The Trinity School
11 W. 73rd St.
New York NY 10023-3101
Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, science
The single most important finding of my research is that parents do not teach science to their teenage home schoolers; the home schoolers teach themselves or are taught by some other source. Academic and popular home schooling literature implicitly support this seemingly surprising result. Perhaps the strongest criticism levied against the home schooling of teenagers is that the parents do not have the background to teach them. Since teenagers learn science from sources other than their own parents, this criticism is in large part deflated.
Once we know that home schooling parents (“home teachers”) do not teach their home schoolers science, the issue arises, “How do home schoolers learn science?” The answer to this question varies from home school to home school. Some home schools with teenagers take advantage of the flexibility of home schooling, which cannot be rivaled by classes in regular schools, to provide an “inquiry” science education of the very highest quality.
Science educators agree that the best science education is an inquiry science education, wherein the student acts as a scientist: exploring nature; making hypotheses; designing and carrying out tests; and analyzing and evaluating results. Understanding the value of inquiry in science education may be the single most important element of a successful home school science program.
Although most home schools understand the importance of “hands-on” science, which is an essential part of inquiry science, most do not seem to have a grasp of the value of complete scientific investigation. It is not surprising that many, perhaps most, home schools still base their curriculum on memorizing texts rather than performing science. Most home schoolers also seem to incorporate into their curriculum many field trips and TV science documentaries.
My research indicates that home schooling holds great promise for the science education of teenagers. To realize this promise, however, home schools must be made to understand that science is best learned through inquiry and not through memorizing texts and doing worksheets.
Review of the Literature
The Academic Literature
No academic research has been done on how science is taught in home schools, and no academic research has focused on teenage home schoolers. The general academic research on home schooling in many different geographic regions indicates that home schoolers generally perform as well or better in all subjects than do children who attend school (Frost, 1988; Rakestraw & Rakestraw, 1990 as cited in Noll, 1993; Ray, 1988, 1990; Tipton, 1990), including science (Ray, 1990), and have a better attitude toward laboratory science (Ray, 1989).
Tipton (1990), studying 81 home schools in West Virginia, found that home schoolers scored significantly higher than school attenders in mathematics in the third grade. By the sixth grade, they scored similarly. In ninth grade, home schoolers scored lower than school attenders. In 11th grade, they again scored similarly. My findings may explain Tipton’s results. It may be that math, like science, is a subject where many parents lack background or comfort with the material beyond the elementary school level so math scores drop as home schoolers approach high school age. Later, when the home schools realize that the teenagers must teach themselves the more advanced material, they catch up with the school attenders.
The findings of several researchers imply that most home teachers do not utilize an inquiry science curriculum for their teenagers (Bliss, 1989; Knowles, 1988; Lines, 1987; Ray, 1989; Schmidt, 1989). Forty percent of Bliss’s survey of 70 home schools in Michigan said that they utilized “formal, traditional methods” of instruction. Lines estimated that from 25 to 50 percent of home schools use commercially prepared curriculum. To their credit, the major correspondence courses do include laboratory activities, but the labs are generally “cookbook” labs which do not involve the students in forming and testing hypotheses or evaluating methodology. They do not take advantage of the flexibility inherent in the home school situation for scientific investigation.
Knowles (1988), in his in-depth study of 12 home school families in Utah, found that
[w]hile parents maintained intellectual support for diverse and student-oriented approaches [like inquiry science], few were able to facilitate learning beyond repetitive and conventional approaches, particularly those associated with workbook-type activities, and it is doubtful whether many parents move beyond teaching in the manner in which they were taught as students. (p. 81)
Both Bliss (1989) and Knowles (1988) found that parents are more comfortable using innovative methods when they are proficient in the subject matter. It is therefore significant that home teachers are on the average better educated than most parents (Bliss, p. 77), but there is no reason to believe that home teachers are significantly better educated in science. In fact, as the great majority of home education is performed by mothers rather than fathers and as our society has a strong cultural bias pushing women away from science, non-innovative science instruction seems especially likely.
