This past spring, parents around America turned their kitchen tables (and other parts of their homes) into classrooms as schools closed due to Covid-19. As a new academic year begins and the pandemic continues, many families are officially opting out of their public or private schools and making the switch to homeschooling. Homeschooling had been growing in popularity before, but with Covid-19 seemingly not going anywhere, it’s becoming increasingly mainstream.
While some parents are choosing to shift education to the home for safety reasons, J. Allen Weston, Executive Director of the National Home School Association, says many pedagogical reasons are driving the determination for families. Once they got a taste of what education at home could be like, they found it was a better fit.
“Parents [are] coming to a realization that they had been looking at homeschooling from a very jaded perspective and now that they understand what it is really like they can’t imagine sending their children back,” says Weston. He is among the experts predicting that homeschooling will stay popular long after the pandemic has passed.
History of Homeschooling
Homeschooling is not a new concept, of course. It goes back in American history to colonial times through the mid-nineteenth century, when community schools were not yet constructed or accessible. The first public high school was built in Massachusetts in 1820. Massachusetts was also the first state to enact a compulsory education law in 1852. Due in large part to efforts by progressives, public schools were seen as increasingly important around the country and every state had compulsory education laws by 1930.
Soon after the laws were enacted, debate raged around whether a parent educating a child at home satisfied compulsory education requirements. In most states, home schooling was not legal. In the upheaval of the 1960s, homeschooling gained traction as some parents and educators questioned a standardized approach to teaching. Reformer John Holt garnered attention in the 1970s with his book How Children Fail and a newsletter on the shortcomings of the American education system and calls for “unschooling.” In the 1980s, homeschooling grew in popularity, especially with religious conservatives. The Home School Legal Defense Association was formed in 1983 with a focus on changing state laws. By 1993, all states permitted homeschooling, each with different requirements.
The National Center for Education Statistics first reported on homeschoolers in 1999, finding that 850,000 students, equivalent to 1.7 percent of students around the country, were homeschooled. That number rose to 1.55 million in 2007.
Approximately three percent of the nation’s K-12 students were homeschooled in 2016, according to the NCES, or approximately 1.69 million children. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education agrees with that estimate, but cautions that exact numbers of homeschoolers are difficult to pinpoint in part because 11 states do not require homeschooling parents to notify anyone that they are homeschooling. State laws remain inconsistent, with some states requiring notice as well as specific teacher qualifications, immunizations, and assessments for homeschool students. Other states have no such requirements.
Whether the pandemic results in an increase in the numbers remains to be seen, but Weston anticipates an uptick. He believes that those who adopt the homeschooling lifestyle will stick with it even after the threat of the virus recedes.
How homeschooling differs from distance learning
When public schools pivoted to distance learning in March due to Covid-19, millions of American students were suddenly learning at home. Weston stresses that they are not engaged in homeschooling. “They are doing schooling at home. Huge difference. Homeschooling is a lifestyle dedicated to the joy of learning. True homeschoolers understand that learning is an adventure to be experienced and cherished — not a chore to muddle through to get a grade,” he says.
Adena Zender, an educator in California who has one child enrolled in public school and one who is doing home school, says the difference between the two approaches is “tremendous.” For her, the key distinction is who makes the decision to learn at home. “Home school is a choice that family makes for their child or children,” she explains. “Distance learning, also called crisis learning, is based on a decision by the government.”
Homeschooling involves numerous other choices that are not options with distance learning, including choice of curriculum, the schedule of schooling in terms of both the annual calendar and the times of the school day, deadlines for assignments, and how much technology will be used and when. Those decisions can be both liberating and overwhelming. For Zender, the choice of comfortable seating and clothing helps make all those other decisions a bit more enjoyable.
Turns out one commonality shared by distance learning and homeschooling is experiencing rough days. Lisa Laux Robak, a Wisconsin mother of two who has been homeschooling for 12 years, keeps it real by saying there are tough times in home-based education but the options for handling them as a homeschooler are more plentiful.
