Hello Class My Name Is Mom: A Look at Homeschooling in the 1970’s and Today

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From learning lessons through parents, to taking classes completely online, the concept of homeschooling has completely transformed from the 1970s to today; and the motivations for doing so have too. Homeschooling has always been seen as an alternative to public, private and charter schools, but at the beginning of the 20th century, the country saw a dramatic drop in the number of homeschoolers, and a huge increase in the number of students enrolled in public schools. That was, until the 1970s, when John Holt, educational theorist, argued that formal schools’ focus on rote learning created an “oppressive classroom environment designed to make children compliant” (A Brief History of Homeschooling, 2017). Many families agreed with his argument, and soon, parents were taking their children out of public schools and re-exploring the option of homeschooling. This transition begs the question, how have various families’ motivation and experiences of homeschooling transformed from the 1970s to today?

In the 1970s homeschoolers were primarily motivated by three factors: religion, “back to the land” education and left and right political ideologies. Today in 2018, while religion has stayed a consistent motivation for some homeschoolers others have shifted to focus more on two factors: special education and family first values. Additionally many of today’s homeschooling families experience the process through online classes and programs, which has contributed to the growth of the homeschooling community. The transition from a more raw and natural homeschooling system in the 1970s, has faded away to reveal a completely new-and-improved homeschooling system, one that revolves more around online lessons, connecting with teachers from home, and building a sense of community for both the families and the children.

One of the most popular motives for homeschooling in the 1970s was due to the lack of focus on religion in public schools, especially Christian values. The recent 1962 and 1963 Supreme court decisions outlawing school prayer and school-sponsored Bible reading shocked and devastated many religious families. Over the years, many started pulling their children out of public schools. The fact that public schools no longer allowed teacher-led prayer, or prayer organized by a public school, even when delivered by a student, “violate the First Amendment, whether in a classroom, over the public address system, at a graduation exercise, or even at a high school football game” angered many families across the country (Haynes & Thomas, 2007). Religion was a very important factor for some parents in the 1970s, and if the public schools were not going to allow it, than parents would not allow their children to attend the schools. They viewed the removal of religious practices from schools as “yanking God out of the public schools” (Carper, 2000). Many parents wanted their children to have a strong religious affiliation when they grew older, and the best way to achieve that was to teach it to their children themselves. With the kids at home, parents were able to incorporate daily prayer, bible readings, and church attendance at a level that they found appropriate.

The 1970s were a time of earth-grown and organic, people were looking to ground themselves, and revert back to the “natural” ways of life, and for that they turned to “back to the land” education. This form of homeschooling was often found in newly developed communes, small-scaled communities that were looking to model “a new society in hopes that the old world somehow would be won over” (Gaither, 2017). These communes were spread all over the country and very self-sufficient. They had their own magazines such as Whole Earth, and Mother Earth News, which taught readers how to build houses, raise animals, and grow crops (Gaither, 2017). There was also a strong emphasis put on family; each commune has a slightly different style, and some were more experimentative than others. Some communes attempted to use a group parenting style, which often resulted in very little parenting at all. Instead these children were treated as miniature adults and given all the responsibilities of an adult member of the commune. Researchers who went to visit the commune expecting to find a wild, “hippie” child instead found a well behaved child and concluded “the farther away from regular families and cities and careers that we get, the less obnoxious and self-centered the kids get” (Smith & Sternfield, 2012). Most of these communes approached education in a similar fashion. Many began with a philosophical antagonism to public education. As one member put it ““suddenly I saw all the bulls—t in the whole educational and social system…. The problem with our schools is that they are turning out robots to keep the social system going” (Gaither, 2017). A lot of the families in the commune agreed with this statement and believed that public schools were being used as the primary means of assimilating children into “the establishment”. Therefore, they looked to alternative methods of teaching their children the skills they felt to be the most important.

