Homeschool Information Library
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Does Homeschooling Research Help Homeschooling
- Larry & Susan Kaseman
Homeschoolers sometimes feel uncertain when faced with a request that they participate in a research study being done on homeschooling. On one hand, they are pleased with the growing interest in homeschooling, glad that the value and importance of homeschooling is finally being recognized and acknowledged. They want to do anything they can to help homeschooling. But something makes them uneasy. How will this research affect homeschooling, they wonder? What are the potential pitfalls and problems? And somehow the questionnaire seems like an invasion of privacy which fails to capture the most important aspects of homeschooling anyway.
Information about homeschooling is needed or desired by a variety of people, including legislators, the media, other homeschoolers and potential homeschoolers, and, infrequently, the courts. Homeschoolers have a lot of valuable information which, if presented and used in the right way, could help ensure educational freedom for homeschoolers and make alternative approaches to education available to the general public. But research is a dangerous and inaccurate way to try to convey this information. Much better alternatives exist, and homeschoolers need to pursue them and resist homeschooling research or they may lose their freedom.
This article will discuss research that is based on gathering and manipulation of information about homeschoolers' behavior, values, personal data (age, income, educational background, etc.), history, use of curriculum, test scores, opinions, attitudes, beliefs, needs, and desires with the intent of making generalizations about homeschooling and homeschoolers. Typically such research uses surveys, questionnaires, interviews, clinical observations and records, tests, and/or other written materials and records. Researchers then classify, quantify, or otherwise dissect and reconstitute the information for the purposes of making generalizations, testing hypotheses, and drawing conclusions and sometimes making recommendations. This article will focus on this kind of research since it poses risks for homeschoolers. (Research that documents and narratively describes historical events and/or presents descriptive case histories will not be discussed.)
How does this kind of research affect homeschooling?
It leads to increased control and regulation of homeschools, it forces homeschools to become more like conventional schools, and it weakens the grassroots homeschooling networks and organizations that are the foundation of the homeschooling movement.
How does homeschooling research lead to increased control and regulation of homeschooling?
When homeschoolers agree to participate in research, they are also agreeing that homeschooling can and should be measured by the categories and terms that researchers choose. In other words, homeschoolers who participate in research are agreeing that the important parts of homeschooling, or at least the criteria by which it should be judged, are things like number of hours spent "teaching" or "studying," standardized test scores, etc.
Research data can be used to increase regulation of homeschoolers. If a study that reveals that some, or many, or most homeschoolers voluntarily do something (for example, use a purchased curriculum or standardized tests or keep detailed records), proponents of increased regulation can use this data to bolster their argument that these practices are generally acceptable to homeschoolers and therefore should be required of all homeschoolers.
Once the precedent has been set that research is a legitimate way of determining acceptable requirements, there is no end to the regulation that could be required, since research has been used to justify and support virtually all the practices of conventional schools. If a research study is all that is necessary to justify a requirement for homeschoolers, legislators and school officials can have their pick of any practice used in conventional schools.
Moreover when people start to rely on research, a chain reaction begins--they start deferring to academicians, to educational institutions, to people who have become "experts" on the subject, and to people who make money by presenting the case for homeschoolers. The most insidious outcome from this condition is that people no longer trust their own knowledge, experience, and judgment about themselves and their children. Homeschoolers become an illustration of some research study rather than the richer reality they really are.
The rights of parents to educate their own children have a solid foundation. By agreeing to research that will evaluate the "success" of homeschooling, homeschoolers are implicitly agreeing that they need to be judged and assessed. They are thereby surrendering important rights that do not need to be justified.
Attempts are being made to gain control of homeschooling by encouraging homeschoolers to accept funding from government sources so that the government can then require that homeschools meet certain standards in order to receive this money. Questions on some research surveys contribute to this. An example is a question on the first federally funded homeschooling research study (Yes, the federal government is involved!):
"We are interested in your needs and desires as home educators. We feel this is a very important topic because home educators are seldom asked about what they need. The following items address this interest. Please respond to them according to the extent of your agreement. As a home educator, I need or would like: [For each of the statements below, respondents are to choose "strongly disagree," "disagree," "uncertain," "agree," "strongly agree."]
a. To be able to enroll my child part-time in academic courses (e.g., algebra, foreign languages, lab sciences) in public or private schools.
b. To be able to enroll my child part-time in extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, drama, band) in public or private schools.
c. My home school support group to continue functioning or for a group to begin that is near me.
