When Purva Brown’s first child was still an infant, her husband James introduced the idea of homeschooling. An electrician, he spent much of his time in public schools, installing and repairing fire alarms and doing other work. Perched on his ladder, an outsider with an inside view, he gained a valuable perspective on American public schooling. The political bias and unfairness toward boys jolted him. Intrigued by the homeschooling idea, Purva devoured books by John Holt, the educator and homeschooling pioneer whose many books include How Children Learn (1967) and Teach Your Own (1981), and by John Taylor Gatto, the former New York State Teacher of the Year who famously announced that he was quitting his 30-year teaching job in a 1991 oped in the Wall Street Journal. In Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, Gatto writes: “It is time we squarely face the fact that institutional schoolteaching is destructive to children.”
Like a growing number of families, the Browns, who live in Sacramento, chose not to send their children to school, opting for homeschooling. Purva’s popular blog and book, The Classical Unschooler, describe blending a classical education philosophy (the grammar, logic, and rhetoric trivium) with the values of self-directed education, or “unschooling.” She and her children—ages ten, nine, and six—spend about two hours a day on academic content. The remainder of the day is devoted to the children’s emerging passions.
The most recent U.S. Department of Education data on homeschooling indicate that nearly 2 million young people learned at home in 2016, compared with just 850,000 in 1999. Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, suggests that today’s homeschooling numbers are much higher, and that the growth trend continues. Some of this growth could be attributed to the strong academic outcomes of homeschoolers, who typically score well above public school students on standardized tests. Federal data suggest that the primary motivator for homeschooling families in 2016 was “concern about the school environment, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure.” This priority represents a shift from earlier years, when desire to provide religious or moral instruction was a top goal for homeschooling families. The homeschooling population has changed, too, over the last two decades. Today’s homeschoolers are more demographically, geographically, and ideologically diverse. Fifteen percent of today’s homeschoolers are Hispanic, up from just 5 percent in 2003; 8 percent are black. The number of black homeschoolers doubled between 2007 and 2011.
Maleka Diggs didn’t intend to homeschool her children. She and her husband, along with their two young daughters, moved to an apartment in a sought-after Philadelphia neighborhood with top-rated public schools. But when Diggs took her older daughter to kindergarten registration, bringing the necessary paperwork to prove residency and eligibility, the school principal didn’t believe that she lived where she did and made disparaging remarks, including asking if coupons paid her rent. “I was angry and hurt,” she recalls, “but it was the best day because it was the beginning of my journey toward homeschooling.”
She quit her job in corporate America and began replicating school at home. She was determined to create a rigorous academic environment for her daughters, complete with worksheets, cubbies, and bells, but the rigidity began to strain the mother/daughter relationships and to hinder learning. She began exploring self-directed education, avoiding the teach-and-test model of schooling in favor of interest-led learning. Today her daughters, now 13 and 11, learn in and from the city, becoming immersed in the vibrancy around them. Her older daughter leads a book group for tweens and teens and is starting a business based on her talent for cooking. Her younger daughter plays Brazilian drums in an adult ensemble group. Diggs has launched the Eclectic Learning Network to create connections among city homeschoolers and to partner with local organizations and businesses to offer homeschooling programming. “My mission is to build community one family at a time,” she says.
Grassroots homeschooling networks like these are sprouting alongside brick-and-mortar learning centers that can make homeschooling a realistic option for more families. “Never in a million years did I think I would do this,” says Britt Hamre, an education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Her son, Finn, disliked school, finding it both boring and anxiety-inducing. She decided to homeschool him when he was in second grade, hiring tutors and finding classes for him while she and her husband stretched the flexibility of their work schedules. “I thought I would just try it for a year,” she recalls. Finn, now 14, has never been back to school. He spends part of his week at Dida Academy, a self-directed learning center for homeschoolers ages 11 to 18 in Brooklyn, where he works on individual projects, hangs out with peers, and gets support from adult facilitators. “I am a huge advocate for public schools,” says Hamre, whose daughter attends a New York City public school. “But the thing I have learned about kids, teaching, and education over my career and while being a mother is that as schools become more like little factories, focused on compliance, not all kids fit into that mold.”
With the opportunities that homeschooling provides for tailoring high-quality education to children’s needs, it is no surprise that more American parents are deciding to give it a try.