Ep. 201: Schooling in America Survey – Homeschooling

August 18, 2020

In this episode, we chat about results in part two of our Schooling in America Survey, “Homeschooling Experiences and Opinions During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” We unpack why parents choose homeschooling and more.

Click here to read the full report.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m Mike McShane, director of national research here at EdChoice. I am joined on the line today by Drew Catt, director of state research and special projects, and Mike Shaw, research analyst on the research team at EdChoice. We are here today to talk about the Schooling in America Survey. And I know what some of you may be thinking, loyal listeners, and thank you for being such loyal listeners, but you’re thinking to yourselves, “Wait a second. Didn’t we just listen to a podcast with roughly the same cast of characters talking about the Schooling in America Survey?” And to which I will say yes but, yes with a but, and the but of this is that the Schooling in America Survey this year is actually a bit different. We dug in specifically to the question of homeschooling. So what we’re going to be talking about today is why we did that, how we did that, and what we found. So maybe starting at the beginning fellas, why the emphasis on homeschooling in this year’s Schooling in America Survey?

Drew Catt: Yeah, I would say, Mike, and thanks for the question, and thanks for having us on today, I would say that this is something that we had already been thinking about, we’d already talked about, as you yourself are becoming quite the expert on hybrid homeschooling. It is something that is being talked more and more about in the education reform space. And I think with the timing of when we administered the survey, we had the perfect opportunity to ask parents what they thought about homeschooling and their experiences with homeschooling back in February prior to the pandemic that we’re still currently experiencing, and then to see what change, if any, happened in their perceptions of homeschooling, their likelihood of homeschooling, that sort of thing.

Mike McShane: Yeah, it’s wild. I worked this last year, as you mentioned, writing this book on hybrid homeschooling, this particular vision of homeschooling where children attend school part-time and are homeschooled for part of the time. It’s actually funny, this term has entered into the lexicon of more and more people than when I started this project. And in some ways, my summer, I’ve been spending lots of time not only finishing this book, but talking with people as school districts have contemplated this idea of using some sort of hybrid model. In some ways, I’m morally conflicted about this in the sense that I’m very happy that all of the research that I’ve done can be useful and I’ve had the opportunity to write for several large outlets, and I’m being asked to speak to all of these groups, virtually of course. So it’s been really great for my career that this horrific pandemic has racked the globe.

That’s where the conflict comes in, because I feel terrible that it took this awful thing to happen for the research that I did to become more relevant, but relevant it is. Without diving too much into the coronavirus itself and the unfolding cavalcade of nightmares that appeared to come across our doorsteps every single day, yeah, homeschooling obviously has become this big question. So it’s really cool that we have this opportunity to talk to people. How exactly did we do this? What was the sample? What was the actual process of talking to folks?

Mike Shaw: Yeah, Mike. To your point, it’s super relevant for your work, and it was also just the topic of homeschooling or home education more broadly. This is where definitions might matter and maybe you can comment on this as well, but this sort of thing came into the forefront for parents. Drew is one of the main—as well as Paul DiPerna on our research team—main architects of the survey instrument. We had to come up with some sort of cutoff point of definition of homeschooling would be for this year’s survey because we’ve surveyed homeschooling parents in the past consistently. This is going on year seven of Schooling in America. And we always segment these parents out by what type of school their children attend, or even for Americans broadly, what types of schools, whether they be public, private, charter or homeschools, do they prefer for their children? You always get these interesting breakouts, as far as sectors of education.

This year, we had to be a little crafty with it because everyone come March or April was doing some version of home education. So how do you design a survey instrument to retain our year over year results of parents who homeschool, i.e. take their children out of a formal education setting and are purely in charge of their education, with those who, and we talked about this during the last podcast, whether it be just a workbook and a weekly chat with a teacher or something more structured, but online were educating their children at home. So this was an interesting thing to do. And I’ll turn it over to Drew to talk more about the design as far as segmenting these groups.