d. A more organized and effective state home school organization, or for one to be established.
e. Support and encouragement from family, friends, church, or community.
f. The school district to provide me more help and resources from certified teachers.
g. Help and resources from certified teachers not connected to the school district.
h. Guidance on effective teaching methods for the home education setting.
i. More educational research on homeschools that is made accessible to home educators.
j. The state or federal government to provide financial assistance in the form of educational tax credits or tuition vouchers.
k. Financial assistance in the form of educational tax credits or tuition vouchers that can be used for home instruction from a source other than the state or federal government (i.e., business or other private organization).
l. Access to public school libraries and curriculum materials.
m. To be free from taxation which supports public schools.
n. To be left alone, with no hassles or interference from federal, state and local school officials.
o. Other needs that you have? (please specify):
At first glance this appears to be a fairly attractive wish list, but closer inspection reveals both the researchers' biases and problems for homeschoolers. F and G support teacher certification by implying that "certified teachers" would or could be of real value. J and K offer homeschoolers vouchers which would really be a means of further control and regulation. (For example in Oregon, where a proposed voucher plan was soundly defeated but the severe regulations of homeschoolers that were developed in response to the voucher initiative have not been defeated.)
Research is doing homeschooling more harm than good. Homeschoolers seldom benefit from it. Instead the benefits go to researchers, universities, experts, attorneys, and others who use it in place of direct knowledge, alternative practices, and effective political action.
In addition, research can be used to support nearly any policy but research is not the driving force for policy. Special interest groups carefully select studies that are often questionable and use them effectively in the political arena to promote their programs. For example, proponents of early childhood education often cite studies which they claim validate their position. They ignore the many other studies that point to the importance of children remaining with their parents and not being institutionalized in the early years of life and to the pitfalls of formal education for young children. The same pattern can be documented in other areas such as standardized testing. Just think what educational researchers could do with a minority such as homeschoolers.
How does research force homeschools to become like conventional schools?
The educational establishment seems to have realized that homeschooling has gained enough acceptance by the general public that it cannot be simply eliminated. Even in the most repressive states, few people speak seriously of outlawing homeschooling. But the educational establishment still feels threatened by homeschooling and its successes. Conventional school personnel fear loss of students, funding, jobs, prestige, and control over the education of America's children. So the question now becomes, how can the educational establishment gain control over homeschooling? One of the most effective ways is by forcing homeschools to become more like conventional schools.
Research strongly promotes and fosters the values and practices of conventional schooling. This troubles many homeschoolers whose concerns about conventional schooling prompted them to begin homeschooling in the first place. Nevertheless, research pressures homeschoolers in many ways, some of them deliberate, others the inevitable response of an educational system that feels threatened. For example:
1. Virtually all homeschooling research compares homeschools to conventional schools. Questionnaires ask, in effect, "How well do homeschools do what conventional schools do?" They do not ask, "What do homeschoolers do well? What do homeschooled children do that would be impossible or difficult in a conventional school?" What gets counted or credited are things that conventional schools do. This encourages people to do what can be reported on questionnaires rather than to focus on the unique needs of their families and take advantage of the unique opportunities for learning and growing that homeschooling offers.
2. Researchers' perspectives, assumptions, beliefs, and values determine the way in which the research is conducted. The respondent cannot write his or her own questions and thus has no choice in this. And almost all researchers have the biases and values of conventional schooling. Researchers, even those with personal experience with homeschooling, are a product of and a continuing participant in the conventional educational system in this country. Educational research is a closed system tightly controlled by the educational bureaucracy. In order for a person to be publicly accepted as a "researcher," he or she must have recognized credentials (academic degrees, teaching experience in conventional schools, etc.). A research proposal will not receive funding unless it proposes to measure things that are conventionally recognized as "education."
3. Questionnaires affect homeschoolers who complete them. They give the clear message that homeschoolers should be following conventional school practices. A question like, "How many hours a week do you teach reading?" clearly implies that homeschoolers should be teaching reading, and for quite a few hours at that. But what about homeschoolers who emphasize independent learning rather than "teaching," or those who focus on reading with their children or encouraging the children to read at their own pace and in their own way rather than on formally "teaching" reading. Homeschoolers are being told, "You better make sure you are conforming to what is expected of conventional schools." They are being pushed in the direction of becoming like conventional schools and away from the advantages they have as alternatives to conventional schools.
