Home Schooling

The New York Times is running a Room for Debate forum on whether the federal government should provide a tax credit to families who home school their children.  The Fordham Institute chief Checker Finn and Home School Legal Defense Association legal counsel William Estrada are among the contributors.

In my contribution to the forum, I express no quarrel with a tax credit so long as it comes with accountability strings attached.  The main point I tried to make is that we know astonishingly little about the academic performance of children who are homeschooled.  The sad truth about home schooling is that we have little more than glorified anecdotes.

The word limit for contributors is strict, so I could only baldly assert this in the NYT forum.  Here’s the argument and evidence for the assertion.

For a quick overview, first check out the comprehensive and detailed site maintained by Professor Robert Kunzman of Indiana University.  Kunzman has written sympathically about homeschooling, but he explains why the frequent claims that the “average homeschooler” outperforms public and private school students are unjustified.

For a more detailed argument, read an overview on why home schooling needs to be regulated a few years ago. Download a version of it here.  It contains a discussion of the lack of evidence on the outcomes of home schooling.

Why do we lack such evidence? The reason is related to the massively de-regulated environment for homeschoolers.  Because existing regulations for home schooling are either so minimal or so little enforced, many parents do not notify local educational officials when they decide to home school.  At least ten states do not even require parents to register their home schools.  A great deal of home schooling occurs “under the radar”, so to speak, so that even if local officials wished to test or monitor the progress of home schooled students, they wouldn’t even know how to locate them.  Researchers and public officials have, quite literally, no sense of the total population of home schooled students.  This is the primary obstacle to studying home schooling.

A further concern is that an appalling amount of the research conducted on home schooling and given publicity in the media is undertaken by or sponsored by organizations whose explicit mission is to further the cause of home schooling.  Of course, that research is conducted by persons whose pay comes from organizations dedicated to promoting home schooling is no reason to reject the findings out of hand.  I would suggest, however, that we treat the findings of their research on home schooling in the same way the people treat the research on nicotine addiction funded by tobacco companies: with a very large dose of skepticism.

Consider one of the most widely publicized studies in the home school research literature, the 1999 report by Lawrence Rudner entitled “Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home Schooled Students in 1998.”[1]

Rudner’s study was funded and sponsored by the Home School Legal Defense Assocation.  It analyzed the test results of more than 20,000 home schooled students using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and it was interpreted by many to find that the average home schooled student outperformed his or her public school peer.  But Rudner’s study reaches no such conclusion, and Rudner himself issued multiple cautionary notes in the report, including the following: “Because this was not a controlled experiment, the study does not demonstrate that home schooling is superior to public or private schools and the results must be interpreted with caution.” Rudner used a select and unrepresentative sample, culling all of his participants from families who had purchased curricular and assessment materials from Bob Jones University.  Because Bob Jones University is an evangelical Christian university (a university which gained a national reputation in the 1980s for its policy of forbidding interracial dating), the sample of participating families in Rudner’s study is highly skewed toward Christian home schoolers.  Extrapolations from this data to the entire population of home schoolers are consequently highly unreliable.  Moreover, all the participants in Rudner’s study had volunteered their participation.  According to Rudner, more than 39,000 contracted to take the Iowa Basic Skills Test through Bob Jones, but only 20,760 agreed to participate in his study.  This further biases Rudner’s sample, for parents who doubt the capacity of their child to do well on the test are precisely the parents we might expect not to volunteer their participation.  A careful social scientific comparison of test score data would also try to take account of the problem that public school students take the Iowa Basic Skills Test in a controlled environment; many in Rudner’s study tested their own children.