On the other hand, there are some indications that parents can move beyond the methods by which they were taught. Knowles (1988) found that reading home school-related publications and other sources of new information, such as conventions and support groups, play a significant role in developing the home teacher’s identity as a teacher. Such publications and conventions generally stress the value of hands-on science and exploration. Most home teachers do seek out educational materials and techniques which interest their children, meet their children’s special needs, and are connected to practical skills (Bliss, 1989). These findings are at least somewhat tempered by Schmidt’s (1989) finding, in his study of teaching social studies in 34 North Carolina home schools, that there were no differences detected in curriculum materials selection between experienced and non-experienced home schoolers.
The Non-academic Literature
The popular literature, in the form of “how-to-home school” books and personal accounts, paints a somewhat brighter picture of the state of science education for teenage home schoolers.
There are several “how-to” home school books on the market. Although they generally make a point of saying that science is a “hands-on” subject and that “scientific process” and “inquiry” are important, they tend to fall back on the textbook as the principal instructional tool (Colfax & Colfax, 1988; Wade, 1984). Even John Holt (who passed away in 1985), in an article in Home School Magazine, counseled parents without scientific background to get a textbook and “learn the material with your child.” It is alarming that a strong advocate of open, inquiry-led education like John Holt would recommend reversion to textbooks in the area of high school-level science, where inquiry and experiential learning is especially valuable.
One of the “how-to” books stands out among the rest for its superb treatment of how a teenage home schooler can approach the study of science. The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education by Grace Llewellyn (1991), gives a very thoughtful 18-page discussion of how to study science without going to high school. If home schools are following Llewellyn’s guidance in the area of science, they are probably getting an excellent science education.
It is worthwhile and encouraging to note that John Holt’s Book and Music Store Catalog includes no science textbooks. Rather it recommends several of the best trade books, guides, and supplementary material books on scientific topics, many of which focus on experimental work and encourage inquiry.
Another source of information on how home schoolers learn science are personal accounts, several of which have been published. One such account is found in Leistico’s I Learn Better By Teaching Myself (1990). Leistico utilized a range of techniques for teaching science to her children including games, TV shows, newspaper and magazine articles, models, field trips (e.g., to the Grand Canyon), TOPS modules (which are elegant little hands-on activities utilizing simple materials), a Radio Shack Electronics Project Kit (which her daughter wanted), and texts. The textbook does not seem to be the focus of science in her home school.
Leistico (1990) also reports of a friend’s son, Sean Boston, who was encouraged in home school to follow his passion for his Honda motorcycle. As a result, Sean became an expert in automotive mechanics and won the Don Erbe Automotive Scholarship at Palomar College. This story illustrates well the value of the flexibility that home schooling can provide in science.
Other personal account stories of success in science learning are found in the recently published book, Real Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don’t Go to School (Llewellyn, 1993). Real Lives includes autobiographical material by eleven teenagers on their experiences of home education. The science learning activities of these home schoolers varies as much as that of children that attend radically different high schools. Many spend time observing nature. Some farm or keep bees. Some read trade books on scientific topics. Some use reference works. One notes that he watches many science TV shows. One traveled in tropical jungles. One ninth grader and her sister were tutored by “a friend of mom’s” who taught high school biology and college nutrition; they branched out beyond their text, doing many labs; she later took a test which put her at the college sophomore level. One home schooler listed his favorite science textbooks.
The most notable commonality among the 11 students in Real Lives is that they are in large part, if not entirely, self-taught. Parents and teachers do not seem to play the guiding role in their education any longer. The obvious advantage of this regards motivation; if they study any science, it is because they want to. It feels more like a hobby than a chore. Self-directed students are more likely to guide themselves to hands-on, fun science, than to boring textbooks. Students are also more likely to go off on tangents where they have to really think for themselves, to really inquire. It is far from clear, however, that this is the natural result from the accounts in Real Lives. The self-directed teenager that is not especially interested in science will only learn only what she picks up accidentally. There is at least one example of this in Real Lives as well.
Another source of many personal accounts is Growing Without Schooling, a magazine started by John Holt, one of the two leading advocates of home schooling. The magazine serves as a coffee klatch for home teachers and home schoolers; generally short articles tell about personal experiences. Science experiences that come up often involve project-oriented work, like studying birds through Project Feeder Watch (Issue #90, p. 11) or using the grow-a-frog kit (Issue #88, p. 11). When books are used, they are generally trade books rather than texts. As in Real Lives, motivation seems to take care of itself.
