Stop Saying Homeschoolers Are Brilliant!

Growing up, I read HSLDA’s Home School Court Report and various other homeschool newsletters. I attended homechool conferences and listened to my parents praise the virtues of homeschooling to people they met. I came away believing that homeschooling in and of itself causes kids to excel academically—and that studies had proven this. I heard over and over again that homechoolers scored in the 80th percentile, and listened raptly to stories of homeschoolers getting into Harvard or starting college at age 12. So I’m not surprised that as I’ve addressed homeschooling over the past few weeks commenters have been repeating all of this back to me once again. But when it comes down to it, all of this was wrong—propaganda.

Let me start by quoting from the International Center for Home Education Research (ICHER), a nonpartisan group of scholars who share a common interest in studying homeschooling.

How does U.S. 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.

Read these three paragraphs carefully and reread them if you need to. They’re very concise and to the point and also very important. And before anyone starts suggesting that ICHER is biased against homeschooling, allow me to point out that one of the ICHER’s two founders (Milton Gaither) is himself a homeschool father.

The basic gist of the above paragraphs is that studies of homeschoolers’ academic performance have two problems: First, they are voluntary (and usually recruited by HSLDA, explicitly touting them as opportunities to showcase homeschoolers’ academic success), meaning they do not employ random samples and therefore are not representative. Second, homeschool advocates compare the results of these studies to the public school average without correcting for things like race, income, and family background, which means that the statistics as reported and commonly touted don’t actually say anything other than that students from white, two-parent, middle class families do better academically than the average student, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

Think about it like this. If an advocacy group devoted to supporting and promoting public schools conducted a study, drawing voluntary participants from their mailing list and promoting the study as a way to prove that public schools are the best academic option, would we assume that the results as representative of all public school students? No. Similarly, if a private school whose students are from families with higher incomes than average boasts about its high test scores, isn’t it worth pointing out that comparing its students’ scores with the public school average without correcting for their higher incomes is unfair, and that its students, being wealthier than average, would likely score above average in public school as well? To accurately examine what the that private school’s test scores show, you would need to compare its students with students who are demographically matched, not with the average public school student. These are the things I never thought about or asked myself when I was told that “studies show” that homeschoolers score in the 80th percentile—and these are the things HSLDA and other homeschool advocacy groups and leaders counted on me not understanding. (I also never thought about the fact that for every anecdote I heard of homechooling success, there might also be an anecdote of homechooling failure—I simply wasn’t hearing that one.)

ICHER co-founder, education scholar, and homeschool father Milton Gaither, who has written the seminal work on the history of the homeschool movement, did a two-part post on Brian Ray’s research organization, the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI). Both parts are well worth reading for anyone interested in this subject.

Brian D. Ray and NHERI, part 1

Brian D. Ray and NHERI, part 2

Let’s look briefly at the 1999 Rudner study. The study was commissioned by HSLDA but was conducted by a nonpartisan researcher and used scores from the Bob Jones testing service popular with homeschoolers (rather than simply recruiting volunteers from HSLDA’s membership and affiliated homeschool groups, as is typically done). Finally, while the study was volunteer-based, parents didn’t see their students’ scores before deciding whether to participate. The interesting thing is that while HSLDA and other homeschool groups have touted this study to high heaven as proof of homeschoolers’ superior academic achievement, in the actual study Rudner himself was very clear that this was not what the study showed:

This study does not demonstrate that home schooling is superior to public or private schools. It should not be cited as evidence that our public schools are failing. It does not indicate that children will perform better academically if they are home schooled.

Those sentences were in the actual study. Did anyone actually bother to read them? In the years since the study was conducted, Rudner himself has been appalled by homeschool advocacy groups’ misuse of his study’s results. “I made the case that if you took the same kids and the same parents and put them in public schools, these kids would probably do exceptionally well,” he explained. (For more on Rudner, see this academic paper and this newspaper article and this web post.)

Correcting for Variables

Let me say few more words on correcting for variables. Some years ago, I was holding up my own academic success to my husband once again as proof that homeschooling turns out kids who are higher quality academically than other academic options. He responded with a simple question:

With your parents and socio-economic status, don’t you think you would have done above average if you had gone to your local public schools too? How much of your academic success do you think is really due to being homeschooled?

I was taken aback. I had never thought to ask that. Like me, my husband grew up in a well-educated two-parent upper middle class white family. Like me, he excelled academically, went to college on scholarships, and was extremely successful there—but unlike me he attended public school from kindergarten through high school. I realized in that moment that my academic success needed to be compared to his academic success, not to the academic success of the averaged public school student.

When you compare homeschool test scores to public school test scores without controlling for background variables, you aren’t actually measuring the results of being homeschooled, you’re measuring the results of being in a demographic that is, to quote from the ICHER FAQ, “whiter, more religious, more married, better educated, and wealthier than national averages.”

Do we have any numbers that control for these factors? As it so happens, while we don’t have any statistics on homeschoolers’ academic success that aren’t drawn from volunteer or self-selected samples, we do have some that correct for background variables. (I am now drawing on information from Milton Gaither and Robert Kunzman’s recent survey of the literature and studies on homeschooling—you can read it in full here.)

