Research on Christian Homeschooling: Curricular Consequences and Organizational Power

Brantley Gasaway

As I was completing my first major research project over the past year (self-promotion alert: I just received a hot-off-the-press copy of Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, so my book should begin to ship in the next few weeks), I turned to defining my next major project. Originally I had planned to write a monograph regarding the role of religion in the political career of former president Jimmy Carter—a topic closely related to my previous one. As you can imagine, after learning in 2013 that Randall Balmer was completing a biography of Carter focused on this very theme, I needed to search for a new subject. With several other smaller projects on the side, I have now begun research on a topic that has long interested me: Christian homeschooling. 

Although the modern homeschooling movement emerged from counter-cultural criticisms of public schools popularized by John Holt in the late 1960s, conservative Christians have constituted the majority of homeschooling families since the 1980s. Overall, the number of homeschooled children has risen dramatically over the past decade, with recent data indicating that over 3 percent of school-aged children (approximately 2.2 million) are being educated at home.  In some areas of the country, the percentage is even higher—for example, in North Carolina, nearly 6 percent of students are homeschooled, a rate that has now surpassed the percentage of those enrolled in private schools in the state. Although parents cite a variety of reasons in their choices to homeschool, reports from the National Center for Education Statistics reveal that over two-thirds indicate that “a desire to provide religious instruction” and "moral instruction" are two of their primary motivations. To be sure, there has been a recent increase in the religious and racial diversity of homeschooling families. Nevertheless, surveys indicate that theologically conservative Christians still represent the largest bloc. In addition, the most important institutions that influence public policies regarding homeschooling, such as the Home School Legal Defense Association, are Christian organizations. My research thus far has led me to consider two different types of analyses of Christian homeschooling. 

First, I am interested in analyzing the most popular religiously inspired curricula used by many homeschooling families. Even as more and more scholars have been examining homeschooling, most published studies have focused on the academic performances of homeschooled children and their social, emotional, and psychological development. Indeed, the majority of these studies seem to rely upon statistical analyses of standardized testing and ethnographic research. But few religious historians or religious studies scholars have examined the homeschooling movement, and apparently none have focused on one of the most fundamental features of home-education: the curricula. The production and distribution of textbooks and curricula for homeschooling is a billion dollar industry that is essential to the movement. Without these prepared materials, most homeschooling parents, who rarely have training in education or child development, would struggle to develop a structured educational program for their children.

As one may expect, because a majority of parents choose homeschooling based upon religious motivations, many of the most popular curricula—Sonlight, A Beka, Alpha Omega, Bob Jones, Ambleside Online, Apologia, Seton Home, Christian Liberty, My Father’s World, and more—integrate religious references into their materials and align their content with conservative Christian theology. Thus, these religiously inspired curricula are shaping the education and consequently the future of hundreds of thousands of children each year.  

Second, I believe that focusing on the advocacy and apologetic work of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) offers an important lens for interpreting the ways in which Christian homeschooling has created public debates and produced legal controversies regarding religious freedoms in recent decades. Founded in 1983 and led most prominently by Michael Farris, HSLDA has arguably wielded the most organizational power within the Christian homeschool movement. As the group states on its website, HSLDA:
  • advocates on the legal front on behalf of our members in matters which include conflicts with state or local officials over homeschooling 
  • advocates on Capitol Hill by tracking federal legislation that affects homeschooling and parental rights 
  • advocates in state legislatures…to improve their homeschool legal environment and to fight harmful legislation
  • advocates in the media by presenting articulate and knowledgeable spokesmen to the press on the subject of homeschooling
  • advocates for the movement by commissioning and presenting quality research on the progress of homeschooling
I have found few studies that analyze the influence HSLDA has had in shaping the internal practices and public perceptions of Christian homeschooling.  (One exception is in Seth Dowland’s forthcoming book, Family Values: Gender, Authority, and the Rise of the Christian Right [Penn Press], which contains an insightful chapter demonstrating how the work of HSLDA and other Christian homeschool advocates reinforced traditional gender roles and political conservatism.)

In this early stage of my project, I would welcome advice or suggestions from readers regarding sources, methodology, scope, or organization. I have made contact with several scholars in other disciplines and would appreciate other information regarding recent or current studies of Christian homeschooling. Feel free to respond in the comment section, or contact me at brantley[dot]gasaway[at]bucknell[dot]edu.


Phillip Luke Sinitiere at: September 26, 2014 at 11:43 AM said...

Congrats, Brantley. Can't wait to read the book.

Interesting second project, too. If you haven't come across the work of Rachel Coleman, her scholarship is a must-reading for anyone studying homeschooling. She's finishing up a Ph.D. at Indiana (so far as I know), and if her excellent MA thesis on homeschooling is any indication, then her work is going to make important waves in the field.

The curricular focus of your project seems right on, and a rich place to understand the thinking and overarching ideology of the larger movement, and perhaps tracks with Stephens and Giberson's evangelical parallel cultures argument in The Annointed? Also, I wonder the extent to which you've considered region in your analysis? Are concentrations of Christian homeschooling's political and social capital primarily in the south? The north? Where are the textbook publishers primarily located, etc.?

Look forward to seeing your project develop.

Jonathan Harwell at: September 27, 2014 at 7:33 AM said...

Interesting research! When I taught homeschool for American missionaries in the mid-90s in Albania, we used the Calvert School curriculum. We were with the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Matt Sutton at: September 29, 2014 at 2:58 AM said...

Seth Dowland's forthcoming book also has some great material on homeschooling. But not enough on his true homeschooling love, Tebow.

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