The International Center for Home Education Research

Last year a group of scholars founded the International Center for Home Education Research. I am actually really excited about this development. For too long HSLDA (Home School Legal Defense Association) has reined as the go-to organization for information about homeschoolers and homeschooling, and, well, let’s just say that that’s a major conflict of interest. They’re an advocacy group. Next is the National Home Education Research Institute, which essentially functions as HSLDA’s research arm and uses shoddy research methods. I’m glad there is now another contender.

ICHER’s about page explains that the organization was founded in part to combat both bad research and sloppy interpretation and reporting of what research exists—no matter which “side” is engaged in it:

The International Center for Home Education Research was founded in 2012 by a group of international scholars with more than 65 years of combined experience studying homeschooling.  What sets ICHER apart from most national and international homeschool organizations is that we are not an advocacy group.  As longtime observers of home education across a variety of contexts, we have great appreciation for homeschooling’s value and importance, but our purpose is not to promote home education or argue for its superiority over other forms of schooling.

Instead, our goals are threefold:

  • to provide nonpartisan information about homeschooling to media outlets and the public
  • to offer detailed analyses of emerging research on home education
  • to encourage networking and collaboration among scholars

The quality of research on homeschooling varies widely.  Alongside responsible and careful scholarship there exists deeply flawed research focused more on scoring political points than furthering understanding.  To compound matters, advocacy organizations sometimes sponsor research studies and then popularize the results in misleading ways.  As a result, unsuspecting journalists and even academic scholars often have difficulty discriminating between well-conducted, carefully analyzed research and political spin.

The most prominent example of this is the frequent claim that the average homeschooler outperforms public school students on standardized tests.  The research base on academic achievement (measured primarily via standardized testing) and socialization relies on small-scale and/or non-randomized samples; claims that the “average homeschooler” outperforms public school students is simply not substantiated by the data.  Similarly, broad-based assertions by homeschooling’s critics about inferior academic or social outcomes are not justified either.

Despite these limitations, academic research on homeschooling provides a broad array of small-scale studies that offer partial glimpses into the practices, philosophies, and outcomes of home education across the world.  Rather than making claims about “the average homeschooler,” scholars, media, and communities would be better served by striving to understand the diversity of homeschooling philosophies, practices, and outcomes.  ICHER aims to synthesize the best of what homeschooling scholarship has revealed thus far, to examine new scholarship as it emerges, and to foster future work of the highest quality.

The center’s FAQ page is perhaps most interesting in how much it differs from the standard FAQs given by organizations like HSLDA. Here is an example:

How does homeschoolers’ academic performance compare with other students?

Evidence regarding this question has been fraught with controversy because most of the studies that have received widest attention have been interpreted to say something they do not and cannot. We simply can’t draw any conclusions about the academic performance of the “average homeschooler,” because none of the studies so often cited employ random samples representing the full range of homeschoolers.

For example, two large U.S. studies (Rudner, 1999; Ray, 2009) are frequently cited as definitive evidence that homeschoolers academically outperform public and private school students. But in both cases, the homeschool participants were volunteers responding to an invitation by the nation’s most prominent advocacy organization to contribute test scores (on tests usually administered by parents in the child’s own home). The demographics of these samples were far whiter, more religious, more married, better educated, and wealthier than national averages. And yet these test score results were compared to average public school scores that included children from all income levels and family backgrounds. Not surprisingly, wealthy homeschoolers from stable two-parent families who take tests administered by their parents in the comfort of their own homes outscore the average public school child by large margins.

The simple fact is that no studies of academic achievement exist that draw from a representative, nationwide sample of homeschoolers and control for background variables like socio-economic or marital status. It is thus impossible to say whether or not homeschooling as such has any impact on the sort of academic achievement measured by standardized tests.

And another:

How do homeschoolers turn out as adults?

Most empirical studies comparing the college performance of homeschooled and conventionally educated students find few significant difference in educational preparedness or outcomes.  But comprehensive empirical evidence about long-term outcomes for homeschoolers is sorely lacking.  Some homeschool advocates routinely cite a 2003 report by Brian Ray which contends that U.S. homeschool graduates are engaged citizens, involved in their communities, and leading fulfilling lives.  But this study relied on the self-report of volunteers without controlling for parental income, education levels, or other variables, so neither definitive statements about homeschoolers nor comparisions with the broader population can be made.  Further longitudinal research, employing rigorous sampling methodology, is needed to sketch a fuller portrait of adults who were homeschooled.

I love that ICHER sets out to cut through propaganda to focus on what we actually know about homeschooling—and what we don’t know. I look forward to what they have to offer in the future.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Isaac

    As someone who was homeschooled, I find this very interesting. I grew up with the HSLDA, but having broken out of the evangelical bubble I find their claims about homeschool superiority, particularly in social skills and academic achievement, highly suspect.

