What Homeschooling Actually Looks Like
September 11, 2019
What is homeschooling actually like for the students and families who undertake it? Read on to find out about how homeschooling families got started.
Most parents don’t plan to homeschool their kids. Many decide to try this method later on for a variety of reasons.
Why Some Take The Plunge
“I never thought I would do it. I really enjoyed school," said Cyndi Miller, a mother who taught her daughter, Aurelia, at home from sixth to eighth grade. “I had a lot of respect for teachers. I’d worked as a substitute."
Because of a move, her daughter was going to have to change schools in sixth grade and asked her mom to teach her at home just for a year until junior high. The district they lived in had notoriously bad junior highs, so they stuck with homeschooling.
Cyndi was concerned about the social aspects of middle school, as well. “I envisioned her having a hard time peer-wise. I dreaded that whole middle school experience for her." Aurelia was studious and shy, and while mature, she was still very much a child. People warned Cyndi that homeschooling would make her daughter socially awkward, particularly when she went on to public high school after being homeschooled for several years; but the opposite proved true.
“She developed a real sense of confidence. She really embraced herself." When Aurelia got to high school, she found a good group of friends. She was in honors programs and achieved a 4.0 GPA. Initially, Aurelia was intimidated by the size of the school, but she managed to get used to it.
Grades were hard for her, too. “She’d come home with a 95 percent and be disappointed," said the Cyndi.
Another family decided that they had to get out of the education rat race.
“Living in New York City, there is a huge pressure to get your kid into the right school, and it starts when you are pregnant. There is this insanity for both public and private school. We just felt like we weren’t going to enjoy our children’s childhood if we were worrying about their future all the time," said Leslie Burby, a mother of two who lives in New York City.
She and her husband also had learned from others’ experiences at competitive schools. “We had friends who had eight-year-olds. They were having three-hour homework assignments in elementary school," said Leslie. “Homework in those days ten years ago] was a good thing. Parents saw it as getting their kids ready for [Harvard."
They also were concerned about how their son, Henry, now a homeschooled high school senior, would do in kindergarten. He had a huge vocabulary, but no interest in reading or learning to read. He was an “advanced thinker," but not a reader. As it was, they read to him a lot. He started reading when he was nine. “He was able to do it his own pace." Henry scored a 770 on his verbal SAT and is applying to honors programs in college for next fall.
Another couple living in a highly-regarded school district was told by classroom volunteers that their sons spent most of their school days reading because they finished their assignments so quickly. They took their boys out of school and started teaching them at a pace that challenged them. They relied heavily on online courses, such as those offered by Kahn Academy, and also enrolled their kids in classes at the local community college.
First Choice vs. Second Choice Homeschoolers
The above cases involve parents who make the choice to homeschool because their kids are highly motivated and their schools don’t meet their children’s needs. These kinds of engaged parents are termed second choice homeschoolers, because their first choice was sending their kids to a school. First choice homeschoolers are parents who want to homeschool their kids from the get-go, for pedagogical or religious reasons.
“Homeschooling used to be an act of dissent," said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CHRE). “It’s now just seen as one more educational option." Coleman and other former homeschooled children founded CHRE to advocate for basic safeguards for the social and educational well-being of children.
As more families join the homeschool movement, it gets easier to find support. There are a great variety of online curricula. Many schools are allowing homeschooled kids to take individual classes at schools and join clubs as well as sports teams.
According to the National Home Education Research Institute, about 2.2 million students — three percent of all school-age children — are homeschooled. Homeschoolers are a fast-growing education sector. There is talk that the Common Core is also driving some parents out of the schools, as they seek to avoid what they view as a one-size-fits-all educational trend.
Most homeschooling parents aren’t able to test their children to gauge how they are doing. One parent wanted to administer a state assessment to her daughter, but the school district wouldn’t allow it because they said the tests were just for school students.
The requirements for homeschooling vary by state. Families can find out what requirements there are where they live through the Home School Legal Defense Association.
“You can literally do nothing," said Cyndi. She submitted her lesson plans and certification, all of which were returned to her. She was told that the only thing they needed was the signed form. Cyndi knew a mother who called her year of homeschooling her elementary-aged son “the year of G.I. Joe" because the child didn’t want any schooling, even at home, and spent most of his time playing with his G.I. Joe toys. Another homeschooling family had a strong emphasis on gardening. Only gardening.
