In my previous post I described how a series of email exchanges with Brian Ray motivated me to devote more systematic attention to his work than I had done previously. Dr. Ray, in an unfailingly courteous manner, criticized previous assertions I had made in this blog about the limited scientific reach of his studies and his ties to HSLDA. I dealt in the last post with the research methodology and generalizability question. In this one I’d like to speak to his ties to HSLDA.
In our email exchange (which Dr. Ray asked me not to quote from) Ray was at pains to distance himself from HSLDA and was sharply critical of my frequent statements linking the two. Let’s look at the evidence:
since 1990 Brian Ray has conducted five major research projects for HSLDA, and these form the basis for the great majority of his published work, be it the self-published studies put out by NHERI itself or other articles he has published elsewhere. Here are the five original studies:
Brian D. Ray, A Nationwide Study of Home Education: Family Characteristics, Legal Matters, and Student Achievement (NHERI 1990).
Brian D. Ray, A Nationwide Study of Home Education in Canada: Family Characteristics, Student Achievement, and Other Topics (NHERI 1994).
Brian D. Ray, Strengths of Their Own: Home Schoolers Across America (NHERI 1997)
Brian D. Ray, Home Education Across the United States: Family Characteristics, Student Achievement, and Longitudinal Traits (HSLDA, 1997)
Brian D. Ray, Home Educated and Now Adults: Their Community and Civic Envolvement, Views about Homeschooling, and Other Traits (NHERI 2004)
All of these studies were conducted in conjunction with HSLDA. Ray himself acknowledges this in every case in his methodology section. Sometimes he mentions HSLDA by name; sometimes he only mentions “a leading national organization,” but in every case the great majority, and sometimes all, of his respondents were “strongly motivated” (Ray’s words, see Nationwide Study of Home Education in Canada, p. 12) by HSLDA to volunteer for his studies. HSLDA provided financial backing for the studies. HSLDA marketed the results of the studies. HSLDA has some of the studies available on their website here and here.
Anyone who reads several of Ray’s studies will be struck by their continuity with one another. Since the 1990 study he has used essentially the same survey instrument (with modifications over the years) and followed the same basic strategy for obtaining responses. Many of the studies repeat sections of their predecessors verbatim when describing research design, sampling and so forth. I describe this in more detail in my previous post.
Interestingly, as I write this, HSLDA and Ray are currently recruiting for another large-scale study. In February of 2008 HSLDA mailed out requests to thousands of parents whose children have been tested by one of four testing agencies. A copy of the original letter is available here.
Reading it through one can see just how clearly HSLDA and NHERI are aligned and get a sense of the recruiting strategy HSLDA employs. The letter is titled “Prize Draw Guidelines for HSLDA/NHERI Academic Study” and notes that the project “is being administered cooperatively by Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) and Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).” HSLDA points out that the results of this study “will help homeschool organizations better serve homeschool families, inform lawmakers, policymakers, and the general public about the benefits of a home-based education, and encourage those who choose to homeschool.” As with all of HSLDA/NHERI’s previous studies, you know what the conclusion will be before the surveys have even been submitted–the results will show the “benefits of a home-based education.” And if contributing to a research project that will show to the world how great homeschooling is isn’t motivation enough, HSLDA will also offer three prizes to families who submit their surveys in a timely fashion.
It should be clear by now that NHERI is very tightly affiliated with HSLDA. If that is so obviously the case, why would Brian Ray wish to deny or downplay this? There is, after all, nothing wrong with HSLDA affiliation. HSLDA is without question the most important and influential homeschooling organization in the world. While some of its initiatives have met resistance from some homeschoolers (for details see chapter six of my book), HSLDA has a long and distinguished track record of service to and advocacy for homeschooling. It is by no means the only national organization that seeks to influence policy discussions by putting out research that favors its perspectives. HSLDA has every right to commission, fund, and publish research that supports its political goals.
Brian D. Ray has for decades now been the go-to guy for HSLDA’s research. This is an indisputable fact, and it is certainly no scandal. What I don’t presently understand is why Ray would wish to downplay this association. Is it because he fears that such obvious partisanship would discredit his stature as an objective researcher? Would this partisanship threaten the tax-exempt status of his organization? This claim has been suggested in a post over at Home Education Magazine, but the tone of that post suggests a sort of cover-up, conspiracy mindset that I don’t really think Ray has. If you read his own website he’s pretty clear that he’s in the business of providing advocacy research to promote pro-homeschooling polcies and court decisions. So I must conclude that I am simply at a loss to understand why Ray doesn’t want to acknowledge his relationship to HSLDA and takes me to task for bringing it to light.
As I close out this series of posts on Brian Ray and NHERI, let me end with a couple of links to other blogs and online discussions that offer illumination on what some homeschoolers are saying about the latest 2008 survey:
Dana Hanley at Principled Discovery, was not upset like some are at the idea of researching homeschoolers, but she reacted negatively toward HSLDA’s tendency to accept the Standardized Test paradigm of intelligence. Many of her readers seem to agree.
This thread on the Well-Trained Mind Forum discussing the latest initiative provides a revealing look at what some homeschoolers think of Ray’s studies. One poster thought that Ray’s studies “are a joke, because they only test homeschoolers who take standardized tests and want to report their scores.” Another agreed, “This was my opinion of that ludicrous study HSLDA did along with someone else a few years ago on adults who had been home schooled. My brother and I both participated, but we both felt it was seriously skewed by the self-reporting aspect.”
My final words on Ray and NHERI: 1. As long as it is clear that his surveys describe only the experience of self-selecting volunteers and in no way represent the full range of homeschoolers, there’s nothing wrong with them. The problem comes when Ray and others take his original limited studies and use them to make broader claims about the homeschooling movement more generally. 2. Ray has a long and unbroken association with HSLDA that persists to the present moment and has grounded the bulk of his scholarly work. He has done independent projects, such as the article I reviewed here, but most of his major studies were sponsored by HSLDA. This itself is not a problem, but it becomes a problem when he, for reasons I cannot fathom, pretends that this connection is not there.