Why do parents homeschool? Have motivations for homeschooling changed over time? Are there different “groups” of homeschoolers? Scholars have traditionally divided homeschool motivations into two categories, ideological and pedagogical, but a growing pile of data suggests that parental motivations are often more complex and varied. In this brief we will look at various parental motivations and explore we know from both statistical and sociological data.
The National Household Education Survey Data
Survey data from the National Household Education Survey (NHES) conducted every four years by the U.S Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) gives us some idea of how many parents homeschool for what reason. This data reveals that the top reasons parents homeschool have consistently been a concern about the school environment, a desire to provide religious or moral instruction, and dissatisfaction with academics in other schools. An increasingly large number of families cite “other” reasons such as family unity or travel, and smaller percentages cite physical or mental health problems or other special needs.
There are, unfortunately, limits to what we can learn from the NCES data. For one thing, some of the smaller numbers zig and zag back and forth every four years, indicating that the survey’s sample size may be too low for a high degree of confidence. For another thing, some of the questions are overly broad. “Concern about the environment of other schools” could be selected by an agnostic parent in the South concerned about the amount of religion in the local public schools or by a religious parent concerned about “sexual immorality” in the public schools. The NCES data confirms that parents choose homeschooling for a multiplicity of reasons, but does not provide much detail into what these decisions look like on the ground.
The Traditional View
Sociological research on homeschool families and their motivations, practices, and characteristics suggests that, going back as far as the late 1970s and early 1980s, there have been two main groups of homeschooling parents. First are evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who want to give their children a Christian education, and second are progressives who believe that formal schooling stifles children’s natural creativity and that education takes place best outside of the classroom. Throughout the past three decades, these two groups have coexisted in what sociologists and historians have described as an often uneasy tension. While the two groups at times cooperated, they also each created their own local, state, and national homeschool groups, conferences, and organizations. Research suggests that those with religious motivations have been the larger group by far since the 1980s, and that this group has also been the more successful at networking and building organizations and infrastructure.
Recent work suggests that these two groups continue to exist with very similar motivations and characteristics as in the past. Many parents today continue to homeschool for religious reasons, and religious homeschool curriculum is common. Conservative evangelical speakers teaching the supreme importance of the family and the scientific reality of creationism make their rounds speaking at homeschool conventions and before homeschool audiences across the country. At the same time, progressive educational reformers such as John Taylor Gatto speak at “unschooling” conferences and gatherings, encouraging parents to forgo classrooms and textbooks and engage in radically child-led learning.
Complicating the Picture
Even as many parents continue to homeschool for religious or pedagogical reasons, recent sociological work suggests that an increasing number of parents are choosing homeschooling for purely pragmatic reasons: because the academic quality of the local schools leaves something to be desired, or because of bullying or health problems. Some families homeschool in order to be closer as a family, or simply so that children may have access to an individualized education. While homeschooling in the past has often been an act of religious or pedagogical protest, homeschooling has today become mainstream and accepted as a valid educational option. In an era of increasing school choice, parents turn to homeschooling for a variety of practical reasons that are often very family-specific.
The NCES data also points to a large number of families who homeschool only one child and not others, or who homeschool a child part-time through dual enrollment, or who homeschool for only a year or two before moving on to another educational option. It is likely that many of these families would not show up in sociological research on homeschooling, given that they may not become as active in homeschooling support groups or co-ops.
Families that homeschool part-time or homeschool only some of their children add a great deal of diversity to the homeschool movement, even as many of the national, state, and local homeschool groups and organizations often remain in the hands of those with more religious or pedagogical motivations.
Less Positive Reasons
This overview would not be complete if we did not mention that there are abusive parents who homeschool in order to hide crimes, and narcissistic parents who homeschool because it gives them the ability to control every aspect of their children’s lives. While we do not yet have the research to say one way or the other, it is not necessarily the case that there is more child abuse in homeschooling families than in other families but rather that when child abuse does happen in homeschooling settings, it is likely to be disproportionately worse. This is because in the hands of abusive parents homeschooling serves as a tool allowing them to more effectively isolate, conceal, control, and abuse. In some cases, kidnappers have claimed to homeschool their victims in order to hide their crimes.
There are also parents who claim to be homeschooling in order to bring an end to their children’s truancy problems but don’t ever intend to provide those children with academic instruction (in many states, parents do not have to show evidence of actual homeschooling). While we don’t know how many parents of truant children fraudulently claim to be homeschooling, we do know that truancy officers in some parts of the country have become increasingly frustrated and have said that the laxity of their states’ homeschooling law has made it difficult for them to do their jobs.
The increasing diversity of reasons for homeschooling suggests that a salad bowl metaphor may be the most apt metaphor. Some parents have objections to the secular nature of public schools, and homeschool in order to give their children a religious education. Some believe that formal school settings are not conducive to fostering lifelong learning, and homeschool so that they can facilitate child-led learning. Some are concerned about the academic quality of local public schools, and homeschool in order to give their children more educational opportunities. Some have children with special needs, and believe that they can give these children a more individualized and specialized educational environment at home. Some have children who were bullied in school, and homeschool in order to give those children a safe environment. Some have children who are professional athletes or actors, and homeschool in order to accommodate their children’s demanding schedules. Some want the focus on family togetherness that often comes with homeschooling while others have jobs that require them to move frequently. And finally, some homeschool in order to abuse or neglect their children.
For a more in-depth review of the work mentioned here, see How Have Scholars Divided Homeschoolers into Groups?