For at least one researcher, reports indicating that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a doubling in the number of American homeschooling households merit skepticism.

Sarah Grady questioned the US Census Bureau’s findings during the second session of a homeschooling conference sponsored by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Grady works as a statistician for the US Department of Education. Her presentation on May 13 explained the ways the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)—a primary source of data on American homeschooling—gathers information.

Differing Methods

To address the session’s topic of “growth and diversity in post-pandemic homeschooling,” Grady contrasted NCES researchers’ preference of contacting households using small, carefully selected lists of residential addresses with the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey’s approach of reaching out to millions via email and phone.

She then characterized the Census Bureau’s efforts as an “experiment” that has produced “low response rates.”

Grady cited NCES statistics showing that from 2007 to 2019 homeschoolers accounted for about 3 percent of the total students in the US. She contrasted this with Census Bureau data stating that by fall 2020 about 11 percent of US households—what looks like an almost fourfold increase in one year—reported having at least one student being homeschooled.

Much of Grady’s presentation—and her interaction with other panelists—dealt with the methodology of surveys and what approaches are most likely to produce results that are mathematically reliable.

Why It Matters

Home School Legal Defense Association President Mike Smith insists that the topic of last Thursday’s Harvard session—the data and methodology—warrants studying, as it reveals efforts to understand what families want.

“It’s important,” said Smith, “because it shows that educational freedom matters to America’s parents. Moms and dads want more liberty to choose what and how their children learn. Legislators and other officials need to recognize this trend and craft policies that accommodate it.”

This perspective echoes that of the session’s moderator, Paul E. Peterson, who directs Harvard’s education policy program.

Peterson said that the surge in homeschooling during the pandemic points to “a transforming moment” in education.

After the Harvard session, HSLDA Director of Research Steven Duvall said that the Census Bureau’s data on homeschooling collected since April 2020 should be taken seriously.

He noted: “They collect data over and over and over again, and when patterns appear over time, it makes the outcomes very believable.”

As for the fact that only 5–7 percent of the people contacted for each Census Bureau survey responded, he added, “those are different (and huge) samples that come out every other week, ranging from 58,000 to 81,000 over the last 10 weeks—as opposed to the one done by NCES that comes out every several years. The latest NCES study involved only 16,000 students back in 2018–19.”

Bringing Change to Education

The question of how much homeschooling has grown certainly matters to the nation’s public education officials.

They’ve been increasing efforts to locate and identify students who stopped attending public school during the pandemic, when many districts shuttered their buildings and switched to online classes.

In many cases, these efforts have led to contacts with longtime homeschooling families. For parents who homeschool in order to craft loving and custom learning experiences for their children, this unasked-for government interaction can feel intrusive.

This perhaps helps explain why the New York Times recently reported that, as many school districts across the country return to in-person classes, they are struggling to draw back students whose families have come to value the advantages of doing school from home.

The Census Bureau said as much in summarizing survey findings on its website: “It’s clear that in an unprecedented environment, families are seeking solutions that will reliably meet their health and safety needs, their childcare needs, and the learning and socio-emotional needs of their children.”

And for an increasing number of families, these solutions are being found in homeschooling.