UNDERSTANDING PARENTS WHO TEACH CHILDREN AT HOME: THE VALUE OF A LIFE HISTORY APPROACH
Home schooling has grown rapidly in the United States over the last decade or so. Estimates of home school populations range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, with some in excess of one million (Moore, 1985; Holt, 1984). Indications are that this growth trend is emerging in other Western countries, including Australia and New Zealand.
This exploratory life history investigation emerged from a larger longitudinal ethnographic study of home schools that the researcher began in 1985. It became clear that surveys seeking knowledge about home schools were ignoring the vital human element. An ethnographic approach seemed best to uncover the human dimension. Although survey results indicate multiple reasons, past experiences often seem to be more important than present educational conflicts as inducements for home schooling. The objective of the study was to understand and relate the background influences of a small, select group of parents to present rationales for operating home schools. From this perspective, the life history approach is an appropriate method of investigation. This paper is a preliminary report.
The research literature is small compared to the popular literature on the subject and an understanding of the context of home schooling is provided predominantly by nonacademic sources.
Reasons for Home Schooling
The multiple conclusions reached by various researchers underscore the complexity of understanding the reasons why parents elect to educate their children at home. Reasons seem to fall into the following categories (which are arraanged in no particular order): (1) dissatisfaction with academic standards, (2) dissatisfaction with standards of discipline and moral values perceived in many public schools, (3) opposition to school socialization, (4) desire for family unity, (5) desire to provide for the spiritual needs of children, and (6) desire for an holistic approach to education that emphasizes direct and experiential learning.
Contentions about public schools may be very difficult to separate from rationales (and they may indeed be the same). Home school parents are typically young, new to home schooling (averaging just under two years experience), have small to average sized families, and about two years of college education
(Gustafson, 1987; Gustavsen, 1980; Wartes, 1984). They conceivably finished school themselves 10 to 20 years ago.
Perspective of the Study
Present contentions about the deficiencies of public education appear to be superficial reasons for home schooling. Home school parent-teachers come to present schooling situations with life experiences that influence how they view schools, how they determine rationales for educating at home, and even instructional patterns (Knowles, 1987a).
Methodology and Data Source
The guiding research methodology for this study is naturalistic inquiry. The larger study of home schooling was best suited to a multi-site, ethnographic case study. At its inception, late 1985, published and rigorous home school research was sparse. Researchers either concentrated on correlational and quantifiable approaches which removed the context from variables and did not emphasize the elements of
human behavior within the home school, or focused on issues which ignored intense investigation of the human element (Altman, 1986; Linden, 1983; Magers, 1983; Schemmer, 1985; Spindler, 1982).
Recently, at least two major ethnographic studies have emerged, those by Reynolds (1986) and Van Galen (1986).
The 12 families were selected from the larger study for participation in the collection of life history data. The multi-site approach consciously sought “cross-site comparison without necessarily sacrificing within-site understanding” (Firestone & Herriott, 1984). Gustavsen’s (1981) study provided a demographic profile of home school parents. Recognizintg the limitations of Gustavsen’s list of demographic characteristics, the profile guided the formation of a set oof site selection criteria. Selection of divergent families provides strength to the study that would not have occurred without purposive sampling (Firestone & Herriott, 1984; Goetz & LeCompte, 1984). While statistical sampling is rarely used in qualitative inquiries, it
was important to have a strategy for obtaining entry to the multiple sites in order to maximize the scope of viewpoints (Goetz & LeCompte; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Yin, 1984). The same procedure was used for selecting families for both the larger study and the life-history investigation. The sample was drawn
from the home school population of the Wasatch Front region of Utah on the basis of diversity of the following collective criteria: (1) socioeconomic status, (2) occupational status, (3) religious orientation, (4) residential location, (5) political oreientation, (6) lifestyle characteristics, (7) time involved in home schooling, (8) parental education, (9) a willingness to be committed to a long term study, and (10) to provide in-depth life history data.
While no formal means were used to solicit individual home schools according to a quantifiable measure of the above criteria, effort was made to provide the maximum degree of diversity through preliminary contact with families. The 12 home schools demonstrate polarities in their characteristics which
resultantly strengthen the study (Fielding & Fielding, 1986; Kirk & Miller, 1986; LeCompte & Goetz, 1984). All families were contacted through either the 1987 Annual Convention of the Utah Home Education Association or through other Association contacts.
“Data Collection Strategies”
A variety of ethnographic methods were used in the larger study (LeCompte & Goetz, 1984; Lincoln & Guba, 1985), but the exploration of life history, as implemented in the present study, was limited by the data collection approaches and the resultant degree of triangulation.
The ethnographic data from the larger study were analyzed in an ongoing manner as a means of facilitating the study’s direction. Both positive and negative instances were sought to enable confirmation or disconfirmation of hypotheses and their resultant modifications. It was important to maintain an inductive and responsive analyses of the contexts in which the data were gathered (LeCompte & Goetz, 1984; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Spradley, 1980). From those analyses the questions for further investigation and hypotheses were generated and from this process the structure for the life history accounts was developed.
