Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

Customization Through Homeschooling

The home offers a natural environment for customizinga child's education.

I used to call Philip my renaissance boy because he could play Mozart's sonatas on the piano, then gooutside and kill and dress chickens for our supper,” Deborah Butler told me about her 19-year-old son,second oldest of seven. Philip was labeled gifted in a southern California public school and then moved onto 11 years of home-based education.
“Differentiation is what homeschooling is all about,” Sherry Bushnell told me. She and herhusband founded the National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network, an internationalorganization that supports parents who educate special-needs children at home. They homeschool their sonJordan, a 13-year-old boy with Down's syndrome, along with his nine siblings.
Homeschooling has come of age (Lines, 1996), but many educators continue to ask questions anddoubt its appropriateness for most students. Should, can, and do homeschooling parents customize theeducation of their children?

The State of Homeschooling

Home-based, parent-led education has undergone a remarkable resurgence during the past two decades.Sites of growth include Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Poland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, andthe United States. Up to 2 million students in grades K–12 are homeschooled in the United States alone(Bielick, Chandler, & Broughman, 2001; Ray, 1999).
A variety of people are involved with homeschooling: high- and low-income families; parentswith doctorates and parents with general equivalency diplomas; two- and single-parent families; peoplefrom different ethnic groups and various religious and secularpersuasions.
Multiple studies confirm that homeschooled students score, on average, 15–30 percentile pointsabove their peers in public schools on standardized academic achievement tests (Ray, 2000b; Rudner,1999). Research has not conclusively controlled for all background variables to determine whetherhomeschooling actually increases academic success, and, considering the nature of the population andsocial science research, it may never be able to do so.
Do homeschooled students miss out on socialization? Studies have revealed that in terms of social,emotional, and psychological well-being, homeschooled students are doing well (Medlin, 2000). Of course,not all homeschooled students do extraordinarily well academically or thrive in terms of psychosocialdevelopment. In spite of some problems, however, the evidence suggests that the failure rate is lower thanthat of students in public schools (Medlin, 2000).

Why Homeschool?

All parents, including homeschoolers, want their children to be competent in reading, writing, andmathematics and to comprehend the fundamental principles of science, history, art, and geography.Homeschoolers also want to retain the responsibility of raising their children and not have their childrenraised by strangers. Homeschoolers want to have a deeper understanding of their children's educationprogress than school reports provide and to give their children the liberty to explore their own family'sculture, free from the constraints of government-controlled systems and institutions (Ray, 2000a). Theywant to see their children enjoy a broader socialization than a typical classroom allows and to give theirchildren “a more active learning environment, with provision of real opportunities to structure their owndays” (Taylor, 1997, p. 111). Homeschoolers want to protect their children from violence, drugs andalcohol, psychological abuse, and ill-timed sexuality; help their children accomplish more academicallythan they can accomplish in school; and individualize each child's curriculum, instruction, and learningenvironment (Carper, 2000; Ray, 1999).

