For decades, stereotypical homeschoolers have been white Christian families seeking to mix their children’s education with moral values. But in recent years, the demographics of homeschool families and the reasons they are choosing to teach their kids at home have grown more diverse.
These days, homeschool parents are more likely to cite a negative school environment than a desire to provide religious instruction, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And though white families still represent the majority of homeschoolers, the ranks of parents of color choosing home education are swelling.
University of Georgia professor Cheryl Fields-Smith has been studying the motivations, habits, and characteristics of black families who elect to educate their children at home since 2006, when she conducted a study of 46 African-American parents who homeschooled their kids. She is the author of multiple studies on the topic and is a founding board member of the International Center for Home Education Research, a nonprofit clearinghouse for academic scholarship on homeschooling.
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In an extensive interview with The 74, Fields-Smith discussed the reasons some black families have turned away from public schools, the sacrifices they have made, and what the future might hold for the homeschooling movement. The conversation has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
The 74: How did you get interested in this topic?
Fields-Smith: I did my dissertation on African-American schooling … I had about 20 parents, all representing different families, but they were in their 40s and 50s. I wondered what would happen if I went to the same schools and did a study with the younger parents, but I couldn’t find them because the older parents didn’t know the younger parents. So I started branching out. Somebody said, “Well, I know a woman who is 32, but she homeschools.” And I was like, “Whoa, I didn’t know black people homeschooled.” I did a four-hour interview with her. I had no idea! At the end, I said, “Do you know anybody else who is homeschooling that is African-American?” She said, “Oh, yeah.” I was looking into something else and stumbled across this.
How many African-American families are doing this?
It’s really hard [to figure out] nationwide and even within a state. Some states aren’t even really tracking it. There are several regional and nationally focused organizations on black homeschooling. … Leaders of those organizations are reporting increases in their membership. That’s one thing I would use as a measure.
When was this idea introduced in the African-American community?
Some of the people that responded to my study were what I call veteran homeschoolers. They were still tapped into the network, but they had already homeschooled their children through high school ... I find out they were homeschooling in the 1990s, and they shared with me that they had African-American women who mentored them who had been homeschooling before that. That tells me these people might have been homeschooling in the ’80s. Part of it, probably, was because of integration. There seems to be this myth that every African American wanted to integrate the schools, but we have already documented that people did different things. African Americans who did not want to put their children in harm’s way or to integrate the schools, they sometimes went to the black Catholic schools. I suspect they also homeschooled.
Were their reasons just about resisting integration, or have they evolved over the years?
In my study, it was resegregation that was an issue. A lot of these families that I interviewed lived in communities where schools had become predominantly black. Their question was, how does my child get a diverse perspective on the world if everything is black? That was some of the rationale, but there were a lot of reasons. Focus on the test. A certain part of my population tried kindergarten and realized there was too much pencil and paper, not enough learning through play and letting the children be children. About 11 of the 46 chose to homeschool from birth. They knew the minute they got pregnant that that was what they wanted to do because they felt that they should be their child’s first teacher. Also, some of them were assigned to schools that had reports of violence, so [they had] safety concerns. One of the predominant themes was a sense of wanting to protect their children from being labeled a troublemaker, or suggestions that they should be in special ed, or even [schools not] acknowledging the intellect of their child because they are so focused on the behavior. Every single one of my families knew people who were homeschooling before they decided to do it. If you have people in your social network that are homeschooling and you get to interact with those children and you see how well they are doing, that could be a motivating factor as well.
Have you seen any other patterns among African-American families who homeschool?
If you look at the broad literature, there is a suggestion that highly religious people homeschool. There is a suggestion that people who are anti-government will homeschool. There is a suggestion that affluent people homeschool. In my study, it completely shows the opposite. Out of 46 families, only four of them had advanced degrees. I had families who had no postsecondary education. I had some that had some college. A lot of them had bachelor’s degrees. For some of them, I got the sense that they were really sacrificing that second income. That meant [they had] to hang on to a car a lot longer than they normally would, or furniture a lot longer. … Instead of being a solid middle-class family with two incomes … they were more of working class or working middle class.
Do you have a sense of the quality of education these parents are giving their children?
The people I talked to definitely go beyond the basic education, which is what the state guarantees every child. The reason I say that is because they tailor the instruction to match their children’s interest. I asked them if they looked at the state standards; I usually got a response that said, “Yes, I’ve seen them, but we teach beyond that.” So whatever the standards are for a particular grade level, they find that that’s lower than where their children are. They also sometimes cross-teach … a fourth-grader, a sixth-grader, and a seventh-grader together on their own individual levels.
Is there anything in the traditional brick-and-mortar schools that their kids are missing out on, or that parents regret wasn’t part of their child’s experience?
Some people might say socialization, but I don’t think that that’s an issue for most of these parents. They are so close-knit in their support groups, churches, community-based organizations, or in sports. So the kids have many outlets for socialization. I do have quotes from the families saying things like [their children] are missing out on learning about drugs and sex and those kind of things, but they will find out about that later. The other thing I would think might be problematic was learning only from your mom or your dad. I think there is something to be said about having multiple teachers and learning different ways of being taught, but many of these families go to an organization that offers a menu of courses.
Is there a pattern, age-wise?
I would say the majority of my parents homeschooled during [their child’s] elementary years. When I asked them [about their] plan for the future, most of them wanted to avoid middle school. They thought maybe by high school they would put them back in. I do remember one or two families that started in middle school or high school. … My families expressed empathy for the public schools; they want the public schools to succeed. It’s just that their particular children weren’t thriving in that environment.
How is homeschooling changing among African-Americans families since the 1970s and ’80s?
I’d say it’s becoming more acceptable among African-American families. Nationally, I know that there are some school districts that are beginning to try to partner with their homeschool community. In North Carolina, for example, the schools are offering homeschooled children [the opportunity] to come in for part of the day to take those types of courses so that those kids can get that quality of education. I think you are going to see more of different kinds of blends so it’s not mom at the kitchen table teaching.
Have you come across anything surprising in your research?
The diversity within the group surprised me. It’s not all [married couples], wealthy people, well-educated families, well-to-do. It’s everyday kinds of folks that are able to homeschool here in Georgia. African-American identity is really critical. If you send your child to public school and do not do anything at home with them to teach them the contributions of African Americans and what it means to be African American, then your child’s identity can suffer. I know I had to supplement that with my kids, had to make sure that they knew their black history, because it’s not really being taught in public school. We get one month, and usually it harps on the same people. We have a very rich legacy of contributing to this country, and more than just in entertainment and sports.