During Betsy DeVos' recent three-hour confirmation hearing to become President Donald Trump's education secretary, charter schools came up no fewer than 60 times. Homeschooling was mentioned once.
Charter schools have become a significant part of the US public-education system and now educate 2.5 million kids. But homeschooling has quietly experienced a surge in recent years too. Brian Ray, a homeschooling researcher at the National Home Education Research Institute, estimates the number of kids taught at home is growing by as much as 8% a year since the total hovered around 2 million in 2010, according to US Census figures.
That puts the upper estimate at approximately 3.5 million children, far surpassing charter schools.
The homeschool myth
Teaching kids at home has long been controversial, with critics saying the instruction is uneven in subject and quality and makes kids asocial.
But in recent years, technology and changing attitudes have made homeschooling easier and more effective, helping boost its popularity. And research suggests homeschooled kids do better on tests and in college than their peers in public schools.
"Homeschooling really cultivates a trait of open-mindedness and [being] open to new experiences," says Claire Dickson, a Harvard sophomore who was homeschooled from kindergarten through her senior year of high school. Her mother, Milva McDonald, pulled her out of her Boston-area public school when she realized, for example, that 5-year-olds were being told to sit still. McDonald felt structure was the enemy of education, and she vowed never to subject her kids to that kind of environment.
Dickson is quick to dispel homeschooling stereotypes. For example, religion wasn't a factor, and she wasn't holed up at home all day.
"I have to explain to people that we didn't have a blackboard in our kitchen with equations written on it. I was out in the world," she says. "Homeschooling more refers to the lack of going to one institution."
After seven years of the standard menu of subjects — math, science, history, English — Dickson's mom let her study whatever she chose. She says she drifted toward psychology, which she ended up taking additional classes for at local community colleges and at Harvard Extension.
"Because there was no structure, I was forced to look at my options and say, 'This is what I like,'" she says. Now, she's studying psychology to earn her degree.
Taking a personalized approach
Research suggests homeschooled children tend to do better on standardized tests, stick around longer in college, and do better once they're enrolled. A 2009 study showed that the proportion of homeschoolers who graduated from college was about 67%, while among public school students it was 59%. Catholic and private schools fell even lower, with 54% and 51% of kids completing all four years.
Maybe it's the way today's homeschoolers learn.
Research on effective instruction suggests it's all about personalization, in both content and style, which homeschooling offers from the start. And thanks in large part to the internet, contemporary homeschoolers have far more options at their disposal.
In Mount Kisco, New York, members of the Kelley family spend five-hour schooldays absorbed in their inner worlds. As classical music plays in the background, John, 17, sits in the front room studying for an AP test on his iPad, and 15-year-old Regina sits on the couch with art-history flashcards. The three youngest kids gobble up workbooks at the dining-room table.
Their mother, Amy Kelley, says she began homeschooling for a number of reasons. In the beginning, it was to help her oldest son, Nat, who has a genetic disorder that makes traditional learning difficult. During that time, she grew increasingly frustrated with the public-school system.
Like Dickson's mom, Kelley thought traditional schools were too strict and formulaic. She wanted her kids to have a more freewheeling education but still with a Catholic bent. About 64% of today's homeschool parents cite religion as a reason they chose their particular route. Kelley says that if her approach lives up to any stereotype, it's that one. On the dining-room table are stacks of workbooks with such titles as "Vocabulary 6 for Young Catholics" or "Better Handwriting for Young Catholics," and religious art adorns the rooms of the house. But many homeschooling families don't emphasize religion.
In the Bronx, New York, Jessica Epting says that while she does try to instill Christian values in her kids, there are no workbooks rooted in religion. The only visible sign is a handwritten copy of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 tacked on the door above the kids' work plan. The passage, which begins "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast" is hardly the Bible's most devout verse.
'He doesn't get this all day ... so here's his chance'
Just by virtue of the kids' interests, Epting says she needs to make sure her four kids are exposed to a wider world of knowledge. Recently, her 5-year-old son Creighton asked about the big bang theory. He couldn't quite grasp the idea that the universe started from a giant explosion, but Epting says she told him the idea would come in time. "I said, 'You'll probably keep coming back to that a million times in your life. You'll keep reassessing if that could happen, if it couldn't happen.'"
Both the Kelleys' and the Eptings' efforts to open their kids' minds have defied the stereotype that homeschoolers are asocial. Regina and John Kelley have met up with local kids and others across the country on social media. Epting regularly takes her children to gymnastics, ballet, and piano lessons. Both families attend homeschool meet-up groups.
But there's a lot of growing up that happens in a schoolhouse that, for better or for worse, is hard to recreate outside its doors. The cliques and bullying, for all the misery it brings, can teach kids coping skills and confidence. Epting has forced herself to let Creighton suffer teasing on the playground so that he may develop those defenses.
"He doesn't get this all day, every day, like every other kid out there," she says. "So here's his chance. I'm going to sit there and distract myself."
A legal back-and-forth for 40 years
Homeschooling's roots go back hundreds of years. Before school was institutionalized as teachers standing in front students, kids mostly learned through apprenticeship or private tutors. But in the past 40 years or so, families began to push for alternative methods — the kind of free choice that DeVos and others have advocated. Jim Mason, director of litigation for the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit advocacy group that fights for homeschool parents' rights, says the greatest changes involved the loosening of laws that required parents to be certified as teachers and, of course, the internet. Together, swaths of nonteacher parents who were interested in homeschooling could choose to do so even if they had minimal training.
But some say that's not a good thing. Rachel Coleman, executive director at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, says the research is still too thin to definitively say homeschooling works well consistently. People still need to ask tough questions to know which approaches aren't successful, for the sake of homeschool students.
Homeschool parents seem to acknowledge the method has flaws, adding that they're just not as dire as the ones found in public, private, and Catholic schools. In the age of the internet, they say, when university lectures and guided lessons are getting nearly as good as in-person instruction — and are free from distractions — almost anything can be taught.
A slow march toward the mainstream
Every Friday after school, the Kelley kids pile into their 12-person van bound for tennis practice. It's one of the few ways the family spends time with other homeschoolers in the area.
On the way home, Kelley reflects on the lingering insecurities homeschoolers face, even after her 15 years of involvement.
But she adds that the stigma has faded as parents realize the true size of the community they're entering and how many options sit before them.
"When you have a bunch of young kids, you love the schools," Kelley says. If you're a new parent, you can drop your kids off at preschool or kindergarten and spend the workday knowing they're learning and having fun.
But that doesn't last forever, she says. Kids start resenting certain teachers. They complain about their lunches. They fear their bullies. Bright spots do come along, but often at a steep price — like the love of learning or the desire to pursue interests other kids deride as "weird."
"It's only as life goes on that the imperfections become more visible," Kelley says. "And then people start to view homeschooling more positively."
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