School became mandatory for American children in the 1850s, but before that time, children were commonly educated in the home, either by their parents and other family members or by private tutors. Since then, homeschooling has remained a legal alternative for parents who wish to keep their children out of a traditional school setting for at least a majority of the school day. The number of homeschooled children has increased rapidly since the 1960s, when education reformers questioned the value of rigidly structured schooldays and teaching methods that do not encourage children to learn at their own pace. While exact numbers are not available, the Department of Education estimates that over one million American children received most of their education at home in 2003, the most recent year for which data is available.
Parents choose to homeschool their children for many different reasons. For some, concerns about the environment of public schools motivate the switch to home education, as many parents worry that the presence of drugs, violence, and bullying create an unsafe setting that does not promote learning. Others feel that the traditional school curriculum and government regulations that influence how schools teach result in an inadequate education that does not allow for individual differences in interests and learning style. A family’s religious or philosophical beliefs might also influence their decision to homeschool, and some parents want their children’s education to emphasize religious teachings or specific values. In some cases, a child’s illness, injury, or special needs may make homeschooling a more appropriate fit than traditional schooling.
Unlike public and private schools, parents who homeschool have a large amount of control over their child’s education, and the teaching techniques they utilize will reflect their reasons for homeschooling as well as their views of education. Large variations exist in the resources these families use, the settings where they learn, and the schedules they develop, and each child’s experiences with homeschooling will be unique. Homeschooling can resemble a traditional school, with children learning during the day while at a table or desk, using textbooks and other standard materials. Many families, especially when they are just starting out, buy a prepackaged curriculum that comes with books, assignments, testing materials, and grade books. Others create their own curriculum, often using resources available in libraries and incorporating trips to museums and parks. They may develop a less structured school day, and the children might study at different times throughout the day or spend much of their time learning outside.
Personal beliefs often have a large influence over parents’ teaching methods, and many follow the educational philosophies of other alternative forms of schooling, especially those of Montessori and Waldorf schools, adapting these techniques so that that are appropriate for home education. Another popular alternative, known as unschooling, was developed in the 1960s by education reformer John Holt. He argued against authoritative teaching methods and advocated for a natural education, where children learn in a way that is unforced and spontaneous. Rather than actively teaching, parents act as guides and advisors, allowing their children to freely choose their own paths of study. Families can also adopt an eclectic approach, choosing texts and techniques that best support the child’s needs and interests.
Homeschooling is a legal option throughout the United States, although specific laws regarding home education may be in place and vary from state to state. While some states have no regulations, others require parents to notify their school district of their decision to teach or become qualified as teachers, either through a brief course or teaching certification. For the students too, regulations differ depending on location, and in some places they may need to take state-wide standardized tests or be periodically assessed by an outside source. Children who have been educated at home often move on to college, and they can prepare for this by keeping careful records of their studies and creating a portfolio that demonstrates their progress. Because families who educate their children at home can choose from a range of possibilities, they can create an educational program that reflects their views and that can be tailored to their child’s individual weaknesses and strengths.