Drew Catt: I’ll preface this by saying I was homeschooled in elementary school and I am a purist when it comes to the definition of homeschooling. A homeschooler has curricula that is decided by the parents and/or co-op. It is not something that is decided by the district. So personally that’s how I separate it. But for the purpose of the survey, we, as Mike Shaw mentioned, we had to get a little crafty. So, we asked them, where was your child being schooled in February before school started closing? It’s really good what they were doing at the beginning of the semester and maybe even by not asking the fall, capture those that had tentatively switched from one schooling sector to another from the fall semester to the spring semester. We also ask about any experience homeschooling. So there are a couple of charts in the slide deck for this report that you do have to pay a little closer attention to because it’s, have you ever had experience homeschooling versus you have never experienced homeschooling for your children?
In terms of the sample sizes, we had exactly 805 current school parents that responded. So 105 of those were homeschooling at least one child in February. 700 of them were not. When it comes to those who have ever experienced homeschooling, we had almost roughly split with 413 that said that they had homeschooled at least one child at some point, and 392 that had not.

Mike McShane: Well, I think that’s a really important point for a couple reasons. So I think first, I’m very glad, Drew, that you were clear about the definitions here, because that has definitely been a robust conversation in homeschool, school choice world of what do we call this thing that everyone did in the spring and many more people may be doing in the fall. Is it really homeschooling or is it schooling at home? And I think you harp on that key issue of control. So it’s who controls the education there? Who controls what children are learning? There’s been question in the past, who pays for it? Where exactly does it take place? But I think that key issue of control. So for example, historically, a student that attended an online school really wouldn’t be a homeschooler. They would be enrolled in an online school, but that school is deciding the curriculum. It’s doing all of this stuff, just like a student would normally be. They just happen to be doing it within their home.

But a real homeschooler, their parent sits down and says, “No, I’m choosing this math curriculum, I’m choosing this English curriculum and others.” And that’s great. I think it was so crafty the way that y’all did this whole kind of, “Well, what were you doing in February or others?” And the other bit of it that I think is really interesting is just the number of people. Oftentimes I think we think of the sectors as sacrosanct, that children go to private school or we have private school parents and then kids are privately educated for their entire schooling life. Well, it turns out people bounce around. They bounce between private schools and traditional public schools into charter schools, into homeschooling for a year. So just the sheer number of people in our sample that showed, oh, no, we’ve done this at some point. Yeah, it might have only been for a year. It might’ve been for two years. We might have done it when our kids were younger, but didn’t want to do it when it was older. It might’ve been because we moved. It might’ve been because of any number of different reasons.

But just understanding that fluidity between these different sectors, I think is actually really important. It’s not something that we directly asked about in the survey, but showed up in the data of what people had to say.

Drew Catt: I would like to point out that when we asked about satisfaction with any schooling type, that was a little earlier in the survey, before we asked about what their child was doing in February. So it is extremely possible that there was a little bit of muddling in what parents thought the definition of homeschooling was at that point in time. So they could have been answering for what they were doing in April or May, since the survey was conducted towards the end of May into the first couple days of June.

Mike McShane: For sure.

Mike Shaw: And to that point, Drew, it’s worth noting in case we haven’t brought it up already, the survey was in the field for respondents in late May and early June. And to your point, things could have changed as far as how virtual education was going, or even what I’m thinking more about as we think about the ramifications of this survey and this wave of Schooling in America, is thinking ahead to the fall and what they might be doing or thinking of doing as far as the education setting for their children. So all things important to keep in mind, but definitely think we had a pretty solid survey instrument to try to separate those very important definitional differences out.

Mike McShane: Yeah, for sure. And a lot of this stuff is fuzzy, because as Drew mentioned, homeschool co-ops, some of these co-ops are actually super structured and they almost with a wink and a nod look like a school. And there’s some online learning programs that give parents a lot of choice in the curriculum that’s used. So, there’s fuzziness around the edges of these things. So I think what y’all did to do this was as good of a job as could possibly been done. And that’s great. So let’s get into it. Let’s get into what the findings were. So a key question that lots of people are interested in is the question, why do parents homeschool? So there are sections in the report that comes out where you look at the general question about homeschooling, and then specifically dive into the coronavirus and its impacts. So before we get to the coronavirus bit, I would love for you all to just take a second to talk about what do we know about why parents choose to homeschool?