A Natural Environment for Customization

Customization—or differentiated instruction—influences a student's academic performance and socialdevelopment and is the reason that some parents want to homeschool. Bielick and colleagues (2001) foundthat the parents' desire to customize their children's education was consistently among the most importantreasons that parents cited for homeschooling.
Holly'sstory is an example. In 1987, when Holly was 6, she wanted to know what school waslike, so her parents arranged for her to spend a day as a student in a local public school's 1st gradeclassroom. It was a cheery room, not too crowded with students. Holly had her own desk, and the amiableand talented teacher was an acquaintance of her family. That evening, when her parents asked Holly whatshe thought of school, she replied that she liked recess. When asked whether she would like to go to school,Holly replied, “No, they're always sitting around doing nothing.” She noticed the waiting—waiting inlines, waiting for the teacher's help with a math problem, and waiting for a classmate standing at the frontof the room struggling through saying the names of the week in Spanish while others giggled and lostattention. Holly noticed that she could not move on to another engaging learning task or adventure whenshe was ready for it. There was a group for whom to wait. There was a structure to follow. At home, Hollyknew that she could move on to new challenges when she was ready.
But is it possible for parents who are neither professionally trained nor credentialed teachers todifferentiate the elements of content, process, products, and learning environment on the basis of theirchildren's readiness, interests, and learning profiles? Customization does not always happen by itself.Taylor (1997) explains that many homeschooling parents emulate the institutional classroom practices thatthey experienced as schoolchildren. They stick strictly to a planned curriculum, and they follow 40-minutesubject periods. They use a lot of tests and do not give much thought to integrating disciplines. In somefamilies, the “pedagogy tends to be seatwork, emphasizing coverage and control” (p. 112).
Nonetheless, the informal environment of homeschooling affords natural opportunities forteaching and learning to become more personal, thoughtful, and individualized. When children are at homeand not in large groups, time management is more flexible, and parents, who know their childrenintimately, can respond to their children's individual talents and needs.
After studying home-based education in the United Kingdom, Thomas (1998) concluded thathomeschooling is “an interactive process rather than a series of tasks to be tackled” (p. 127), noting thatparents can respond in a timely manner to students' readiness for new challenges and take the time to makesure that their children understand concepts. The discussions that take place during informal learningdeepen parent-child interactions and increase the children's confidence as learners.
Homeschooling advocates urge parents to respond to the differences among learners in theirfamilies. Harris (1988) describes homeschooling as intensely personal, closely supervised, intentional,delight-directed, and not based on a one-size-fits-all model. Homeschoolers regularly promote variousteaching strategies that incorporate customization (“Educational Approaches and Methods,” 2002), and theNational Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network ( encourages parents of special-needs children todevelop personalized opportunities for their children to learn. Having observed the individual growth of each of their children since birth, parents naturallywatch, evaluate, teach, provide feedback, and customize for their children.

Customizing for Special Needs and Talents

Duvall, Ward, Delquadri, and Greenwood (1997) found that homeschooling parents of learning disabledchildren “can create powerful instructional environments for their children” (p. 150) and that their childrenachieve more academically than do their peers in public schools. Ensign (2000) found that homeschoolingparents of a child with learning disabilities are more likely to go at the child's speed, provide one-on-onetutoring, and expect their child to blossom, with the result that the child does well academically.
The same learning environment is also a boon for gifted children. They can “develop inmultifaceted ways and pursue interests without time and curriculum constraints” (Ensign, 1997). They canreceive one-on-one teaching, guidance, and encouragement from their parents; they are free to go at theirown pace in every subject; and they can regularly take advantage of resources outside the confines of aschool's walls.

Following Students' Interests

In an environment that respects their individual traits, homeschooled students can take advantage of theirflexible schedules and academic requirements to jump into internships, apprenticeships, field trips,volunteer service, jobs, trade schools, and college.
For example, 15-year-old Michael was intrigued with mechanical objects. His homeschoolingparents kept him involved with the standard college preparatory subjects in case he wanted to go theuniversity route. At the same time, they gave him large doses of outdoor work and arranged anapprenticeship with a local auto mechanic two days each week.
Keely, 13, decided to serve as a volunteer legislative intern for an Oregon state legislatorthroughout a four-month session. She did general clerical work, prepared files on specific pieces oflegislation, and ran errands for the lawmaker. Intellectually above average, Keely has a penchant forcreative writing and social activities. Now, at age 16 and still studying at home, she is completing adetective novel and would like to be a writer and a mother.
Daniel is the oldest of six children. He was always homeschooled and was never tested for IQ,learning disabilities, or giftedness. His mother says that if he had been, professionals probably would havelabeled him with an attention deficit disorder. His mother reports,We didn't even make him sit down; even until high school, he would pace the floor while reciting spellingwords, math facts, scripture, or anything that didn't require sitting at a desk. When working at a desk wasnecessary, we made him sit down, but we put the activities in time frames that worked.
Starting at age 12, Daniel scored in high percentiles on annual standardized academic achievementtests. When he was 13 years old and developed a special interest in politics, he took speech and debateclasses and participated in competitive debates. He started college courses at home at age 16, and two yearslater went to Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, for a degree in government. He has done wellacademically, and with a partner will represent their college at a national forensics competition.