Pros and Cons
Some of the academic benefits that Laux Robak lists include the ability to take college classes at the local community college during high school years and the opportunity for children to follow their passions and spend as much time on a subject as they like or, alternatively, discontinue a certain topic when no longer interested.
Self-pacing was a benefit that Zender could particularly appreciate having been in a classroom. “I had to teach to the middle. You do your best but when have 25 to 30 students, it is difficult to differentiate,” she says.
She also appreciates the lack of distractions in a home educational environment.
Some of the benefits also extend to relationships. Laux Robak said that in addition to having more quality time as a family, the sibling bond between her son and daughter grew stronger.
Control over time was a benefit several of the homeschool families cited. For Laux Robak’s daughter, it meant the ability to attend dance classes later in the evening because she doesn’t have to wake up early for school. Other families said the ability to travel whenever they wished and not based on a predetermined school calendar as a plus.
Robak says some of the disadvantages to homeschooling came into sharper focus when her children reached the high school level. She says they experienced less access to scholarships compared to some public school students and that there is “added stress on the main person homeschooling during the high school years as that is when it ‘really counts.’”
Trends in Homeschooling
Forming homeschooling pods of like-minded families and students is a very popular trend in home-based education. Weston notes that it allows flexibility for working parents and single parents who may not be available for the full amount of time necessary.
Julie Vassilatos formed a pod with two other families when homeschooling her daughter and found it to be a great way not only to share the work but also to capitalize on the strengths that each educator brought to the home classroom.
“It’s a gift to be able to lean on friends and neighbors. It’s also beneficial for homeschool students to have content delivery from several different teachers,” says Vassilatos.
She says upfront conversations are essential to the success of the pod, noting, “We agreed in advance that we would have expectations, what they would be and that grades would be based on them.” Her daughter also attended a weekly co-op of more than 100 homeschoolers.
Some parents, like Marin mother Darcy Alkus-Barrow, are taking that further by opting to homeschool and hiring a teacher in a trend sometimes referred to as microschooling. “We’re focused on bringing in the teacher to do more of the heavy lifting,” Alkus-Barrow says. She explains that while the curriculum would be “largely decided by the private educator,” it is also possible to “switch off days where a family will teach something to the whole pod.”
Alkus-Barrow said some of the reason for embracing a microschool with an outside teacher was her research of child psychology. “It is really important developmentally for little kids to have a positive example outside of their parental figures,” she says, noting that role is “usually filled by a teacher.” The social-emotional benefits of being around even a small group of other students was also a significant factor in the family’s decision.
Cultural institutions catering to homeschoolers is a growing trend that offers students “a lot of opportunities,” according to Zender. Museums, libraries, state parks and more host events aimed at homeschoolers, and often at no or reduced cost. Exploring the tide pools in West Marin excited Alkus-Barrow and Vassilatos calls an outing to The Grove, a nature preserve and National Historic Landmark in Glenview, IL was “the best field trip ever.”
Field trips to such places can not only spark a child’s interest, Zender says, but they can also be a great opportunity to see how several subject areas intersect and what the practical application of lessons are in the real world.
Adjusting education to really fit each individual child’s needs
Vassilatos embraced another trend in homeschooling, which is committing to do it for a limited period of time rather than the full K-12 duration. Homeschool can be for now, and not forever and not for everyone.
“The needs of families and children change over time,” Vassilatos says. She homeschooled her daughter from fifth through eighth grade, and then her daughter opted to attend Chicago Public Schools for high school.
Both Zender and Vassilatos have “split families,” meaning that while a child in the family was homeschooled, another attended public school. It’s a matter of “considering each child’s personality, talents and learning abilities and disabilities,” says Zender.
Zender hopes that the families reevaluating what educational format works best for their families during the pandemic is the start of a larger examination of education as a whole. “This disruption of Covid-19 may be a time for change and for things to improve and get better. I’m glad that people are conscious and actively working toward that goal.”
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Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop to the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.