Parents who are researching homeschooling often ask the same first question:
“I want to homeschool and I’m looking at K12.com. What can you tell me about it?”
If they ask this question in one of the many Facebook homeschool groups I’m in, the purists in the crowd often balk. “That’s not real homeschooling, that’s school-at-home!” Then they’ll encourage the parent to look into XYZ curriculum instead or read Such-and-Such book or website to learn how to “really homeschool.” (Confession: I’ve done it too. I’m better now, though, I promise.)
Here’s the thing: These programs do have a place in the world of alternative schooling options. The question is: What place is it? And the next question you should ask: Are these programs right for you?
In this article we’re going to look at:
• what is meant by “school-at-home,”
• how school-at-home programs differ from homeschooling (because yes, there is a difference),
• what types of school-at-home programs are out there,
• and how to decide whether school-at-home or homeschooling is right for you.
Virtual school (online public or private school) is also known as “school-at-home.” The definition of school-at-home is basically exactly what it sounds like: conducting conventional schooling in a home environment. The content, materials, and sometimes even the testing are the same. There is little to no personalization or customization. And in the case of online public school, since it is literally public-school driven, a government entity is still overseeing your child’s education and controlling the schedule, requirements, etc.
Despite what some homeschoolers might tell you, these programs are valid educational options that provide exactly what some students and families need. So why do so many homeschoolers claim online school-at-home is not truly homeschooling?
It turns out there are a lot of reasons why so many people don’t consider school-at-home to be homeschooling:
Is there some overlap between homeschooling and school-at-home? Of course! But is school-at-home the same as homeschooling? No. The hallmark of homeschooling is its flexibility and customizability, and school-at-home can’t come close to matching that.
As the chart shows, there are two different school-at-home options: public and private. They are exactly what you’d expect, given their names: either programs that are public school online or those that are independently run as or offered by private schools. There is actually a third option as well: private businesses that provide a la carte classes geared towards homeschoolers (and conventional students who want to take classes they can’t take at their brick-and-mortar schools). Let’s look more closely at the details of each, and then compare them in another handy chart.
Online public schools: These are programs like K12.com and Connections Academy. They are tuition free and provide all of the textbooks and test materials your student needs. (Just as with traditional public school, you need to provide your own “school supplies.”) They require the students to be online for a certain amount of time each day and typically follow the traditional public school schedule in terms of holidays and stop/start dates. The curriculum, pacing, and standardized testing mimic that of traditional public schools.
In general the curriculum and requirements are not customizable, just as they are not in standard public schools. (Students with diagnosed learning challenges may be able to work with the program to create an IEP or 504. These are different types of modification and accommodation plans created with input from a child’s parent, teacher(s), and administration to help a child with education-impacting diagnoses succeed in the classroom.) Students have contact with their teachers (as well as with other students in some programs) through teacher-led collaboration groups or discussion boards. In some cases, there are even local field trip opportunities, as well as online extracurriculars and “after school clubs.” Note that these programs are not available in every state.
Online private schools: These programs are usually more flexible, allowing students to work at their own pace (provided they finish courses in a certain amount of time – typically 12 months) and to select the courses they take. Students can enroll in an entire program in order to complete a traditional course of study for a specific grade level, or in single classes to round out a public or homeschool education. Just as with traditional private schools, these programs charge tuition, but they also provide the textbooks and materials (though, as with online public school, you must buy your own school supplies).
Enrollment is often either completely open (you can start classes at any time during the school year) or is provided multiple times throughout the year. Students can contact their teachers when necessary, though they’re not usually in live classes with them. Contact with other students is minimal or not facilitated. While there is flexibility in the pacing of the program, there is little customization available in how students engage with the course. These programs are available to everyone in the country (or even world) regardless of location – as long as they have internet service.
I've created a detailed spreadsheet to more easily compare the most popular public and private school-at-home programs. if you think an online program would be the best fit for your family, then just click here to check it out and narrow down your choices!
Online courses: There are scores of businesses, companies, and schools that offer online courses. Some are specifically aimed at homeschoolers, with quirky options like Minecraft coding and learning chemistry through Harry Potter, while others offer more traditional classes aimed at providing the standard courses required for a more conventionally-aligned education. Some allow you to build your child’s entire education online, while others strive simply to provide fun elective options, instruction in classes parents feel ill-equipped to teach (like higher mathematics), or untraditional approaches to traditional topics. The quality of instruction; “extras” like grading, testing, transcript building, live class interaction, etc.; and level of course development will run the gamut.
