Homeschooling Today: Myth vs Reality

Classrooms hum with the chatter of excitable teens; books and papers spill from overstuffed lockers; days are routine, conducted by the regular, shrill blast of the school bell.

Sound familiar?

Most of us have experienced the 'institutional' school system in some form or another. Ever since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century, when the need arose for societies to be able to produce a functioning workforce that could read and write, group schooling has been the norm. But that wasn't always the case.

For most of history, those who were privileged enough to get a formal education received it at home, from personal tutors, parents and other caregivers. This custom gradually faded as the makeup of society changed and the practice of group schooling spread.

But in the latter half of the 20th Century, dissatisfaction with the modern school system increased in some quarters and the idea of home education grew in popularity once again, albeit in a different form. Parents would be the primary educators of their children, alongside tutors, community mentors, and other role models. They would pass on their worldview and the knowledge they deemed important. The modern homeschool movement was born.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s the number of homeschooled children swelled throughout the U.S, and since the late 1990s this number has doubled.

Number of homeschooled students in the United States aged 5-17 (K-12), between 1999 and 2016

1999200320072016
850,0001.09 million1.52 million1.69 million

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

However, even as the number of homeschoolers rose, the general public remained skeptical of homeschooling; negative stereotypes took root.

And without any apparent basis in fact, two of these stereotypes spread through society and developed a mythical quality:

Myth #1 - Homeschooled students suffer from a lack of social development

Myth #2 - Homeschooled students perform worse academically, receiving fewer opportunities to succeed than traditional school students

Over the years, various studies have been carried out to compare the social and academic outcomes of homeschooled students to those in institutional schools. While much of this research has confirmed that the myths around homeschooling are untrue, they have done little to address the widespread nature of these damaging ideas.

Study.com wanted to better understand the homeschool community and find out where people stand on the effectiveness of these two schooling methods today. So, in January and February of 2020, we conducted a survey of 2,398 parents and students (aged 13 and up), both with and without homeschool experience.

Combined with a review of the existing research, we aimed to discover how widely held these myths are and shed some light on the reality of homeschooling today.

The Myth That Homeschooled Students Suffer From a Lack of Social Development

It's clear from the results of our survey that this myth still holds. Well over half of homeschoolers felt that poor socialization was the most common misconception aimed at them.


Poor socialization is the most common myth aimed at homeschoolers


In a different question, non-homeschoolers, and especially students, felt that institutional schools would be better for their social development.

Survey responses to the question 'Is it more beneficial for children to learn social skills and emotional maturity in a brick-and-mortar environment or a homeschool environment?'

Parents who homeschoolStudents who homeschoolParents who don't homeschoolStudents who don't homeschool
Homeschool52.8%35%18.39%
Brick and mortar2.6%23%36.9%58%
Neither is more beneficial than the other44.6%42%44.7%33%

Of the non-homeschoolers we surveyed, over a third of parents and over half of students told us that they thought institutional schooling was better for their social development.


Most effective education for good socialization - non-homeschool parents



Most effective education for good socialization - non-homeschool students


But it was also striking how many homeschool parents felt the opposite: only 2.6% of homeschool parents we asked said that institutional schooling would benefit children's social development.


Most effective education for good socialization - homeschool parents


This result matches what we found in existing research. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported in 2016 that 80% of homeschool parents had concerns with the school environment, saying that drugs, peer pressure and the social environment were factors. 34% said this was their main concern.

One final thing that stood out from our survey results was the fairly consistent feeling that neither method of schooling is more beneficial than the other. Across all the groups we spoke to, more people believed that children would develop similar social skills regardless of the type of school they attend.

We did a lot of digging into homeschool studies, and we couldn't find any evidence to support the idea that homeschooling is bad for children's social development.

So this appears to be a myth in the truest sense - a story told to make sense of something that is not well understood. As the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) states, ''there is no empirical evidence that homeschool causes negative things compared to institutional schooling''.

Given the lack of evidence, presumably homeschoolers feel this is the most commonly held misconception among non-homeschoolers because it's something they hear a lot in conversation and in the media they consume.