    I grew up in the best homeschool situation an evangelical could have, in that I had diverse friends and socialized frequently, and was allowed free reign to read most any books I chose after my schoolwork was finished. Yet even in that situation, I would have had no useful knowledge about science and history (or any decent perspective on them either) without my leaving the faith and studying for myself. I can’t see the average homeschooler, with much less free reign than I had, being able to pass as competent in science or history exams in a real school. After all, enforcing this lack of knowledge is part of the point of most decisions to homeschool in the first place.

    In the same way I’m sure there are plenty of people like me whose social development was not ill-affected by homeschooling, but for many others part of the point of homeschooling is to protect their children from “worldly” influences and keep them virtuous; often leading to narrow and unhealthly socialization. I’ve seen it, and as Libby Anne said in her post about the Duggars, just because kids smile and behave politely does not mean they are socially healthy.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I think they have a very tough road ahead of them since from what I’ve read here it seems that getting data for a truly randomised study would be hellish (not perhaps of the same people they got in the other studies but of people who homeschool to isolate or to scape any government oversight). Even in adults, there are some who prefer to hide they were homeschooled because of the stigma in current society.

  • Carys Birch

    Is it me or would it be difficult to find single parent homeschool families? I would think for the most part single parents can’t stay home to do homeschooling because they have to work?

    I suppose there might be work-from-home homeschooling single parents or maybe multi generational homeschooling families where single dad works and grandma homeschools (one of many possible combinations)… But on the whole, I just can’t help but assume that the vast majority of homeschooling is happening in two parent families…

    • Christine

      You don’t need to have data on single-parent homeschool families to do a good comparison. You can just find a sorted sample of public-schooled children and use data from public school children with two parents to compare. One way to do this is to take data from a district where the majority of the families match the family for the homeschool data set. Another way is to look at previous studies that have shown what the difference that can be expected for various disadvantages and “correct” the first data set. There’s lots of ways to normalize out differences, but you need to do them.

      • Carys Birch

        Ah thank you, I’m really bad with understanding how these things work. I can usually differentiate a good study from a bad study by the source and the commentary around it, but I really don’t understand the process well enough.

      • Christine

        It takes university-level statistics to be able to do it (heck, it really takes exposure to undergraduate level statistics to understand the problem, and graduate level statistics to solve it.) The only reason I can explain the process at all (I would not in the least be able to do this sort of comparision, even if you gave me access to the software which does a lot of the math automatically) is because my husband took a graduate level statistics course, and we like to pick apart popular science reporting together.

        This sort of thing actually presents an interesting dilemma – it’s important that people don’t just blindly trust studies, because it’s so easy to make numbers lie, but it’s not reasonable to expect the average person to understand the math. I know people who couldn’t master high-school level statistics, so it’s not just a case of providing the education more broadly. An uneducated population is really easy to manipulate, but education has gotten so broad that there will always be areas of ignorance that can be used as leverage, no matter how intelligent the people involved.

    • Uly

      You could homeschool during the hours when you are home, so long as somebody is watching the kid (assuming they need supervision) when you aren’t, or, with a high school aged child that is self motivated they could do most of the schooling themselves and you check it when you get back.

      It seems less than ideal for very nearly everybody, though.

  • kisarita

    I find it interesting that they didn’t criticize the study method of voluntary response- like parents whose kids didn’t do well are really going to volunteer that response?
    and what about kids who aren’t required to take the tests at all?

  • Matt Kennedy

    I don’t really think “control[ing] for background variables like socio-economic or marital status,” makes sense. I understand it to a limited extent, but one of the typical distinctives of home educating is that more often than not both parents are still married and have the resources necessary to home educate their children, else they wouldn’t be doing it. I think that is one of the reasons home education is often a better option. As someone mentioned above, it’s going to be rare to find a single parent home or particularly disadvantaged home financially that home educations because it just isn’t possible in most cases. Home education, public education, and private education are inherently different and unequal (in certain respects) simply because they are different styles of education. Those “socio-economic or marital status” factors are some of what typically makes each type of education unique and often convey advantages.

    • Libby Anne

      one of the typical distinctives of home educating is that more often than not both parents are still married and have the resources necessary to home educate their children, else they wouldn’t be doing it. I think that is one of the reasons home education is often a better option.

      But that is exactly why it’s important to control the variables. If you want to know how well homeschooling works in comparison to public schooling, you can’t compare a homeschooled kid who is already advantaged simply by nature of a stable home life or adequate income to the average public school kid. You have to compare a homeschooled kid with the advantages of a stable home life and adequate income to a public schooled kid with the same advantages. Otherwise what your study will pick up is not the effects of homeschooling, but the effects of having a stable home life and adequate income.

  • MD

    Why don’t you read Joseph Murphy’s book “Homeschooling in America” It might help you a bit.