Parents who are new to homeschooling almost always ask if a particular program or curriculum is accredited. This is because some programs will describe themselves as such. The problem with this description is that it’s highly misleading. Programs, curriculum, and courses of study are not and cannot be accredited. Only physical schools can be.
Programs that describe themselves as being accredited are provided by physical schools that are accredited. Their curriculum falls under the umbrella of that label simply because they originate at that school. Accreditation requires that a school meet certain standards of safety, teacher qualifications, teaching methods, etc. Some accrediting bodies will also set curriculum standards that must be met, but again, it is not the curriculum itself that is being accredited, but the school.
There are multiple accrediting bodies in the United States, and they all have different standards, so just because a school boasts that they’re accredited does not mean they have hit some single national standard. And just because a school is not accredited does not mean it is not a high quality school! Accreditation is an expensive and time-consuming process (and I know this from experience, having been through the accreditation process with two different schools when I was a classroom teacher), and some schools choose to allot those resources to other areas.
So do not be fooled by the accreditation label. It has no bearing in the world of homeschooling or school-at-home programs.
So how do you decide if you should homeschool or do a school-at-home program? In the end, it all comes down to three things:
• your values,
• your reasons for pursuing an alternative educational option,
• and your vision for your child’s education.
Your personal values greatly influence your educational choices, even if those values don’t appear on the surface to have anything to do with education. Your religious beliefs, your political beliefs, and the concepts or ideals you prioritize most in life all play in to your educational decisions.
Here’s an example. If you value adventure, then chances are you don’t like to be tied down to a schedule or have your routine dictated to you by outside forces. If that’s the case, then you may chafe at having to be at the mercy of the public school’s holiday schedule. You don’t want to head to the mountains or the beach at the same time as everyone else – you want to go when the mood strikes or the tourists aren’t there! That’s a lot easier to do when you’re the one who decides what and when your child studies.
Here’s another example. If you value peacemaking, then chances are you’re not comfortable going against the grain and potentially rocking the boat. You don’t like sticking out or making decisions that are going to put you at odds with the majority of the people around you. So if you have to select an alternative educational option, you’ll probably want it to look as much like conventional schooling as possible, in order to avoid conflict with family members or friends.
If you’ve never determined what your personal values are, I highly recommend doing so. Making decisions of all kinds becomes much easier when you are clear on your personal values. Not only do some options immediately come off the table, but the right option often becomes much clearer because it’s the one that aligns with your values or helps you move in the direction of fulfilling those values this Inc. article on defining your personal values does an excellent job of walking readers through the process. I strongly recommend engaging in his process before making any educational decisions.
Reasons for Pursuing an Alternative Educational Option
Once you know your values, the next step is determining your reasons for considering alternative educational options. Those reasons are going to help clarify which direction you should go: school-at-home or homeschooling.
Maybe you have no problems at all with public education in general – there are other issues at play for you. For example:
If you fall into this category, and public school education is in line with your values, then yes, doing school-at-home with a public school program makes a lot of sense. But I would argue it’s still in your child’s best interests to look at homeschooling options that could make schooling even easier for them and more relevant to their situation and future.
However, if your reasons are educationally related, then you need to look not only at your values but at those educational reasons as well, to decide whether private school-at-home or homeschooling is the right decision for you.
Private school-at-home might be a good option for you if:
You also need to take an honest look at whether or not fear is playing in to your decision. That is often the #1 reason why people don’t jump in to homeschooling and instead select a school-at-home approach, even if it’s not the best fit for their child or family.
This kind of thinking breaks my heart! If this is the reason you’re looking into school-at-home options, please know I am here for you. This is the reason why we started GoodSchooling in the first place – to equip, empower, and encourage families to homeschool. Don’t listen to fear. You can homeschool. We can help.
If you find that your personal values and your reasons for homeschooling are incompatible with public or private school-at-home options, then homeschooling is the choice for you! Just look at what homeschooling provides:
Homeschooling can be summed up in one word: Freedom. Freedom to teach what you want, how you want, where you want, and when you want.
But freedom can be overwhelming – and that’s where GoodSchooling come in. My content-rich blog provides guidance to families who prefer to “DIY” their homeschool launch. Many families are able to find all the help they need just from those articles! And for those who feel called to a family-prioritized, faith-infused, and life-focused approach to homeschooling, my Simplified Homeschooling Framework will help parents figure out how to do that.
School-at-home programs can be a godsend to families who need them – and so can homeschooling! I hope this article has given you the information you need to make the right decision for your family!