Jennifer L. Jolly, Michael S. Matthews, and Jonathan Nester, “Homeschooling the Gifted: A Parent’s Perspective” in Gifted Child Quarterly 57, no. 2 (December 2012): 121-134. [Abstract available here]
Jolly is Associate Professor of Elementary and Gifted Education at Louisiana State University. Matthews is Associate Professor of Gifted Education at University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Nester is a Ph.D. student at Louisiana State. Here they present the results of a rigorous qualitative examination of 13 families, laying out four generalizations about parents who homeschool gifted children.
The authors begin with a brief but strong survey of the history of homeschooling in the United States and a demographic profile of gifted homeschoolers. Recognizing the limits of data collecting both for homeschooling and for gifted students, they speculate that there may be anywhere from 50,000 to 140,000 gifted students being homeschooled in the U.S. today.
Despite this large number there has been scarcely any academic study of this population. The authors seek to rectify this. In 2009 Jolly and Matthews had conducted a large quantitative study of gifted education with a sample size near 1000. From this large sample, 44 had noted that they had done some homeschooling and were willing to be interviewed for subsequent projects. For this follow-up study the authors contacted the 44 and ultimately settled through a process of “purposive sampling” on 13 of the families for extensive interviews.
The 13 families interviewed were all white. 12 of the thirteen parents were mothers (and the one father was recommended by his wife). All had completed college or had advanced degrees, and all were in intact marriages. The only demographic diversity really was geography, as 7 states from every region of the United States were represented.
The researchers, acknowledging that their own biases might prejudice them against these homeschoolers, sought to do everything they could to eliminate subjectivity in their interviewing and assessment of responses. The article lays out in detail their methodology for doing so in what they call a “phenomenological and grounded theory approach” to the study (p. 125)
Once the interviews were completed Jolly and Mathews used an inductive approach to indentify key themes. After an extensive process they ultimately identified four common themes from the data:
1. Parents Know Best–gifted parents who homeschool think they have a better understanding of their child or children’s giftedness than what can be determined from standardized tests alone. They also think the school environment “simply did not align with what…schooling should be for their children.” (p. 126) They tended to create an eclectic curriculum tailored to their children’s unique abilities and needs. One mother summarized how this approach worked for her son:
he takes mathematics through Stanford University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth. Spanish, we hare a tutor that comes in once a week. Physics, he has a physicist at the University of Texas that he can email his questions. We take him to Texas A&M for physics seminars. (p.127)
2. Isolation–All parties involved feel isolated. The gifted children typically were isolated at school given their difference from their classmates, which was often a major factor in the decision to homeschool. But homeschooling only exacerbates the isolation. Parents likewise feel isolated, for communities of the gifted tend to presume a schooling context and communities of homeschoolers tend to emphasize religion. One mother summarized the situation thus:
the vast majority of home-school support groups are Christian based. As a non-religious family–we have had to ‘hide’ our true identities to blend into the local support group. We are a minority within a minority… This leads to a sense of being the only ones like us. (p. 128)
3. Challenges–the challenges described by homeschoolers of gifted children are no different from what many other homeschooling families face. The first year of homeschooling especially can be a difficult time of transition, with both mothers and children struggling to come to terms with their new identities. Kids have to learn to be self-starters and to take correction from their mothers, while mothers must adjust to the intensive stay-at-home time commitment. Mothers felt “pulled in various directions” as they tried to juggle all of their domestic responsibilities. Additionally, the commitment to have one parent stay home often meant financial sacrifices had to be made, and effective resources for gifted children are not cheap. As one mother put it,
a pretty high percentage of our money goes towards our homeschooling…we spend a fair amount of our disposable income on educational things. (p. 129)
4. Family Roles–This final category is really an expansion of number 3, as it relates exclusively to these highly intelligent and professionally accomplished mothers’ struggles to come to terms with their new role as full-time homeschooling mother. Jolly and Matthews provide several powerful quotations here, all of which bring to mind Jennifer Lois’ recent book on homeschooling mothers’ experiences (see my review here). Here is one representative quotation:
I have struggled with having to give up my career in order to homeschool my son. I spent many years earning a Ph.D. in order to be a research scientist. I really loved my work and had invested a lot of time and energy, so I had a hard time walking away from it. (P. 129)
This article is a most welcome addition to the literature on homeschooling of children with special needs. It sustains some of the hypotheses presented by Carrie Winstanley’s 2009 article and breaks new ground in its more rigorous methodology and its engaging discussions of the isolation faced by these families and the struggles these mothers have with their roles. It also gives us at least a peek at what sort of curriculum these families are using. I would have liked more on this.
Given these authors’ previous work with gifted students who have not chosen to homeschool, I would love to see a follow-up study that examines what leads some parents with gifted children to leave the school system while others choose to stay in it. Are there generalizable differences between the two populations or is the decision largely contingent on individual circumstances? Also, do these families tend to homeschool for the duration or do they, like similar families discussed by Lois, tend to move back into institutional schools after a few years? A longitudinal follow-up to this article would be wonderful.