This post reviews Joseph Murphy, Homeschooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2012).
Murphy, Associate Dean at Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University and author of many, many books and articles on a wide range of topics, here provides a remarkable synthesis of nearly the entire corpus of homeschooling research published from the 1980s to the present.
The book proceeds topically, providing distinct chapters reviewing the literature on all of the major themes: demographics, the history of homeschooling, parent motivation, varieties of practice, and the long-term effects of homeschooling (including academic achievement and socialization). Some of his chapters are absolutely stunning–remarkable works that sift through a huge number of publications and produce something far beyond a simple survey. These chapters add something new by creating categories, graphs, and other helpful devices that bring order and synthesis to the field in ways nobody else has. Other chapters, however, seem just as scattered as the literature on which they are based.
Similarly, some chapters provide a wonderfully rich historical awareness of how the scholarly literature has developed over time and how it has often been driven by political agendas that have left their mark on the questions asked and the conclusions reached. In these chapters he, unlike many who set out to provide summaries of the homeschooling literature, is well aware that a study done in 1988 doesn’t necessarily still apply to homeschooling today, and studies funded by advocacy organizations might not be the most reliable guides to actual practice given their biased samples and suspect methodologies. But in other chapters it’s as if he’s forgotten these nuances, and he cites studies from several decades ago when making a point about the present or takes the conclusions of some of the more suspect studies as gospel.
Rather than summarizing or commenting on every chapter, let me provide a few examples of some of the positive and negative aspects of the book, being very clear that there are way, way more positives than negatives.
For example, any researcher looking into the growth of homeschooling will have come across various claims of overall numbers in the United States in the literature going back decades. Murphy has taken all of these claims and estimates and put them together on two pages (pp. 8-9) into one very helpful chart that begins in 1970 with the overall U.S. Department of Education estimate of 10,000-15,000 and goes straight through the years, mentioning every figure and where it came from up to 2010. The only problem with his chart is that it doesn’t cite the most recent NCES data. Instead it cites the older 2006 source, though it does, oddly, give the 2007 figure! The 2009 NCES results are not listed in the bibliography nor are they cited anywhere in the text, which is odd for a book published in 2012 that does cite a number of other sources published in 2009 or thereafter. I can only surmise that Murphy probably created this chart before the new NCES data was released and then added the 2007 number in at the last minute but didn’t have the time or inclination to change the entire chart.
Here’s another example of how Murphy sometimes goes well beyond mere summary to provide very useful synthesis. On p. 50 he has a chart, explicated on the surrounding pages, that puts together most of the literature on the various kinds of groups homeschoolers create, categorizing them in several useful ways. Murphy explains how the wide range of support groups homeschoolers have created can be differentiated “along the following criteria:”
cultural orientation (i.e., religious versus secular); level (i.e. local, state, national); target (i.e., children, parents, some combination of the two); educational philosophy (i.e., traditional versus alternative); and organizational structure, including leadership arrangements. (p. 41)
The best chapter by far in my view is chapter 5, on parental motivation for homeschooling. Here again he goes well beyond summary to create his own synthetic categories, into which he then places the relevant research. He finds that there are “push and pull dynamics” at play–factors pushing parents away from institutional schools and pulling them toward homeschooling. These factors overlap in complex, evolving ways as parents begin the process of homeschooling and grow in experience. He attends to the broader sociocultural context within which parents make these decisions and ends up, after surveying others’ categories, reducing most parental motivations to these three categories: “religious-based motivations,” “school-based motivations” (including academic and social concerns), and “family-based motivation.” It’s a great chapter, worth the price of the book for anyone looking to study this topic.
Let me give one more example of an insight that derives from the literature but goes well beyond it. I think Murphy’s most profound insight in the entire book occurs on pp. 125-126:
Perhaps the most puzzling finding in the area of homeschooling effects is that almost every potential domain of impact that defines the intervention from parents’ perspectives is ignored while researchers chase down data on whether homeschool children can answer two or three more questions correctly on standardized tests than their public school peers…If one were to draw a central conclusion from those who study homeshooling, it would be that the primary goal of this movement is to ratchet up academic achievement in mathematics and reading…In short, what counts as evidence of success in public schools has de facto become the measure of progress in homeschools, at least for researchers.
Murphy goes on to try to get beyond the usual obsession with test score results by trying to tease out the effects of homeschooling on “the social fabric” and other factors not related to academic achievement–though with only limited success given the meager literature on such points.
These are some of the good points about this book. My criticisms are mostly minor and not worth mentioning in this post. Scattered throughout my copy of the book are marginal comments where I want to challenge or qualify certain points Murphy makes with a study or two that disagrees with whatever he’s saying. I rather wish I had been able to read this book through and provide Murphy with feedback like this, for I’m sure he would have been quick to agree with some of the things I point out–most of them just small spots where he overlooked one or two studies.
Slightly more significantly, there are a few studies that do not appear in this book that might have seriously altered how some of his sections are worded and what his conclusions are. I’ve already mentioned how he doesn’t include what is surely the most important quantitative data we’ve got–the 2009 NCES report. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, this most recent NCES data challenged some of my own assumptions about homeschooling, and it would have done the same for Murphy.
Another very important and very recent source of quantitative data is the Cardus Education Survey, which I discussed here. Its less-than-rosy conclusions, given its rigorous methodology, must be taken into consideration in any robust summary of the literature on homeschooling outcomes. Finally, for whatever reason Murphy seems to have missed the wonderful studies of Jennifer Lois on homeschooling mothers. Lois’ book is scheduled to come out this December, but she has been publishing articles since 2009.
Finally, let me reiterate that Murphy does have a tendency to lump together studies of various quality such that the unknowing reader will not be able to tell if a point he’s making is coming from a rigorous study with a large sample size and controls for confounding variables or if it’s coming from a weak study of only a few individuals recruited by a researcher with a political agenda. I do wish he had applied the sensitivity he often shows to the variable quality of the literature consistently. But even with these reservations, I heartily recommend this wonderful book to researchers, especially to graduate students thinking about a dissertation or research project of their own. His book’s handy summaries makes it a lot easier to catch up on what the literature so far has contributed so that hopefully a new generation of researchers can go further faster.