In March 2020, as the coronavirus engulfed America, Kristen Wrobel got the news: “We heard on Friday that there would be no school for two weeks. Which just turned into no school.”
That was the last time her children — one in third grade, one in first — were in a classroom.
In the beginning, they did the remote-school thing. Wrobel, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom with a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, called it a “nightmare.” The Zoom sessions, the Italian lessons on Duolingo, the stuff she had to print out, the isolation, the tears, the nagging, the shuttling the kids between her house, near Burlington, Vermont, and their dad’s, a half-hour away.
“Everyone was freaking out all the time,” she said.
By May, at the risk of violating state truancy laws, Wrobel had stopped fighting and let her kids log on (or not) whenever they felt like it. It was, she said, “the darkest hour before dawn.”
That September, she started homeschooling. She didn’t like all the restrictions her kids’ private school had implemented: Students seated six feet apart. Masked. In wedding tents. Outside.
She figured she'd send her kids back to the school in 2021, after everything had gone back to normal.
That was then. Now? “There’d have to be a revolution in schooling.”
She’s hardly alone. Wrobel is one of hundreds of thousands of moms and dads across the nation who have decided to become the principals of their very own, very small elementary schools.
The number of kids going to school at home nationwide has doubled over the past two years. In 2019, there were about 2.5 million students learning at home. Today there are nearly 5 million. That means more than 11 percent of American households are educating their children outside of traditional schools.
In Wrobel’s state of Vermont, homeschool applications are up 75 percent. And that’s in the northeast, where regulations are strictest. The phenomenon is exploding across the country. In North Carolina, the site for registering homeschools crashed last summer. In California, applications for homeschooling tripled from 2020 to 2021. In Alaska, more than a quarter of students in the state are now homeschooled.
In Texas and Florida, parents are not required to notify the state, so it’s hard to know exactly how many kids are learning at home. But just one South Florida school, Jupiter Farms Elementary, saw 10 percent of its student population withdraw for this school year. Almost all of them are being taught at home.
The American Schoolhouse was in serious disrepair before 2020 — about that no one would disagree. But the events of last year tore the whole thing down to the studs. First, the pandemic. Then, the lockdowns. Then the summer of unrest: George Floyd, the protests, the riots, the mea culpas. Many local school boards seemed more concerned about teaching critical race theory and renaming schools than reopening them. Parents didn’t know what to do — what was safe, what was right, whom to trust. It was like being inside a tornado.
These were changes that rocked every American family. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the homeschooling trend cuts across geographic, political, and racial lines: Black, Latino and Asian families are even likelier than white ones to educate their children at home.
All of this is undermining the old, Democratic-educational complex — the powerful teacher unions and the office-holders beholden to those unions — that has long maintained an iron-clad grip on tens of thousands of schools and the fate of tens of millions of American students. And it is forcing a long overdue reimagining of the way we educate children: the subjects they study, the values instilled in them, and the economy for which they are being prepared.
In the beginning, the homeschoolers fell into two camps: hippies and evangelicals. The people who thought the corporate-military-industrial state existed to create cookie-cutter yes-men, and those who didn’t want government employees poisoning their kids with talk of evolution and sex education.
But they had one thing in common: Both groups distrusted the establishment and felt they could do a far better job educating their children.
It was the late 1970s. Vietnam had just come to an end, and a long-fomenting conservative movement spearheaded by Ronald Reagan was on the verge of toppling the old political elites and taking the White House. It was a moment of great discontent.
Out of this discontent emerged a cadre of parents frustrated with the mediocrity and bureaucratization of the public-school system.
That group included Roy and Diane Speed, of Bethel, Connecticut. They were unusual: He’d spent high school in Beirut and Paris, and done a Peace Corps stint in Mali; she was a management consultant who had studied chemistry. When their two kids were still young, they started teaching them at home.
“It was a lifestyle choice,” Diane Speed told me. They immersed themselves in the writings of the patron saints of the modern homeschooling movement like John Holt, a product of Philips Exeter Academy and Yale who had taught elementary school and had come around to the view that children should not be forced to learn. “It can get pretty radical,” Roy Speed said.
The Speeds took the plunge in 2001. Then, around 2015, they started seeing what they called “public school refugees” — families sick of battling school administrators over bullying or learning disabilities like ADHD or dyslexia. There were also those disaffected with the Common Core, the centerpiece of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy. It had managed to alienate conservatives, who hated the imposition of top-down, federal requirements on local districts, and progressives, who resented standardized tests.
The Speeds dubbed these refugees “schooly.”
Schooly parents played by the rules: They wanted to know about accreditation. And curricula. And about whether their kids would be at grade-level when they eventually returned to normal school.
“The answer is no, no and no” Roy Speed said. “We’re in the wild west of education here.”
But the wild west is now fully settled territory. And it’s overflowing with people, who, unlike the Speeds, fell backwards into homeschooling, out of desperation. If it used to be the tree-huggers and the people who speak in tongues — well, now, it’s almost anyone.
When the covid lockdowns hit in March 2020 — in a matter of a few weeks, some 124,000 public and private schools with 55.1 million students shut down — American families suddenly had to adjust to school-via-screen.
The parents weren’t just upset about all the screen time their kids were logging. They were upset about what they saw on those screens. For the first time, millions of moms and dads could watch, in real time, their children’s teachers teaching.
It was a moment of “parent empowerment,” said Kerry McDonald, a senior fellow at the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education. That’s one way to put it.