Coleman said these situations are not uncommon in homeschooling. One girl said that her parents hadn’t taught her anything beyond fourth-grade content. Another boy reported that his mother tried to teach him algebra when he was 14 but gave up, and his math studies went no further. Beyond that, some parents use homeschooling to isolate and abuse children. While these are certainly the worst-case scenarios, they do underscore the fact that there is often little oversight for homeschooling families. While some parents teach their middle schoolers calculus, others may allow their children’s math abilities to languish.
For many homeschooling families, the homeschooling setting enables them to tailor their teaching to their children’s needs.
Still, many new homeschooling parents have anxiety about providing clear and comprehensive instruction. “The one variable that people talk about is structure, especially their first year or two," said Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) based in Salem, Oregon, which advocates for homeschooling.
Most start with a curriculum package at home and then start adding different bits as they go along and learn the ropes. The Burbys tried the online courses, but their kids missed human interaction.
Cyndi researched textbooks and found highly-regarded, rigorous curricula. “We didn’t get away from textbooks," she said.
Playing the Roles of Teacher and Parent
It’s not easy for parents to assume the role of teacher.
“I have heard a lot of parents say, “No way, I couldn’t be patient enough to homeschool,’" said Ray, a parent who opted to homeschool his kids. “It is going to change you as a parent. It is going to reveal some weaknesses in your character." He said he often finds parents who say that they — the parents — are having a blast studying history as they teach it. They find they have better relationships with their kids because they are also their teachers. There is no confusion about what a child is learning and what is going on at school.
“I put a lot of hours into reading ahead of her, making my own notes, “ Cyndi, who works full-time.
Summers and weekends are no longer school-free for homeschooling families. They are often used as additional time for other lessons. Leslie met with other homeschooling mothers (“it’s usually the moms") in her neighborhood for two hours each week to plan their homeschooling agendas. They developed intensive curricula around things such as the Silk Road and Greek and Roman history. They followed state guidelines with about six other families and spent at least one day a week together, during which they would give their kids a classroom experience.
"We didn’t let them lie on the floor," she said. They worked out how they should speak in the group, whether raising hands or just waiting for a turn to speak. They would take field trips to museums and art classes, and they would avail their kids of educational programs that were funded through endowments.
Both of the mothers worked extensively with their children on writing.
“You are still their primary English teacher," said Leslie.
Cyndi said they worked on poetry, short stories, and essays. Her daughter learned very quickly that if she handed in something that wasn’t up to par, her mother would make her re-do it. She said she didn’t just give her a grade, never to address the assignment again. On the contrary, each assignment “was more how it works in the real world," she said. You don’t get grades; you get suggestions for revisions. “She would do it again, and she would surpass my expectations."
The Burbys also had a younger son, Henry, who wanted to go to public high school. He got into a music-oriented school and was there for a year. Although he found it hard to get to school by 7:30 a.m. to get through the metal detectors, to have lunch at 10:30 a.m., and to receive instruction in the school’s basement, he enjoyed negotiating New York City on his own and making a diverse group of friends.
He ultimately lasted just a year at the school and decided to go back to homeschooling. He seemed to have a different take on school than many of his peers; he thought that being at school was a privilege and learning was fun. Henry felt that his homeschooling group saw education in the same way he did and preferred taking classes with them. He also found many of his classmates disrespectful in their interactions with teachers. Even though though he left the school, he still hangs out with his old high school friends. He’s re-reading “Catch 22" because, as he tells it, he missed so much of it the first time around. “He’s so excited by it. He wants to read it aloud to us," his mother said.
Coalition for Responsible Home Education. “The Case for Oversight." Retrieved from Coalition for Responsibile Home Education.
Coalition for Responsible Home Education. “How Have Scholars Divided Homeschoolers into Groups." Retrieved from Coalition for Responsible Home Education.
Home School Legal Defense Association “My State." Retrieved from Home School Legal Defense Association.
National Center for Educational Statistics. “Fast Facts: Homeschooling." Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics.
Ray, Brian D. “Research Facts on Homeschooling." Jan. 1, 2014. National Home Education Research Institute. Retrieved from National Home Education Research Institute.