As folk wisdom has it, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And research shows that children are generally shaped more by life at home than by studies at school. College enrollment, for instance, is better predicted by family-background characteristics than the amount of money a school district spends on a child’s education. Some parents have a specific vision for their child’s schooling that leads them to keep it entirely under their own direction. Even Horace Mann, the father of the American public school, who favored compulsory schooling for others, had his own children educated at home.
Homeschooling is generally understood to mean that a child’s education takes place exclusively at home—but homeschooling is a continuum, not an all-or-nothing choice. In a sense, everyone is “home-schooled,” and the ways that families combine learning at home with attending school are many. Parents may decide to home-school one year but not the next. They may teach some subjects at home but send their child to school for others, or they may teach all subjects at home but enroll their child in a school’s sports or drama programs. Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, the concept of homeschooling has become ambiguous, as parents mix home, school, and online instruction, adjusting often to the twists and turns of school closures and public health concerns.
Improving public understanding of the growing and changing nature of homeschooling was the purpose of a virtual conference hosted in spring 2021 by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. The conference examined issues in homeschooling through multiple lenses, including research, expert analysis, and the experiences of parents. The event drew more than 2,000 registrants, many of them home-schooling parents. Their participation made clear that homeschoolers today constitute a diverse group of families with many different educational objectives, making it difficult to generalize about the practice. The conference did not uncover convincing evidence that homeschooling is preferable to public or private schools in terms of children’s academic outcomes and social experiences, but neither did it find credible evidence that homeschooling is a worse option. Whether homeschooling does or does not deliver for families seems to depend on individual needs and the reasons that families adopt the practice.