There is actually some evidence that homeschooling may be better for social development than traditional schooling. Also according to NHERI, homeschooled children are ''typically above average on measures of social, emotional and psychological development. Research measures include peer interaction, self-concept, leadership skills, family cohesion, participation in community service, and self-esteem.''

They go on to say that ''research designs to date do not conclusively 'prove' that homeschooling causes (improved social development)'' and that further research is needed, but this is exactly the point. There just isn't any evidence to support the idea that homeschooling hurts students' social skills.

So where does this idea come from?

In reality, it may be that non-homeschoolers do not fully appreciate the range of social activities and interactions that homeschooled children experience. If homeschooling simply involved sitting children down at home and getting them to work through exercises, then it could be argued that those children's social development would suffer. But in practice, many homeschooled students are active in multiple groups outside the family home.

For example, some parents see homeschooling as an opportunity to teach their children about the world through exploration and interaction with it. Others do primarily teach children academics at home, but use the increased freedom to take educational trips and travel to places that provide valuable learning experiences and interaction with other people.

Many homeschool parents we surveyed commented on the additional freedom afforded to them by homeschooling. One told us that homeschooling allowed them to ''tailor (education) to what interests your child has, if it's college, trade school or not (sic). You can do what is best for your child.''

Another said their main reason for homeschooling was to free up ''more time to do things that interest us - trips, excursions, 4-H (an organization devoted to youth development)''.

Others take advantage of local sports teams and other community programs. Some join homeschool co-ops, where their children interact with others in an environment that aligns with their parents' views on education. According to one researcher, ''the average homeschool student participates in five or more out-of-home social activities'' (Romanowski, 2006).

So while there is a perception that homeschooling harms children's social development, the truth may be the opposite. Certainly, given the range of homeschooling approaches practiced across the U.S., this generalization is not well founded and doesn't reflect the reality of modern homeschooling.

The Myth That Homeschooled Students Perform Worse Academically and Receive Fewer Opportunities to Succeed

Here again we found that the myth still holds. Large numbers of non-homeschoolers told us that they felt institutional schooling would lead to better academic outcomes for their children than homeschooling would.

Also as before, we found that homeschoolers, especially homeschool parents, were very skeptical of the benefits of institutional schools in setting their children up for success.

For this part of the study we were really interested in two measures of academic success:

1. The best chance to pursue a college degree

2. The best prospects to be a successful adult

Survey responses to the question 'Which schooling method gives the best chance to pursue a college degree?'

Parents who homeschoolStudents who homeschoolParents who don't homeschoolStudents who don't homeschool
Homeschool27.2%44%14.2%10%
Brick and mortar2.1%15%39.3%61%
Neither70.841%46.5%29%

Survey responses to the question 'Which schooling method offers the best prospects to be a successful adult?'

Parents who homeschoolStudents who homeschoolParents who don't homeschoolStudents who don't homeschool
Homeschool43.3%50%18.4%15%
Brick and mortar0.5%8%37.8%51%
Neither56.2%42%43.8%34%

On both measures, we saw that non-homeschoolers had more faith in institutional schooling than homeschooling to deliver academic success. On the other hand, only 2.1% of homeschool parents felt that institutional schools would be better for their children's college chances, and just 0.5% said the same for the chances of being successful adults.


Schooling method that offers the best chance of academic success


This tallies with the results of separate question, where we asked homeschool parents why they homeschool. The most popular reason given (from almost 60% of respondents), was dissatisfaction with education in schools. Among non-homeschoolers in our survey who said they would consider homeschooling, over a third (35%) said that they didn't like education in schools.

As with the question of social development, we see that both homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers feel that - in general - the education their child is receiving is more likely to lead to success.

'In general', because the picture is not completely clear-cut. Many children switch between homeschooling and institutional schooling as needs and circumstances change. Some families have a child that they homeschool, and another that attends their local school. As one experienced homeschool parent told us, ''I have counseled literally hundreds of families (on homeschooling). Everyone has different reasons for what they do and some families only homeschool some of their children. Every situation is different and every family is different.'' Ultimately, families choose when, and for how long, to homeschool.

Existing research has looked into the question of academic success too. A 2014 meta-study of research appearing in the Journal of School Choice showed that homeschool students' SAT scores were much higher than the average scores of college-bound high school seniors.

