This post reviews Kenneth V. Anthony and Susie Burroughs, “Day to Day Operations of Home School Families: Selecting from a Menu of Educational Choices to meet Students’ Individual Instructional Needs.” in International Education Studies, 5, no. 1 (February 2012): 1-17. [Available fulltext here]
Anthony, an instructor at Mississippi University for Women, and Burroughs, a professor of education at Mississippi State, here describe the daily activities of four homeschooling families, all of whom are part of the same classical education co-op in a “southeastern U.S.” state, which I presume to be Mississippi.
They begin with a decent survey of the homeschooling literature, noting that most of it is concerned with demographics, parental motivation, academic achievement, and socialization. Relatively little of it deals with what actually happens in homeschools. That’s what they’re going to do here. They ask four questions:
i. What does home education look like day to day?
ii. What types of teaching strategies does the parent use?
iii. What is the nature of the instructional environment?
iv. What can be learned from home school instruction that will be of value to traditional education? (p. 5)
Anthony and Burroughs follow an approach they call “homogeneity sampling,” the idea being that if you get several examples of the same sort of person, you have a pretty strong sense that what you’ve uncovered is accurate for that sort of person. The sort of person they’re studying here are conservative Christians who are interested in classical education. To qualify for the study subjects have to have been homeschooling for at least 3 years, be homeschooling now, and have at least one child who has completed homeschool and has moved on to college or work. The researchers got four families like that from a single classical homeschooling cooperative. While discussing their methodology it becomes clear that Anthony is himself a conservative Christian and was friends with somebody else in this same co-op. That’s really how and why they chose this group.
So what do these four families do all day? Read mostly. The authors found that in all four families about 70% of the instructional day was spent in either independent reading or read-aloud time. Their cooperative met on Fridays, and on that day everyone attended classes taught by the various parents in a style a lot like what one finds in most schools. The rest of the week, parents tended to spend less time with children the older they were, but everybody was basically working on stuff connected to the cooperative classes. All four families relied on some sort of outside curriculum for math since their co-op didn’t do math. There was a bit of variation in the level of formality in the various homes. One family kept to a very punctual schedule and required the children to dress like they were going to school. The others were more relaxed, though to varying degrees.
The authors note that these parents are on the whole very critical of “progressive” education and other fashions like outcomes-based education, but ironically “they integrated some of those very ideas into their home school practice including journaling, critical thinking, and relying on primary sources over textbooks.” (p. 9)
In general the authors found the homeschooling they studied to be a strange mixture of progressive and traditional motifs. Parents had both traditional and progressive goals–they wanted the kids to believe what the parents believed about the Bible, about creationism, about conservative values. But they also wanted the kids to become lifelong learners who engaged ideas critically. In a previous post on classical education I noted that conservative Protestants may be playing with fire by encouraging their children to think critically about texts.
Pedagogy in these families was mixed as well. It was traditional in the sense that it relied a lot on memorization of facts and the “three Rs” but progressive in the sense that parents were more facilitators than teachers, providing resources for kids to do their own independent work, and that parents preferred portfolio assessment over grades. On this last point Anthony and Burroughs can’t help but include this morsel:
When the researcher commented that they kept portfolios, Cynthia Johnson responded that they did not use that word because it was associated with O.B.E. [outcomes-based education]. When pressed, she admitted that, in fact, what they were doing was maintaining a portfolio of their children’s quality work for evaluation purposes. Their ideological differences with the public schools sometimes made it hard for them to see that what they were doing was similar to what was done in the public schools.
The authors describe homeschooling as the process of selecting from an educational menu of items whatever is deemed best for the child at a given time. Because of ideological barriers, public schooling was not one of the options on the menu for these families (nor, in this state, was public education available a la carte). But what if it were? What if public schools ceased becoming a one-size-fits-all totalizing institution and instead became a set of complex services and resources families and other community members could use as needed? Anthony and Burroughs don’t develop this idea further, but that’s what they’d clearly like to see happen. They note that a bill recently introduced to their state (again, I’m presuming it’s Mississippi) to allow limited homeschooler involvement with public schools was defeated by homeschoolers. I don’t know exactly what happened in the situation to which they’re alluding, but I know from Pennsylvania’s experience with this very thing that the homeschooling community in PA was pretty divided over the issue. Generally speaking the more aggressively partisan and conservative homeschoolers didn’t want public school resources made available for the same reason these same folks tend to be against cyberschools–they seen such things as temptations that will lure Christian homeschoolers away from the virtues of independent homeschooling into compromise with the secular state. More moderate homeschoolers, on the other hand, are typically in favor of having the option of using public school resources if they want to–they pay property taxes too, after all, and would like to get some of the benefits for their kids. Here in PA the moderate faction won and we now have a law allowing homeschoolers to participate in extracurriculars if they so desire. Interestingly, as a previous post noted, only a very small percentage of homeschoolers in PA actually take advantage of this opportunity. Sounds like the conservatives won in Mississippi (if that is indeed where this study takes place), and so for the time being at least, nobody who homeschools can access any public school resources.
Finally, the authors acknowledge that this study is very limited. This sample of four families is atypical in many respects, most especially because of the degree to which their classical cooperative anchored the rest of their homeschooling. The authors suggest that similar studies should be conducted on other types of homeschoolers–those without conservative religious predilections, those who are not members of cooperatives, and so on. I agree. Absent truly representative sampling the best we can hope for in terms of understanding what really goes on in homeschooling would be to compile large databases of what we might call collective biographies. Though the sample is small and non representative, Anthony and Burroughs have worked with care and thoughtfulness and have made some important observations.