EDUCATIONAL COOPERATIVES: Finding Balance Between Autonomy, Support, and Accountability

Record: Kenneth V. Anthony, “Educational cooperatives and the changing nature of home education: Finding balance between autonomy, support, and accountability.” Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, 9, No. 18 (2015): 36-63. [Full Article]

SummaryKenneth V. Anthony is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education at Mississippi State University, and in this article he discusses four families’ experiences in an educational cooperative and its impact on their homeschooling practices.

According to Anthony, there are three types of homeschooling groups: homeschool co-ops, timetabled groups, and support groups. Viewed as a continuum, homeschool co-ops may look deceptively like traditional schools. They are a place where students gather to take courses, usually taught by other parents. Less formalized than a co-op is a timetabled group where parents merely learn from each other and share resources. Finally, a homeschool support group offers no formal meeting place or organization. Together these groups provide a foundation for homeschooling that is often under-appreciated.

In this study, Anthony investigates the question of why homeschooling parents would relinquish some of their autonomy to a homeschool co-op. What roles can these homeschooling groups perform? What does participation in a homeschool co-op look like? To answer these questions, Anthony continues to analyze the information that he collected through in-depth interviews with four homeschooling families in some previous studies.

To participate, candidates had to have at least (1) three years of homeschooling experience, (2) one child who being homeschooled, and (3) one child who had transitioned from homeschooling to college or the work force. These families were all from the southeastern United States, and they all participated in same homeschool co-op, which was a major source of support for them. All of the mothers had at least some college education, and the number of children ranged from 3 to 6. As Anthony discussed in earlier research, the religious beliefs of these families are the key to understanding their educational practices.  The aim of these families was to raise godly children.

The families’ co-op had been in operation since 2001 at a local church, and the faith-based curriculum was based on strands of the classical trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. For most of the week, students learned at home with their families (perhaps doing homework for their classes at the co-op). The cooperative itself only met on Fridays (as well as Tuesdays for high schoolers). By agreeing to participate in the co-op, families also agreed to teach two classes per year. Therefore there were doctors teaching science, lawyers teaching logic, pastors doing history, etc. A wide variety of courses such as Latin, art, music, and four choices of science (biology, chemistry, astronomy, and physics) were offered. From these courses, families were free to take or leave any of the options. Because of the entry criteria for joining the cooperative, all of the families at the cooperative were Christian. The cost of participating in the cooperative was about $80-100 per year.

Each of the families identified the cooperative as their most important resource in homeschooling. For example, the families indicated that the cooperative freed them from planning lessons for every subject, and it enabled them to avoid the subjects they felt unprepared for. Furthermore, the co-op provided students with social activities, field trips, and athletic activities like fencing and cross country.

After explaining all of this, Anthony next discusses the role of the cooperative in individual families. For the Smith family, the co-op was a major curricular support. Previously, the family struggled at homeschooling, and their children thus struggled at academics as well. Because of the cooperative, the mother felt relieved at not being the sole educational authority figure, and her children found the socialization and rigorous academics at the co-op to be beneficial in their preparations for college.

Like the Smiths, the Johnson family also sourced most of their curriculum from the co-op. The mother really appreciated how each parent could use his or her strengths to teach the different subjects. It allowed the family to provide a wide range of curricular choices with minimal effort on the parents’ end. They only had to prepare for the classes that they taught at the co-op. Besides socialization, one of the Johnsons’ children enjoyed the co-op because it gave him accountability to study harder.

Sports were particularly important to the Harbor family. They felt that the co-op helped them to overcome the social isolation that homeschooling sometimes produces. Furthermore, like the other families, the mother appreciated that she did not have to prepare an entire curriculum for four children. The co-op allayed her concerns about providing a quality education to her children.

Finally, the Riley family appreciated similar aspects of the co-op. For example, the mother said, “We are all raising our children different and go to different churches, but are all on the same page for what we want in classical education, in the Christian way,” and “On Friday they have interaction with other students: It’s a good group of kids. Moms are being supported by each other’s prayers. Everyone cares for each other’s family and children.”

However, the co-op was not entirely positive for the families. Each family pointed out that joining the co-op resulted in a loss of autonomy. For two of the families who had been instrumental in beginning the co-op and shaping its curriculum, this was not much of a problem. For the late-comers, the loss of autonomy was more significant. However, the loss of autonomy was still voluntary, and it was off-set by the fact that families could opt-out of classes, which many did. For example, several of the families did not participate in the theology classes because of significant disagreements. There were also courses that the families could not receive at the cooperative, such as math and modern foreign language courses.

For Anthony, homeschool co-ops are important because they demonstrate that homeschoolers are willing to create institutions that look similar to schools. A difference, however, is that parents are able to maintain most of their autonomy and discretion in how they will participate. Several of the families described it as the “best of both worlds.” Although it may seem ironic that co-ops are so popular with homeschoolers, these families were not looking for complete autonomy when they decided to homeschool.

Appraisal: While co-ops are a fascinating product of the homeschooling movement, little attention has been given to them in the research literature. Here Anthony has done a splendid job, as in his other articles, of providing an in-depth look at his subject. Though the level of formality differs profoundly from co-op to co-op, it does seem ironic that cooperative group learning in a formal setting is one of the hottest trends in homeschooling.

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