Mike Shaw: Yeah, so this survey was interesting because in a lot of ways everything has changed, but in a lot of ways nothing has. Our Schooling in America surveys consistently find that safety is a top concern or rationale for parents choosing or wishing to homeschool. That was really no different this year. Half of the parents who had homeschooled said a safe environment was a high priority for choosing that sort of environment. That also worked out with racial differences as well, with black parents especially, 57 percent, albeit a small sample size, citing that as a reason to homeschool, that finding a safe environment. Of course, safety, the term, even in the past 12 months or so in the education setting, has taken on a totally different connotation as a result of the pandemic. It was with legislation and education policy. It meant everything from bullying concerns to potential violence or school shootings that we so terribly see happen all too often in this country. And it was a very different concern for parents during the time of this survey being fielded regarding coronavirus concerns.

And as Drew has mentioned in previous podcasts in our previous slide deck, there’s a very high percentage of parents, at least in our sample, who live in at-risk homes. So COVID-19 fears are high and warranted in that regard.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And I think it’s interesting, as you said, Mike, that safety is such an important piece for this. So we gave parents 14 different factors that they could choose from. And we told them, “Hey, rank your top three.” Then we have a table collapsing those top three ranks. And half of parents, 50 percent of the 14 rankings, put safe environment in their top three. The next one down, individual one-on-one attention, it’s slightly more than a third at 35 percent. Then it jumps down to a quarter. So you can really see those top two reasons really sticking out. And again, Mike Shaw, as you mentioned, that is something that we’ve seen year over year as well, in terms of consistency.

Mike McShane: And to that end, Drew and Mike, maybe this is more of a question or opportunity for comment for you on these results, for reasons for homeschooling, it’s not totally clear because we bucket out these responses, but this curriculum control definition that we’ve been talking about isn’t necessarily a top reason or a high priority reason that the parents choose to homeschool, but it might be embedded in various other reasons. Like individual one-on-one attention, maybe you design a curriculum that benefits or is structured in such a way for that attention that you can’t get in a traditional school setting. We also have morals and character instruction, as well as discipline is high priority reasons. So I’m wondering what do you guys think about how that ties into curriculum. Is curriculum just standards and worksheets and readings, or is it this broader idea when it comes to the homeschool education setting?

Drew Catt: I think that’s a great question. And it’s interesting. Yeah. When you talk with, in the research that I’ve done with homeschoolers and others, yeah. I mean, curriculum, we have a certain definition of that, of the scope and sequence of learning and the textbook publishers and whatever. A lot of people would just interpret that as so what books do kids read in English class, or those things. Maybe it’s a little bit clearer because some math curricula have more specific pedagogical philosophies, whether they’re spiraled or whatever, all the stuff that’s going on there. And some people, I think around history and around science have some specific things that they like to see in their courses or that they don’t. So, yeah, I think curriculum is a term of art that educators use that maybe not every family would envision all of the things that an educator might put under the bucket of curriculum, but they do have those types of concerns about what’s going to be read? How is history going to be taught? How is science going to be taught?

And the same math, especially in the wake of some of the common core stuff where math pedagogy changed, it’s like, are you using the old math? Are you using the new math? So yeah, they might not put that exact label on it, but I think those are the types of questions that they’re working through when they’re making these types of choices.

Mike Shaw: Got you.

Mike McShane: So I think it would be good to maybe transition talking. You both mentioned it briefly, but how has the coronavirus impacted? So, we were talking about some of these questions that we’ve asked previously that have remained relatively stable. And there’ve been now, obviously this incredible once in a generation event happens. It affects education directly. It exposes more people to at least home-based learning, if not homeschooling. What has the impact of the coronavirus been on opinions about homeschooling?

