An Overview of Research on Homeschooling

Wading through the research on homeschooling can be a challenge given the strong feelings of homeschool advocates and critics alike. Many of the most touted studies of homeschooling have been funded or conducted by homeschooling advocacy groups like Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI). These studies have generally been severely limited in their methodology and their results have been repeatedly misrepresented (For a good introduction to such methodology limitations and misrepresentation, see Brian D. Ray and NHERI, Part 1 and Part 2). Because of this, media frequently misrepresents what we actually do and do not know about homeschooling.

There has also been academic research on homeschooling that has not stemmed from homeschool advocacy groups, and there are a number of scholars who do extremely interesting work on homeschooling and work to be clear about exactly what the research they do does and does not say about homeschooling. The chief among these are Milton Gaither, whose blog Homeschool Research Notes is indispensable, and Robert Kunzman, whose Homeschooling Research & Scholarship site is extremely comprehensive. In 2012, these two scholars, together with a number of other researchers who study homeschooling around the world, founded the International Center for Home Education Research(ICHER). ICHER’s Frequently Asked Questions section is an excellent place to start for a simple summary of the state of homeschooling research.

Some Summaries of What We Know

So what do we actually know about homeschooling? The first place I would send people for an answer to that question is the aforementioned ICHER FAQ section.

Next I would point people to the issue briefs composed by the National Center for Education Statistics. Unfortunately, the most recent numbers have yet to be released, meaning that the information we have is over five years old. Still, these numbers are literally the only ones that we have that don’t have grave methodological limitations.

2003 National Center for Education Statistics Homeschooling Issue Brief

2007 National Center for Eeducation Statistics Homeschooling Issue Brief

Finally, Gaither and Kunzman’s 2013 survey of the research, published in Other Education—The Journal of Educational Alternatives, while it will take a bit longer to read than the ICHER FAQs or the NCES numbers, is probably the best summary of what we do and do not know about homeschooling currently in existence.

Homeschooling: A Comprehensive Survey of the Research

What Gaither and Kunzman flesh out in their survey of the research is that just about every study of homeschoolers’ academic performance is riddled with methodological limitations, and that even when we correct for these limits and pinpoint the best research and numbers we have, we find that we are still left with a plethora of questions.

For another excellent, but slightly old, survey of what we do and do not know about homeschooling, see Eric Isenberg’s 2007 article, What Have We Learned about Homeschooling?

Additional Recommended Reading

For those interested in more in depth reading about homechooling and its history, I would recommend four scholarly books on the topic. In the following paragraphs, I will offer a summary of each.

In 2001 sociologist Mitchell Stevens published Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement. Stevens divided homeschoolers into two groups, which he called “open communion” and “closed communion.” This labeling mirrored Jane Van Galen’s earlier division of the movement into “pedagogues” and “ideologues,” and reflected the diverse religious and educational reasons parents turned to homeschooling. Stevens focused especially on the 1990s, HSLDA’s increasing prominence, and disagreements and conflicts among and between the different groups of homeschooling parents.

When education historian Milton Gaither published his Homeschool: An American Historyin 2008, he was giving scholars the first comprehensive history of homeschooling. While Gaither begins his book with the colonial period, the bulk of it is spent on what Gaither calls the “modern” homeschool movement, a movement he emphasizes came about as oppositional and has gradually become mainstream. Gaither divides homeschoolers into the same groups as Van Galen and Stevens, but he calls them “inclusives” and “believers.” Gaither also examines the history of the legalization of homeschooling and the growth of additional educational options like cybercharters.

The focus of education scholar Robert Kunzman’s Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling is slightly different. Kunzman’s work is the story of six different Christian homeschooling family, each of which he visited and did field work with. Each family is slightly different, but together these stories weave together a fascinating picture of the Christian homeschooling movement. Kunzman intersperses the book with discussions of things like HSLDA’s Generation Joshua. Kunzman finishes by calling for some limited regulation of homeschooling that would ensure that homeschooled children are actually receiving an education.

Jennifer Lois’ 2012 Home Is Where the School Is: The Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering, turns the spotlight on the ones doing most of the homeschooling: the mothers. While other scholars generally divide homeschoolers into two groups by whether they are motivated by religious or pedagogical reasons, Lois divides them by whether they choose homeschooling as their “first choice” or as their “second choice”—meaning, whether they homeschool because they believe they are called to do so, or whether they came to homeschooling because other educational methods failed their children. Lois finds that first choice homeschool mothers make homeschooling part of their identity while second choice homeschool mothers look forward to the day when their children will be grown or back in school and they will be able to do other things.

Criticism of Homeschooling

For the a good summary of the criticism of homeschooling, I would recommend Rob Reich’s Why Homeschooling Should Be Regulated In this concise essay, Reich lays out why he thinks homeschooling should be regulated and offers some suggestions for what this regulation might look like. For a similar call, see Acker, Gray, Jalali, and Pascal’s article, Mathematics and Home Schooling. Finally, see Timothy B. Waddell’s Bringing It All Back Home: Establishing a Coherent Constitutional Framework for the Re-regulation of Homeschooling.

For a look at criticism of homeschooling that also presents the responses of homeschool advocates and is written in a more readable and less academic style, I recommend the Akron Beacon Journal‘s 2004 series. Homeschool advocates insisted in the wake of its publication that this series was biased and unfair, and it is indeed a piece of journalism rather than of academic or scholarly work. However, I felt it did a fairly good job of laying out criticism of homeschooling while also presenting homeschool advocates’ side.

Homeschoolers’ Motives are Diverse; Their Teaching Styles Vary

Claims of Academic Success Rely on Anecdotes, Flawed Data Analysis

Parents Want to Control Influences; Critics See Need for Wide Exposure

Homeschoolers May Be No Safer in Their Homes Than Other Children

Home-Schooling Freedoms Help Parents Who Abduct Children

A Diverse but United National Network Mobilizes against Regulations at All Levels

Parents Assert Rights

If nothing else, this series provides an excellent summary of both homeschooling advocates’ positions on the topic and the positions taken by critics of homeschooling. Further, they are relative quick reads and are fairly engrossing.