A weakness in the study is the absence of a short closedªended survey of rationales for home schooling. Due to events beyond the control of the researcher, the survey was postponed until early 1988.
“Life History Accounts”
The life history data were obtained by using a set of structured discussion topics designed to initiate extensive open-ended responses on a number of subjects. The use of this approach was stimulated by the life history approach used by a number of researchers who see value in reconstructing past events in relation to present circumstances (Butt & Raymond, 1987; Butt, Raymond, McCue, & Yamagishi, 1986; Kohli, 1980; Watson & Watson-Franke, 1985). Others (e.g., Watson & Watson-Franke) have suggested that through autobiographical writing, subjects are more likely to reveal actual intentions rather than stated intentions. The structured topics were aimed to motivate parents to reflect upon issues pertaining to the past, present, and future activities of the home school and included: (1) backgournd information about childhood education and family experiences, (2) historical events important for extablisheing the home school, (3) relations with,a nd reactions of, neighbors, and community, (4) interaction with school administrators, (5) preparation for home schooling, and (6) other topics related to broad concerns of home schooling. The parents were encouraged to record responses in any one of a variety of ways, depending on what they felt most comfortable with. No expectations were placed on the length or breadth of the responses.
The self-reporting aspect of the life history data collection was the least obtrusive manner to gather the extensive data.
Where necessary, interviews were used to define issues arising from the life history data and to clarify hypotheses and questions arising from analyes of previously collected data (Spradley, 1980).
“Analysis of Data”
The life history records were analyzed on an ongoing basis as a means of focusing the collection of interview data (Spradley, 1980) and facilitating hypotheses generation and negative case analysis (LeCompte & Goetz, 1984; Lincoln & Guba, 1984; Spradley). Finally, the contents of each record were again systematically analyzed according to principles of textural analysis, seen as being the least obtrusive methodology available to the ethnographer, important in dealing with parents who are sensitive about how the public view their actions and who in turn are cautious aobut the actions of a researcher (Werner &
“The 12 Utah Families Portrayed”
The participant families were diverse and all were located in Utah’s most heavily populated region, the Wasatch Front. Most lived in urban settings and most of the children were in the early elementary grades, although there was a spread from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Family and lifestyles were similar to others in comparable socioeconomic groups but the parent mainly responsible for the home school often had significantly reduced opportunities for social interactions with peers. The major characteristics of the group were that lifestyles revolved around the welfare of the
For some, home schooling was a new approach to education. Others had planned for it, even before the birth of their children. The range of time parents had been home schooling was between about one and eight years. About half of the parents had completed a college education, with several having completed either graduate degrees or extensive graduate study. Of the remaining parents, most had completed high school, and those who were skilled workers or semi-professionals had trade school or
junior college experiences.
For many, commitment to the study was important because they were interested in “dispelling mythologies” about home schooling. Conversely, a few assumed the researcher would “only report the good things.” Others perceived benefits in regular communication with the researcher, since opportunities to interact with knowledgeable outsiders is reduced when energies are focused on the home school.
All except one of the families were traditional nuclear units. That one family represents an increasingly noticeable, single parent, home school phenomenon, and it is probably the growth of supportive organizational structures that allows them to successfully operate home schools.
In many home schools, the mother takes on the major teacher-related roles, while the father assumes a more distant stance.
“The Utah Family Rationales for Home Schooling”
The life history data reveal four major groups of rationales for home school operation: (1) parents’ experiences (as children) of family environments, (2) school and learning experiences of parents, (3) contemporary problems of, or in, schools, and (4) home perceived as a better place than schools to learn. Usually one of the group of rationales dominates the family decision, but in most, the rationale based on past school experiences provides an underlying reason for home schooling.
“The Kimbal family rationales: Providing a nurturing family environment”
The Kimbal family, devout Mormons, live in a middle class subdivision in a semi-rural neighborhood. Peter has a college background in business and is a commercial salesman. Paula is completing graduate studies.
The home school responsibility is Paula’s. Peter does not have much to say about his school experiences, except, “They weren’t great.” He placed his trust in his wife’s decision to home school their six children aged four through fourteen. The decision is largely a result of Paula’s past. While on one hand she has good memories of school, learning in classrooms caused a lot of stress. But it is also based on an immediate past set of circumstances. The parents became “discontented about the lack of interest that was becoming evident” in their children who attended school. Paula interpreted the perceived difficulties her children were experiencing through the lens of her own experience. She feels that schools are not nurturing environments and that home schooling will make up for all the deficiencies in public schools.
“The Nickersen family rationales: Remembrance of school and childhood experiences•.
