Meg Honnold just wrapped up her first year at The University of New Mexico, but unlike most students on campus, it was also her first year in a classroom. Homeschooled from kindergarten through high school on a fundamentalist family commune in the Ozark woods, Honnold did not always plan to attend college. Now, she’s an award-winning undergraduate researcher.

Honnold took first place in the 180-second research presentation category at UROC, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Conference at UNM, for her literature review,  “The American Homeschool Movement: An Analytic Review of Prominent Research Topics, Leading Voices and Emerging Studies.” She hopes to amplify the voices of children in the larger, societal conversation about schooling.

“My hope is ultimately for homeschool reform that ensures it as a safe, vibrant education alternative and currently these gaps in research are letting a lot of students fall through the cracks,” she said. “Studying the homeschool movement, for me, is children’s rights advocacy.”

Public conversations about homeschooling often focus on parent voices and rights. Honnold is interested in re-centering the voices of people who were homeschooled.

“There’s this generation of kids from that 90’s homeschool boom who are now adults who can be interviewed and participate in knowledge production in ways that haven’t been available previously,” she said. “I want to elevate their efforts in this academic research space where their voices have largely been under-prioritized.”

The National Center for Education Statistics estimated nearly 1.7 million children were homeschooled in 2016, with numbers likely increasing since the pandemic, but the true number is difficult to calculate due to homeschooling’s unique, deregulated nature, Honnold said. Her own story began years ago.

“Every homeschooling experience is different,” Honnold said. “Mine involved selective socialization and limited education and at 18, I was sort of declared graduated without a GED or diploma.”

Meg Honnold making her own clothes as a child.

Honnold described her experience in her research story, “Living Room Data: Disentangling Homeschooling through a Sociological Lens.” In it, she details what it was like to grow up in a “big-family atmosphere” that emphasized traditional gender roles and was insulated from people outside the church or homeschool communities. She also read a lot and was able to spend afternoons fishing and exploring the nearby woods with any of her six siblings or twenty cousins who lived on the farm. Honnold is hesitant to declare her background entirely positive or negative, but it did have its challenges.

After a family member became ill when she was in high school, her schooling was deferred in order to help care for and teach her younger siblings. She spent months without consistent school and only worked on some of her own lessons after everyone else went to sleep. The academic setback was never fully rectified, Honnold said.

She and her siblings attended a homeschool co-op with other like-minded families, but going made Honnold anxious due to competition between families and her own lack of regular lessons at the time.

“My homeschooling peers seemed to comprehend more than I did; they participated in debate teams and civic organizations or dual-enrolled in college classes,” Honnold wrote in her research story. “I had been told that boys’ brains were more biologically wired toward math and science than girls’ brains.”

After finishing high school, Honnold spent the next few years learning about the world she’d been kept from and working at different jobs. Each new experience fueled her academic interest in homeschooling and its impacts on children around the U.S. Eventually, she and her partner decided it was time to leave the Midwest and explore a new part of the country.

They stumbled on New Mexico where she enrolled at Central New Mexico Community College. Advisors helped her navigate her lack of documentation and she was able to take online classes before transferring to UNM to double-major in Sociology and American Studies. Her long-term goal is to get an advanced degree and conduct child-centered research on homeschooling.

“I started college with that specific goal in mind,” she said. “It was kind of twofold: To conquer my own educational insecurity and to figure out a way to use that education to improve homeschooling.”

In preparation for her first in-person class, she watched movies and talked to friends to figure out how to behave and succeed in a class setting. She made mental notes leading up to her first day on everything from how to pick a seat in class to the best ways to engage with professors. Her first class, taught by Ryan Goodman, a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology, explored social movements.

“As we went through that class and talked about the rise of the Moral Majority and some religious movements, I began filling in those gaps in my brain, connecting the dots, and meeting with him in office hours to brainstorm where I was coming from with my lived experience,” she said.

Meg Honnold presented her research at UROC earlier this year.

Now, two semesters later, she’s had her first foray into research through ASSURE, the Arts and Sciences Support for Undergraduate Research Experiences. The ASSURE program promotes research collaboration between undergraduate students and faculty mentors. Students apply to participate and selected recipients receive monthly stipends to help support time spent on research work.

Honnold conducted a literature review of homeschool research published in journals available through the UNM Libraries to better understand the movement’s history and pre-existing work. Ultimately, 50 peer-reviewed articles made it in. Her review confirmed the diverse backgrounds and motivations for homeschooling including religion, disability needs and protection from racialized harm.

She also found evidence that much of the research into homeschooling from the past three decades is built on heavily criticized studies funded by homeschool interest groups. The research claimed homeschoolers academically outperform public schoolers, but did not match the backgrounds of the sample groups or consider the impact of socio-economics.

Even national household surveys do a poor job recording demographic information about homeschoolers, let alone capturing the nuanced experiences or quality of life of the children being homeschooled.

“The point is this kind of nuance of a homeschool story is missed when research focuses solely on isolated test scores or college admission rates,” she said. “That information is helpful and at the same time qualitative homeschool research matters.”

Homeschooling can be an emotional subject for alumni to discuss, Honnold said, because it is so closely tied with family experiences, childhood, and social issues. For this reason, academic performance is just one of many areas that should be studied. Honnold has aimed to convey in her own work the unique and compounding issues that can impact a homeschool experience, like race, family income, parent education level, number of children, degree of insulation, and more.

As Honnold parsed through each study available to her, she kept a journal. She felt it would help her incorporate her lived experience into the work and monitor her own bias as she learned more about a topic she had been so impacted by. Months later, she can now go back to her earliest entries and see the frustrations she had reading stories that confirmed her experience as a larger trend, the revelations learning about motivations she had never considered, and renewed purpose in her goal to improve research and homeschooling policies.

“Whatever preconceived notions I went into it with, I left it grounded in the reality that there isn’t a single experience, but there are gaps that need to be addressed so that homeschooling can be made a viable option going forward and that it’s safe for anyone who’s pursuing it.”

Honnold has plans to graduate in Fall 2024. After that, she would like to pursue a graduate degree and continue to develop her research.