Overall, the literature on home schooling seems to indicate that although home schooling holds great promise for valuable inquiry science instruction, the promise is not realized in most cases.
The sample for my study included seven varied home schooling families in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Vermont. I interviewed a home teacher (always the mother) and a teenage student in each family, except Family #3 where I spoke only with the parent. Table 1 sets forth the basic demographics of the group.
The subjects were all articulate. Most parents had college degrees. The sample is skewed toward families that chose home schooling for secular, usually educational, reasons. Only two of my home schooling families (#3 and #4) chose home schooling for religious reasons, which is why most home schoolers in the U.S. say they home school. All the parents, except in Family #7, were outspoken advocates of home schooling. Families #2 and #3 were, in fact, leaders of statewide home schooling support organizations.
I obtained my sample by networking through home schooling organizations and conferences and through personal referrals. Finding subjects was surprisingly difficult, but once I contacted a family, they never balked from being interviewed or visited.
|Mother’s & father’s
|Accupressurist & Doctoral candidate in economics
|Both run a health food store. Father is also an artist.
|Mom & swimming pool repairperson
|Speakers and writers
|“Commie, lefty types”
|Left of center
|No. of Children
|No. of Years in Home School
|10 (w/one year in school)
|Age & Gender of Subject
|Basic Structure of Home School
|Absolutely no structure
|Structured by family
|Generally structured by family.
|N.E. VT (rural)
|New York City
|Nurse (1/4 time) & lawyer
|Former teacher & small contractor
|Mother is daughter’s theatrical manager
|R.N. & J.D.
|6,000 (living on savings)
|Humanitarian, doesn’t trust government
|No. of Children
|No. of Years in Home School
|Less than 1
|Age & Gender of Subject
|Basic Structure of Home School
|Flexibly structured by family
|Videotape correspondence curriculum
Table 1. Summary of Interviewees’ Demographics
My research included in-depth interviews with each subject. Interviews lasted from 30 minutes to two hours. Interviews with students were generally half as long as those with parents. The one exception was in family #7, where the student had been a student of mine in public school, where I only interviewed the mother briefly. I visited with three of the families in person; the other four I interviewed over the phone.
Each interview was guided by a questionnaire which divided the questions into three groups: (1) questions about the family, (2) questions about the home school, and (3) questions about science education in the home school. In all cases, I asked relevant follow-up questions which were not found on the questionnaire.
Questions addressed curricular content, pedagogical techniques, changes in parents’ pedagogical techniques, types of materials used, sources of materials used, parents’ and children’s assessments of different techniques and materials, comparison between parents’ pedagogical techniques (in science) and how parents were taught science in high school, comparison between home school practices and how children were taught before home schooling (if applicable), what parents and children would recommend to other home schools, the subjects’ feelings about the success and value of each component of the science curriculum, and any changes in a parent’s science-teaching style that occur over time, as the parent gained more experience teaching science at home.
When the interviews took place at the home school, I was able to peruse any materials that were being used or had been used. Generally speaking, I did not inform subjects that my research focused on science until after we had covered the questions about the family and the home school as a whole.
Often I would test students with specific questions to ascertain their knowledge of particular areas with which they claimed to be familiar, or to see how they would approach a scientific investigation. I had originally hoped to observe parents actually “teaching” science to their teenagers, but since the parents rarely taught their teenagers science, that was impossible.
With regard to science learning, the home schools varied widely. Most used some text-books and supplemented them in varying ways. One family utilized extensive inquiry science, others utilized some inquiry, and still others utilized no inquiry.
In only one case (Family #1), where the home teacher was a professional accupressurist, did the home teacher actually instruct the learner in science. Other home teachers helped choose curricula and other resources and supported their children’s science education in many ways, but they did not teach.
Almost all the families had a sense of science as a hands-on activity. Students and parents were generally pleased with their science curricula, although those teenagers utilizing a textbook- centered curriculum said that they would prefer more hands-on work and more field trips.
Many of the families made extensive use of science shows on TV. I see these shows as high-tech textbook modules. They are more interesting and more informative than most textbooks. Like textbook material, I guess that most of the information from the shows is forgotten, but unlike textbook material, children leave the shows thinking, “Isn’t science neat! or beautiful! or fantastic!” The shows seem to be an important and worthwhile part of many home schoolers science education.
