Alison Davis doesn’t see homeschooling as some strange alternative to traditional school.
If anything, says the mum from Williamstown, New Jersey, when it comes to raising her two children, she’s doing the sensible thing.
“You’re not going to be put in a work environment where everybody came from the same school and everybody is the same age,” she tells Business Insider. “In my opinion, the traditional school atmosphere is not the real world at all.”
Homeschooling, she says, that’s the real world.
Davis’ satisfaction with keeping her kids out of local public and private schools is one shared by a growing pool of parents around the US. Recent data collected by the Department of Education reveals homeschooling has grown by 61.8% over the last 10 years to the point where two million kids — 4% of the total youth population — now learn from the comfort of their own home.
Contrary to the belief that homeschooling produces anti-social outcasts, the truth is that some of the most high-achieving, well-adjusted students are poring over maths problems at their kitchen table, not a desk in a classroom. According to leading pedagogical research, at-home instruction may just be the most relevant, responsible, and effective way to educate children in the 21st century.
Personalisation is key
In his 2015 book “Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education,” veteran teacher and beloved TED speaker Ken Robinson emphasises that students learn best at their preferred speeds and in their preferred manner. “All students are unique individuals with their own hopes, talents, anxieties, fears, passions, and aspirations,” he writes. “Engaging them as individuals is the heart of raising achievement.”
Robinson wasn’t referring to homeschooling directly, but he might as well have been. No form of education is designed to foster more personalised tutelage.
While traditional schools try their best to tailor lesson plans to individual students, teachers often still end up teaching to the middle. There are simply too many kids learning at different speeds for teachers to give each of them exactly what they need. Homeschooling, meanwhile, is personal by design.
Davis says her son Luke struggled early on with reading. Even into the second grade, he didn’t enjoy it and found it overwhelming. In any other school, teachers may not have been able to spend the necessary time helping Luke become a stronger reader because they had 20 other kids to worry about. That’s not the case in the Davis household.
“I could take that extra time with him,” Davis says. Plus, reading time became more than just a push toward literacy; it was Mummy-Luke bonding time — something no school could compete with. “Now he devours books in like a week’s time or less,” she says.
The long-term effects of personalisation are equally massive. According to a 2009 study of standardised testing, homeschoolers scored in the 86th percentile. The results held true even when controlling for parents’ income level, amount of education, teaching credentials, and level of state regulation. Research also suggests that homeschooled kids get into college more often and do better once they’re enrolled.
No, homeschooling doesn’t create recluses
The biggest stereotype surrounding homeschooling is that constant one-on-one teaching deprives kids of the socialisation they need to thrive. Not so. Homeschooled kids are just as likely to play soccer and do group projects as any other students.
Davis’ family is heavily involved in their local church, so Luke and his older sister Amanda both have friends in the choir. They both play an instrument, so they have friends in a homeschooler orchestra. They hang with kids on their block. Amanda has a pen pal who lives in Arizona. As far as childhood goes, theirs is pretty run-of-the-mill.
It’s not just that homeschooled kids enjoy the upside of normal school, though; they also get to enjoy the absence of its many drawbacks — namely peer pressure and cliques. On several occasions, Alison says, other kids have expressed jealousy that Luke and Amanda get to learn at home, away from the social hierarchies of normal school.
“They’re like, Aw man, I wish I got be homeschooled,” she says. “I’ve been very surprised by it.”
Of course, some parents do struggle to help their kids make friends.
Earlier this year, I interviewed an extremely bright 7-year-old named Akash who lives in San Angelo, Texas. He’s homeschooled because a child psychologist who studied him when he was a toddler told his parents it was probably the smartest option.
Akash’s best friend — maybe his only friend — is his big sister, Amrita. Most of the kids in his nearby homeschoolers’ association are either too old or too dissimilar in personality for his parents to schedule regular playdates, even though Akash is silly and outgoing.
But even for kids who do struggle, trends suggest the Internet is making it easier. A Pew survey from last year revealed that 55% of all teens say they regularly spend time with friends online or through social media, and 45% say they meet through extracurriculars, sports, or hobbies, which suggests classrooms aren’t the only way to make friends.
Schools are even more over-worked than students
As stressed-out as students may be, schools may be under even more pressure to perform. We expect schools to help kids become smart but not anti-social, physically fit but not dumb jocks, self-reliant yet cooperative, and creative while also college-ready.
Whether we accomplish that goal is debatable — a recent survey of 165,000 high school students, for instance, found fewer than half felt prepared for college and beyond.
Maybe that’s because a lot of the responsibilities we heap onto schools are jobs better suited for parents. Perhaps Alison has found such success with Luke and Amanda because she can hack through the busy work and red tape and just focus on what her kids need.
“Schools have to bring in all these extra testing and courses and electives to try to make it resemble the real world,” she says. “But that can never happen unless you’re actually living in it.”