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Published in Print: February 1, 2000, as Home Study

Home Study

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The fast-growing phenomenon of homeschooling is eluding academics who want answers to key questions.

Last year, University of Maryland researcher Lawrence Rudner published an ambitious analysis of homeschooling. Because his findings were generally favorable, he expected that parents who taught their children at home would be pleased. He was surprised, then, when a group of homeschoolers opened fire. “Usually when I say nice things about people, they don’t say bad things back,” Rudner says.

As Rudner discovered, few areas of education are as tricky for researchers as homeschooling. By definition, homeschoolers are an independent lot. Many operate “underground,” but even some of those who openly teach their children at home resist taking part in studies. They are suspicious, if not outright disdainful, of researchers’ methods and motives, making it difficult to gather a reliable sampling of kids to study.

To make matters worse, homeschooling researchers have a hard time getting their studies funded and their findings published. Grantmakers and journal editors, they complain, yawn at research topics that stray too far from public schools.

All of which leads to a disturbing result: Though homeschooling is arguably one of the fastest growing phenomena in American education, it’s also one of the least studied. These days, policymakers and education officials make countless decisions about the oversight and regulation of homeschooling, yet there is little high-quality research to guide them. The existing work, says Gregory Cizek, an education professor at the University of Toledo, amounts to little more than a handful of “isolated, one-time studies.”

Cizek should know. In the early 1990s, he analyzed three years of articles that appeared in the Home School Researcher, the only peer-reviewed journal devoted to home education. Published by the Salem, Oregon-based National Home Education Research Institute, the journal is supported by donations, the sale of publications, and whatever research contracts it can scrape together. To Cizek’s surprise, he discovered that nearly half the published authors had no personal experience with, or attachment to, homeschooling—a finding that contradicts critics who dismiss homeschooling research as the work of advocates.

Still, very little of the work Cizek examined met scientific standards for research. The sample groups were simply too small. “We would call the research on homeschooling very applied,” he says, “which means it is simply descriptive: It says what the state of affairs is, or it’s located in a particular context that makes the results not strongly generalizable.”

Of course, drawing a truly representative sample of homeschoolers is next to impossible because no one knows exactly who they are. National surveys show the numbers of students enrolled in public, Catholic, and other kinds of private schools, but not those learning at home. And state data is spotty. Although many states require homeschoolers to register with education officials, some parents refuse to cooperate. “You can’t generate a list of who is homeschooling,” says Susan McDowell, managing editor of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Journal of Education. “And even if you could, the question is: Would they talk to you?”

No one has tried harder to pinpoint the number of homeschoolers than Patricia Lines, a former researcher at the U.S. Department of Education. A lawyer by training, Lines began to examine homeschooling in the 1980s while serving as legal director at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Based largely on surveys of companies that sell curricular products to homeschooling parents, she guessed that some 50,000 children were being educated at home. When Lines mentioned that figure in a 1985 commentary in Education Week, one reader wrote that the estimate was little more than “wishful thinking, or at least artful advocacy.”

That was when Lines realized how touchy the subject of homeschooling can be. Any time you set out to explore the politically charged topic, she says, “someone’s going to question your motives.”

Before leaving the Education Department last year, Lines published new numbers using a more complex estimation system. She started with the states, gathering information on documented homeschoolers. To guess at the number of “nonfilers,” she drew on surveys of homeschooling parents done by Brian Ray, executive director of the National Home Education Research Institute. (Ray has polled parents about whether they register with their state or local education agencies.) Lines’ work yielded estimates of between 691,000 and 750,000 children for the 1995-96 school year.

Ray, however, contends the numbers are even larger. Based largely on his own contact with homeschooling groups and state education officials, he estimates that the homeschooling population that year was closer to 1.2 million. “In terms of a planned overall critical approach, she puts more into it than I do,” says Ray. “But that doesn’t prove to me that she’s right.”

Ray periodically freshens up his estimates with data supplied from homeschooling organizations. Last year, many such groups told him that the Columbine shootings and fear of school violence had nudged more parents into homeschooling. He now puts the number of children educated outside of school somewhere between 1.2 and 1.8 million. Lines is skeptical but agrees that the figure has probably passed the million mark.

Studies of such an amorphous population of students are extremely difficult. Ray, for one, has attempted two nationwide achievement studies. In both, he relied on home education organizations, which asked members to fill out his questionnaires about their children’s scores on several nationally normed tests. In a 1997 study—the larger of his two—he found that those kids as a group scored at the 84th percentile on the tests. He also found small but key variances linked to parents’ income and education levels.

Still, the study had a number of notable limitations, as Ray acknowledges. For one, without a definitive tally of homeschoolers in this country, it’s impossible to determine whether his survey sample was representative. Also, parents whose children scored better on the test were more likely to return their questionnaires, skewing the survey’s results.

