How Have Scholars Divided Homeschoolers into Groups?

The movie Mean Girls, which was released in 2003, tells the story of Cady, a teenage girl who was homeschooled until attending a public high school. The movie begins by presenting two common stereotypes of homeschoolers: a girl with glasses, braces, and long braids winning a spelling bee, and five tow-headed boys wearing overalls and sitting on hay bales, saying in unison, “and on the third day, God created the Remington bolt-action rifle, so that man could fight the dinosaurs and the homosexuals.” This portrayal reflects common stereotypes about homeschoolers, but it is perhaps just as important to note that these images are only presented so that Cady can reject them, declaring herself not like “those” homeschoolers.

Ideologues and Pedagogues

In her 1991 article “Ideologues and Pedagogues: Parents Who Teach Their Children at Home,” Jane Van Galen, a sociologist, argued that homeschooling parents were divided into two camps, which she called “ideologues” and “pedagogues.” According to Van Galen, the ideologues, which comprise the larger group, were Christian fundamentalists who objected to what they believed the public schools were teaching and wanted to instill their conservative political and religious beliefs in their children. Pedagogues, in contrast, homeschooled because they believed that children learned more naturally apart from formal schooling, which they believed stifled children’s innate curiosity and creativity.

Van Galen argued that ideologues’ and pedagogues’ different motivations and viewpoints affected nearly everything about how they homeschooled: ideologues saw government regulation of homeschooling as the encroachment of “secular humanism” while pedagogues are less troubled by such intervention; ideologues often use structured curricula and strict discipline with their children while pedagogues are more likely to try creative and innovative techniques, releasing their children from desks and workbooks. Van Galen developed her conceptions of the two groups over the course of a year and a half spent meeting and speaking with homeschooling families, and her interpretation of homeschooling as a movement made up of two distinct groups is echoed in later scholarship.

Believers and Inclusives

Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist, spent almost ten years studying homeschoolers in Illinois before publishing his 2001 book on homeschooling, Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (Stevens, 2001). In his book, he looks in depth at the lives of homeschool families in Illinois, analyzing what he came to see as two distinct groups of homeschoolers and tracing the growth of national organizations as well as clashes between the two camps. Stevens argues that homeschooling is a social movement made up of a wide spectrum of individuals, but that most homeschoolers nevertheless fall into one of two groups, which he terms the believers and the inclusives. In his book, he sets out to determine who homeschoolers are and how this split occurred.

Stevens examines survey data on homeschoolers and then turns to the history of the movement, beginning with John Holt, an educational reformer who rebelled against formal schooling, and Raymond Moore, who taught that children were developmentally better off being educated at home for their first few years. Stevens carefully compares these two men’s views of the child: Holt believed in liberating the essential child and Moore believed in protecting the fragile child. These distinctions help to illuminate the difference between Stevens’ believers, who want to protect and nurture their children in what they believe is truth, and his inclusives, who want to set their children free to explore and create.

Stevens also looks at homeschool curriculum publishers, conventions, speakers, and organizations, both local and national. Stevens argues that the believers and the inclusive each formed their own organizations separate from each other, and that these organizations reflected the core difference between the two groups. The believers’ organizations were well-organized and hierarchical while the inclusives’ organizations were loosely-knit and democratic. Stevens looks at controversy and tension between the two groups’ organizations and argues that the believers’ came to dominate the homeschool world because of their better organization and mobilization. Stevens says that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the number of Christians homeschooling increased dramatically, and that some inclusive resented what they saw as a takeover of their movement.

“Closed Communion” and “Open Communion”

In 2008, Milton Gaither, a historian of education, published the first historical treatment of the homeschool movement (Gaither, 2008). He begins with the colonies and traces the tradition of home education throughout the entirety of American history. Gaither distinguishes between “home schooling” and “homeschooling,” arguing that the home schooling is merely an educational option, as it was in the early American history and is becoming again today, while homeschooling is a deliberate alternative to and rejection of institutional schooling. Gaither traces the history of education in the home through four stages: government-encouraged home education in the colonies, the gradual eclipsing of the home by the public school, the antagonism between home and school that arose with the modern homeschool movement, and the hybridization of the home and school that he believes is taking place today.

