As nearly one billion students around the world miss school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents suddenly find themselves working and learning alongside their children. While this is far from a typical or ideal homeschooling experience, it can provide an opportunity to nurture family relationships, explore new interests and skills, and get a glimpse of education without schooling.
In a recent three‐part Cato Daily Podcast series, I spoke with host Caleb Brown about this unprecedented educational moment, including sharing strategies and resources for overcoming the challenges of unexpected, unchosen homeschooling, as well as possible outcomes as more parents seek alternatives to conventional schooling post‐pandemic.
In the first episode, I explain that what families are experiencing right now is not authentic homeschooling. Most homeschoolers will tell you that they spend more of their time outside their homes than inside, becoming fully immersed in the people, places, and things of their community. With social distancing, all of us are separated from those community networks, mentors, classes, friends, local libraries, museums, and so on. As a homeschooling mother of four, I can tell you that this distancing is just as tough on our family as it is on families with children in a conventional school. We are all feeling the stress of separation and uncertainty, as we try to continue learning and working at home. I emphasize this point in the first podcast episode, suggesting that parents avoid replicating school at home and instead use this time to encourage their children to explore their passions and discover new ideas, using the vast network of free, online resources that are sprouting daily amidst the pandemic. If parents feel that they need to stick to a schooled routine and be the curriculum enforcer in their households, it could lead to mounting stress and frustration during a time when all of us should be focused on trying to minimize family stress and maximize health and well‐being.
In the second podcast episode, I explain how the pandemic has loosened education‐related regulations, including absolving some districts of compulsory attendance laws, waiving federal standardized testing guidelines, and prompting many schools to say that any coursework completed this spring will be optional. This regulatory pause can give families a chance to separate from standardized schooling expectations and instead explore the many learning resources available to them outside the conventional classroom. Parents may find, for instance, that plentiful online learning resources, including many high‐quality, free ones such as Khan Academy and Duolingo, make it possible and pleasurable to facilitate their child’s learning without feeling like they need to be the teacher and curriculum designer. During this time at home, parents may also see that their children are discovering new talents, reading books that are meaningful to them, initiating projects, and otherwise rekindling a love of learning that may have been lost through forced schooling.
The final episode in the Cato Daily Podcast homeschooling series describes the history of the modern homeschooling movement, its changing demographics, and the wide variety of educational approaches and models that exist under the homeschooling umbrella. Drawing from insights from my Cato policy brief last fall, this episode also highlights the growing demand for educational choice and freedom—a demand that is likely to accelerate as parents disconnect from conventional schooling this spring. Education choice mechanisms, such as education savings accounts, can help to broaden the definition of education beyond schooling by enabling families to use a portion of public funds for tutors, classes, books, and curriculum materials, as well as tuition, to customize an education program that is right for each child. The regulatory and pedagogical flexibility of homeschooling allows for ultimate education personalization and experimentation, particularly as new hybrid homeschooling models emerge, and virtual learning and in‐home microschools expand homeschooling access to more families.
Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we may be on the brink of a massive educational reset. With families back in charge of their children’s education, free from the constraints of compulsory schooling, they may increasingly demand more educational choice and freedom. Some of these families will choose to opt‐out of schooling altogether, inspired by the learning, growth, and reignited curiosity they witness in their children during this time at home. In his recent book The Politics of Institutional Reform, Stanford’s Terry Moe describes how the devastation and disruption of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 weakened long‐held power structures and led to the creation of a nearly all‐charter school system in New Orleans. The COVID-19 crisis, while terrible overall, may be another natural disaster that disrupts institutional control, empowers families, and reveals that children can be educated without being schooled.