Sharing the Benefits of Customization

Differentiating instruction to meet the individual needs of student, family, and community is the ideal kindof education. With individualized curriculum and instruction, “the teacher can provide the student withsustained personalized attention” (Good & Brophy, 1987, p. 352).
Homeschoolers may not always customize as much as is possible, but home-based education is bynature friendly to customization. Flexible schedules, small class size, high parental involvement, and muchfeedback from adults are natural elements of home-based education (Ray, 2000b). These endemic elementsshould make it no surprise to observers that homeschool students, as a group, are doing well. Perhaps thereis potential for even better results.
Homeschooling parents should focus on the benefits of customizing the education of theirchildren. They should not follow unfruitful instructional approaches simply because they experienced themwhen they were students. Parents can look to sources from literature on homeschooling (Hood, 1994;Taylor, 1997) and on differentiated instruction (Tomlinson, 2000, 2001).
Schoolteachers, administrators, and researchers should also study home-based education and talkwith homeschoolers. Professional educators can rediscover simple practices that optimize customizationand students' learning success. Research on homeschooling (Thomas, 1998) shows that uncomplicated butregular and detailed observation by the teacher, a focus on the individual student rather than on grade level,a social and physical environment more like home, strong doses of personal attention, and unsophisticatedpedagogical techniques lead to student success.

Bielick, S., Chandler, K., & Broughman, S. (2001, July 31). Homeschooling in the United States: 1999(NCES 2001-033). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Carper, J. C. (2000, April). Pluralism to establishment to dissent: The religious and educational context ofhome schooling. Peabody Journal of Education, 75(1, 2), 8–19.

Duvall, S. F., Ward, D. L., Delquadri, J. C., & Greenwood, C. R. (1997). An exploratory study of homeschool instructional environments and their effects on the basic skills of students with learning disabilities.Education and Treatment of Children, 20(2), 150–172.

Educational approaches and methods. (2002). The Teaching Home [Online].

Ensign, J. (1997). Homeschooling gifted students: An introductory guide for parents (ERIC Digest #543).Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.

Ensign, J. (2000, April). Defying the stereotypes of special education: Home school students. PeabodyJournal of Education, 75(1, 2), 147–158.

Good, T. L., & Brophy, J. E. (1987). Looking in classrooms (4th ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Harris, G. (1988). The Christian home school. Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth and Hyatt.

Hood, M. E. (1994). The relaxed home school: A family production. Westminster, MD: AmblesideEducational Press.

Lines, P. M. (1996). Home schooling comes of age. Educational Leadership, 54(2), 63–67.

Medlin, R. G. (2000, April). Home schooling and the question of socialization. Peabody Journal ofEducation, 75(1, 2), 107–123.

Ray, B. D. (1999). Home schooling on the threshold: A survey of research at the dawn of the newmillennium. Salem, OR: National Home Education Research Institute Publications.

Ray, B. D. (2000a, April). Home schooling for individuals' gain and society's common good. PeabodyJournal of Education, 75(1, 2), 272–293.

Ray, B. D. (2000b, April). Home schooling: The ameliorator of negative influences on learning? PeabodyJournal of Education, 75(1, 2), 71–106.

Rudner, L. M. (1999). Scholastic achievement and demographic characteristics of homeschool students in1998. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 7(8) [Online Journal]. Available:

Taylor, L. (1997). Home in school: Insights on education through the lens of home schoolers. The Theoryinto Practice Journal, 36(2), 110–116.

Thomas, A. (1998). Educating children at home. New York: Cassell.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2000, August). Differentiation of instruction in the elementary grades (ERIC DigestEDO-PS-00-7). ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED443572.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed.).Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

End Notes

1 Some students' names have been changed.

Brian D. Ray has been a contributor in Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 102277.jpg
Customizing Our Schools
Go To Publication