Just the Facts: Home Schooling

Published July 1, 1999

Twenty years ago, home schooling was illegal almost everywhere in the United States. It became legal in all 50 states only as recently as 1993.

Yet for the past decade and a half, home schooling has been one of the fastest-growing segments of the K-12 education industry, with a growth rate between 15 and 20 percent a year. Next year, the growth rate could be even higher, according to a recent account in The Christian Science Monitor, because of a surge of parent interest in alternative methods of schooling following the massacre of 13 students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

The Columbine incident, coupled with other recent mass killings by students at supposedly safe suburban schools, apparently has sharply raised the concerns of many parents about the safety of their students’ public school environment.

An estimated 1.5 million children are being educated at home this year. (By contrast, more than 50 million students are enrolled in public and private schools.) Not surprisingly, safety is one of a half-dozen reasons parents give for making the decision to home-school, according to Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. He cites the following factors:

  • teaching a particular set of values and beliefs
  • higher academic performance
  • individualized instruction
  • closer family relationships
  • better interaction with peers and adults
  • safer environment

The most important of these reasons is the first–parents’ desire to teach and transmit specific values and beliefs to their children and to provide them with a particular view of the world. This clearly is driven by dissatisfaction with the learning environment found in public schools.

In an August 1996 poll of 696 home schoolers, conducted by the Florida Department of Education, 42 percent of respondents reported that dissatisfaction with safety, drugs, and adverse peer pressure at public schools was their reason for establishing a home education program.

But do parents make good teachers? Is instruction from a certified teacher required to elicit high academic performance from students?

Students who are taught at home by their parents score significantly higher than their public school peers, according to a new study of 20,760 home-schooled students conducted by Lawrence M. Rudner, director of the Educational Resources Information Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation at the University of Maryland. The March 1999 study, sponsored by the Home School Legal Defense Association, showed that test scores for home-schooled students fall between the 75th and 85th percentile. This compares very favorably with public school test scores, at the 50th percentile, and private school test scores, ranging from the 65th to the 75th percentile.

Rudner’s peer-reviewed study, Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home School Students in 1998, shows that having at least one parent who is a certified teacher has no significant effect on the achievement levels of home-schooled students. However, the children of college graduates outperform children whose parents do not have a college degree. This finding contrasts with one from an earlier study, which concluded that the parents’ educational level was not a significant factor in the performance of a home-schooled child. (See “Home Schools Outperform Public Schools,” School Reform News, May 1997.)

But Rudner points out that, at every grade level, “the mean performance of home school students whose parents do not have a college degree is much higher than the mean performance of students in public schools.” Even without a college degree, parents who home-school their children produce student test scores in the 65th to 69th percentile range, comparable to the level achieved in private schools.