Rudner himself has been frustrated by the misrepresentation of his work.  In an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal, which published a pioneering week-long investigative series of articles on home schooling in 2004, Rudner claimed that his only conclusion was that if a home schooling parent “is willing to put the time and energy and effort into it – and you have to be a rare person who is willing to do this – then in all likelihood you’re going to have enormous success.”  Rudner also said, “I made the case in the paper that if you took the same kids and the same parents and put them in the public schools, these kids would probably do exceptionally well.”[2]

Absent rigorous, social scientific data on the outcomes of home schooling, we are left in the realm of anecdote – the home schoolers who win the National Spelling Bees – and the occasional ethnographic study of small populations of home schoolers.[3] But neither can give us any picture of whether home schooling “works”.  The very best research on home schooling – the combination of random samples of large populations and ethnographic studies, yields some good information about the reasons why people home school and demographic characteristics of their households.  But when we look at the academic performance of home schooled children, the bottom line is that we know virtually nothing.

[1] Lawrence Rudner, “Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home Schooled Students in 1998,” Educational Policy Analysis Archive, Vol. 7, No. 8, 1999.

[2] Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard, ‘Claims of Academic Success Rely on Anecdote, Flawed Data Analysis”, Akron Beacon Journal, November 15, 2004.

[3] For a good study with ethnographic components, see Mitchell Steven’s The Kingdom of Children (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

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  1. [...] read with interest Rob Reich’s blog post about homeschooling Though I disagree with his conclusions, I certainly thought they were well formulated and [...]


  1. thibaud

    Writing as a parent, I’m still left the issue that no one will address: What is to be done? The educational establishment rips home schooling, but no one will address the fact that our children are taught by some of the dumbest and least informed college graduates, nice and dimwitted folks for whom equality trumps excellence and every other educational value.

    Our child’s school isn’t awful– in fact, by American standards, it’s rated as excellent. But the standards are so lame, the offerings so thin, the overall ethos so mindless, that any parent who aspires to a real, rigorous and challenging education for his child is left feeling cheated. Our “Blue Ribbon” elementary school recently posted a 930-point API score. The principal is dedicated and well-intentioned. And yet the teachers’ own educational level is embarrassing, and the lessons imparted are often foolish and mindless. Three times now in three years, we have reviewed report cards that included spelling and grammatical errors by the teacher.

    Recently we have had to patiently explain to our son why hydroelectric projects are not inherently evil, that he should not feel pressured to join in school projects that require him to agitate against dams, that in fact the disruption of water flows to the Central Valley is causing great harm to the state’s agricultural economy, and that his teachers do not know what the hell they’re talking about on this issue.

    How do you do this without giving your child the impression that his teachers don’t know what they’re talking about on other issues as well? I’ve tried to explain to my child that there are many bad ideas about, that otherwise bright people nonetheless often are possessed by dumb notions, that one has to build arguments upon evidence and logic, etc.

    But we’re still left with the problem of huge amounts of waste: there are only so many hours in the day, and we cannot keep being asked to take the place of teachers who don’t impart ideas or impart dumb and harmful ideas during the six hours of the day that he spends at a desk. We cannot afford a private school, and in any case, outside of Harker, the only South Bay options are either religious or else Asian-centric rote-learning factories that are scarcely less mindless than the public schools.

    What do we do? We’re not poor, we’re not rich, but we insist on the highest standards. Who’s seeking to help families like ours?

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Interestingly, considering all the evidence that the parents’ SES seems to matter more than any other input, does it make a difference whether a child is home schooled or schooled in public or private school?

    When you quoted Rudner: ‘ “I made the case in the paper that if you took the same kids and the same parents and put them in the public schools, these kids would probably do exceptionally well.”[2]‘ I realized that there may be the (kind of sad) answer:

    It doesn’t matter, really. I homeschool my four boys, and I *do* put in an enormous effort, but then I did so when they were in the local Catholic school as well. As they get older, you can definitely see a difference between the kids whose parents put in the enormous effort and those who don’t. And it doesn’t seem to be split along schooled/homeschooled lines at all.

    Thank you for your thought provoking post.

    Posted July 6, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  3. Alison

    There is the issue of the metrics. Many homeschooling parents agree that comparing children on academic standards created to measure the success of public schooling does not, in fact, measure the success of their home school. I know I want my children to be resourceful, creative, and able to research, and I want them to have to opportunity to figure out how they can make the world a better place — none of which are measured by any test.

    MPP ’94

    Posted February 7, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

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