Learning at Home

by Richard Sousa, Hanna Skandera
Wednesday, July 30, 2003
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this is an image

Home education has grown faster than voucher and charter school enrollments combined. With virtually zero enrollees in 1978, home-schooled students now constitute more than 3 percent of total elementary and secondary school education enrollment in the United States. Estimates of growth range from 11 to 25 percent annually; in the year 2000, approximately 1,700,000 elementary and secondary students were home educated (see figure 1).

What is known about those who are being home-schooled? Most parents who choose to home-school their children are motivated by a desire to teach specific philosophical or religious values, control social interaction, develop close families, or encourage high academic

Figure 1: Students Enrolled in Home Schools

achievement. The ability to be flexible and tailor curricula to the specific needs of their children is an additional incentive. The demographics of home-school families are not representative of the general U.S. population and neither are their results.

• In 1998, 94 percent of home-schooled children were white, 0.8 percent black, 0.2 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent unknown. In contrast, total enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools by race was 63 percent white, 17 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent unknown.

• Some 97 percent of home-schooled children lived in married couple families; in 1997, only 72 percent of families with one or more children enrolled in school lived in married couple families nationwide.

• The majority of home-school families (62 percent) have three or more children, with a mean of about 3.1 children per family. Nationwide, nearly 80 percent of families with school-age children have one or two children, with a mean of about 1.9 children per family.

• A large percentage of home-school mothers are stay-at-home moms not participating in the labor force; in 1998, 77 percent of home-school mothers did not work for pay. Compare that with national figures, where nearly 30 percent of married women with children under 18 were not labor force participants.

• Nearly 88 percent of home-school students have parents who continued their education after high school; less than 50 percent of the general population attended or graduated from college.

• Almost one out of every four home-school students has at least one parent who is a certified teacher: 20 percent of home-school mothers and 7 percent of home-school fathers are certified. Teachers make up approximately 3 percent of the national labor force.

• The median family income for home-school families in 1997 was about $52,000; the median income for families with children nationwide was approximately $43,545.

• Fewer than 2 percent of fourth-grade home-schooled children watch four or more hours of television per day; nationwide 39 percent of fourth-graders watch four or more hours of television per day.

Achievement is the best barometer for success or failure in the education arena. When comparing the achievement of home-school students with public and private school students, home-school students stand out. The median scale scores for home-school students on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), which tests students in grades 1 through 8, and the Test of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP), which tests students in grades 9 through 12, are well above their public and private school counterparts in every subject and in every grade (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Composite Scores of Home-Schooled Students, 1998

Rather than comparing students in specific grades and their corresponding test scores, another way to evaluate test scores is to look at the composite scale score in relationship to relative grade placement, the grade equivalent score. For example, the sixth-grade home-school student’s median composite score of 261 is comparable to the median score for a ninth grader nationwide. Over time, the achievement gap between home-school students and their peers nationwide widens. By the time home-school students reach eighth grade, their median scores are more than four grade equivalents above their public school peers (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Grade-Equivalents: Home-School and National Averages (by grade), 1998

An interesting sidebar is the performance of home schoolers in national geography bees. In the 2002 national geography bee, for example, four of the ten finalists were home-schooled. The winner, the youngest contestant at age 10, and the third-place finisher were both home-schooled.

Home-school students and their families are not a representative cross-section of the United States population. Furthermore, it is evident by the degree of parental involvement that there is a very strong commitment to education and children among home-school parents. There are a few things, however, we can learn from this small, select group. What they’re doing appears to be working and working quite well. According to a recent study by Caroline Hoxby, family aspects have a greater impact on school achievement than school inputs; the growth and achievement of home-school students, by definition in homes where parents have made a serious commitment to education, appear to validate this point.