This post reviews Brian D. Ray, “Academic Achievement and Demographic Traits of Homeschool Students: A Nationwide Study” in Academic Leadership Live: The Online Journal 8, no. 1 (February 2010). [Available Here]
This is the latest of a long line of nearly identical studies Ray has been performing for decades now at fairly even intervals. In two previous posts I reviewed this large body of work, which you can read here and here. This new study tries very hard to overcome one of the most persistent deficiencies of his previous work (and the 1999 Rudner study)–the near exclusive reliance on HSLDA’s advertisement to recruit subjects, leading to unrepresentative samples. This time around Ray tried to recruit families from outside of the HSLDA orbit. Did he succeed? Not really. At least 76.8% of his very impressive sample (11,739 subjects!) are some sort of conservative Protestant. 95.2% are some kind of Christian. But he did try. Rather than just recruit from HSLDA and its affiliates as in past studies, this time Ray used not only the Bob Jones University Press testing service popular with conservative Protestants but also the Washington-based Family Learning Organization, which bills itself as an “inclusive and non-judgmental” organization, the North Carolina-based Piedmont Education Services, (no help here. It’s at least as conservative Protestant as BJU), and the Virginia-based Seton Home Study School, which is a service used primarily by conservative Roman Catholics. The use of Seton helps account for the impressive 12.4% of Ray’s subjects who were Roman Catholic. Ray also tapped several smaller organizations, but it must be noted that many of these also cater to conservative Christians.
Of his 11,739 subjects, at least 91.7 % are white (some of those selecting “other” I have a feeling are also white). 97.9% are married. 68.1% have at least 3 kids. 42.2% have at least four. 6.3% have seven or more children.
80% of families have mothers who stay at home full time. 62.5 % of the mothers in Ray’s sample have a four-year college degree or higher.
45.9 % of these families make over $80,000 per year. 28.4% make over $100,000.
In short, Ray’s sample is way more conservative, way more Christian, and way, way whiter than the American norm. It is also richer and enjoys more intact family life (i.e. far fewer broken homes or single parent situations). It has a far higher number of children too. If the stereotype of the typical homeschooling family is that of the lily-white fundamentalist Protestant (or conservative Catholic) with a stay-at-home mom and lots of kids, this study completely reinforces it. It would only add that this family is doing quite well financially and has parents who have lots of higher education.
Not surprising given this demographic, the test scores are off the charts. On all the tests administered to this sample of homeschoolers, students performed on average in the 84th to 89th percentile. Ray has been reporting stellar test results for decades, but these results are even higher than anything he has found before.
There were slight differences between groups of homeschoolers based on some variables, and no difference based on others. Type of curriculum (complete school in a box or eclectic approach) didn’t make any difference. Neither did level of state regulation. Very slight improvement in scores resulted from being a girl, from having fewer brothers and sisters, from having parents who had never been certified to teach (!), and from having a more structured approach to homeschooling [Ray asked families to rank the level of formality of their homeschool on a 1-7 point scale]. A little bit more statistical improvement was connected to families being more wealthy and spending more on homeschooling curricula. But the only variable that really seemed to make a significant difference was parent education level. Kids with parents with at least a college education did noticeably better than kids whose parents had less formal education. But the main point here is not these slight variations. The main point is that all the subjects performed way, way above national norms.
Why? Ray considers many possible answers at the end of his report but not the one that is obviously the case. Children from these families do well on these test because children from families like this always do well on tests no matter where they go to school. Ray does acknowledge as much in a couple of places in his report:
homeschool families and their students do not appear to be a completely representative cross-section of all families in the United States. And it was not possible within the constraints of this study to confirm whether this sample is representative of the population of home-educated students.
Despite acknowledgments like this Ray repeatedly suggests that while his study doesn’t prove that homeschooling itself is what makes these kids do so well, “it may be that something about the typical nature and practice of home-based education causes higher academic achievement, on average, than does institutional state-run schooling.” As much as he may want to think this, there are actually two places in his own data that suggest otherwise.
The first comes in his comparison of students in his sample who were homeschooled their entire lives (59%) with those who have only homeschooled for a little while. He found no statistical relationship at all between number of years homeschooling and achievement. Later in the study Ray compares the scores of his homeschooled sample with scores from three of his large testing companies that include students enrolled in private Christian schools. The scores are nearly identical. From these two tidbits it is clear that what Ray is measuring is not a homeschooling effect but a sociological effect of stable, two-parent, middle-to-upper-middle class, white families whose parents are deeply committed to their children’s well-being. Children with advantages like this are going to shine no matter what kind of schooling they get.
Having said this, I want to end by praising the the study rightly interpreted. I know it is going to be misrepresented by many homeschooling advocates (possibly by Ray himself) as another study that proves homeschooling is better than public education. I know many unschoolers and others for whom the attraction of homeschooling is that it gets their families away from the standardized testing obsession are going to reject its very premises and see it, accurately, as ignoring their wing of the movement. But for all its demographic limitations (despite Ray’s praiseworthy efforts to broaden his sample, this is still the same basic group of homeschoolers he’s always studied, with the addition of some conservative Catholics) Ray has shown, yet again, that homeschooling does not by itself harm children academically. Middle class white kids from stable families who would excel in public or private schools perform at least as well on standardized tests if they’re homeschooled. Rather than insinuating that homeschooling is responsible for these impressive scores, I wish Ray would interpret his study as showing, as it so capably does, that homeschooling doesn’t make priviliged kids do worse on tests than they would have done had they gone to school. Homeschooling is no academic disadvantage. That’s newsworthy enough I think.