Cardus Education Survey, Homeschoolers: Helen Lee

Cardus Education Survey, Homeschoolers: Helen Lee September 23, 2011

Robert Kunzman is an associate professor at the Indiana University School of Education, and his research focuses on the intersection of religion, citizenship, and education. He is the author of Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling and maintains a website focused on homeschooling research and scholarship.

Helen Lee, a homeschooling mom and author of The Missional Mom and co-founder of Redbud Writers Guild, recently interviewed Dr. Kunzman about the recent Cardus Education Survey and the conclusions it drew about homeschoolers. Here is his perspective:

Was there anything in the results you found particularly surprising, specifically with regards to the results from the homeschooled respondents? Christianity Today ran a one page-summary of the survey in which they stated that homeschoolers were “most likely to get divorced” and “feel helpless in dealing with the problems of life,” but least likely to “spend much time volunteering or going on mission trips” or “be involved in political campaigns.” Generally speaking, how accurate did you feel the survey and/or the CT summary were at describing the homeschooling community?

As a whole, I think it’s a fascinating study that raises important questions. But it’s significant to note that the survey represents the views and experiences of those who, in some cases, were homeschooled more than two decades ago. Between 1999 and 2007, it’s estimated that homeschooling grew nearly 75% in the United States, so the Cardus survey data reflects only some of that growth. Another methodological issue related to homeschooling that is not accounted for in the current report is the number of years that someone was homeschooled.

Other research suggests that a significant number of students move back and forth between homeschooling and institutional schooling, which further complicates the data and the portrait of homeschooling that may emerge. This variable will become even more complicated with the proliferation of online schooling, and the way it blurs lines between homeschooling and institutional schooling, both public and private.

The Cardus results do stand in contrast to the bulk of other empirical research conducted on homeschooler socialization, which suggests that homeschoolers past and present are generally well-adjusted. Further complicating the picture are some other results from the survey: for example, religious homeschoolers felt strongly (relative to the other subgroups) that their schooling had prepared them for personal relationships, friendships, and family relations, especially marriage.

In addition, they scored highest on the question that asked whether high school prepared them for a vibrant religious and spiritual life. How these findings relate to religious homeschoolers reporting higher divorce rates, lack of clarity and sense of direction, and greater feelings of helplessness in dealing with life’s problems is a puzzle worth further scrutiny.

Let’s talk more specifically about the homeschoolers’ results, and compare it with what you have discovered from your research about this educational context. The critique of private Christian schools that the survey attempted to address (“Protestant Christian schools…have often been seen by larger society as havens for social isolation and mindless, even dangerous indoctrination of students, resulting in the fragmentation of society…”) could certainly also apply to the homeschooling community. What do you see as the major factors that drive today’s families’ decision to homeschool? Is it to “indoctrinate their children” and withdraw from society? Or are there other primary reasons? Are there particular trends you are seeing with regards to reasons that people homeschool their children?

The most reliable quantitative data about homeschooler motivations comes from the National Household Education Survey (NHES), in which the three most common reasons that parents gave for homeschooling were concerns about school environments (88%), a desire to provide moral or religious instruction (83%), and a dissatisfaction with schools’ academic instruction (73%). Small-scale studies of homeschooler motivations tend to echo these findings as well.

One significant motivation for homeschooling emerging from many small-scale studies that isn’t captured by NHES data, however, is that homeschool parents—particularly when motivated by religious conviction—are often striving to forge a model of the family that is often at odds with contemporary culture. They frequently express the desire to retain deeper influence and involvement in their children’s daily lives. They view schooling as naturally embedded in the broader project of education, which is in turn embedded in the even broader project of parenting. Homeschooling is seen as a means to strengthen the bonds between parents (especially mothers) and their children, which in turn will help children resist the deleterious influences of consumerism and moral permissiveness that parents see as pervading modern culture and institutional schooling.

On the Jesus Creed blog, we’ve already seen from the previous comments on this topic the range of experiences people have had in all types of different educational contexts, homeschooling included. For some, homeschooling has been a wonderful experience, and for others, less so. From your research, what are the characteristics of a family for which homeschooling would be an ideal option? And conversely, what are reasons that families should consider not homeschooling their children?

A good education can take many shapes, whether this education happens in an institutional setting or homeschooling. There are so many variables outside of the formal educational experience itself that influence its success that I would be foolish to insist upon any sort of ideal formula.

That being said, the best homeschool environments I’ve observed offer a mix of structure and freedom, with some clear learning goals but also a philosophy of teaching and learning that emphasizes creativity, critical thinking, and making connections between students’ interests and the academic content. Effective homeschooling requires some strong organizational skills by the parent, particularly when multiple children are involved.

To my mind, the best homeschool parents are the ones who are very self-aware, who understand their strengths and weaknesses as teachers, and who are willing to seek outside assistance—whether simply in terms of advice, or perhaps for teaching a particular subject—when they run into difficulties. Finally, I love to see homeschool parents who have a real intellectual vibrancy to them—a curiosity about the world, how it works, and how we can engage thoughtfully with it. Parents who see their job as simply helping their kids to plow through the textbooks and check off the subjects are really shortchanging their kids.

It’s worth pointing out that most of these criteria really apply to all teachers, homeschool or institutional. With homeschooling, however, the stakes can be significantly higher—a poor classroom teacher will be replaced next period, or at least next year, but a poor homeschooling situation is more likely to continue unchanged over the course of a childhood.

In the Cardus survey, the researchers sought to measure three desired outcomes of Christian education: 1) spiritual formation, 2) cultural engagement, and 3) academic development. As a whole, how effective do you feel homeschoolers are in these three different areas?