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s a great question. And for this, we did split it out into the two groups of homeschooling in February versus not homeschooling in February. So those that were homeschooling at the start of the spring semester, almost half, or 47 percent of them, said that they were more favorable. Interestingly, nearly a quarter, 24 percent, said that they were less favorable. That’s striking compared to those who were not homeschooling in February, because it’s not that much less than the 28 percent who said they were less favorable of homeschooling. Comparatively 43 percent said that they were more favorable. So the interesting thing is the margin or the difference between the high and the low there, so it’s 23 points for those who were homeschooling in February, and it’s a little tighter at 15 points for those who were not homeschooling in February.

Mike Shaw: Yeah. The only thing I’d add there is that this changing perception seems to be consistent with other polls and surveys that have been conducted. And of course, I think that the time a survey instrument is fielded might impact these things, but we’ve seen other groups, SPN for instance, see an increase of 11 percentage points in homeschooling favorability pre and post pandemic in virtual learning shift in the spring. So these results seem to be somewhat consistent.

Drew Catt: I’m also wondering how much parent preferences are coming into this. For those of you who have been following along Schooling in America over the years, we like to ask a split sample question about if it were your decision and you can select any type of school, what type of school you would select in order to obtain the best education for your child? And then we have another version of that, where we add the phrase and financial costs and transportation were of no concern. So, if you combine those responses, just comparing those who are homeschooling in February with those who were not, the preference of those who were homeschooling in February, only a third would prefer homeschool, at 33 percent. Forty-one percent would prefer private school and 18 percent would prefer their public district school with fewer than one out of 10 at public charter.

Comparing that to those who were not homeschooling in February, only 7 percent said that they would prefer homeschooling and they were evenly split, 40 percent preferring a private school and 40 percent preferring a public district school. So I think we might actually be seeing some of those preferences coming out of those who were homeschooling in February, that if given their druthers, only a third of them would really be homeschooling. And about two out of five would be sending their child to a private school.

Mike McShane: So now in the last section of the slide deck of responses, there’s a particular dive into how these opinions vary by race. And I think this was actually really interesting because there’s lots of perceptions about homeschooling that homeschoolers are all white conservative Christians, and increasingly interesting research being done to show just the incredible diversity of homeschooling and the different reasons that people homeschool and where they come from and how they homeschool and what that looks like. So I’d be interested, how did the findings that you had over these questions vary by race?

Drew Catt: Yeah, and I strongly encourage any listeners who are interested about homeschooling that is not white parents and not happening in the suburban or urban areas to look up [Catalina Mons 00:18:35]. She is one of our fellows and has some great firsthand experience and is doing quite a bit of research into especially black school parents that are homeschooling in more of the small town rural areas. So when it came to that question of has your favorability shifted because of the pandemic, we see more than half of black school parents, 53 percent, saying that they are more favorable as a result. That’s compared with a little over a third of the Hispanic school parents and a little more than two out of five of the white school parents. So there’s definitely a stark contrast there.

Mike Shaw: And as the thing what’s instructive, Mike, for the racial differences with homeschoolers is maybe like splitting out reasons why people don’t homeschool. I think that can be instructive and tells us maybe a little bit about where different types of people are coming from within their lives or educational settings and goals. Something that struck me, for instance, was when we asked about the reasons why parents hadn’t homeschooled or didn’t homeschool prior to February, and prior to the forced home education environment, there are a number of concerns that people cited as far as socialization concerns for their children and time management. We’ve seen these all before consistently, but Hispanic parents especially, we found were more likely to be concerned about work schedule conflicts compared to African-American and white families.

And I think that lends itself, and you can take it from here, Mike, because I know you think about these sorts of things all the time, but maybe policy discussions and implications for people who do want to homeschool, but do worry about the cost or the support that they might be able to receive from, whether it be a traditional school or some sort of consortium.