For the Nickersen family, the home school experience has been difficult. Both parents, in their late 30s, were born out-of-state, travelled widely, and met in India while on a “spiritual quest.” They have two children aged four and ten years and currently live in a duplex in a lower middle class neighborhood. Recently they moved to Utah from New Zealand where they lived for five years. Prior to New Zealand, the family lived in a variety of settings in America. Martin is a communications technician, educated mainly through apprenticeships and technical colleges. His wife Sandra, responsible for the home school, attended college and was one quarter from graduating when she gave birth to her first child. The major focus of the family is the practicing of their faith, an Eastern religion. Over the last six years, their oldest boy has been educated at home, private school, and in an open classroom, depending on location and school opportunities. The family has endeavored to compensate for social and academic disruptions by becoming integrally involved in the education process.
It is Martin’s orientation to schools that is significantly formative. He attended school in a rural community in New Zealand. While his schooling was not fraught with difficulties, he viewed school as inhiniting learing.
Thge Nickersen’s view is significant in that they do not claim to provide a superior learning environment, but rather learning opportunities that are appropriate for the learner.
“The Cobb family rarionales: Response to a contemporary problem in school”
Mary and John, both native Utahans in their mid 30s, reside with their two boys, aged 15 and 13, in a split level house in a working class suburb.
John, a skilled tradesman, grew up in Wisconsin. His family environment was not supportive. After coming to Utah, John completed a four year training program at a technical college. His school experiences left neither significantly positive or negative impressions upon him.
Mary “grew up in a loving [Mormon] family,” but with a father who had “need for control.” Her mother was supportive and provided a formative role model. Mary did one semester at a parochial university and later, completed a midwifery apprenticeship. She has an important regard for “alternative
forms of education,” for that orientation to learning that has been important for her.
It was through midwifery that she first came in contact with home schools. Some of her patients operated them and Mary was impressed. When confronted with school problems of her younger boy, Steven, Mary decided to educate him at home.
She already had some negative impressions of public schools, some of which were in response to her experiences as a child. Steven was also educated at home because of the benefits Mary saw in building close relationships. For two years, it was Mary’s responsibility to educate him. Meanwhile, the oldest boy continued in public school. Recently Steven returned to public school at his own request. His case represents those children who are educated at home in response to a special need and circumstance.
“The Neilsen family rationales: Providing a superior learning environment”
Mark, Deborah, both around 30 years of age, and their three children, aged four through eight, live in a middle class neighborhood on the fringe of city development. They are members of the Mormon Church. Their architect designed home is also Mark’s media studio. Deborah, a successful author, dropped out of graduate school just one semester short of graduating and taught English for five years. Deborah grew up in New York, Mark in California.
The Neilsen’s believe that the home is a superior place in which to learn. Home schooling was a family decision, yet it is Deborah’s views that are dominant, and she operates the home school.
After reading the work of John Holt, the parents became convinced of the value of home schooling. Their children were never sent to school. Underlying Deborah’s response about the status of learning were a number of expressed views about the parents’ experience in schools. As an adult she had come to negatively respond to institutional aspects of education. But it was her remembrance of school as a child that indicated an underlying rationale for home schooling. For most of her school experience she was not intellectually extended. For Deborah, schools did not conjure fond, productive memories of learning.
Results verify that home schooling motives are complex but congruent with trends evidenced in the life histories of most participating parents. The four groups of rationales evident in the participating families were nearly exclusively linked by difficult situations the parents experienced as students in schools.
It was an attitude about schools that verified the worth of the predominant and orienting rationale. Many parents had serious contentions and problems which may not typically be mentioned in questionnaire responses.
Overwhelmingly, past experiences seem to be more important than present public educational contentions as inducements for home schooling. Inn some cases, when the researcher sought to verify results, the parents had considerable difficulty in acknowledging their deep seated reasons for home schooling.
There are several educational implications arising from the growth of home schooling. The events and often negative effects surrounding past formal school experiences are placed in an important historical context when parents perceive present situations through the lens of yesterday.
If cooperation of schools with home school parents is to occur to any degree of effectiveness (Knowles, 1987c; Lines, 1985), it will become increasingly important for school authorities to understand the origins of parents’ fears and contentions about public schools.
What are the long term implications for education? If home school parents represent adults who disdain their public school experience yet are still vitally concerned for the educational welfare of their children, what negative impacts have school experiences had on those adults who show little regard for their children’s welfare? Differences in learning styles may be at the heart of the problem. Perhaps it is appropriate to consider a variety of education models, of which some form of home schooling may be an alternative.
It will become increasingly relevant to consider the use of tax monies to support home school parents’ educational efforts. Evidence suggests that while there may be problems matching the curriculum of the state with that of the family, in present times of fiscal difficulties there may be considerable advantages in relieving pressures from some schools and resources by appropriately encouraging home schooling under supervised conditions. That is not an unequivocal statement of support for home schools, but rather a suggestion that proficient home schools be given the recognition deserving any reputable educational institution.
Recommendations for Further Research
An important step to further understand home school parents will be to administer a survey questionnaire to the same parents who provided the life history data. The survey should seed closed end responses about rarionales for home schooling and will help make more explicit the link between personal biography and rarionales.
(Editor’s note: The preceding is a summary of a paper presented at the First Joint Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Associations for Research in Education, University of Canterbury,
Christchurch, New Zealand, December 3-6, 1987.)
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