In 2015 NHERI found that homeschool students perform in the 86th percentile on standardized tests, as a measure of the national school-age population.

Percentiles refer to performance groups in a given population. So the 1st percentile contains the group that has the lowest set of scores on a test, the 100th percentile contains the group with the highest scores. Assuming an even distribution of scores, the 50th percentile is the 'average' score of a given population. If the distribution is not even, the 50th percentile would be the 'median' (or mid-range) score.


The percentile performance bell-curve


In 2019 NHERI also reported that ''The home-educated typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests''.

Of course, we should be wary of accepting these results without question.

Samples for such studies will have a strong bearing on the results. It's possible that self-selection plays a part: more motivated parents are more likely to be involved in this kind of study, and those parents may be from more affluent backgrounds with more resources to put into their homeschooling efforts.

That being said, in an analysis of peer-reviewed research, 35 of the 45 studies (78%) found that the homeschooled students or graduates performed significantly better than their institutional school peers. Measures examined in these studies were exactly those we've been discussing: academic achievement, social and emotional development, and success into adulthood (including at college/university).

This analysis also reported that ''colleges and universities boast that their place of learning is supportive of students who have largely been homeschooled'' and that ''universities actively recruit homeschoolers''. This includes prestigious schools like Brown, Harvard, Princeton, UC Berkeley, and many more (Ray, 2017).

The question of setting children up for success gets to the heart of why people homeschool. No parent chooses this option because they want worse outcomes for their child. The truth is that no single method of schooling will work for everybody.

Where families have the motivation and the resources to homeschool their children effectively, their outcomes may be measurably better than their institutionally-schooled peers. And where schools have the resources, the teaching quality and support of the community, there is every chance for the children who attend them to become successful adults.

So What Have We Learned About Homeschool Myths and the Reality of Homeschooling?

However these negative homeschooling myths seep into the collective consciousness, it is clear that they persist. But where research has been carried out, it suggests that homeschooling can actually have positive effects on students' social development and academic achievement.

We should be wary of accepting such results without question and further research is required in this area. But undoubtedly it is true that if motivated, nurturing parents take homeschooling seriously, then it can be extremely beneficial for their children's prospects.

It may be that these myths are based on an outdated vision of homeschooling. The modern homeschooling community is a rich demographic tapestry woven from political, religious and ethnic groups from all corners of society; they take a wide range of approaches to educating their children.

And in the digital age, homeschoolers have access to more information, support and affordable resources than ever before. This is likely to further boost academic success for homeschoolers, and give families more confidence if they feel they want to try homeschooling.

The reality is that, as with so many aspects of life, there is no simple answer to the question of which method of schooling is more beneficial; there is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution, as many of our survey respondents noted. Different children will flourish in different environments according to their needs, personality, temperament, family situation and a whole range of other variables.

Homeschooling is a huge responsibility for parents to take on, but with a dedicated approach, and when students receive the appropriate levels of support and attention, they will ultimately benefit. And of course, the same can be said for children in institutional schools.

What is important moving forward is to redress the balance of common misconceptions around homeschooling.

This appears to be happening slowly over time, but homeschoolers, non-homeschoolers and observers alike should take a responsible approach to the discussion and work to dispel unsubstantiated myths.

Only in this way can we counter existing stigmas so that people can make informed choices, based on sound judgements, about whether to homeschool their children.


References

1. National Center for Education Statistics (2016) Digest of Education Statistics

2. Romanowski, M., (2006) available at: Revisiting the Common Myths About Homeschooling

3. Ray, Brian D. (2010) Academic Achievement and Demographic Traits of Homeschool Students: A Nationwide Study

4. National Center for Education Statistics (2016) Parent and Family Involvement in Education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2016

5. National Home Education Research Institute (2019) Research Facts on Homeschooling

6. National Center for Education Statistics (2008) 1.5 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2007

7. National Home Education Research Institute (2016) Homeschool SAT Scores for 2014 Higher than National Average

9. Ray, Brian D. (2017). A systematic review of the empirical research on selected aspects of homeschooling as a school choice.

Homeschooling is hard enough as it is, but balancing the needs of children of different ages makes the challenge all the more difficult. This blog post offers suggestions for how you can succeed when homeschooling your entire family.

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