Last month, I dealt with the narratives that surround homeschooled elite athletes like Simone Biles, musical wunderkind, and homeschoolers who attend college early or gain admission to Ivy League schools. Like many other homeschooled students I knew, I grew up hearing stories of homeschool success and greatness that our parents told perhaps in part to cover their concerns about how we would turn out. I called this the “homeschool prodigy” narrative, and expressed concern that this narrative treats homeschooling as a highway to brilliance and success without acknowledging that the method fails more students than it skyrockets to national success. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t touch on other narratives about homeschoolers—less positive narratives.
Consider, for example, the “unsocialized homeschooler” and “uneducated homeschooler” narratives that often crop up. There’s also the “religious homeschooler” narrative that centers on fundamentalist churches and Bible-based curriculum and girls wearing long jean skirts. Like the “homeschool prodigy” narrative, each of these narratives holds some truth, inasmuch as there are some homeschooled children who fit into them. Unfortunately, though, these narratives sometimes become stereotypes that are applied to homeschoolers across the board, and in this capacity they do homeschoolers a grave disservice.
I have spoken with homeschool alumni who were so isolated during their homeschool years that as adults they suffered from crippling social phobias that took years or more to overcome, and with homeschool alumni who were socialized so narrowly that they have had trouble relating to peers outside of the homeschool world. I have spoken with homeschoolers who were educationally neglected, and whose science or history were woefully inadequate or twisted almost beyond recognition. And I have spoken with many homeschoolers who attended fundamentalist churches, studied from Bible-based curriculum, and wore long jean skirts. But these narratives do not reflect all homeschoolers.
But none of these narratives tell the whole truth about homeschoolers. Many homeschooled students are well socialized, receiving adequate social interaction and exposure to various groups of people (for more on homeschooling and socialization, see here and here). I have spoken with homeschool alumni who had friends who were homeschooled and friends who attended public school, and who never experienced any form of social awkwardness or otherness. Similarly, here on our website we have profiled numerous homeschoolers who were well-served educationally by homeschooling and who have gone on to lead successful careers. Finally, there are homeschoolers who are secular, or Jewish, or Muslim, or who are Christian but motivated to homeschool by factors other than religion.
Because each homeschool operates on an individual family basis, with all of the variation that comes along with that, homeschooling is perhaps better characterized by the diversity of the homeschool experience than it is by anything else. In my post about the “homeschool prodigy” narrative I noted that there is no one universal homeschool experience. It would be wrong to assume that a homeschool graduate or currently homeschooled student is brilliant or above average. It would also be wrong to assume that they are unsocialized, or uneducated, or religious. The homeschool experience is a diverse and individual one.
The only thing one can say for certain about all homeschoolers is that they do not attend a traditional school, and even this line can be blurred—some homeschooled students take individual classes at their local public school, or participate in cybercharters with a regular brick-and-mortar component. In 2007, a full 16% of homeschooled students were enrolled part-time in their local public school. Other homeschooled students take community college courses during their high school years, or are involved in private “umbrella” schools that provide regular classes or even coursework. Some homeschooled students, too, are enrolled in online public school programs, often with a teacher with whom they communicate virtually. As many as one-third of first-time homeschooling families stop homeschooling after the first year, returning their child or children to school, so there are many students who attend public school today who were previously homeschooled for one or more years.
What does the research say about various homeschools stereotypes? Research on homeschooling is tricky for several reasons. Most studies rely on volunteer samples, making it difficult to know whether their findings can be applied more widely. Additionally, much of this data is self-reported. But even if we could obtain accurate data, looking at averages risks masking the variety in experience. We can assume that public school students, regardless of their individual scores, experience some underlying similarities—trained teachers, common core standards, a school day that covers state-mandated subjects—but we cannot assume the same of homeschooled students. Even so, let’s take a moment to look at the research.
What do we know about socialization? When speaking about research on homeschooled students’ social skills, researcher Milton Gaither has noted that “homeschooling parents consistently rate their children higher than do parents of conventionally schooled children, though the children themselves don’t rate themselves much differently at all.” Studies of homeschooled children’s social interaction have consistently found that homeschooled students have fewer friends and a lower level of social interaction than other children, and that that homeschooled teens and graduates with a greater number of social opportunities have a more positive view of their homeschool experience than those with fewer social opportunities. This suggests that homeschooling parents should work to ensure that their children have the social opportunities they need, but tells us nothing about whether an individual homeschooled child is receiving those opportunities.
What about academics? Testing data from Arkansas puts homeschooled students between the 60th and 65th percentile in reading and between the 51st and 58th percentile in math. Because student demographic information was not collected—things like the student’s race, family income, and parental education—we cannot compare these students to their traditionally schooled peers (i.e. those with the same demographic factors). Data from Alaska consistently finds that homeschooled students in every demographic group score more poorly in math than their public schooled peers; their reading scores vary by demographic. This does not mean that a given homeschooled student is doing poorly in math. A homeschooled child with mathematically inclined parents and access to resources like community college courses may excel in math while one with more math-averse parents and fewer resources may struggle. Averages only tell us so much—there may be clusters of homeschooled students with sky-high scores and clusters of students who are significantly behind.
Finally, religion. What percentage of homeschoolers are evangelical or fundamentalist Christians? This is difficult to determine. As of 2011, nearly two-thirds of homeschool parents listed a desire to provide religious instruction as a reason they were homeschooling, but there’s no way to know these parents’ religion. Scholars tend to divide homeschooled students into three groups: (1) evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who homeschool for religious reasons and tend to exclude others from their groups or communities; (2) progressives who homeschool to free their children from the constraints of traditional school and typically “unschool,” letting their children follow their interests; and (3) individuals who did not initially intend to homeschool but ultimately adopted homeschooling for practical reasons when other educational methods didn’t work for their children. In other words, yes, there are evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who homeschool for religious reasons. But there are also lots of other people homeschooling for lots of other reasons.
Some homeschoolers—both parents and graduates—would like to see the “unsocialized homeschooler” and “uneducated homeschooler” narratives disappear. As stereotypes, they absolutely should disappear; as realities, they will not disappear until measures are put in place to ensure that homeschooled children receive adequate social interaction and quality instruction. Currently, the vast majority of states do not assess homeschooled students’ academic progress, and some states do not require homeschooled parents to educate their children to begin with. The lack of oversight of homeschooling gives homeschooling a bad name by allowing educationally neglectful homeschooling to take place unchecked.
Each of these narratives has something to communicate. The “homeschool prodigy” narrative reminds us of the ways homeschooling can serve needs traditional schools cannot meet—such as the need to perform, or to train, or to compete. The “uneducated homeschooler” narrative reminds us that without oversight of homeschooling, some children will fall through the cracks and experience lifelong consequences. The “unsocialized homeschooler” narrative reminds us that homeschooling parents need to take steps to ensure that their children receive the social interaction and socialization they need. As narratives, they inform. As stereotypes, they do the opposite.
As a homeschool graduate, I’m familiar with these narratives on a personal level. I also know what it is like to have people make assumptions about me. If you’re curious about someone’s homeschool experience, avoid falling back on stereotypes and instead ask them about it.