Gaither goes into great depth regarding why the modern homeschooling movement emerged in the 1970s, and comes up with four reasons: countercultural sensibility becoming American sensibility, suburbanization that created a place for homeschooling to take place, the idealization of the child among both the left and right, and changes in public schools and families. Gaither examines the roots of the homeschool movement in the leftist hippie counterculture and in the new right fleeing the perceived teaching of secular humanism in public schools, arguing that both of these groups were intentionally rejecting institutional schooling, though for different reasons.

Gaither sees homeschooling as a grassroots movement and traces the growing fault lines between the two types of homeschoolers as support groups sprang up. While Van Galen called the two groups “ideologues” and “pedagogues” and Stevens called them “believers” and “inclusives,” Gaither calls the two groups “closed communion” and “open communion.” He chooses this terminology because conservative Christian homeschoolers who were intentionally leaving the “ungodly” public schools didn’t want to simply exchange one evil for another by joining support groups together with “ungodly” homeschoolers, and thus formed support groups that were “closed communion,” demanding adherence to statements of beliefs. According to Gaither, by 1990 the vast majority of homeschoolers were conservative Christians.

Gaither examines the various leaders of the homeschool movement and presents a fascinating look at the adversity between national and state open communion and closed communion homeschool groups, as well as the infighting that took place from time to time among various leaders in the closed communion community. Turning to the impact of John Holt and Raymond Moore on the homeschool movement in the 1970s and 1980s, Gaither adds a third influential figure: Rousas Rushdoony. He argues that Rushdoony, a Christian theologian and advocate of the homeschool movement, shaped Christian homeschoolers through his providentialist view of history, his reconstructionist politics, and his idea that the nation is mired in a conflict between a Biblical worldview and secular humanism. In addition, Gaither looks at the background of each of the various homeschool leaders who arose in the mid 1980s and 1990s, including Michael Farris, Brian Ray, Sue Welch, and Greg Harris, and at their impact on the homeschool movement.

Gaither finishes his book by asserting that, even as a still increasing number of Christians join the homeschool movement (in 2002 James Dobson called for all Christians to immediately remove their children from public schools), the movement itself was becoming accepted and mainstream. Gaither also looks at the growth of charter schools, cybercharters, and growing cooperation between homeschoolers and the schools. Homeschooling, he argues, is set to return to being “home schooling,” merely an accepted educational option. Gaither’s look at the homeschool movement is fascinating and informative, and will remain the definitive historical work on the movement for years to come.

Complicating the Picture

The most recent addition to scholarly literature on homeschooling is Jennifer Lois’ 2012 Home Is Where the School Is (Lois, 2012). In contrast to earlier scholars, Lois focuses specifically on homeschooling mothers. Perhaps the most notable thing about her work is that she divides these mothers slightly differently than previous scholars. Rather than dividing them into ideologues and pedagogues or believers and inclusives, she divides them into “first choice” and “second choice” homeschoolers. First choice homeschoolers, she says, are mothers who feel that they are called to homeschool, whether for conservative religious reasons or progressive pedagogical reasons. In fact, Lois’ work seems to suggest that both types of mothers similarly find root for their choice to homeschool in their common identities as mothers. Second choice homeschoolers, in contrast, are those who come to homeschooling after other educational methods fail their children. For these mothers, homeschooling is not an identity but rather a temporary educational options. Lois finds that first choice homeschooling mothers report higher levels of satisfaction and that second choice homeschooling mothers are likely to look forward to the day when their children are grown or back in school.

In many ways, “second choice homeschoolers” is simply another label for a group I myself described in my 2010 master’s thesis, a history of a local homeschool community—the “pragmatics.” And indeed, Lois and I both give credence to Gaither’s suggestion that as homeschooling becomes more and more accepted it will become simply one more educational choice rather than what what amounts to an act of protest. In other words, pragmatic homeschoolers come to homeschooling because it’s what works best for them and their children at that point in time, rather than because they believe either that institutional schooling is fundamentally flawed or that they are called by God to train up Christian children unsullied by the influences of the world.

There’s another complication here as well. As Eric Isenberg point out in a 2007 article, all of this dividing and categorizing is easier to do in studies that involve getting to know homeschooling families in an ethnographic way than it is when looking at homeschoolers quantitatively (Isenberg, 2007). Isenberg points out that there are numerous part-time homeschoolers, short term homeschoolers, and parents who homeschool one child but not another, information that seems to suggest that there is something to what Lois has called “second choice” homeschoolers and what I have called “pragmatics.” Further, Isenberg says that while the three main reasons people give for homeschooling are moral/religious, academic, and environmental (i.e. concern about the school environment), drawing conclusions from these numbers is difficult because there is overlap that makes differentiating between those homeschooling for religious and secular reasons can be complicated and tricky to quantify.