“Back to the land” homeschooling education was taught through work and real-life skills. Stacia Dunham, a member of one of these communes tells the story of her education growing up. She remembers one year her family caught five hundred trout, and they sat assembly-line style around the table, learning how to gut and clean the fish. Her and her sisters also cared for the goats, chickens, pigs, and cows. They tended to a large apple orchard, forged for berries, hunted and dressed the kill and panned for gold. Math was learned when necessary, and taught through project-style method, (Gaither, 2017). Although this was not a traditional public, or homeschooling method, the children who went though this programs still learned successful crafts, and were able to read, write and do math. But they were also able to take care of themselves, grow crops, catch, gut and cook fish and care for animals. Along with their basic education, they were learning skills that could never be taught in a classroom. This method of schooling worked well. Many children went on to earn advanced degrees and find successful jobs, as one mother describes it “the kids turned out to be bright, creative, interesting and full of life. It’s almost as if being exposed to all the wildness back then demystified that way of life for them,” (Gaither, 2017). Although this was a successful motive and experience for some families, others weren’t so keen on the idea, and were driven more by their political ideologies than a wilderness experience.

Both left and right winged families were transitioning towards a homeschool approach instead of traditional public schools. The left wing “hippie” movement viewed the public school as “symbols of everything wrong and destructive in modern life” and therefore favored a homeschool approach (Kunzman & Gaither, 2009). Although some left wing families went as far as to join the “back to the land” homeschool experience, many just made the transition from public school to home. Many of the more liberal families had been faced with feelings of feelings of despair and powerlessness after their protests had failed to stop the Vietnam War and felt disillusionment with the pace of social change prompted many to drop out of “mainstream” America (Kunzman & Gaither, 2009). Many of these families worked to design their own curriculum that taught their children the lessons and skills they wanted them to learn, not those the government was “forcing” upon their children.

On the other hand, the right wing conservatives transitioned to homeschooling for different reasons. They were particularly upset over discussions of “race and sex that tended to make the United States look bad” (Gaither, 2017). They also despised the “new math” and whole language instruction that insinuated reality is not a fixed given to learn, but an open possibility to construct by the individual. They were continually worried about sex education and the topics of death and dying. They too were dissatisfied with the public schools curriculum and ways of teaching and moved to homeschooling. Conservative families looked primarily to the mother to provide educational change for the children. The 1970s were a different time for women, they were seen now more than ever as articulate, empowered and strong. While the men were away at work, it was the women who showed up to the meetings and vocalized their opinions about the public schools. Ultimately, it was the conservative women who were able to make such a popular shift from public formal schooling to a much more individual system of homeschooling.

Flash to fifty years later and the homeschooling movement that picked up speed in the 70s has completely taken off. As of spring 2016, there were about 2.6 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 who were being homeschooled (Ray, 2018). Compared to the approximated 10,000 who were homeschooled in 1970, that is an enormous increase in popularity (Gaither, 2009). And while some of the motives such as religion have stayed consistent over those past fifty years, with our ever-evolving society, many families have shifted to a greater concern for special education and family first values. The introduction and integration of the Internet into the homeschooling system has greatly influenced this increase in popularity, and completely revolutionized the whole homeschooling movement and curriculum.

Despite the societal changed the United States has faced, the religious ideologies that motivated families in the 70s’ still motivate people today in 2018. Many families still desire their children to grown up with a strong religious affiliation that can only be achieved by teachings though home. According to data from the National Household Education Survey’s Program, in 2016, 51% of families choose to homeschool their children due to a “desire to provide religious instruction”. Although unlike the 70’s, due to the invention of the Internet in 1983, families today do not have to rely solely on their parents or church for instruction. Many companies have now created online programs for all ages that base their curriculum and lessons around religion. For example, Sonlight is a Christian–based curriculum that parents can order online. Their mission is to “encourage children to honor God’s “Great Commission” by gaining an international perspective and a godly heart for the world. It is this missionary concern – the desire that God’s name should be known and His glories revealed throughout the world among all peoples – that motivated our decision to study history from an international perspective.” They use a combination of online resources and literature based lessons that they believe are the most effective. They provide full curriculum or individual subjects that come with detailed instructions, and notes for the parents so they can follow along with their children. Parents are very pleased with pre-designed curriculums like these because it allows them to control what their children are learning, without having to design and teach them every step of the way. Children have the option to complete courses in math, science, bible, language arts, etc. and a selection of AP courses during their “high school” years. There are also extra electives such as driver’s education, computer programing, foreign language, health, practical life skills, and music that may not be offered in a traditional public school setting. A majority of these programs continue to place an emphasis on God and Christianity while still providing the students with the well-rounded education that will prepare them to enter college or the workforce.

