Homeschooling and Fundamentalist America

As we’ve noted here before, there are many voices in Fundamentalist America who insist public schools are rotten.  One option for parents that has become increasingly popular since the 1980s has been homeschooling.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about homeschooling.  First of all, though it has become associated in many people’s minds with conservative religion, we don’t really know why parents choose to do it.  That is, we don’t know how many of the homeschoolers out there are motivated to do so by a fundamentalist religious or cultural distrust of the dominant ideology of public schooling.  After all, since the 1960s there has been a small but vocal minority of homeschoolers from the cultural left, too.

We also don’t know much about the success of homeschooling.  Do kids learn?  If so, would they learn just as well in traditional schools?  In other words, is it homeschooling that helps kids learn better?  Or is it the fact that they are talented students from homes with involved, active parents–just the type of student who would tend to do well in a public school, too?

Just as with any contested cultural issue, it’s hard to know where to turn for reliable research in these areas.  Many homeschoolers hope to prove that their method is equal to or superior to traditional schooling.  Many public-school advocates want to show that homeschooling is not an acceptable alternative.  We have to look at any “research” promoted by either side with a good deal of skepticism.

This is why we’ve noted with interest a couple of reviews that came across our screens lately.  The first is by Brian D. Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute.  There’s no doubt that Ray is partisan.  His organization promotes the legal rights of homeschoolers.  And he doesn’t hide his delight at the implications of the study he’s reviewing.  The study, by Sandra Martin-Chang, Odette N. Gould, and Reanne E. Meuse, (Martin-Chang, Sandra; Gould, Odette N.; Meuse, Reanne E. (2011, May 30). The impact of schooling on academic achievement: Evidence from homeschooled and traditionally schooled students. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, pp. 1–8) compared students from 37 homeschool families with 37 traditional ones.  The sample size was small, as Ray concedes.  The researchers found that students from “structured” homeschool environments did significantly better on academic achievement than their public-school counterparts.  Students from “unstructured” homeschools tended to do worse.  The most interesting part of this study results from the researchers’ attempt to control for other factors.  That is, they chose families that were similar in all variables except for type of schooling.  In other words, they tried to solve the question of whether homeschoolers performed better because they had other family advantages besides homeschooling.  Of course, as Ray and the study’s authors all acknowledge, this result does not prove much.  The kinds of testing done to ascertain academic performance tend to reward those students who experience “structured” teaching, whether at a homeschool or a public school.

The second review comes from the leading academic historian of homeschooling in America, Milton Gaither.  Gaither teaches at Messiah College in Pennsylvania and blogs about the latest finds in homeschooling at Homeschooling Research Notes.  He noted recently the publication of a rare longitudinal study of homeschoolers.  This study by Linda Hanna of West Chester University in Pennsylvania (Linda G. Hanna, “Homeschooling Education: Longitudinal Study of Methods, Materials, and Curricula” in Education and Urban Society 20, no. 10 (2012): 1-23) looked at hundreds of homeschooling families in 1998, then again in 2008.  Hanna’s results offer some interesting hints about the perennial homeschooling questions.  For example, Hanna finds that an overwhelmingly large percentage of families in her study seem to choose homeschooling due to conservative religion and culture.  Also, the number of families choosing to stick with homeschooling all the way through secondary school increased significantly over the course of one decade.  The most obvious explanation for this change seems to be the rise of computers and internet access during that time.  When more families had better online access to educational resources, more chose to keep their kids at home for middle- and high-school, too.

As always, these kinds of studies leave us wanting more.  We’d like to see larger sample sizes, longer studies, more exhaustive research methods.  But these studies and others like them help make the case that homeschooling is a legitimate alternative to public schools.  For those of us trying to understand Fundamentalist America, this can tell us a couple of things.  First of all, we can acknowledge that those conservative religious folks who choose homeschooling might be making an educationally superior choice.  Second, we can see that some of the hostile stereotypes about Fundamentalist America just don’t hold water.  Just because parents are conservative and deeply religious doesn’t mean they are not willing to embrace alternative cultural institutions.  Many conservative folks jumped headlong into a very experimental form of alternative schooling when they thought public schools were not doing the job.