This post reviews Cheryl Fields-Smith and Meca Williams, “Motivations, Sacrifices, and Challenges: Black Parents’ Decisions to Home School” in Urban Review 41 (2009): 369-389
Fields-Smith, a professor at the University of Georgia, and Williams, at Georgia Southern, here offer an important contribution to the literature on parental motivation for homeschooling. This article is the first to look carefully at African American homeschooling parents to determine their motivations. The authors used a “community-nomination process” to find black homeschooling parents to study. That means that they used contacts they had with individual homeschoolers to gain access to others. This approach netted them 24 families, all residing in the greater Atlanta region. Fields-Smith and Williams then had these families fill out an open-ended survey of attitudes and demographic data, conducted lengthy personal interviews, and held focus-group sessions every six months over a period of two years.
Demographically, the families were mostly two-parent, multiple child, middle-income. Most mothers had completed college and most had been homeschooling for many years. With the exception of race, these families look very similar on paper to most white homeschoolers. Compared to national averages for African Americans however, these families tend to be better educated, have higher incomes, and maintain more stable marital bonds. As with whites, mothers tend to do most of the actual homeschooling, often quitting jobs to do so. Most homeschooled their children from birth or after a few years in elementary school. For all of these generalizations, however, the sample also included outliers–there were single mothers, some very poor families, some with only a high school education, and so on. One significant difference with white averages is that 1/3 of the children in the sample were designated as special needs.
Fields-Smith and Williams separate their findings into four categories. First, they discuss the salience of race as a motivation. 19 of the 24 parents interviewed said that experience of racial discrimination or inequality was a significant motivator. This was especially the case for parents of black boys. The authors include some powerful representative quotations of these parents’ frustration with the destructive social pressures schools place on black males. Parents also noted that the homeschool groups, co-ops, and sports programs to which they belong are far more racially integrated than the nearly all-black public schools their children would otherwise be attending. Homeschooling also allows these families to infuse “an afrocentric or Black American focus” into the curriculum (19 reported doing so).
The second topic the authors discuss is religion. 21 of the 24 families had religious motivations for homeschooling. For six of the families religion was the primary motivator, giving them the strength of conviction to make and stick with the difficult choice to homeschool. For the rest it was a contributing factor. Though this section is not developed as fully as I would have liked, the authors generalize that the religious motivation for African Ameircans is cast in a more liberatory mode than for white Christian homeschoolers. Homeschooling allows these families to connect the strong tradition of liberation theology that is at the heart of Black Christianity in the United States with their schooling. Unlike many white Christians, whose faith leads them toward nostalgia for early American history and a desire to restore some form of “Christian America,” for blacks it is more about personal and racial liberation from the very culture many white Christians want to restore. Christian faith becomes an asset and resource for liberatory education rather than something that must be kept out of the curriculum as in public schools.
The third theme discussed is the amount of sacrifice black families make to homeschool. Historically black women have worked at a much higher rate than whites, and for many of these families it was a considerable financial sacrifice to forego a second income, not to mention that they now must pay for schooling resources. Furthermore, many of these mothers face criticism from the Black community, many of whom see the well-educated stay-at-home-mom as an “abandonment of the rewards obtained from a long struggle toward equality in the workplace” (381) and of all of the civil-rights struggles to get black children in public schools in the first place. Several of the parents report that their neighbors are angry at them because deep down these parents also know that public schools do not serve black children well, but they are not willing to sacrifice careers to teach their own children.
Finally, the authors address challenges these homeschooling families face. Some of them are familiar to all homeschoolers–how to get everything done without going crazy (especially when babies and toddlers are in the picture), how to tailor instruction to each child’s unique learning style, how to maintain the joy of learning (especially in the higher grades), and maintaining patience when things don’t go as planned. Like their white counterparts, these parents have found support groups to be a tremendous help in dealing with the daily grind. Also like whites, homeschooling mothers are often held suspect by extended family, but as stated the pressure here is magnified by the association in the black community of racial progress with school success and female employment.
In conclusion, Fields-Smith and Williams note that while these black homeschoolers are similar to white homeschoolers in many ways, they “do not necessarily represent the ‘Conservative Right’” (384) that is the typical homeschool stereotype. They are motivated by a desire to escape the destructive racial stereotyping public schools so often perpetuate and experience not only the usual stresses of homeschooling but the added stress of being cast by some as traitors to the cause of black integration.
This is a wonderful paper to have in print. It doesn’t really add anything new to the narrative of African American homeschooling. In my treatment of black homeschooling in my book I was able to make nearly all of their points by relying on newspaper articles about black homeschoolers and first-person accounts. But the empirical approach here for the first time takes the study of black homeschoolers beyond the domain of anecdote and editorial and organizes everything into one convenient and well-constructed piece. As with so many other studies of homeschooling, it’s unclear how far we can generalize from this this non-representative sample of 24 families all from one geographic region. And we don’t get any sense from this article whether homeschooling is growing or declining among African Americans nationally. But at least it’s a start. Future studies of black homeschoolers will use this article as a starting point.