling. To investigate experienced parents’ perspectives on homeschooling, the criteria we set for our sample were: (1) families who were currently homeschooling at least one child, (2) the parent(s) were the coaches or teachers of the children (N.B., help from other parents or tutors were acceptable in this criteria as long as the parents were the main coach or teacher), (3) families who had done homeschooling for at least one school year, and (4) the homeschooling took place in a border city in a southern state in the U.S. We found three families that met the criteria in the Rio Grande Valley area in south Texas at the time of the study in spring 2014. Through contacting them by email, two families accepted to participate. Family #1 had three children, all being homeschooled. The mother had almost 10 years of experience in homeschooling. The older two children had gone to school for one to three years before being homeschooled, but the youngest one had always been homeschooled. Family #2 had one child, middle school age, who was being homeschooled for the past two years. Their three younger children attended public schools at the time of the study but they were planning to homeschool them as well once they reached the middle school age.
We conducted the study in a border city in South Texas. The city had an estimated population of 181,860 residents (United States Census, 2013). The United States Census Bureau (2013) reported, 93.2% of the residents are Hispanic, 87.2% of the residents in the city reported that Spanish is their primary language and it is spoken at home, and only 15.7% of individuals 25 years old and over have a postsecondary degree (compared to 26.3 % in the rest of the state). Residents in the city have a low socioeconomic status with the per capita income for families of $13,556, compared to $25,563 in the rest of the state.
The observations and the interviews were conducted at the participants’ houses. The three children of family #1 had different areas to study. The oldest, B1, brought his books and notes to the kitchen table and did his assignments there. The middle child, B2, stayed in his room during the entire time of observation, and the youngest, B3, had his nook set up in the corner of the living room which was open to the kitchen area. The living room had one wall with tall glass doors leading to the patio, another window by B3’s desk area, another window by the kitchen table. The room had light green walls with some orange accent making it a warm and cozy environment. There was some noise coming from the kitchen that was open to the living room area, noise from the water running, fresh juice being made, and later on cooking. Family #2 had a quiet house during the observation day. The homeschooler, B4, stayed in his room during the study time where there was his desk with a Mac computer, his bookshelf, his notebooks and textbooks, and his bed. The room had white walls without any photo frames on the walls. The interviews with the mothers and children took place in their houses.
After we received the IRB approval from the investigators’ university, the first author contacted three families whom met the criteria via email and asked for their participation. The first author knew these families either personally or through a mutual friend. Two families accepted the invitation. We made an appointment with each family to observe one day of their homeschooling. In addition, we also made another appointment with each family to conduct interviews with the mothers and one child of each family. The purpose of the study was explained to each family and consent was received by both the children and the mothers as the mothers signed the consent forms. We observed one day at each participant’s house to understand the environment and interactions of parents and children in the study while taking field notes. In order to minimize the observer effect, we decided not be a participant observer in the teaching or any other aspect of their homeschool day. After arrival and greetings, we sat in a couch or a chair where we could see the children and their interactions and work throughout the day. We took field notes and later on reflected on our observations and on the notes. On the days of interviews, we notified the interviewees that an audio recorder was to be used. The interviews with the mothers had semi-structured format. We triangulated to increase the validity of the research as we interviewed two of the homeschoolers. The interview with B4 was informal as we were walking through the backyard and talking about homeschooling. The interview with B1 was structured and it was done via email after we had explained the process to him and had an informal talk with him after the observation day. After each interview with the two mothers, the audio files were transcribed. To protect the privacy of the participants, pseudonyms for the participants were used in the paper. In order to protect the transcribed notes electronically, passwords had been used.
We arrived in the morning during breakfast time. Family #1 asked us to be at their house by 8:30 AM. When we arrived, B2 and B3 had already finished breakfast, B2 was asking his mother a couple of questions before going to his room to begin his study, B3 was sitting in the patio reading his book, and B1 was finishing breakfast. All 3 homeschoolers had casual clothes on similar to the students at public schools without uniforms. B2 remained in his room all morning and his mother said that he prefers to be alone during his school time and would come and ask questions if he needs anything. B1 brought his books and his laptop and sat by the kitchen counter to quietly start his work. B3, the youngest, was the one who needed his mother’s attention and guidance the most. We noticed that the mother would set up B3’s next lessons for him by bringing his books and logging in to the computer. Then she was in the kitchen and from there talked to him, urged him to stay focused, and guided him whenever he had a question. At the house of Family #2, it was different because there was only one child being homeschooled. It was quieter and he was in his room logged in to his lessons and working quietly. We noticed that B4 was in his pajamas. His mother told us that they usually let him sleep a bit later because he is in a growing age and needs extra sleep time, and therefore he usually starts the day around 9 or 9:30 A.M. He took a break and went to the backyard to water his plants. It was obvious how much he enjoyed spending time in the garden and how proud he was of the trees and plants he had grown.