Of course, Isenberg does not reject entirely the idea that there are fundamental groupings of homeschoolers. He points out that religious homeschoolers are more likely to homeschool all of their children and significantly more likely to homeschool long term, suggesting the enduring importance of the believers. Isenberg also notes that public and private school options become more attractive and homeschooling less attractive in areas with large concentrations of evangelical Protestants, once again pointing to the importance of the believers. Further, Isenberg suggests that the questions in the survey data that he examines were not well designed—even a nonbeliever could mark that they homeschool to give their child a moral or religious education, for example—meaning that differences that may be more apparent to researchers like Stevens or Gaither may be obscured in the survey data. This suggests that we both need better survey data and also need to not underestimate the importance of actual field work.

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A Brief History of Homeschooling

The modern homeschool movement began in the 1970s when John Holt, an educational theorist and supporter of school reform, began arguing that formal schools created an oppressive and rote classroom learning style designed to make children compliant employees. Holt called for parents to liberate their children from formal education and instead follow a method today known as “unschooling.” Soon after Holt’s arguments inspired the first homeschoolers, educational theorist Ray Moore added his voice, arguing that early schooling was detrimental to children and that children should be schooled at home until age eight or nine in order to give them a firm educational, psychological, and moral foundation. Moore’s 1981 Home Grown Kids quickly became popular and was often the first book homeschoolers read.

When Holt and Moore first began advocating homeschooling, educating children at home was legal in every state, but subject to varying regulations, which were sometimes quite stringent (for example, six states required parents to have teaching licenses . Early homeschoolers generally worked with their local school boards, meeting requirements and submitting their home education plans. In the early 1980s, Moore stated that in 80 to 90% of all cases, “local public school administrators and primary teachers … are understanding.” In those cases where homeschoolers faced challenges, organizations founded Holt and Moore offered help in mediating with local officials and, if needed, legal aid.

During the 1980s the tenor of homeschooling changed as a new wave of individuals entered the movement. These were evangelical and fundamentalist Christians engaged in culture wars rhetoric about public schools as “Satanic hothouses.” Given credibility by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and initial support by Moore, these newer homeschoolers took an antagonistic outlook toward public school administrators and were unwilling to cooperate with public schools they saw as evil. It was at this point that the legal battles began in earnest as homeschoolers found themselves faced with newly uncooperative local public school officials and the negative feedback cycle that ensued as officials responded even more negatively when faced with litigation. Also in play was the fact that some school officials felt threatened by the growing number of homeschoolers. For all these reasons, the head of one secular homeschooling group call the mid-1980s “the look over your shoulder time.”

Homeschoolers responded to the changed situation by turning from the local level to the state level, petitioning state legislatures to change laws to accommodate for homeschooling. Homeschoolers fought among themselves over how much regulation the laws should contain; while some homeschoolers were comfortable with standardized testing and submitting curriculum plans, others felt that such regulation was oppressive. Regardless, the story of the legalization of homeschooling is really fifty different stories: some states never had any legislative change, some merely updated their laws, and others wrote completely new sections on homeschooling. The regulation of homeschooling today differs widely from state to state, with some states not regulating homeschooling at all and others imposing various requirements such as testing or curriculum approval. Regardless, by 1989 most states had made peace with homeschoolers, with only a few states holding out into the early 1990s.

The 1980s was also the time of what historian Milton Gaither has called “the changing of the guard.” By 1990, homeschooling was no longer connected to the liberal-leaning educational reform movement, as it had been in the 1970s, but rather to conservative religious ideas and the Christian Right. While Holt and Moore together essentially singlehandedly founded the homeschool movement, their books and publications serving as the lifeblood of the fledgling movement in its early years, their leadership did not last past the 1980s. Holt died in 1985, and Moore found himself marginalized by new homeschool leaders who did not consider him, as a Seventh Day Adventist, “Christian” enough. While religious and secular homeschoolers had worked together to form local, state, and national organizations and fight legal battles throughout much of the 1980s, this alliance began to fracture toward the end of the decade. In 1990, Moore appealed vainly to the homeschool community to remain united even as homeschool groups and organizations were increasingly explicitly Christian, often requiring the signing of statements of faith and excluding secular homeschoolers. First and foremost among the new leaders of the homeschool movement was Michael Farris.