One of the greatest challenges facing homeschoolers today is to maintain their independence and not be co-opted by the educational establishment. Playing into its hands by participating in homeschooling research will not help homeschoolers meet this challenge!
How does research weaken a grassroots movement like homeschooling?
To be effective participants in a grassroots movement and advocates for their rights and interests, homeschoolers must remain united and concentrate on what they have in common, that is, the right to secure for their children an education consistent with their principles and beliefs. They must not focus on issues which are divisive and which are best decided by each individual family such as which approaches to learning to use, what subject matter to cover, what religious beliefs and political commitments to hold, etc. However, research categorizes and labels homeschoolers and seeks out the differences among them. It divides them into lots of little subsets instead of emphasizing their common commitment to securing the best education for their children. It even divides homeschoolers by raising the question of whether to participate in research.
A grassroots organization is strong because a group of people realize that they can take responsibility for some aspect of their own lives, such as the education of their children, and carry it out. In opposition to this, research encourages people to turn over private thoughts and personal details to "experts" who will then put them into some form (which the people could not do themselves, according to the researchers) and present them to others, such as school officials and legislators who will then decide what is best for the people to do and require them to do it. This weakens people and encourages them to become dependent, to surrender their strengths and accept the requirements of others.
The appeal of research can also entice homeschoolers into believing that research can be used to persuade policymakers, legislators, and the courts to make reasonable laws, regulations, and decisions.
Grassroots organizations are also weakened when members turn to academicians and "experts" who use research to advance their own prestige and to negotiate laws and regulations that in turn make homeschoolers dependent on such expert authority and their standardized practices rather than on grassroots organizations.
In what other ways does research affect homeschoolers?
Research also threatens homeschoolers in more subtle ways.
* Research quantifies and thus dehumanizes people. Instead of wonderful, alive, unique individuals, children become black marks on a score sheet; families become numbers, part of a set.
* Any person who agrees to participate in research is agreeing to the researcher's value system. Those who believe that people should not be measured by tests, labeled, and reduced to numbers, feel that the whole idea of quantitative research is impossible, ridiculous, and wrong, and they refuse to participate.
* Research is an invasion of privacy, even if anonymity is guaranteed. Homeschoolers have still been singled out for scrutiny.
* The emotional impact of filling out a survey can be much like that of taking a standardized test. The implication is that someone, somewhere knows what homeschoolers should be doing; that there are right answers, or at least better answers. The questions seem to say, "You should be teaching so many hours a week, you should be going on field trips, you should be participating in a support group." This encourages people to do things that can be reported on questionnaires rather than to focus on the unique needs of their families. Research seems to render a judgment on homeschoolers rather than encouraging them to make their own decisions.
* Questionnaires usually begin with a "guilt trip" about how important the study is and how much one's response is needed. Dedicated homeschoolers may be particularly vulnerable to such pressure. They need to realize that research has serious problems and that they are not obligated to participate; in fact, the best thing they could do would be to refuse to participate.
* Research on homeschooling emphasizes and supports standardized tests, standardized curriculums, and teacher certification at a time when these three touchstones of conventional schooling are finally under sufficient criticism that their requirements are being curtailed in conventional schools. Such research gives these practices more power, prestige, and credibility within the homeschooling arena. How convenient for proponents of these practices to find they can use them on homeschoolers at a time when their use on conventional school students is being curtailed. (It reminds one of the pesticides that are declared unsafe for use in this country and then sold to other countries.)
It is very important to realize that the basic idea, foundation, and structure of research is flawed. To be sure, some research studies are worse than others. But no matter how carefully questions are worded, samples are chosen, and results are tabulated, research will still be risky for homeschoolers because of problems in the basic model.
But isn't research necessary? Don't a lot of people need information about homeschooling?
A wide variety of people including legislators, the media, other homeschoolers and potential homeschoolers, and, infrequently, the courts, need information about homeschooling, but they do not need research. The demand for research is motivated more by the desire to control homeschooling than by an attempt to truly understand it. Homeschoolers have a lot of valuable information to share. But research is a dangerous and inaccurate way to try to convey the information.
How can information about homeschooling be presented effectively?
Presenting information about homeschooling can be a challenge. For many people, it is a new and very different idea. Think back to your first encounter with homeschooling. Were you more impressed with personal stories about individual families or by results of research? Clearly the best sources of information are parents and children who have had personal experience with homeschooling. In most, if not all, cases this is best presented through personal histories and reflections. Research cannot effectively convey this information (see next question). Let us look at some specific situations.