All interviews were transcribed. We used constant comparison analysis to generate themes and found two main sets of categories, one is the reasons for homeschooling and the other the advantages and disadvantages of homeschooling. The field notes were also read and analyzed to support the themes that were found through the interviews.
The analysis of data resulted in the following four main categories: Reasons for homeschooling, choosing homeschooling programs, advantages of homeschooling, and disadvantages of homeschooling.
Reasons for homeschooling
Special needs: Although very mild, but the reason family #1 started the homeschooling with B1 was because they realized he had some sensory integration issues and would not complete his writing assignments at school in addition to having an almost illegible handwriting. The mother already had done some research about homeschooling and decided to give the extra attention to B1 at home to meet that need and to help overcome possible difficulties B1 had to face.
Providing better education: After a couple years of homeschooling, family #1 realized they could provide a better quality of education for their children, and thus decided to homeschool B2 and later on B3.
Developing morality: The parents of family #1 noticed how much more gentle and respectful their children became compared to the ones in public schools. One of the reasons they continued homeschooling was to encourage good behaviors and to help them build good characters. Family #2 also stated that at the age that B4 was, they felt it was very important to teach him good character values and morals and they believed they could do a better job if he stayed home through that sensitive age to gain a more fundamental education of values.
Strengthening the family bond: Family #1, including both mother and B1, emphasized the importance of making their family bond stronger as a reason why they continued homeschooling. Family #2 continued with homeschooling because they wanted their child to build a stronger relationship with his parents which would stay with him for the rest of his life.
Religious beliefs: Family #2 stated that giving a concrete religious study to their child was the main reason they started homeschooling. To family #2, their religious beliefs are the most important part of education in their culture, and as well as in life. The child now has plenty of time to attend religious lessons online and practice the learning with the family.
Choosing homeschooling programs
As for the program that they chose, family #1 said that first they did a set curriculum where the mother did all the teaching. But through experience and research they found a classic curriculum that puts emphasis on literature, they offer virtual classes, and students take the required and elective courses. The classes are interactive and they get to speak with other students as well as the instructor. Family #2 said that they chose an online public school system that offers classes for homeschool students. There are also virtual classes and student interaction. In the first author’s case, she chose a certain Independent School District’s program where her daughter takes classes for several courses, and she teaches her daughter Algebra I. In addition, she takes tennis lessons for her physical education.
Through analysis of data collected from the interviews and observations, the advantages and disadvantages that both mothers and the homeschoolers mentioned were the following:
Advantages of homeschooling
Flexibility: Both mothers considered flexibility as one main advantage of homeschooling. It was apparent through observations too that the homeschoolers had the flexibility to choose the order of the subjects they wanted to work on, the amount of time they wanted to spend on a subject, the location they wanted to have their studies done, their sleep and wake-up time, the music being played (or not played) during their lessons, and their activities.
Time for other activities: Both families said that because of homeschooling, their children have more time to do what they are interested in, such as running, reading, and gardening. It would not have been quite possible to have so much time for these extracurricular activities had they attended their regular schools.
Healthy eating habits: Both families emphasized that gaining healthy eating habits was a great advantage of homeschooling. Mother of family #1 said that she does not think her children can tolerate the food that is served at the public schools because they eat so healthy at home. They have learned to choose healthy food because of what has been prepared at home and available to them. Mother of family #2 said that in the first few months of homeschooling, B4 started to gain weight. However, he did not like it and started reading about healthy eating and now he is very precise about what to eat and when to eat. Sometimes he even warns his parents and other siblings if they eat an unhealthy snack, demonstrating how he has internalized healthy dieting habits and concepts.
Family bonding: Not only family bonding was one of the reasons for both families to start or continue homeschooling, but also they mention it as an advantage. B1 said that he could not had done so many years of homeschooling if it was not because of how close the family has grown together and how they support each other. Mother #2 said she has noticed how much her son has grown closer to both parents and how relaxed they are when talking about different subjects. She found this an advantage that non-homeschooled families may not have because of the limited time they have together every day.
