It's close to lunchtime on a sunny Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina. Homeschooled students Hannah Spear, 7, and her brother Benjamin, 5, are sitting at the kitchen table. Hannah is practicing downward loops in her cursive-writing book, and Benjamin is working on a phonics lesson. On the floor next to them, their little brothers Nathan, 4, and Timothy, 2, have built a roadway for their toy cars and are making zooming noises. Their 3-month-old sister, Elizabeth, perched nearby in a bouncy seat, is beginning to fret.
Despite the jumble of activity, their mother, Meg, thinks that it's been a good school day. The older two children have each practiced piano or violin for half an hour, studied a Bible and a history lesson, and done some math. No science, though. They'll have a science class tomorrow, when another homeschooling mom will teach a group of 12 kids about interesting animals.
Spear admits she's probably not the best possible teacher that her children could have. "But if they were in school, there's no guarantee they'd get the best possible teacher either," she says. "And they'd never have one who gives them as much individual attention or who understands them as well as I do."
Nobody knows exactly how many children are being taught at home in the U.S., because not all states keep records on the number of homeschooled students. Experts estimate it's about 1.1 million children, or roughly 2 percent of the school-age population. Some advocates put the figure closer to 2 million. Whatever the number, there's no doubt that it's skyrocketing, perhaps by 15 to 20 percent per year. "Homeschooling has become a legitimate educational option for families," says Mitchell Stevens, Ph.D., associate professor of education and sociology at New York University and author of Kingdom of Children, about the homeschooling movement.
The idea that parents can instruct their own children has deep roots in American history. Colonial children were almost always taught that way, and many rural children continued to be homeschooled until well into the 20th century. Ten years ago, as the modern movement was gathering steam, Congress officially made homeschooling legal in every state and specified that parents don't need to have teaching credentials.
At that time, parents usually chose to homeschool because of their religious convictions or unconventional views about education. Today, however, most parents become teachers simply because they're worried about the overall quality of their public school, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. The next most common reason for homeschooling is to provide religious or moral instruction. Other parents say they're doing it because they're disappointed with the academic standards at their local schools or their child has health problems. While some parents try homeschooling early and continue right through high school, others do it for only a year or two, opting in and out of the school system as their family's needs shift, Dr. Stevens notes.