Increasing Numbers of Homeschooled Students Suggests Reform Needed in K–12 Education
December 18, 2019
Homeschooling is on the rise. Middle-class families are increasingly choosing to educate their students at home, a trend that should prompt school boards to consider why so many students are opting out.
How popular is homeschooling in the United States?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, it’s a steadily growing movement. As the U.S. continues to lag behind other countries in STEM and gifted education, parents are taking matters into their own hands and opting to educate their children outside of the established public school system.
In 2002, 2.2 percent of American children were educated at home. By 2012, that number had jumped to 3.4 percent. While the percentages themselves may seem small — even given a leap of more than 50 percent — the actual number of students is high, and it’s growing. That proportion of 2.2 percent translates to 1,096,000 homeschooled American students. By 2012, the number rose to 1,773,000 — and it is continuing to climb.
Who are these families opting to homeschool? Based on the data from 2012, more than 80 percent are white, and more than 17 percent are Hispanic. Significant data for black, Asian Pacific, and families who identified as “Other" were not available.
Students, the report showed, are more likely to be homeschooled as they get older. The report found that the percentage of students opting into homeschooling (and out of traditional schooling) increases with each grade level; by high school, 2.5 percent of American children are homeschooled, which suggests that increased exposure to public schooling does not necessarily cultivate loyalty to it.
Family structure and size also correlate with the decision to homeschool. For instance, families with three or more children are more likely to homeschool than those with fewer. There is an exception, however; singletons are more likely to be homeschooled than their counterparts in two-children families. Girls are also homeschooled at higher rates than boys.
Two-parent families are three times more likely to homeschool their children than single parents. This is likely because of the arrangement that most homeschooling families have; the vast majority have one parent in the workforce, and one who remains at home. In many cases, however, homeschooling families do not have any parents in the workforce; about 74,000 children who are homeschooled come from families in which no parent is in the workforce.
Parent education and income level both play a role in the decision to homeschool, as well. Overwhelmingly, parents who homeschool their children have achieved some level of higher education and would classify as “middle class," with an annual family income of between $50,000 and $100,000.
Finally, location evidently figures in the decision of whether to homeschool: Homeschooling is more common in smaller towns and rural areas than in suburbs or cities.
What the Report Suggests — and What It Doesn’t Cover
The data suggest that homeschooling continues to be practiced, on the whole, by white, middle-class, well-educated families with sufficient resources to allow one parent to make a career of teaching children at home. And families with higher numbers of children who live in rural environments are more likely to teach their kids at home, perhaps because there may not be as wide a range of services available. Parents are taking it upon themselves to educate their kids according to the needs of their children.
It is noteworthy that the percentages of young people whose families opt them out of the education system grows with each grade level. (There are more homeschooled high schoolers than elementary schoolers.) It may be the case that middle and high schoolers are finding education outside of traditional classrooms to be more rewarding — or that, as the stakes get higher, the imperative to meet students’ individual needs becomes stronger. Both possibilities merit investigation by local school boards.
The study does not address the motivations of individual families to opt out of the system, information that would be valuable when considering the ways in which traditional schools need to serve students better. For example, students with special needs may need services not available in local school districts.
Also worth addressing is the growing segment of the homeschooling population who reported having “no participation in the workforce." It’s not clear in what proportions these families may receive social benefits, be self-employed, or be independently wealthy.
From the perspective of homeschooling proponents, the rising rates of children who are being educated at home is heartening. As more families participate, there is likely to be a larger community (both online and in person) for support. In addition, with the expansion of school choice options across the U.S., families may increasingly find supports or subsidies that make homeschooling easier — or even possible in the first place.
From the perspective of the educational establishment at large, however, the data may indicate that significant reform is needed. If public (and in some cases, private) schools aren’t meeting students’ needs, then what can be done to address that problem? If, for instance, students with special needs are not receiving the supports and services to which they are entitled — via Individualized Education Programs or 504 accommodations — then more families with the resources to opt out will forgo public schooling altogether, especially if they may receive public funds to do so. This trend could, in turn, inhibit the full and effective implementation of inclusive education for students everywhere.
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