All but one of the home school families (Family #7) made extensive use of field trips. Trips to science museums, farms, nature centers, and national parks were a staple of the science curricula.
The degree of structure in the home schools varied greatly, as did the source of the structure: child, parent, or outside curriculum. There was some correlation between lack of structure in the home school and the amount of inquiry science, but Family #6 is ample proof that “unschooling” or lack of structure is not a requirement for inquiry science.
Especially where the school was very unstructured, it was difficult to ascertain the home schooler’s understanding of scientific information or ability to utilize scientific method. In regular schools it is common for a student to say, “I know chemistry,” because she “got a B” in chemistry last year, when in truth she remembers almost none of it. The unstructured home schools had the opposite problem. Home schoolers failed to realize that they knew about something because they never “got a B” in it. When I asked, 13-year-old Louis (of Family #1) (and the reader should note that all names have been changed) what science he knew, he neglected to mention that he is expert at identifying medicinal herbs and preparing oils and tinctures; for him, this was his small business, not science.
The following summaries of my findings with families #4, #5, and #6 illustrate and supplement my general findings.
At the beginning of the year, 15-year-old Jane sits down with her parents, and they design the curriculum for the year. During the year, they wander some away from the curriculum to account for Jane’s interests. Jane generates her own daily school schedules.
For science, Jane now uses the chemistry unit from the University of Nebraska (Lincoln) correspondence high school. They provide a text and send the lab equipment, including test tubes, an alcohol lamp, and chemicals. For the labs, says Jane, “They tell you everything that you have to do, and you write up your results.” Jane reports one instance when her results did not make sense so she did it over again. This indicates that this science curriculum is not set up for the student to learn from her labs, but rather to let the labs illustrate what is taught in the text. So, it is hands-on, but not inquiry. Jane says, “I have to have that experiment stuff to enjoy it and make it exciting.”
Home teacher Sally takes Jane and her 11-year-old sister on many field trips, for instance, to the Boston Science Museum and to the butterfly museum. The family participates in the Audubon Society’s Vernal Pool Project where they closely observe a pool for a period of time so that it can be classified as protected wetlands.
Sally likes to talk about the teachable moment. “When we see ants doing a certain thing, we go pull out the encyclopedia. . . You hit the teachable moment and you respond.”
Jane seems to have acquired this inquiring approach to science in life. She told me that a trip to the grocery store is a science trip. “You have to think, `are these things going to taste good together?'”
While Sally said that Jane sometimes likes science and sometimes does not, Jane simply said that she likes it and thinks that she is learning it well. Jane also said that her parents do not teach her science any more; now, she learns on her own. She wishes, though, that her parents would get a book that is more updated, and easier to read, and arrange more field trips and more experiments and have less reading and fewer technical terms. When she was younger, the science was less book-oriented and more experiential, and she liked that better. It was my sense that her parents did not know how to transfer their successful activity-based strategies from the younger grades to the adolescent student.
Family #5 has a very unstructured home school situation. They have never used science texts and have no special science equipment, although once they borrowed someone’s microscope. They do go on nature field trips as part of 15-year-old Warren’s science education.
Both Warren and his mother, Laura, were at something of a loss when I asked them what science Warren had learned. After several seconds they agreed on tree identification. We were outside so I asked him to identify some of the trees. He was not sure, but he would be able to tell when the leaves came out. When did he learn this? Answer: first or second grade. What science have you done since then? He watches science specials on TV. Anything else? Well, there are Warren’s hobbies.
Warren has a few hobbies, all of which are science-related. First is fishing; Warren is a fishing expert. I quizzed him and he knows a lot about aquatic life. He has also experimented a great deal with methods for catching fish, especially regarding what baits to use. This is inquiry.
Warren also loves cars, especially four wheel drive jeeps. He subscribes to two four-wheeler magazines and reads them. (He only learned to read at the age of 13 and now reads excellently for a 15-year-old.) I browsed over an article with him, and found that his understanding of the mechanisms was fair.
Warren also has a toy remote-control car. He has been tinkering around with it to modify the steering mechanism on the car in a fairly sophisticated, inquiring manner.