Mike McShane: Yeah, for sure. I mean, this is where so many of these hybrid homeschools came from. I mean, if we look on the private side, an early epicenter for these schools back in the early ’90s was in the Dallas metroplex. In that case, it was a lot of homeschooling parents and their big impetus for banding together and starting school is that their kids were getting older. So as our kids were approaching late middle and high school, the parents felt less comfortable teaching those advanced academic subjects. And frankly, what a lot of them were doing were driving hither and non trying to find tutors and put people together that could do it. And they’re like, “Why don’t we put all of these people in one place?” And it’s like, “That’s what a school is.” So they were able to get the best of both worlds of those things.

Interestingly on the public side, I mean that I-25, the corridor that runs north and south out of Denver, we’ve done a bunch of these on the charter school sector and traditional public schools operating these programs, again, for about the same period of time, all the way back since the early ’90s. And again, a lot of those families joined for different reasons. I mean, Colorado has a big homeschooling tradition and a strong homeschooling culture, but again, they came for enrichment activity, socialization, a lot of those same issues that were happening, to band together in community with other people, because homeschooling can be isolating at times. So yeah. I mean, one of the things, anytime you start to do research on these things, you realize just the vast array of reasons, how different people choose to come at all of this.

So now I’m interested, we’ve been talking about the research that we’ve done looking backwards or looking at the past. I’m going to ask, which is always dangerous. Let’s say we ask the same questions one year hence. So, when this was in the field, what was it late May, early June? We put these exact same questions in the field in late May, early June of 2021. I would love to know. And we’ll forget about this, so no one will actually be held to account for this. So feel free to speak freely. Do you expect to see differences? Would you imagine some of these questions moving higher numbers, lower numbers? I’d love to know what you would think if we were having this exact conversation one year from now, how might it be different?

Mike Shaw: I think that’s a great question, Mike. I’d start by saying one thing likely is going to change, and that is just the general enrollment breakouts by school sector. We try to, in our Schooling in America series, try to present pretty clearly what the breakout is as far as what type of schools America’s students go to. Homeschooling consistently, based off federal data, it’s consistently about 3 percent to 4 percent of American students do homeschool. And you see reports out of various states with homeschooling applications going through the roof, parents getting together in learning pods, and just with the potential lack of in person schooling or hybrid models with virtual learning that some parents might not like. We’re expecting that number to increase, at least for the intermediate term. And I think that lends itself to differences just because it’s going to be, and you talked about this, education is not static. People go in and out of different schools sectors or settings, but I do think a vast majority of these new homeschoolers are going to be different types of homeschoolers with different experiences and that’ll lend itself to some different results.

So I’m not quite sure right now what the change might be, but I’m definitely expecting some differences as the population of homeschoolers likely grows and evolves.

Mike McShane: And that’s a really interesting point too, because I think one of the things, at least in my mind, when I initially thought about this, we tend to use the, we think about the flow of who changes sectors, at least in my mind, the default is public school students. So it’s like, where will public school students go next year? And based on their online learning plans or whatever, that might affect it. But remember, we also have kids in private schools and we have kids in charter schools. And the question is where are they going to go? I mean, one, for someone at least of my ideological predilections, one of the unfortunate things happening right now is the real squeeze is being put on private schools. Private schools that are in places where they’re not able to open in person, and thus are going to be offering online learning.

You have lots of families, especially middle class or families who are struggling financially, who really scrimp and save to be able to attend private schools saying, “Look, if I’m getting online learning, I might just take the public school one, because it’s probably not going to be very good, but not very good and free is different than not very good and expensive.” So there is going to be this really interesting question of how did the… You almost imagine one of those graphs that’s done where we start with each of the sectors on one side and you draw lines showing where they flow into each one. Because you imagine, who knows, some private school people might go to public schools, some public school people might go to homeschooling, some public might go to private and how those flows happen. I think we’re going to see this amazing mishmash of people going in all of these different directions. I don’t know. Drew, what do you see happening?

