Home schooling, the practice of educating one’s own children, has seen dramatic growth in the last three decades, and has transformed from a peculiarly American innovation to a truly global movement. An estimated 15,000 US children were home schooled in the late 1970s; by 2003 the number was over a million, and the practice had won adherents throughout the industrialized world (National Center for Education Statistics 2004; Stevens 2003). Parent directed education was almost entirely eclipsed with the accomplishment of universal compulsory schooling in the early twentieth century. But as part of the ”anti Establishment” cultural ferment of the 1960s and 1970s home schooling reemerged as a social movement, championed by advocates across a wide ideological spectrum.
Even while all racial groups and socioeconomic levels are represented among them, home school families are disproportionately middle class, well educated, and white. The vast majority of home schooling work is conducted by mothers; most home school households are headed by married couples and supported by a sole, male breadwinner (National Center for Education Statistics 2001). Home schooling enables women with traditionalist conceptions of motherhood to incorporate some of the status of professional teaching into their full time domesticity. This is part of why the practice is particularly appealing to conservative religious women (Stevens 2001).
What may at first appear as an individual, quixotic educational choice has from its beginnings been a collective one. Home school families have long cooperated with one another in order to lobby for the legality of the practice and to build often elaborate home school com munities. Home schooling is best understood as a social movement, one with a distinctive dual history. One branch began in the left liberal alternative school movement of the 1960s, a cause which sought to radically democratize teacher-student relationships and give students greater discretion over their own educations. John Holt, long a prominent advocate of alternative schooling, began to promote home education (which he called ”unschooling”) in the 1970s. Before his death in 1985, Holt had successfully nurtured a national grassroots network of home school converts. Another branch comes out of the conservative Protestant day school tradition, specifically through the work of Raymond and Dorothy Moore, whose several books and national speaking tours advocating home education reached an audience of religious families already skeptical of public schools.
Despite these cultural differences the early home school advocates shared a conviction that each child has an essential, inviolable self, and that standardized methods of instruction are harmful to children’s self-development. Both Holt and the Moores, for example, frequently invoked factory metaphors to derogate conventional schools and to contrast them with the educational customization home education makes possible. But to this shared conviction about children’s essential individualism these leaders added rather different ideas: Holt conceived of children as essentially virtuous beings with innate abilities to educate themselves; the Moores tended to view children as essentially good but also sinful, and thus in need of discipline and direction from wiser adults. This mix of commonality and difference in early home school philosophy presaged subsequent organizational conflict between the two branches of the cause.
One of the first tasks of the fledgling movement was to secure the legality of home education nationwide. Spurred by a remarkably well organized home school lobby, judicial and legislative activity throughout the 1980s rendered home education legal throughout the US by the end of the decade (Henderson 1993). The process of legalization was facilitated by the distinctive jurisdictional structure of American education. Because authority over schooling is largely in the hands of state and local governments in the US, activists were able to wage localized battles and win victories in piecemeal fashion.
While the two branches of the home school movement cooperated amicably through the 1980s, the differences in their organizational sensibilities split the cause in the subsequent decade. From their different cultural traditions home school advocates had inherited contradictory organizational ideas: some of them favored highly democratic, consensual organizational forms and were wary of excluding families from their associations on the basis of religion or educational philosophy; by contrast, conservative Protestants preferred hierarchical organizational forms and often were eager to define their associations as distinctively “Christian” in character and membership. Home schoolers’ different ways of thinking about collective action ultimately divided the movement into two organizational worlds: one officially “diverse” and non-sectarian, the other officially “Christian.”
This turbulent political history was largely hidden from public view by the movement’s very success. By the mid-1990s home schooling had shed much of its countercultural stigma and had become an acceptable educational choice for families with a wide range of lifestyles. Interested parents could choose from an array of support and advocacy groups at the local and national levels, and shop in a vital sector of small businesses supplying varied curriculum materials to the growing home school market.
Because quantitative research on home schooled children’s academic outcomes has been piecemeal, at present researchers lack the kind of systematic data that would enable them to say definitively if the practice confers a net advantage or disadvantage relative to conventional schooling. Nevertheless, the preponderance of available evidence indicates that the average home schooled child performs at least as well as her conventionally schooled peers on nation ally normed standardized tests. While not all home schooled students are academic stars, research to date has yielded no cause for alarm regarding home schoolers’ basic academic aptitudes and rates of school completion (Stevens 2001).
In both its history and its character, home schooling is an American invention. The jurisdictional boundary between parents and the state has always been especially blurry in the US, a cultural reality which made the basic logic of home schooling initially more palatable in this country than it might have been elsewhere.
Nevertheless, home education has diffused globally over the last two decades. The national homes of the movement’s earliest adherents are telling: England, with its long tradition of private schooling; and Japan, where an extremely competitive, exam driven education system has fostered novel means of educational advancement and exit. Home education is now practiced throughout the industrialized world, even in nations such as Germany, where it is technically illegal (Spiegler 2003), and we might predict that it will further flourish internationally as a neoliberal logic of citizens as discretionary consumers of state services continues its ascendancy (Stevens 2003).
The home school movement teaches three general sociological lessons. First, it reminds us of the inherent tensions at the boundary between family and school. Few would dispute that schools and families have very different functions, timetables, and emotional valences; often overlooked, however, are the problems that arise from the simple fact that these two institutions share the same children. Even while the personnel requirements for the two spheres are radically different, we tend to presume that people can easily transit from one to the other on a regular – indeed daily – basis. But at this formidable institutional intersection things are bound sometimes to go awry: parents will dispute the extent to which schools adequately honor the specialness of particular children; schools will be skeptical or dismissive of parent opinions; school and family priorities will conflict. Home education represents one, particularly radical response to the chronic contra dictions between these very different spheres of social life. Evidence for this is the frequency with which parents explain their decision to home school their children by referencing obstacles and problems they experienced in public schools.
Second, the popularity of home education highlights the importance of individualism as a contemporary pedagogical ideal. Home schooling shares with other currently fashionable pedagogies (e.g., the Montessori and Reggio Emilia methods) the presumption that children are best served by highly customized instruction, and that standardized curricula are harmful to young people’s self-development. These ideas neatly reverse the ideal of uniform curricula common among educational leaders a century ago (Tyack 1974). While it is difficult to trace the causes of such a cultural shift definitively, it seems reasonable to posit that one driver of the change was the growing fascination with self-actualization that characterized American culture in the 1960s and 1970s, and the simultaneous critiques of large bureaucratic institutions popular during this time (Bellah et al. 1985; Clecak 1983). Indeed, many early advocates of home education describe their effort as part of this broader cultural ferment (Stevens 2001). In any case, evidence from multiple studies suggests that the highly individualized instruction so valued by home schooling parents is becoming the presumed best practice in upper middle class households throughout North America (Lareau 2003; Davies et al. 2002).
Third, the emergence and endurance of home schooling is appropriately seen as part of the growing importance placed on parental choice in education generally. In the contemporary US, education is increasingly understood as a private good that families appropriately consume in the manner of their own discretion (Labaree 1997). A common corollary is the notion that educational services are best distributed through market mechanisms, which are thought to ideally match educational ”pro ducts” with parents’ and students’ ”preferences” (Chubb & Moe 1990). Within this market framework home schooling appears as but one of many potential options among which parents can choose as they see fit. The contrary idea that helped give rise to mass public schooling a century ago – namely, that education is a public good best distributed universally to all citizens – has become increasingly marginalized even while home education has moved toward the mainstream.
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