1. Since many states have laws which regulate homeschools, legislators need information.
* Many legislators respond more positively to constituents' personal experiences and concerns than to "expert" testimony based on research. Meetings with constituents leave more lasting impressions and generate stronger commitments.
* Legislators need to hear logical, historical, practical, moral, religious, and legal (including constitutional) arguments that support parents' right to educate their children without unreasonable interference from the state.
* Research is not effective in stopping or significantly diminishing opposition to homeschooling. Opponents will still argue, "Inadequate homeschoolers would not be honest in responding to a research questionnaire. Anyway, we need regulation to prevent the possibility of future homeschoolers doing a bad job."
* Some legislators might be favorably impressed by research. But it is not worth the disadvantages and risks of research, just to have a little more positive information to share with legislators.
2. Proponents of research argue that it is needed in some court cases. However, in cases concerning the competency of a given family, character witnesses from the community and/or portfolios or other evidence of children's learning are more appropriate and effective evidence than research about what most homeschoolers do. In class action suits or interpretations of homeschooling laws or regulations, homeschoolers can respond to requests for research by arguing that general research on education has shown that standardized tests, standardized curriculums, and teacher certification cannot be shown to lead to learning. Again, in a few situations it might be helpful to have research results that showed clearly and in conventional terms that homeschooling works well. But these alleged benefits are not worth the risks that research entails.
3. The media generally responds more favorably to "human interest" stories than to research reports.
4. Homeschoolers who want to share information about homeschooling can volunteer to be featured in newspaper articles, write for homeschooling magazines and other publications, speak before local church and other community groups, participate in homeschooling support groups, meet with legislators, testify before legislative hearings, etc. A state homeschooling organization could compile experiences of its members on specific topics such as homeschooling after attending a conventional school, entry into a conventional school after homeschooling, or life experiences after "graduating" from homeschool. A booklet could be published and distributed to legislators, the media, etc.
5. A researcher who wants to study homeschooling accurately, fairly, and effectively could use case histories. These could be presented as just what they are: first person accounts of a particular experience. Important information could be presented. Case histories are more honest about their limitations and come closer to conveying the uniqueness and value of individuals than research does.
Why can't important information on homeschooling be effectively presented through research?
Many important parts of homeschooling (the look of joy on a child's face as he or she discovers something, the recovered self-confidence of a child who had been labeled "learning disabled" by a conventional school) cannot be captured and recorded in quantitative or "scientific" studies. Therefore research gives a misleading picture of homeschooling when it claims to show the strengths of homeschooling but fails to study or report the most important ones.
Researchers have a strong orientation toward conventional schools. (This was discussed earlier and applies even to researchers who are homeschoolers.) They are not as well equipped to present information about homeschooling as are homeschoolers themselves.
An important question is whether research results are accurate. The history of social science research, including educational research, is filled with problems, criticisms, accusations, and doubts. Space does not permit a thorough discussion, but among the most important points that pertain to homeschooling research are:
* Most topics included in the social sciences cannot be studied scientifically. Like religion, homeschooling cannot be quantified or measured. For example, there is no common agreement on what it means to be educated or how this can be measured.
* Subjects' realization that they are being observed changes their behavior. Also, responses that subjects give are influenced by what the researcher asks, how he or she asks it, and what choices are available as a response.
* Research data needs to be interpreted. Researchers' experiences, beliefs, and biases influence what they see and how they interpret it. This adds more uncertainty and ambiguity to the research.
* Despite these and other limitations, complications, and ambiguities, researchers present their results as facts, using numbers, graphs, charts, and similar devices to give the illusion of scientific accuracy. This is at best misleading and occasionally downright dishonest.
How can homeschoolers respond to the issue of homeschooling research?
Homeschoolers need to decide how they will respond to the risks of homeschooling research. It is not a question of making an issue--the issue exists because homeschooling research exists, is increasing, is risky, and must be addressed. Basically homeschoolers have four alternatives:
1. Homeschoolers can support homeschooling research by participating in studies and citing research results in their contacts with others. Then they will have to live with the consequences of the effects research has on homeschooling.
2. Homeschoolers can refuse to participate in research if they are asked. This will be more effective if they tell the researchers why they are doing so.
3. Homeschoolers can take the initiative to limit the damage that can be done by homeschooling research by:
* Sharing their concerns with other homeschoolers through support groups, letters to the editors of homeschooling publications, etc.