Michael Farris, a homeschool parent and attorney, founded the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in 1983. Early in the decade homeschoolers had generally worked together with local public school officials, aided as needed by the efforts of Holt and Moore. However, as relations with local officials became more tendentious (in part as a result of the entrance of more oppositional and less cooperative evangelical and fundamentalist homeschoolers), a variety of organizations, some religious and some secular, engaged in legal efforts on behalf of homeschoolers and worked to change state laws. HSLDA was one of these organizations, though most of the heavy lifting was done by others before it came into existence and while it was still in its infancy. In the early 1990s, HSLDA made a name for itself by bringing about the end of the last remaining holdouts.

Michael Farris used both his acclaim for fighting the last remaining legal battles and his connections to other influential homeschool leaders such as Greg Harris and Sue Welch to position HSLDA to become “the nerve center of a national movement infrastructure.” Aided by these other, newer homeschool leaders, Farris carried out a virtual coup of the homeschool movement and by the mid-1990s came to control both the movement’s networking system and its public image. Secular homeschool groups and organizations still existed, but they were overshadowed by the political power and organizational strength of HSLDA, which was aided by its commitment to hierarchical structure.

While early homeschool leaders had focused on liberating children from the constraints of formal schooling and freeing them to follow their interests, Farris’ goal and vision for homeschooling was different. For Farris, homeschooling was a tool for reaching a broader goal: a radical social and religious vision centered on a patriarchal family structure where stay at home mothers raise large numbers of children with the explicit purpose of launching their offspring into government, education, and entertainment industries with the intent of making the United States a nation based in Christian beliefs. Farris’ vision is augmented by a network of loosely affiliated groups often peddling an even more extreme ideology that holds that women should not attend college and in some cases actually endorses a full return to Old Testament law. Collectively, these groups and their followers leave little freedom for children and often place more emphasis on religious ideology than on actual education. Collectively, this ideology has come to be known as the Quiverfull or Patriarchy movement.

Meanwhile, homeschooling has continue to grow by leaps and bounds, especially as it has increasingly come to be seen as an acceptable educational alternative. An growing number of families have started homeschooling not for religious or pedagogical reasons but rather for individual pragmatic reasons, including concerns about bullying or the poor quality of local schools. This increasing diversity, combined with the advent of the internet, which has opened up information networks once controlled almost solely by Christian homeschooling groups, promises to change the face of the movement.

The information in this brief history is condensed from my master’s thesis, a study of a local homeschool community that also included background on the history of the homeschool movement as a whole. Scholar Milton Gaither reviewed my master’s thesis on his research blog. You can read that review here

An Overview of Research on Homeschooling

Wading through the research on homeschooling can be a challenge given the strong feelings of homeschool advocates and critics alike. Many of the most touted studies of homeschooling have been funded or conducted by homeschooling advocacy groups like Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI). These studies have generally been severely limited in their methodology and their results have been repeatedly misrepresented (For a good introduction to such methodology limitations and misrepresentation, see Brian D. Ray and NHERI, Part 1 and Part 2). Because of this, media frequently misrepresents what we actually do and do not know about homeschooling.

There has also been academic research on homeschooling that has not stemmed from homeschool advocacy groups, and there are a number of scholars who do extremely interesting work on homeschooling and work to be clear about exactly what the research they do does and does not say about homeschooling. The chief among these are Milton Gaither, whose blog Homeschool Research Notes is indispensable, and Robert Kunzman, whose Homeschooling Research & Scholarship site is extremely comprehensive. In 2012, these two scholars, together with a number of other researchers who study homeschooling around the world, founded the International Center for Home Education Research(ICHER). ICHER’s Frequently Asked Questions section is an excellent place to start for a simple summary of the state of homeschooling research.

Some Summaries of What We Know

So what do we actually know about homeschooling? The first place I would send people for an answer to that question is the aforementioned ICHER FAQ section.

Next I would point people to the issue briefs composed by the National Center for Education Statistics. Unfortunately, the most recent numbers have yet to be released, meaning that the information we have is over five years old. Still, these numbers are literally the only ones that we have that don’t have grave methodological limitations.

2003 National Center for Education Statistics Homeschooling Issue Brief

2007 National Center for Eeducation Statistics Homeschooling Issue Brief

Finally, Gaither and Kunzman’s 2013 survey of the research, published in Other Education—The Journal of Educational Alternatives, while it will take a bit longer to read than the ICHER FAQs or the NCES numbers, is probably the best summary of what we do and do not know about homeschooling currently in existence.