Finally, there was no way for Ray to know why the homeschooled children scored well on the tests. In fact, without a similar group of public and private school children to compare his sample of kids against, it’s impossible to know whether homeschooling had anything to do with their high test scores.

“We who do research on homeschooling have to be very careful not to attribute cause and effect,” Ray says. “I don’t think you’ll ever see cause and effect with homeschooling because we can never have a true experiment.”

In his study last year of homeschooler achievement, Rudner got around at least one of Ray’s problems by using data supplied by Bob Jones University, which offers the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to homeschoolers for a fee. This not only gave him a larger sample than Ray’s, but it also meant that the subjects were not self-selected. The results, published in the online journal Education Policy Analysis Archives, showed that the homeschoolers scored, on average, between the 82nd and 92nd percentiles. But as in Ray’s study, the findings say nothing about why those kids scored high. On average, the students in his sample came from relatively affluent families, a characteristic considered a strong predictor of high achievement.

“Everyone wants to ask the question: Is homeschooling better than public schooling?” says Rudner, director of an education information clearinghouse at the University of Maryland in College Park. “It’s the wrong question, and it will never be addressed.” The right question, he insists, is whether homeschooling works for those who make the commitment. “My study says yes.”

Of course, as soon as Rudner’s study was published, critics picked at the flaws. One response, also published in Education Policy Analysis Archives, praised Rudner’s analysis but suggested that his sample was tainted because some homeschooling parents might be reluctant to use Bob Jones University’s services. The South Carolina university has a fundamentalist Christian orientation and has drawn criticism for its opposition to interracial relationships—facts that might discourage some people from purchasing tests from the school. Nearly 94 percent of the homeschoolers in Rudner’s sample considered themselves Christian; only 1 percent were African American or Hispanic.

Critics also pointed out that parents who buy the university’s services administer the tests themselves. At least one researcher has found that students tend to do better on exams given by their parents. Rudner doubts that many parents cheated to help their children on the Jones-supplied tests, but the possibility of meddling exists.

Rudner stands behind his findings but agrees that he should have been more explicit about the possible implications of using the university’s data. “I made some disclaimers, but clearly not enough,” he concedes. He turned to Bob Jones University for one simple reason, he says: “There’s no one else who has that kind of data.”

Despite the limitations of Rudner’s and Ray’s studies, their conclusion that kids who are homeschooled tend to do well should not be dismissed outright, observers say.

Despite the limitations of Rudner’s and Ray’s studies, their conclusion that kids who are homeschooled tend to do well should not be dismissed outright, observers say.

“If you take the Rudner study and all the others,” Lines says, “you could do a meta-analysis, and you would find them all coming out with homeschooling students testing above the norm. At some point, I’m willing to step out of the role of researcher and say that homeschooling does no harm academically. I would not be willing to say the same kids would do differently in schools.”

A definitive analysis of homeschooling may depend on whether researchers can overcome parents’ aversion to being studied. Of all the knocks Rudner’s study took, the criticism that most startled him was a scathing broadside by a group of homeschoolers published last summer in Home Education Magazine. The critique questions Rudner’s sample but goes on to argue that most research on home education poses a threat to homeschoolers. Any attempt to evaluate homeschooling, the critics explain, could paint an inaccurate picture and undermine homeschoolers’ independence.

The article went so far as to encourage homeschoolers to eschew researchers altogether. Traditional studies, it said, simply don’t comport with the homeschooling movement. How can researchers using conventional measures of achievement gauge the value of a home education? Mark Hegener, founder of Home Education, explains, “When we start doing research, we start relying on credentials, on experts, and start moving away from parents and families and their own values.”

Other homeschooling advocates are less hard-nosed on the matter, arguing that research has simply had the wrong focus. Most of the major studies to date have looked at academic achievement or tried to assess whether children educated outside school develop well socially. Both areas of research, they point out, involve value-laden assumptions about what it means to be educated and socially mature.

The University of Toledo’s Cizek suggests that researchers try examining homeschoolers more on their own terms. If parents educate their children at home for religious reasons, then it is important to know whether the experience buttresses the family’s beliefs or militates against them, he says.

Some critics contend that researchers should focus on the type of learning that takes place in homeschooling, not the results. In the mid-1980s, University of Cincinnati anthropologist Mary Anne Pitman spent six weeks observing a group of homeschooling families to see how their children acquired different kinds of information. She noted, among other things, that kids learn quite well from spontaneous events in their lives. Homeschooling researchers, Pitman argues today, spend far too much time looking at traditional educational “outcomes” and ignore what kids and their parents are actually doing.

Patrick Farenga, president of Holt Associates, an alternative education clearinghouse named after the late school critic John Holt, agrees. “I do share the feeling that at some point the researchers who are trying to take the schools’ measurements and apply them to homeschooling are comparing apples and oranges,” he says. “But at the same time, I don’t think there should be no research—just a different kind of research.”

Vol. 11, Issue 5, Pages 18-20

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