Drew Catt: Yeah, I mean, just based on the survey that we did alone, nearly a quarter of parents who were not homeschooling before the pandemic indicated they are very likely to do so full time or part time on their own next school year. I mean, I’m not entirely sure what part time homeschooling would be. Maybe it’s more hybrid homeschooling and maybe they’re thinking that, oh, their district is doing a hybrid schedule and they’re in person half the time and virtual half the time and that’s part time homeschooling. So again, the definitions are a little fuzzy and hard, but still, even 15 percent saying that they’re very likely to do so full time and another 11 percent being somewhat likely to do so full time, is I think striking. And even those who were homeschooling in February, there are going to be some changes there with 2 percent saying that they’re not at all likely to continue homeschooling.

Mike McShane: Yeah, for sure. I mean, that’s a really great point that even if some fraction of those groups of people actually go through with this, we could still be talking about hundreds of thousands or millions of children and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in funding following them. Well look, gentlemen, this was all super interesting. Drew, I see you want one. Go for it.

Drew Catt: No, actually I wanted to pivot this to Mike Shaw, to talk about the demand in homeschooling that has been happening in some states in terms of applications and shutting down some websites and how that might be a canary in the coal mine, so to speak, of things to come.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, it’s super interesting. This is something I was looking at about a month or so ago, and I do really want to revisit it because I know even though a lot of states and districts have delayed the start of their fall semesters, a lot of states and districts are well on their way to it. And I think by and large, education decisions have been made, but you saw states, both state departments of education, as well as advocacy groups and just seeing a torrent of interest regarding interest in homeschooling for this coming fall semester because, and you can’t blame them at all for this, but districts and schools just, they were waiting to make decisions on what schooling would look like in the fall. And of course, that also had to do with county and state public health officials and those decisions.

But you saw some really interesting cases. I’m based in Arizona right now and there’s some reports of tens of thousands of new homeschooling parents in Maricopa County, which is where Phoenix is. It’s the largest county in the state. You saw parents in North Carolina literally crashing the state’s homeschooling application website. So you’re definitely seeing a surge of demand. I think it’s going to take some time and just especially with the way federal data sets lag, to see how big this rush into homeschooling, for this semester at least, may be. But I definitely think the interest is there and I could see it maintaining for quite some time.

Drew Catt: North Carolina is the one that interests me the most out of those because they already have about one out of 10 of their K12 students that are homeschooling. Unfortunately much higher than any other state. And the fact that their website’s crashing due to the demand, shameless plug, looking forward to getting the results in hand for North Carolina parent survey that we did do an over sample of homeschooling parents, and we also asked the non-homeschoolers about their likelihood of potentially homeschooling post pandemic. So yeah, that’s a state that really looking to unravel a little bit and dig into the data.

Mike McShane: Great preview for the future, to be discussed on a future EdChoice Chats podcast. Drew, Mike, it was great spending this time chatting with you. Where can folks find the results of this survey?

Drew Catt: You can just go to our research page at edchoice.org, or I’m sure that our lovely communications team is going to do what they always do and make the most recent research report one of the sliders on our homepage. So you can even just go to edchoice.org and either click through those little slider buttons or wait maybe five to 10 seconds and you’ll see the link to click on.

Mike Shaw: And Mike, I’ll also plug too, Drew especially has been doing some great work with some more demographic breakouts of our various survey components. We even talked about briefly some race and ethnicity differences, but the data set is just huge as far as what can be compared as far as party ID or community type, household income, those sorts of things. So Drew has been blogging and doing some really interesting graphical things on that, on our ENGAGE blog. But if you have any questions regarding this year’s survey data regarding demographic breakouts, or just general questions that you don’t see in our slide deck or our related material, feel free to email our team. It’s research@edchoice.org. And we can try to find this question, dig into the data and share.

Drew Catt: Yeah, we’re even willing to just send you a PDF of the crosstabs so you can do your own analysis.

Mike McShane: Look at that. You two, princes, both of you. Well look, Drew, Mike, it was great chatting with you. Thanks for joining the podcast today and thanks to you, our listeners, and we look forward to chatting with you all again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.