* Asking people who are in charge of mailing lists of homeschoolers to be sure not to release such lists to researchers and not to agree to mail research questionnaires to those on their mailing lists.
* Writing to their federal legislators to express their concerns about how federally funded homeschooling research projects are being conducted.
* Communicating information about homeschooling in other ways.
4. Homeschoolers can ignore the whole question and do nothing--but they need to realize that given the pressures that exist for homeschooling research, the vested interests that are supporting such research, and the ways in which research could weaken homeschooling, doing nothing is essentially a vote in favor of homeschooling research and its effects on homeschooling.
Hasn't research played an effective role for homeschooling to date?
Homeschooling has gained a large measure of acceptance and legitimacy during the past 15 years or so. Many factors have contributed to this, including an increase in the number of homeschoolers; development of national homeschooling publications such as this one; and favorable publicity in local, state, and national media. Research on education in general has also contributed. For example, research has shown that the rate of physical, emotional, and neurological development of many normal children means that they are not ready for formal instruction until well after age 6. Serious learning problems may be created if children enter conventional schools before they are ready. This research supports the ideas that children can learn effectively at home and that they benefit greatly from being allowed to learn at their own pace and in their own way. Another example is the studies of standardized test scores of homeschooled children which confirm the ability of "untrained" parents to teach their own children. (Many people have serious reservations about these studies, however, since standardized tests are seriously biased, flawed, misleading, inaccurate, and show only how well one performed on a given test, not how much one has learned.)
Much of the research that has been used by homeschoolers was done on conventional school students, not homeschoolers. The relatively small amount that was done on homeschoolers focused on readily available, impersonal statistical information such as standardized test scores.
Also, proponents of research claim that citing research has been helpful during legislative battles. It is not at all clear that research wins votes. Strong grassroots organizations, relying on personal experience and commitment, have achieved some of the most reasonable homeschooling laws while states in which homeschoolers recently relied on "experts" and research have some of the most repressive laws.
Isn't it naive to think that homeschoolers can or will avoid research? Therefore, wouldn't it be better to fill out questionnaires to ensure balanced representation of homeschoolers, even if only to point out the flaws in the questionnaire and the researchers' assumptions?
Homeschoolers are independent and savvy people and as a group stand a better chance of resisting research efforts than most people. Also, as indicated above there are better and more effective ways to point out the problems of research than to write notes on questionnaires. Moreover, most questionnaires are designed to produce aggregated, quantitative results reflecting the construction of the questionnaire and its designated multiple responses. Therefore narrative and critical responses will no doubt be treated as outliers and possibly dealt with in a footnote or a general narrative comment. Such responses can also be used perversely to illustrate how representative the quantitative results are, arguing that the exception proves the representation.
Who benefits from homeschool research?
Given all the problems and pitfalls, why would anyone do research on homeschooling? Who benefits? Obviously, researchers and the universities and other institutions with which they work or who support and use their work benefit directly in terms of money received and increased status and privilege. Homeschooling research may be particularly in vogue now, making it easier to get grants and other support for homeschooling research than for other seemingly less timely topics. When more than 100,000 "scholarly" articles are published each year (as reported in Phi Delta Kappan, Vol, 71, No. 3, Nov., 1989, page 226), there must be intense pressure on graduate students, instructors, and professors alike to find an original topic. Do homeschoolers have an obligation to serve as fodder for this arm of the educational establishment?
There are two major reasons why homeschoolers should not participate in research: First, research poses a serious threat to homeschooling because it increases the opportunities for increased control and regulation of homeschooling. Second, even if research did not have serious risks, it still would not be the most effective way to communicate information about homeschooling to others. It is much better for homeschoolers to share their personal experiences, to show how well homeschooling works for their families, and how important it is that homeschooling exist as an alternative that is not controlled by conventional schools or the government.
If homeschooling is to survive as an alternative approach to education and as a stronghold of parents' and children's rights and responsibilities, homeschoolers must be prepared to stand up and say, "We have chosen an alternative that works better for us." One important area in which homeschoolers have to be prepared to do this is research. They need to say, "We don't want our families poked and prodded and invaded. We don't want our position weakened and our strengths lessened by research which cannot give a full and accurate picture of homeschooling anyway. We object to what research does to people and to alternative movements and the way in which it promotes the values and practices of conventional schooling. Therefore, we oppose homeschooling research."
© 1991, Larry and Susan Kaseman
Originally published January-February 1991 issue Home Education Magazine
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