Families who are looking incorporate a more religious intensive curriculum into their child’s education will have a much more enjoyable experience today in 2018 than they would back in the 70s. There are so many more programs to choose from, and because many of them are based online, the students are able to get in contact with other kids their age that may be using the same, or similar programs. Although they may not be with other children for all hours of the day, they are still receiving that exposure and developing similar social skills that they would develop if they were enrolled in general public school.

One of the motives and experiences of homeschooling that has transformed from the 1970s to today is the concern for special education. Data also suggests that in 2016, 34% of families choose to homeschool their children due to a physical or mental health problem, special needs or temporary illness (A National Household Education Survey’s Program). Many parents today are concerned that public schools are more worried about turning out the most number of graduates, or obtaining the highest test scores than the individual child’s learning experience. This is especially true for parents of children with special needs. For example, a mother who has used the online program Achieve Beyond, a curriculum designed specifically for children who suffer from Autism states “…at no point do you feel like you or your child is just floating in space, not being taken seriously.” Despite the daily challenges families with special needs children face, the new experiences of homeschool have made educating these children that much easier.

According to the Homeschool learning defense association (HSLDA), 17 different states are not obligated to give services by law; in other words, there are no laws that allow homeschool education students to obtain special education funding. This has made homeschooling in these different states more of a challenge, but thanks to the online curriculum, many of the lessons designed for special needs children standardized across the country. This means that a child in Connecticut, who is “a student receiving home instruction [and] is not enrolled in a private school, and is not eligible for special education or related services” is able to obtain the same education as a child in Kentucky or Louisiana who is eligible for special services (Special Education Provisions, 2018). The introduction of online and more standardized homeschooling curriculum specifically designed for children with special needs has given parents the ability to provide more structured lessons that students can learn at their own pace.

By far, the most popular change in homeschooling motives is a much stronger emphasis on family first values. This can be anything from a desire to spend more time with your children, to dissatisfaction in the public schooling system/curriculum to wanting to provide more moral instruction. Data from the American Institute for Research (AIR) concluded that 77% of parents choose to homeschool their children in order to “provide moral instruction”, while 74% of parents said they had a strong “dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools.” This can be seen extensively in the African American community; the number of homeschooled African American children has almost doubled from 105,000 in 2003, to 220,000 in 2018. Amber Johnson, mother of 4, is concerned that “we have not come as far along in race relations in the country as I thought that we had, and that there seems to be a lot of messed up stuff brewing underneath”. This has caused her, along with hundreds of other families, to transition to homeschooling where they can create a customized curriculum that focuses more on what they want their children to learn, instead of what they schools are teaching them. For example, Sheva Quinn has been homeschooling her six and seven year old daughters for four years, and has built a history curriculum that emphasizes African American history. She has added a personal touch by tracing her family’s history back to Ghana, which allows her children to make a personal connection with the information they are learning, something they would never experience in traditional public schools (Weber & Kargbo, 2018). Quinn, who is a single mother, works as a teacher for online classes, and a homeschool educator has found the access to low-cost or free online lessons has made it possible to be continue to do all the things she enjoys while still providing her children with an education that she feels is best for them.

These family first values that many people share in common has allowed families of all races to connect, share there experiences, teach in group settings, and form a community. Especially with the introduction of online programs, students can now connect and interact with other students across the country. Many homeschooling programs have set up community centers all across the country where students can go and learn a lesson or two in a more formal classroom setting, while still being taught their more specified curriculum. This gives children the ability to interact and form friendships and social skills that they would form in school without actually having to attend public school.

Over the last fifty years, the motivations and experiences of homeschooling have had its ups and downs. The 1970’s were a time for religion, hippies and politics, while today’s communities focus more on special education and family first values. Overall, families who have joined the homeschooling movement over the last five years have had a much more positive experience than those of the 70s. They have been able to use the Internet to benefit their lessons and connect with families across the state or across the country who share similar beliefs on education and lifestyles. Although, the 70s were seen as a truly new era for homeschooling, it was the first time since the 18th century the country had seen such a drastic increase in the number of families who chose to homeschool. Since that transition, the numbers have only continued to increase, and while families motives and experiences have, and will continue to change, the choice of homeschooling will be around for years to come.


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