Probing Question: Why do some people choose to homeschool their kids?

Acclaimed anthropologist Margaret Mead once commented "My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school."

Many homeschoolers would, no doubt, agree with Grandma Mead's sentiment. In fact, a growing number of American parents are rejecting conventional classrooms in favor of educating their children at home. A recent study conducted by the National Home Education Research Institute concluded that one million children are being homeschooled in the United States today. The Pennsylvania Department of Education suggests that the number of homeschoolers in the Commonwealth has risen by 2,000 children per year since 1996.

What accounts for this trend?

"Religious beliefs and values are often cited as the most compelling reasons for home-schooling," says Dan Marshall, professor of education. "Most people who choose homeschooling for religious reasons are Christian fundamentalists," Marshall adds, noting that these parents "typically want more control over their children's curriculum and socialization."

one room schoolhouse
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In our nation's early years, most children were educated at home. Public education began in the middle of the 19th century.

According to Marshall, some homeschooling parents (including those whose choice isn't based on religious convictions) are motivated by other factors. "Some feel that traditional public schools have a one-size-fits-all approach to education," he explains. "They believe that homeschooling allows them to tailor the curriculum to their child's interests and abilities." Many home educators mention the desire for "a stronger family unit." Through homeschooling, "they feel they can get to know their children in a way most parents don't."

Homeschooling experts are quick to point out that, despite the prevailing image of rural, religious homeschoolers, this movement attracts families from all religions, races, and socio-economic classes. The teaching methods and materials parents choose are equally diverse, from the most classical education, emphasizing Latin, grammar and rhetoric, to the least structured "unschooling" approach, often defined as "using the whole world as your classroom."

Critics often suggest that homeschooled children lag behind socially and academically, with advocates quickly countering with impressive statistics. "Home educated students generally score at the 65th to 80th percentile on achievement tests, 15 to 30 percentile points higher than those in public schools," states Brian D. Ray, Ph.D., founder of National Home Education Research Institute and editor of the academic journal, Home School Researcher.

Cautions Marshall, it may be unfair to compare the general population of public school students with children educated at home. As he notes, the National Education Association has asserted that "a better test would be a comparison of homeschooled children with a subset of public school children who have high levels of parental involvement and whose families place a high value on education."

While homeschoolers seem to fare at least as well as public school kids on standardized test scores and college entrance exams, even true believers admit this option is not for everyone. "Homeschooling dominates your time and demands a certain energy level that not everyone has," notes one homeschooling mother. (It's mostly Mom who doubles as schoolmarm.)

Though the once-illegal homeschooling trend is indisputably on the rise, Marshall—while applauding those families who teach their children well—remains concerned that there may be a societal price paid for this movement. "For these families to dismiss opportunities which can perhaps best be provided through the educational agency of school is a tragic loss which affects everyone who cares about civic America."

J. Daniel Marshall, Ph.D., is professor of education in the College of Education, and can be reached at jdm13@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 17, 2005