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.
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.