Schooling has historically often occurred both formally and informally at home. Most colonial children in the United States were homeschooled in what were called Dame schools. The children in each rural area would gather at a neighbor's kitchen table to read and reread the hornbook, a catechism, passages from the bible, The Pilgrim's Progress, and other improving material. This family-centered learning, along with APPRENTICESHIP, continued to be the primary mode of education until well into the nineteenth century.

For most of human history schools were exclusionary rather than inclusive. Latin GRAMMAR SCHOOLS were only for boys from wealthy families. Harvard was founded in 1634 for the young male graduates of the grammar schools. It was nearly two hundred years later, in 1827, that the first institution of higher education for girls opened. In most southern states, it was illegal to teach African-American slaves to read. Some of those who could not go to school were occasionally schooled at home.

In the early nineteenth century, COMMON SCHOOLS were opened to educate all, but many children did not attend. The growing industrial revolution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw thousands of European immigrants coming to the industrial cities of the North. By the twentieth century, they were joined by a migration of blacks from the South. The children often did not attend school. They worked in the factories alongside their parents and other relatives. Together with child labor laws, compulsory attendance laws began to remove children from the factories. The state needed a safe place to warehouse children. School became a place you could go–if your family could spare you. In reality most children attended school only through the fourth to the sixth grades, after which they were needed to help support the family.

Access to schooling increased steadily from the middle of the twentieth century. HIGH SCHOOL attendance burgeoned following World War I and again after World War II. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided that African-American children should be allowed to attend local public schools instead of the separate schools they had been attending since the end of the Civil War. Desegregation of public schools was finally enforced in the 1960s by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Thus, by the end of the 1970s the United States saw high school graduation occurring for the largest percentage of its population ever before–or since. In response to this and other issues, the decade of the 1980s ushered in the era of school reform. One of those reforms was homeschooling. It has always been available to the privileged, some of whom were tutored at home. But when large numbers began to homeschool, district officials began to arrest parents, saying they were encouraging truancy. This led early homeschoolers to band together, to litigate, and to lobby.

Who was homeschooling at the turn of the twenty-first century, and why? The demographics are elusive. Detractors say only two hundred and fifty to three hundred thousand children are homeschooled. Supporters claim the number is closer to one and one-half million. A 1999 report from the Center for Educational Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education estimated that eight hundred and fifty thousand students nationwide were being homeschooled. Families choose homeschooling for a variety of reasons, but most are concerned either with ideology or with academic achievement. Ideologues, from fundamental Christians to New Agers, prefer the moral climate of their own homes and communities to that of school. Pedagogues are more concerned that their children will be academically handicapped if they are required to learn at the pace of classroom instruction.

Homeschooled children excel academically, despite the early concerns of educators and truant officers. Research shows that their test scores are at or above the norm, and the longer children are homeschooled the wider the gap between their test scores and those of conventionally schooled youngsters. The household income of homeschoolers in 1999 was no different from their conventionally schooled peers, but the homeschooling parents had higher levels of educational attainment. Another early concern, the socialization of homeschoolers, eventually dissipated as well. Homeschoolers form networks. They issue newsletters, have play groups, organize soccer teams, share resources, and interact in multiage social groups.

State statutes that regulate homeschooling come in three different categories. The most restrictive recognizes no exception to public school attendance except qualified private schools, but these statutes are rarely enforced. A second category gives implicit approval of homeschooling through language that allows "equivalent education elsewhere." A third is an explicit statute providing for home instruction and specifying some criteria and procedures. This last category allows superintendents to count the homeschoolers in their districts for the purpose of receiving state subsidies. Homeschooling remains controversial but has also become a much more ordinary choice and is now seen as one alternative among many in a society deeply concerned about educational achievement.

See also: Education, United States.


Cremin, Lawrence A. 1970. American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607–1783. New York: Harper & Row.

Marrou, Henri I. 1982 [1956]. A History of Education in Antiquity. Trans. George Lamb. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2001. Homeschooling in the United States: 1999. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Simon, Joan. 1966. Education and Society in Tudor England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stevens, Mitchell L. 2001. Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Van Galen, Jane, and Mary Anne Pitman. 1991. Home Schooling: Political, Historical, and Pedagogical Perspectives. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.