Lastly, Warren loves the outdoors. He has some aspirations about becoming a forest ranger. He hopes to be accepted to a National Park Program for teenagers where he would spend a month marking trails and fishing. For a while, he volunteered with the Millstone Watershed Association, cleaning tanks and the like, but that became boring, and he stopped.
I asked Warren specifically about inquiry science, and he said that sometimes a question comes into his head and he will wrestle with it until he gets an answer. “How come snow collects on car bumpers the way it does?” was one such question. He observed winter-worn car bumpers for weeks before he arrived at an adequate understanding. He never recorded his findings and could not recite them to me.
He feels that he’s learning science well, but he “doesn’t know if it’s the same stuff they teach in science class in high school.”
The science program of Family #6 is extraordinary and could serve as a model for other home schools.
Shortly after Family #6 began home schooling, they learned that farmers typically take their dead cows out to a spot in the woods to let the carcasses decompose. They asked a farmer if they could go to such a spot and pick up the bones. They brought the bones home, piled them on their living room floor, and tried to reconstruct the skeleton without the aid of any anatomical charts. Talk about a jig-saw puzzle! After two and a half weeks, they realized that they were dealing with much more than one set of cow bones; they got an anatomy book and completed the project.
This type of active, hands-on, inquiring scientific activity has continued for nine years. Brad, the 17-year-old who will attend Cornell next fall, started tracking and cataloging the animal population on their 62 acres four years ago. Since then, he has enlisted professional biologists to aid him in statistically monitoring the population. The family similarly enlisted professional ornithologists to study two rare woodpeckers that built a nest near their house.
Bernice, the mother, is adamant about the scientific method. “Unless you get out there and do your own projects, design your own projects and see your own results, a lot of learning does not take place.”
Brad’s love is herpetology. He has kept over 26 different reptiles as pets. Anyone who has kept reptiles knows that takes a lot of work and much understanding. He also volunteers to help five different veterinarians. He has drawn blood and assisted in surgery.
People from all over the region will call on Brad for advice on herbal remedies, a subject on which he is expert. “Brad is famous for his potions.” He knows about all the flora as well as the fauna on their 62 acres.
They have surprisingly little science equipment, but they read many books, hundreds a year. The parents have also taken courses (not science courses) with their children at the community college. Bernice says that the university extension has helped them with a lot, including the introductions to some of the professors that worked with them. In the early days, they also bought some cheap, nice science modules from 4H.
When I spoke with Brad, he expanded on what Bernice had told me, citing several books, telling me about his pets. He said that better lab facilities would have been nice, but in other respects he does not know how his science education could have been better. Living in a rural area was helpful.
Perhaps the most significant thing that he told me was his response to my asking which of his parents taught which subjects. With regard to science, he said his parents had not taught him anything in yearsC”not since the single digit years,” he said.
Discussion and Conclusions
My principal finding was that parents do not teach science to their teenage home schoolers; the home schoolers teach themselves or are taught by some other source. Knowing this, the important issue is no longer, “Does the parent have enough background in science to teach it well?,” which was a major concern to the mother in Family #3 (whose oldest child was 13, so she may not have realized that her son would soon be teaching himself). The issue becomes, “Does the parent know how to (1) support inquiry, (2) encourage curiosity, and (3) locate resources?”
The parents in Family #6 had no special science background, but they (1) knew the importance of inquiry, of the student designing and carrying out his own research, and provided the flexibility to support it, (2) supported curiosity, byCamong other thingsCdoing projects with their children, assuming a “let’s find out” attitude, and putting up with a large menagerie of reptiles, and (3) helped provide both informational (books, professors) and physical (cow bones, untamed wilderness) resources. The result of fulfilling these three requirements was what must be considered one of the finest science educations of any child in the United States if not the world.
Other parents fulfilled these requirements to a different extent. Some parents encouraged curiosity by simply allowing their children to dive into their hobbies. Warren’s (Family #5) inquiring experimentation in fishing technique and toy car remote-control steering was a natural result of his parents’ giving him the flexibility to follow his interests. This exemplified how inquiry is the natural result of letting a child follow her interests. That does not mean, however, that students do not benefit from parental direction. I cannot help but think that Warren’s science learning would have gone much further if his parents understood the value of complete scientific investigation as well as letting Warren follow his curiosity. Family #2 were strict home schoolers and, so far, the 13-year-old son has learned only a modicum of science information. I expect that a living room full of cow bones would teach him much.
