Blurring the lines on what is considered “homeschooling” can set parents up for disappointment in terms of the academic and social goals they have in mind for their child, as well as in communicating the family’s values.

From the beginning of the modern homeschooling movement there has been basic agreement about what homeschooling is. The essence of that understanding is captured in Homeschooling Backgrounder’s definition of homeschooling:

What is Homeschooling?

Homeschooling is parent-directed, family-based education. Parent-directed means the parents have deliberately chosen to take responsibility for the education of their children, controlling both the education process and the curriculum (course of study). Family-based means the center of educational gravity is the home, with other resources being secondary.

Parents may choose to partner with other homeschooling parents in cooperatives or support groups to provide portions of the education. They may also choose to have others assist in the education process (grandparents, tutors such as a music teacher, older siblings).

What isn’t homeschooling?

Any program where parents delegate the control or direction of education to others or where the primary instructional time is spent outside the family is not homeschooling. Truants are not homeschooling because they are not receiving an education.

Homeschooling Backgrounder’s definition of homeschooling is about the essence of what makes a homeschooler a homeschooler. In some government jurisdictions, homeschooled students are defined by law for local purposes. Our definition is generalized so as to be applicable across the globe.

Attempts to co-opt the homeschooling brand

In recent years there has been a movement among some academics and proponents of new ways of educating children to put the “homeschooling” label on their own education methods. These include both virtual charter schools — who have marketed themselves as a free variation of homeschooling — and hybrid homeschooling. This has led to confusion among the general public and misinformation in the marketplace of ideas.

Homeschooling as a brand is well-respected. This respect has been won over the years because of its high quality education and social outcomes.

The terms “homeschool”, “homeschooling” and “home education” are informal trademarks of this brand. Trademarks help consumers, in this case consumers of education, to sort out what exactly they are buying. If the new education methods succeed in co-opting the “homeschooling” trademark as their own then they acquire an unearned credibility in the eyes of education consumers.

Problems with the attempts to co-opt the homeschooling brand

Virtual charter schools illustrate the perniciousness of falsely claiming “homeschooling” status. Many parents who enroll their children in virtual charter schools genuinely believe those children are being “homeschooled.”

They want what the homeschool trademark promises. They want to avoid school bullies and other bad school influences, just as homeschoolers do, by keeping their children at home. They want the other benefits they hear homeschoolers get, too, such as high academic achievement and preservation of their family’s values.

But the academic results are starkly clear: Homeschooled students have substantially better standardized test scores than public schools. And virtual charter school students have worse test scores than public schools. The trademark promise is broken.

Academics is not the only problem area. An individual family’s values and culture are omitted from — or contradicted by — state-approved curriculum. Parents may address these with supplementary instruction. But in reality, it will be clear to most students who it is they should pay attention to. Another trademark promise broken.

The unique homeschooling factor

What are the critical factors in homeschooling? Being parent-directed and family-based. The second naturally flows from the first.

The primary unique factor in homeschooling is parent commitment:

That commitment leads to both:

  • devoting dramatically greater time to personally educating their child, and
  • taking the final responsibility to make sure the child succeeds academically

The real test

Is it homeschooling? A basic test is to ask whether or not the parents are taking final responsibility for, and control of, the child’s education. If they cede either of these to an outside agency or program, they are not homeschooling.

Who should decide the definition of homeschooling?

There are different parties promoting competing definitions of homeschooling. How should we decide whose definition to use? There are two obvious approaches, both of which indicate the same definition.

The first is to use the definition historically understood from the beginning of the modern homeschool movement. Dr. Brian Ray’s definition in 2000 typifies this usage:

Definition of Homeschooling

“Home-based education” may be a more accurate term for homeschooling, in that it can be described as (a) a commitment by parents to personally raise and educate their children, (b) family-based and usually parent-led (but sometimes student-led), (c) conducive to individualization, and (d) generally not taking place in conventional classroom and institutional settings…. Homeschooling families often participate in community activities and use resources open to the public to enhance the education of the children.

The second approach is to accept the definition(s) used by those who are generally acknowledged to be actual homeschoolers and to reject definitions from those whose homeschooling credentials are questioned by the acknowledged homeschoolers.

Definitions provided by acknowledged homeschoolers are closely compatible as a rule. For example:

  • Parent-directed and family-based (Homeschooling Backgrounder’s definition cited at the beginning of this article)
  • Eschewing outside control of the education process:

    [V]irtually all homeschoolers converge around one key point: the conviction that the full responsibility for our children’s education properly rests with the family, rather than with public officials.