Here’s another: “My kindergartener was getting maybe twenty minutes of instruction per day,” said Pauline, a house cleaner in Durham, North Carolina, who prefers using only her middle name to stay anonymous.
Pauline and her child lasted about two weeks in remote school before she decided it was a waste of everyone’s time. After a summer of lockdown, Pauline opted for a “homeschool co-op” with four other families. She was planning to send her now seven-year-old back to public school this year. “Being isolated made my kid miserable,” she said. “And I like public school. I was excited to send my kid there.”
The Delta variant, combined with her husband’s asthma, and the fact that there is no vaccine requirement for teachers in her district threw a wrench in that plan. What started as a short-term solution has morphed into a new normal.
Fear of Covid is driving others to keep their kids home, too. Mandy is a 34-year-old mom who lives about an hour outside of St. Louis. (She declined to give her last name because “people are so judgmental.”) Mandy — who works in medical claims at an insurance company and got spooked by the Delta variant — began homeschooling her seven-year-old daughter last month after the public school declined to offer the remote-school option they had last year. She also didn’t like that teachers in the district were not required to get vaccinated and that kids didn’t have to wear masks. She plans to keep her home until cases plummet or her daughter is vaccinated.
These days, Mandy’s kitchen table is overrun with books and worksheets, and she juggles teaching with her husband, who also works full-time. Their daughter is speeding through three-digit addition, basic grammar and vocabulary using Time4Learning, an online homeschool program with nearly 132,000 Facebook followers. “She’s doing way more work than last year,” Mandy said.
Over the course of the summer, said Janice Oliver-Iraci, a former elementary-school teacher in Sacramento, attitudes in her district shifted. “Back in March, everyone was bowing down to teachers for teaching their kids online,” she said. By August, not so much. Oliver-Iraci tapped into the booming homeschool market, offering drum circles, yoga, and arts and crafts classes to kids aged 3 to 12. She charged $20 for a one-hour drum session. She’s now offering a 20 percent, back-to-school discount for select art classes, bringing the price to $16. Parents register online and pay via PayPal.
Oliver-Iraci is not the only one making money from homeschoolers. Over the last year-and-a-half, a whole homeschool economy has emerged: Parents are buying textbooks, boxed science kits, arts supplies and how-to guides for DIY curricula. Companies like Time4School, Homer, Build Your Library, Bookshark and Easy Peasy Homeschool are becoming one-stop shops for parents who are now teachers.
Meanwhile, a new crop of entrepreneurs is reinventing the physical spaces where kids learn, turning living rooms and kitchen nooks into retrofitted schoolhouses with “doc cams” to project worksheets onto walls, tiny desks, art supplies and cubbies.
Some parents are ditching traditional learning spaces entirely and opting for “farm school.” Michaela Ryan runs one in Shelburne, Vermont. Parents pay $65 a day for their kids, masked and unmasked, to romp around in the mud, build fires, tend to livestock and plant summer squash, eggplant, onions, peas and kale. (Ryan’s website doesn’t say anything about math or reading or history, but it does set aside time for morning chores, snacks and hiking.)
For pods and microschools — a twist on the traditional, one-room schoolhouse where kids of all ages learn together — parents are turning to SchoolHouse, which groups families together to form a micro school, assigns a teacher, and does the paperwork involved with registering with the state. In April, the startup raised $8 million. The next month, Prenda, an Arizona-based company that’s competing with SchoolHouse for dominance of the microschool space, raised $19.1 million.
There’s also KaiPod Learning, a sort of kiddie WeWork, which provides a shared space for kids to do homework, study, get technical support, hike, do yoga and meet other kids. Over the summer, KaiPod landed a spot in the prestigious start-up incubator Y Combinator.
The question is: How will homeschool kids do compared to everyone else?
Research out of the University of Oklahoma indicates that, far from being asocial weirdos, homeschool kids are likelier to be involved in their communities. They also tend to score higher on standardized tests. Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet has argued homeschooled children are vulnerable to abuse and miss out on “civic education.” (Homeschool parents strongly disagree. See here, for example.) Other research has shown that un-schoolers— those who decide what and when to learn — are likelier than “schoolers” to become entrepreneurs.
While the hoodie-sporting-Ivy League drop-out embodied the tech mogul of the early 2000s, next-gen innovators may not even bother applying to Harvard in the first place. They may not have a transcript to apply with. In the not too distant future, prospective employers may skip the old question “Where did you go to school?” in favor of “What did your parents teach you?” Generation Alpha — those born after 2009 — will learn not in the old institutions but in repurposed apartments, backyards and garages, public libraries, museums and dairy farms.
Dave Cormier, who runs the Office of Open Learning at the University of Windsor, suggested that homeschooled students are simply forcing a long overdue conversation.
“We used to live in a world of information scarcity,” he said. “At the first universities, 800 years ago, students couldn’t even touch the books, so whatever you wrote down or could remember was fantastic.” In the age of Google, we face the opposite problem: information overload. “This all requires us to ask the question, ‘What are we really doing here?’”
Are we creating a brave new, standardless world stripped of any canonical texts? Or are we reaching backward?
Roy Speed, in Bethel, noted that many of those behind the most radical political experiment in history studied in little, rickety houses, in medium-sized, mostly uncultured cities or on the edges of sprawling farmlands. They read with the aid of candlelight. They were Zoom-less. They squeezed their studies in between milking cows and learning how to use a rifle. They were steeped in the greatest minds of the ancient world and the Enlightenment.
The Founders did not have the benefit of any playground or tablet or teachers union, but they were free thinkers. The Constitution, Speed pointed out, “was largely the work of people instructed at home.”