Disadvantages of homeschooling
Time management issue: Although flexibility is an advantage of homeschooling for the students, if there is a lack of time management, then it can become problematic. Both families said if there is no time management skill, it will become easy for learners to fall behind assignments and procrastinate their accumulate work.
Missing on some school activities: Family #1 found this a disadvantage of homeschooling that they missed on some school events, such as homecoming and prom. However, they said it depends on how important these events are to the children. To them it was not a detrimental issue but they hear from some other homeschooled families that sometimes children wish they had those events. Family #2 said that they sometimes miss some school events, such as science fairs and honors assembly, but they expressed that it is not that significant to them.
Neither family mentioned socialization as a disadvantage. They both said that they have ways to keep their children socially active. Family #1 participates in co-op classes. The mother explained that they interact with a group of homeschooled families and any parent who would like to teach something to the kids, would offer a class. For instance, one of the mothers offers ballet classes, another teaches science and the homeschooled students choose which class they would like to attend. Family #2 said that attending religious community events and classes have been what their child looks forward to and their child is content with the socialization he receives there. Both families also have their children in sports and the practices add to being interactive with other children. The first author’s daughter stayed in touch with her friends made from her previous years in public schools. She also actively participated in local community theatre auditions, rehearsals, and performances.
Discussion and Conclusion
The results of this study help families in similar circumstances (e.g., low SES areas, border cities, specific needs, religious concerns, or related concerns in southern states) who are considering homeschooling or are new to the process to know more about what to expect, how to take advantage of the programs and how to deal with the challenges. Findings also suggest program developers improve their courses by including calendars for better time management. In addition, the results suggest homeschooling groups include more activities such as dance and talent shows so homeschoolers do not miss on similar activities that take place in regular schools.
One limitation for this study was the number of participants. There were not many families that met the criteria set for the study. In addition, if we had more time and resources available, we might be able to possibly identify and invite more homeschooling families to participate in the study. The small sample size might limit the generalizability of the study as in most case study research though the main purpose of the study was to uncover these parents’ reasons for homeschooling and their perspectives and perceptions on advantages and disadvantages of homeschooling from this specific group. As a possible future study, researchers may consider using the mixed methods research design to combine the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative research.
The results of the data analysis show that the parents who participated in the study chose to homeschool their children for different reasons. Yet most of their reasons were similar to the ones found in the background research (i.e., Gaither, 2008, 2009; Martin-Chang, Gould, & Meuse, 2011; McReynolds, 2007; Romanowski, 2006). The most common reasons in this study were to provide a better education for their children either academically or religiously, to attend to their special needs, to stay closer as a family and to help their children develop good characters. As one parent said, “homeschooling is a lifestyle where they set goals and work toward achieving them. They adapt to the changes necessary for this new lifestyle.” One mother had to quit her job, but the family compensated for the lower income by changing their cars and eliminating excess spending. They believe what they gained in return is worth the simpler lifestyle they have. At the same time the mother is taking online courses for professional development so once they decide to stop homeschooling or if their children graduate from the homeschool, then she is up-to-date with her career development and she will have obtained a few certificates to help her return to her job. The other mother is a college student herself and she has continued with her studies. Since the mother is also busy with classes and her own studies, she has hired a tutor who meets with the homeschooler to help out with any problems he may need assistance on. Both fathers are very supportive of the process.
One of the homeschoolers mentioned that he feels he has gained a close bond with the family because of the homeschooling. Yet in response to if he recommends homeschooling to everybody, he said it depends on the family and the commitment they give to it. He said if a child does not like the quietness of the house, or does not like his/her parent to be his teacher or coach of homeschooling, then s/he probably should not do it. Parents and children stated that in addition to the customized education they receive, they have better bonds as a family. Both families stated they prepare healthier lunch together and eat together.
They also enjoy the flexibility it provides for the family. If a child needs more time on a lesson or a specific task, s/he can do so. If the family would like to travel in a low season, they do not worry about their children’s school. Also, children can spend time doing what they are interested in, such as gardening, theater, or sports. Although flexibility is considered a benefit, having time management skills is a challenge they face in homeschooling. They also said that they miss on functions such as prom, but they do other activities with the co-op groups, or their religion communities.
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