I think it’s safe to say that the spiritual, cultural, and academic outcomes for homeschoolers vary as widely as they do for institutional schooling. Certainly in my own research—observing homeschool families across the country and talking with them about what they’re doing and why—I’ve found this to be the case.

As someone especially interested in the role of religion in civic participation, I was intrigued by the survey data suggesting that Protestant school and homeschool graduates are less politically active than average, since one of the concerns of secular critics is that conservative Christians want their religious convictions reflected in public policy. The Cardus report’s authors suggest that such critics might be relieved by this finding, but I’m not so sure this conclusion is warranted.

The data doesn’t indicate that Protestant school graduates vote less frequently than others (and other studies assert the opposite), and they do suggest that Protestant school graduates—and especially religious homeschool grads—are not comfortable questioning authority. Even if everyday believers aren’t “cultural warriors” engaged in political activism, plenty of conservative Christian leaders are, particularly within the homeschool community (I profile one such group, Generation Joshua, in my book). If the kind of education that conservative Christians are receiving through private schooling and homeschooling discourages active political debate and disagreement within religious community, this seems cause for concern from a civic standpoint as well as intellectual.

In its focus on academic achievement, the survey data indicates that religious homeschoolers attended open admission universities at a higher rate than any other subgroup, and attended academically prestigious universities at a lower rate than others. But it’s possible this correlation is at least partly the result of the relative lack of social acceptance that homeschoolers had in previous decades; certainly colleges and universities are more amenable to homeschooler applications now than in years past, and the small body of empirical research on homeschooler performance in college suggests they manage quite well.

It’s also worth noting that the “Years of Education” survey results for religious homeschoolers are broken down into two subgroups (ages 20-29 and ages 30-39), with the more recent graduates reporting more total years of education. Again, in some respects, this survey may be telling us more about homeschoolers of the past than homeschoolers of the present.

For those parents who are trying to make an informed decision about which educational path to take with their own kids, what are some additional strengths and weaknesses you would want for parents to be aware of with regards to homeschooling?

One of the great potential strengths of homeschooling is its flexibility. Parents can choose (or allow their child to choose) from a wide array of curricula and pedagogies; they can follow a conventional school schedule that devotes small chunks of time to a range of subjects, or allow their child to concentrate in a particular area that captures his or her interest. The tremendous flexibility of homeschooling can also be a real weakness. I have observed some families where parents teach to their own strengths and interests—often providing a rich and engaging learning experience for their children in particular subjects—but then neglect other important subjects or skills as a result.

Another potential strength of homeschooling is the ability to individualize instruction. Knowing your child’s strengths and weaknesses, their background and their interests, offers a tremendous advantage in helping to make the curriculum relevant, engaging, and developmentally appropriate. This intimate context for schooling can also have its drawbacks, and the familiarity between parents and children can pose unique challenges regarding roles and expectations.

Most parents who help their child with homework experience this dynamic from time to time; if I acted with my students the way I sometimes behave when helping my daughters with their homework, I’d have some explaining to do to parents and principal alike! In my book, one of the families profiled has a hard time navigating these relational waters, and the day is frequently marked by an angry mom and frustrated kids.

Delving deeper into the issue of cultural engagement: some people feel that by choosing homeschooling, Christian families are abandoning the call to be salt and light in the public school setting, and thus losing the opportunity to live out God’s mission in that context. How do homeschoolers respond to this critique?

Conservative Christian homeschoolers often question whether public schools are an appropriate mission field for their children. They certainly see their parental responsibility in terms of equipping their children to be salt and light, but worry that the culture of public schools will overwhelm their children. Public schools are not neutral ground,” one father told me. “The public education system, in general, is teaching exactly the opposite of what I believe. And they expect me to put my kid into their hands for the better part of every day? How silly.”

Granted, not all conservative Christian homeschoolers see things in such stark terms, but a strong theme of wariness runs through many of the comments I hear. For them, children can be salt and light in other, less overwhelming contexts; this greater protection will, in turn, equip them to be more confident and effective witnesses once they become adults.

Are there any misconceptions that the general public has about homeschooling that you’d like to address?

You asked earlier about academic outcomes for homeschooling. The bottom line is that we have no comprehensive data on homeschoolers’ academic achievement. Contrary to some homeschool advocates, research does not demonstrate that “the average homeschooler” outperforms public school students on standardized achievement tests (because many states don’t require homeschoolers to register, we don’t have any data at all on the “average homeschooler” in the United States). And contrary to some homeschool critics, we have no evidence that homeschoolers neglect or abuse their children with any greater frequency than other parents.

I’ve observed homeschool learning environments that rival the best that institutional schooling has to offer, and I’ve seen homeschoolers whose education is sorely and sadly lacking. I think this wide range of quality holds some implications for what type of state regulation and oversight is warranted, but that’s an argument for another day!

Is there anything you’d like to add with regards to the Cardus survey and the results as they pertain to the homeschooling community?

Not surprisingly, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the world’s largest homeschool advocacy group, is less than pleased with the Cardus Report’s take on homeschooling. HSLDA points instead to two studies wherein homeschool graduates are described as highly successful adults across a range of social, occupational, and civic outcomes.

While these two studies involve far more homeschool graduates than Cardus, they suffer from the same methodological weaknesses that most HSLDA-favored research does: key variables such as education and income are not controlled for, and participants were not randomly selected, but instead recruited by entreaties to show the public “the benefits of a home-based education.”

I do hope that Cardus will follow-up this survey with additional reports that further examine their research results—this study has great potential to contribute significantly to the public conversation around not only homeschooling, but Christian education more broadly.

(Note: we are also giving HSLDA an opportunity to respond to similar questions to provide their perspective as well. Look for that interview in a future post.)

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