Record: Debra A. Bell, “Types of Home Schools and Need-Support for Achievement Motivation” (PhD Dissertation, Temple University, 2012) [Avaliable Here]
Bell is a homeschooling veteran with a strong internet presence and full speaking schedule at homeschooling events. In the midst of all of that activity she has also found time to complete a doctorate in education. This is her thesis.
Bell asks what homeschooling pedagogy might contribute to the literature on motivating students. Specifically she uses a framework called “Self Determination Theory,” or SDT, which holds that for optimal development and motivation humans need autonomy, competence, and relatedness (strong relationships with others). The question is how well homeschooling parents do at promoting these three qualities in their children. Are homeschooling parents, as some claim, control freaks interested only in creating ideological clones of themselves, or are they, as others claim, ideal teachers who sacrifice all to give their children whatever they need to become the best people they can be?
After a robust lit review of both the homeschooling and the SDT literatures, Bell lays out her study. She worked very hard to obtain a diverse sample, and while it cannot be called representative, it is certainly impressive. An overall sample size of 457 was obtained from several places, with oversampling of minority and unschooling voices to try to counterbalance the overabundance of white Evangelicals whose well-organized groups make them much easier to find and to recruit for surveys. Her overall demographics despite her best efforts to achieve diversity are fairly typical: 94% of respondents are married, 89% female, 86% white, 56% make at least $75,000 a year, 76% had a bachelor’s degree or higher, 83% worked 20 hours or less outside the home, 65% were conservative or libertarian, 70% attend church at least weekly, 58% had three or more children. The picture then is, like is usually the case with homeschooling, that of a group of people who are whiter and richer and more married and more likely to be conventional stay-at-home-mothers than the national average.
There are two places where her sample diverges from expectations. First, her sample is a little less conservative than one would expect, probably because several of the organizations from which she recruited were explicitly nonsectarian. Second, 54% of her sample had homeschooled 7 years or more, which means we’re dealing with a sample that is far more veteran than one would expect, and a group of children that are far older than is typical in the homeschooling world. A full 51% of children in the sample were in high school! 55% of children in her sample had been homeschooling for 7 years or more.
To test how this older, richer, whiter sample handled the three characteristics SDT holds essential for promoting motivation, Bell used three surveys. For Autonomy she used the “Problems in School Questionnaire” (PIS), adapted for a homeschooling focus. For Competence she used the “Patterns of Adaptive Learning Scales” (PALS). For Relatedness she used the parent survey of the Positive and Negative Conditional Regard Scale. To determine student academic engagement she used as a proxy parental perception of student achievement by employing a scale based on a template provided by JohnMarshall Reeve. She also included two other questionnaires pertaining to parental satisfaction and teaching practices. All in all it was a very extensive set of questions.
Given her robust demographic data and her elaborate data on all of these pedagogical and motivational variables, Bell had a lot with which to work. She spends an entire chapter running all of this data through various statistical manipulations. The results are quite positive for homeschoolers, or at least for this subset of affluent, white, two-parent, single-breadwinner, older veteran homeschoolers whose children have been homeschooling for years and are now for the most part in high school.
Homeschooling parents representing families like that self-report very high marks on all of the scales Bell used. Bell summarizes:
They use age appropriate materials other than textbooks, allow the student the freedom to manage his/her own time, talk with the student about things he/she is learning, encourage questions, take the student’s preferences into consideration, encourage the pursuit of the student’s own interests and frequently praise the student for his/her progress. Conversely, they are less likely to use strategies associated with control and which undermine autonomous motivation: They use rewards or loss of privileges infrequently as an incentive for doing work, they are less likely to give tests or set deadlines, they infrequently point out areas that need to improve or address unacceptable behavior, and they are not likely to set a schedule for the student to follow. (p. 115)
Bell tried to disaggregate the data in several ways, but every time she did she kept coming up with very little difference in pedagogical practice or perceived student achievement. The one variable that did seem to correlate with what little difference there was between the five quintiles into which she broke her sample was that male teachers tended to use more controlling methods, which produced worse results. She didn’t have many male teachers in her sample, but the few she did have were mostly clustered at the bottom on all measures.
I have three comments to make about this study. First, as Bell herself notes, the fact that her sample skews so heavily to the very committed veteran homeschooler likely biases it in the direction of competence. Homeschooling teachers who would have scored lower on her scales tend to drop out of homeschooling after a few years, and for whatever reason Bell’s recruitment strategy just didn’t seem to pick up on this group. Perhaps only a really motivated homeschooling teacher would be likely to fill out such an involved survey in the first place, or perhaps Bell’s reputation in the homeschooling world (where she is known for leading seminars on high school achievement, writing skills, and other higher order things) endears her to a certain type of homeschooling parent–the sort that values the exact traits Bell is studying here. To her credit Bell makes no claims that her study proves that homeschoolers do it better than conventional schools. What she does claim is that her results “may help to explain why those who persist in homeschooling do so.” (p.122)
Second, a point about the men. I wonder if it might be the case that the men who filled out this survey were more likely to answer the questions forthrightly than the women? Did the men score lower because they are worse teachers or because they didn’t sugar-coat their answers? Much research on intensive mothering has found that such matters are very personal to the women involved. How many mothers would self-report to a researcher they know to be studying autonomy, competence, and relatedness that they use controlling methods to try to indoctrinate and isolate their children, or that after seven years of homeschooling their kids still just don’t seem to be motivated?
Which leads me to my final point. Bell has done a remarkable job crafting a thoughtful study that brings together rigorous quantitative methodology, a large sample size, and a compelling theoretical framework (SDT). But if there is a fatal flaw it’s that the entire thing rests on self-reported data. No matter how sophisticated the statistical techniques, if the data itself isn’t trustworthy the results are meaningless. How trustworthy is this data? Unfortunately, there’s just no way to know. Bell describes in the dissertation how she tried to limit who took the online survey to a few groups, but that proved difficult once word got out that there was a $5 Amazon giftcard given as a reward for taking it. She also mentions how she had to screen out several of the submissions because the qualitative portions had nonsense answers (given by tricksters whose only interest was the $5 giftcard?), and how several of the surveys she did end up using did not answer many of the questions. These are just some of the problems that come from recruiting subjects from email distribution lists to take an online survey.
To me Bell’s data here is mostly useful as a preliminary step. Further, qualitative research, might probe some of the suggestions it raises. For example, an intensive qualitative look at the daily homeschooling experiences of some of these male teachers would be a fascinating study. So would a qualitative look at the significant group of Latina homeschoolers (N=20) in the sample, a group that has to date received no scholarly attention at all. A follow-up survey of the children themselves would be valuable. Were their mothers telling the truth about their inner motivation and achievement? These and other questions came to me as I was reading through Bell’s rich and rewarding dissertation.