In 2005, Belfield conducted a study of homeschoolers’ SAT scores, controlling for family background variables, and found that homeschoolers scored slightly better than predicted on the verbal section and slightly worse than predicted on the math section. A 2004 study of the ACT scores of 127 seniors at a diverse suburban public high school found that those who reported the highest level of parental involvement scored quite a bit above average and just as well as homeschoolers taking the ACT (before controlling for other background variables). A 2011 study (Martin-Chang, Gould, and Meuse) looked at 37 homeschoolers and 37 institutionally schooled children who were demographically paired. The study found that some of the homeschool students did better than their institutionally schooled peers while others did worse.

Volunteer-Based Studies

And now we need to switch back to the other key topic here: The fact that studies of homeschoolers are drawn from volunteers or self-selecting groups. The last study I mentioned above, which found that some of the homeschoolers in its sample did better than those who attended institutional schools while others did worse, was not based on a random sample. It was composed of volunteers drawn from homeschool groups and mailing lists. This means that it is not actually representative of all homeschoolers—after all, homeschool parents who are not putting in an effort to educate their children aren’t going to participate in a study like that—and homeschool parents not involved in homeschool groups and organizations would not even hear of it. To put it another way, using volunteers for a study like this almost certainly selects for dedicated and involved parents.

Even the SAT study where homeschoolers, when background factors were controlled for, did better on the verbal and worse on the math suffers from this problem: It naturally selects for college-bound homeschool students. What about those who are not college bound? It’s interesting to note that that very study found that while homeschoolers made up 1.5% of students, they only made up 0.5% of those taking the SAT. Where were the rest of the homeschoolers? It’s possible that some homeschoolers who use correspondence programs or umbrella schools put down that they were actually private school students, so the discrepancy alone is not proof that homeschoolers are less likely to take the SAT (and thus to be college bound) than are public or private school students, but it does point out just how much we don’t know about those homeschoolers who aren’t college bound. (It’s worth mentioning here that some organizations popular among many Christian homeschoolers, including No Greater Joy, Vision Forum, and Advanced Training Institute, explicitly advise parents against sending their children to college.)

Beside the basic information provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (which does not touch on academic performance and can be found here and here), the only thing we have that uses a random sample is the Cardus Education Survey (for a good summary, see this article). The Cardus survey examines different methods of religious education, comparing young adults who grew up in religious homechool families (in this case, those who were homeschooled by mothers who attended church regularly) with young adults who attended Christian schools. The survey found that the homeschooled students did worse on their SATs and were considerably less ready for college than the Christian school students. The study also found that homeschoolers scored below average on a number of quality of life measures. Of course, this survey only looked at homeschoolers with religious mothers, not at all homeschoolers, and it looked at individuals who were adults in 2011, meaning that it isn’t necessarily predictive of how current homechoolers will turn out. Still, it’s enough to suggest that there may be more to the story than the rosy picture painted by HSLDA and other homeschool advocacy groups.

Conclusion

Outside of these studies, all we have are anecdotes. And I have news for you: For every brilliant and successful homeschool anecdote you have, I have a counter anecdote. More than that, when I look around at those in the homeschool community I grew up in, I am struck by their ordinariness. Some of us succeeded brilliantly, yes, but others definitely got a very short end of the stick and most were, well, pretty normal. Honestly, when I look around at the people I grew up with, HSLDA’s hype looks rather silly.

It’s not that homeschooling doesn’t or can’t work. The studies HSLDA and other groups tout do show that homeschoolers can succeed academically (though these studies never show that this success is because of homeschooling rather than because of background factors like race, class, and parental involvement). Being homeschooled does not automatically result in academic failure, and parents can successfully teach their children. But being homeschooled doesn’t automatically result in success either. Despite what I came away thinking after growing up reading homeschool literature growing up, homeschooling isn’t some sort of magic brilliant-making powder that turns everyone it touches into geniuses. In fact, after surveying the various academic studies of homeschooling, Kunzman and Gaither had this to say:

A second generalization that emerges from many studies on academic achievement is that homeschooling does not have much of an effect at all on student achievement once family background variables are controlled for.

Remember that this statement is based solely on those homeschoolers who have shown up in measures of academic success—those whose parents had them participate in studies on homeschooler’s academic achievement or those who took the SATs. What about the homeschoolers who don’t participate in such studies or tests? How does homeschooling affect them academically? We honestly don’t know. To answer that question we need studies of homeschoolers’ academic achievement that use random samples rather than volunteers, and at the moment we simply don’t have that.

So to everyone who keeps telling me that homeschooling shouldn’t be regulated because “studies show” that homeschoolers score well above average, please stop. It doesn’t make you look like you actually know what you’re talking about. It rather does the opposite. If you want to tell me that homeschooled kids can do well academically, or that homeschooling in and of itself doesn’t doom children to being ignorant or backward, or that homeschool parents who are dedicated and involved can turn out academically successful students, go ahead—I’ll agree with you 100%. I myself am a case in point! But for the love of all that is living, please, please stop acting like we actually know how homeschoolers score on average and please stop acting like homeschooling is some sort of magic pixie dust or like homeschooled children’s high scores in studies of academic achievement have everything to do with homeschooling and nothing at all to do with demographic factors or family background. It’s seriously getting old.  

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.


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