Homeschooling: A Comprehensive Survey of the Research

What Gaither and Kunzman flesh out in their survey of the research is that just about every study of homeschoolers’ academic performance is riddled with methodological limitations, and that even when we correct for these limits and pinpoint the best research and numbers we have, we find that we are still left with a plethora of questions.

For another excellent, but slightly old, survey of what we do and do not know about homeschooling, see Eric Isenberg’s 2007 article, What Have We Learned about Homeschooling?

Additional Recommended Reading

For those interested in more in depth reading about homechooling and its history, I would recommend four scholarly books on the topic. In the following paragraphs, I will offer a summary of each.

In 2001 sociologist Mitchell Stevens published Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement. Stevens divided homeschoolers into two groups, which he called “open communion” and “closed communion.” This labeling mirrored Jane Van Galen’s earlier division of the movement into “pedagogues” and “ideologues,” and reflected the diverse religious and educational reasons parents turned to homeschooling. Stevens focused especially on the 1990s, HSLDA’s increasing prominence, and disagreements and conflicts among and between the different groups of homeschooling parents.

When education historian Milton Gaither published his Homeschool: An American Historyin 2008, he was giving scholars the first comprehensive history of homeschooling. While Gaither begins his book with the colonial period, the bulk of it is spent on what Gaither calls the “modern” homeschool movement, a movement he emphasizes came about as oppositional and has gradually become mainstream. Gaither divides homeschoolers into the same groups as Van Galen and Stevens, but he calls them “inclusives” and “believers.” Gaither also examines the history of the legalization of homeschooling and the growth of additional educational options like cybercharters.

The focus of education scholar Robert Kunzman’s Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling is slightly different. Kunzman’s work is the story of six different Christian homeschooling family, each of which he visited and did field work with. Each family is slightly different, but together these stories weave together a fascinating picture of the Christian homeschooling movement. Kunzman intersperses the book with discussions of things like HSLDA’s Generation Joshua. Kunzman finishes by calling for some limited regulation of homeschooling that would ensure that homeschooled children are actually receiving an education.

Jennifer Lois’ 2012 Home Is Where the School Is: The Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering, turns the spotlight on the ones doing most of the homeschooling: the mothers. While other scholars generally divide homeschoolers into two groups by whether they are motivated by religious or pedagogical reasons, Lois divides them by whether they choose homeschooling as their “first choice” or as their “second choice”—meaning, whether they homeschool because they believe they are called to do so, or whether they came to homeschooling because other educational methods failed their children. Lois finds that first choice homeschool mothers make homeschooling part of their identity while second choice homeschool mothers look forward to the day when their children will be grown or back in school and they will be able to do other things.

Criticism of Homeschooling

For the a good summary of the criticism of homeschooling, I would recommend Rob Reich’s Why Homeschooling Should Be Regulated In this concise essay, Reich lays out why he thinks homeschooling should be regulated and offers some suggestions for what this regulation might look like. For a similar call, see Acker, Gray, Jalali, and Pascal’s article, Mathematics and Home Schooling. Finally, see Timothy B. Waddell’s Bringing It All Back Home: Establishing a Coherent Constitutional Framework for the Re-regulation of Homeschooling.

For a look at criticism of homeschooling that also presents the responses of homeschool advocates and is written in a more readable and less academic style, I recommend the Akron Beacon Journal‘s 2004 series. Homeschool advocates insisted in the wake of its publication that this series was biased and unfair, and it is indeed a piece of journalism rather than of academic or scholarly work. However, I felt it did a fairly good job of laying out criticism of homeschooling while also presenting homeschool advocates’ side.

Homeschoolers’ Motives are Diverse; Their Teaching Styles Vary

Claims of Academic Success Rely on Anecdotes, Flawed Data Analysis

Parents Want to Control Influences; Critics See Need for Wide Exposure

Homeschoolers May Be No Safer in Their Homes Than Other Children

Home-Schooling Freedoms Help Parents Who Abduct Children

A Diverse but United National Network Mobilizes against Regulations at All Levels

Parents Assert Rights

If nothing else, this series provides an excellent summary of both homeschooling advocates’ positions on the topic and the positions taken by critics of homeschooling. Further, they are relative quick reads and are fairly engrossing.