Encouraging curiosity and taking advantage of a child’s curiosity are closely linked to the concept of “the teachable moment” which home teacher Sally in family #4 discussed. Home schools have a great opportunity to take advantage of the teachable moment. Herb Gottlieb (a renowned high school physics teacher) takes advantage of teachable moments when students approach him with questions which he cannot answer. He tells them to find the answer themselves and then get back to him. Ninety-five percent of the students don’t get back to him. I suspect that if Mr. Gottlieb were a home teacher and the curriculum had the flexibility so that the student could immediately investigate the new question, he’d have a much greater success record and many more excited students.
Lik Tiem, another renowned science teacher, advocates the use of “discrepant event” demonstrations; he publishes books of them. A discrepant event is one which is so strange, fantastic, or exciting that the student can’t help but say, “What’s going on here?” and really want to figure it out.
Setting up discrepant events is a way that classroom teachers try to manufacture a teachable moment. It is often successful. A home teacher may create them as well, but does not have to because an astute home teacher can respond to them as they arise naturally. I can picture Bernice and Brad walking through the snow when Brad sees some animal tracks and he says to his mother, “I wonder what animal left those tracks?” And I can see her responding, “Let’s see if we can figure it out.” Now, a great scientific adventure is underway. It is important for home schools to utilize their flexibility and high degree of personal attention to take advantage of the teachable moments in science.
Taking advantage of the endless adventure of life questions is the basis of the “unschooling” pedagogues’ educational philosophy, so we would expect to find the children in those families doing the most exciting science experiments. I did not find this to be the case. Flexibility, more than lack of structure, seems to be most important. As long as the student’s schedule is flexible enough to allow the student to follow her interests as they arise, a totally unstructured environment is not a requirement of inquiry.
Jane (Family #4) lamented the decrease in science field trips as she got older. Caroline (Family #7), new to home schooling, lamented that the prepared biology curriculum she used did not include activities like “taking the flower apart and pasting it on the paper.” It is important for home teachers to remember that field trips and connecting science with other areas (such as art) are important to their children’s science education even when the “hard science” that the children are working on contains material that the home teachers do not understand. As field trips and art/science projects are exciting for people of any age, home teachers would be well-advised to keep them in the curriculum as their children enter their teens.
Everyone agrees that locating resources plays a key role in home teaching. As home schoolers become teens, they are increasingly able to find their own resources, but parents continue to play a key role. One of the students featured in Real Lives studied biology with a friend of her mother’s. Louis’s mother (Family #1) has lined up biologists with whom to trade accupressure sessions if Louis chooses to study biology when he is older. Of course, Bernice and her husband (Family #6) were instrumental in bringing in professional biologists to work on population statistics. I could give examples from all the families. Part of the trick may be to find resources that respond to the student’s curiosity.
Significantly, most of the successful scientific study that I found in my research and in the anecdotal literature was ecological in nature. This result is probably in part due to the interest of many home teachers in nature and the environment and in the use of nature field trips. Although interest in science fiction and explosions and cosmology and automobiles is vast among teenagers (especially boys), I have encountered no information about home schoolers who were geniuses in physics or chemistry (except Thomas Edison). (I have run across automotive expertise.) This skewing away from the physical sciences may be a result of inadequate laboratory resources for home schoolers in these areas. Perhaps access to an introductory physics course or inexpensive, well-designed chemistry materials are important to “get a student going” in the physical sciences.
My principal observation was that home teachers do not teach science to their teenage students. Rather, the students learn by themselves from other sources or sometimes unassisted. This leads me to two principal conclusions.
First, home teachers need not have expertise in an area of science in order for their teenage children to learn or even to excel in that area. To borrow an analogy popular today in educational reform circles, home teachers of teenagers need to think of themselves less and less as teachers and more and more as coaches. Second, in order to “guide” their children to learn science well, they need to understand inquiry science, encourage their children’s curiosity, and help them find resources. To do this well, home teachers must take advantage of the “teachable moments,” to encourage investigation and inquiry when the time is ripe.
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