Not-Back-To-School Time for Massachusetts Homeschoolers

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Back-to-school sales are in full swing in stores across the Commonwealth, as parents and young people gather fresh pencils, notebooks, and other classroom accoutrements to begin a bright, new academic year. But for a growing number of Massachusetts families, not-back-to-school time is a more fitting term for this annual season. 

For homeschooling families, particularly those like mine who embrace self-directed education, learning happens all the time, all year round. There are no arbitrary starts and stops, no subject silos, no designated spaces in which to learn, or appointed people to learn from. Learning is ongoing and ubiquitous, occurring constantly from the people, places, and things around us. Legendary Boston educator John Holt, who pioneered the liberal homeschooling movement in the 1970s, wrote in his book Learning All The Time:  “Children learn from anything and everything they see. They learn wherever they are, not just in special learning places.”

Today, homeschooling families continue to blur the lines between schooling and learning, and often act as seedbeds of education innovation. In a June report on homeschooling by Boston’s Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, authors William Heuer and William Donovan write:  “Homeschoolers have essentially paved the way in self-directed learning, multi-age grouping, project-based learning, adapting to individual learning styles, and content mastery vs. seat-time. They continue to expand their use of alternative assessments, anywhere-anytime learning, and the use of apprenticeships.”

From its origins in the Vietnam-era countercultural movement to its modern ascent into the mainstream, homeschooling is now a viable education choice for many families. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of homeschooled children has doubled since 1999 to 1.8 million children in 2012, or about 3.4 percent of the overall school-age population. As of 2016, it is estimated that the number of homeschooled children increased to 2.3 million nationwide, comparable to the number of children enrolled in U.S. K-12 public charter schools. The NCES data cite “concern about the environment of other schools” as the top motivator for homeschooling families.

In addition to their swelling numbers, contemporary homeschoolers are also increasingly diverse. The data indicate that Hispanic children represented 15 percent of the homeschooling population in 2012, and black homeschoolers represented 8 percent — a figure that doubled between 2007 and 2011. In a 2012 research paper published in the Journal of Black Studies, Temple University professor Ama Mazama revealed that black families were increasingly turning to homeschooling as a form of racial protectionism. She found the growth in African-American homeschooling to be “an exercise in agency inspired by the desire to defeat racism through physical removal from one of its major spheres of operation, school.”

Here in Massachusetts, a number of organizations aim to support homeschooling families and make the option more widely accessible. Parts & Crafts in Somerville, Bay State Learning Center in Dedham, the Macomber Center in Framingham, and North Star in Sunderland are four self-directed learning centers that provide resources, classes, and collaborative learning opportunities for homeschoolers. Prioritizing freedom and autonomy, these learning centers tap into young people’s natural self-educative instincts and help facilitate their interests and curiosities. A Boston College psychology professor and self-directed education advocate, Dr. Peter Gray, writes in his book Free To Learn:  “Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges.”

As autumn nears and the back-to-school buzz mounts, my family celebrates not-back-to-school time. My children join thousands of Massachusetts homeschoolers who learn without school, broadening the prototypes and possibilities of education beyond the schoolhouse walls.


Kerry McDonald has a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and writes frequently about education choice and homeschooling. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.