Record: Brian D. Ray, “Homeschooling Associated with Beneficial Learner and Societal Outcomes but Educators Do Not Promote It” in Peabody Journal of Education 88, no. 3 (2013): 324-341.
Ray is without question the most influential researcher in homeschooling given his many decades of work as the head of the high profile National Home Education Research Institute, a research/advocacy organization that has produced a steady stream of reports demonstrating the academic and social benefits of homeschooling, most of them funded by the Home School Legal Defense Association. Ray has also for decades worked the homeschooling lecture circuit and has appeared as a pro-homeschooling expert witness in dozens of court cases. In this article he moves beyond his usual empirical arguments to make more philosophical arguments in favor of homeschooling and against its critics.
Ray begins with his more conventional subject matter. In five pages he summarizes the past several decades of research on academic achievement, socialization, and adult outcomes, concluding that homeschooling graduates do as well as or better than public school graduates on every possible measure.
He then moves to a summary of arguments made by various critics of homeschooling. He thinks these arguments reduce to four basic points:
1. Home education weakens the commitment of all citizens to the common good and to institutions that sustain it.
2. Home education can be a fear-based option chosen by individuals who want to cocoon their children away from other influences.
3. Home education can be a cover for child abuse, neglect, or other forms of child harm.
4. Home education needs to be regulated more so as to balance the rights of the child and the state with those of the parent.
Ray then offers two rebuttals to these four arguments. First, he claims that none of the critics of homeschooling “offer any empirically based evidence that home education is bad for the children, families, neighborhoods, or the collective good.” (p. 333) Second, he makes an extended argument that what is really going on here is not a debate about homeschooling’s effects on children but a clash of underlying worldviews. Homeschoolers, argues Ray, ascribe for the most part to two worldviews he calls “classical liberalism” and “biblical scripturalism.” Critics of homeschooling, on the other hand, are usually committed to alternative underlying presuppositions like “critical theory, existentialism, naturalism, neo-Marxism, postmodernism, secular humanism, and statism.” (p. 333)
In making his presuppositionalist argument Ray quotes various pro-family advocates, most notably the famous Theonomist Rousas Rushdoony. He concludes that the real reason various academics and educators are critical of homeschooling is that it is doing a good job of keeping Christian children free from the attempts of such people to impose their secularist ideologies on everyone through state-controlled education.
First let me make a comment about Ray’s summaries of the empirical research. They are selective, focused nearly exclusively on the research that finds what he wants to find (a high percentage of it being research he did himself). For a more complete and objective summary of the literatures on academic achievement, socialization, and adult outcomes, see here. Elsewhere I have summarized and evaluated in detail Ray’s oevre and his ties to HSLDA. Here let me simply repeat that, as Ray acknowledges himself in this piece, his studies do not control for various family background variables that make comparisons with national norms, which he does constantly, completely spurious.
Let me also note that in his most recent study, which he features prominently in this piece, his own data belies his claim that homeschooling may in fact cause “higher academic achievement and other positive results.” (p. 330) If that were so, then you’d expect that the longer students in his study had been homeschooling the higher they’d score. But in fact he found no statistically significant difference between subjects who had homeschooled their whole lives and those who had homeschooled only one year, nor between homeschoolers and similar kids attending private schools. To me that suggests very strongly that what studies like Ray’s are really measuring is the ability of middle to upper class white, two-parent families to produce successful children. Such children of privilege are going to thrive no matter what form of schooling they receive.
Now for Ray’s philosophical argument. I have two points I’d like to make. First, his claim that the critics of homeschooling don’t provide any empirical evidence for their views is true of many but not all critics. I have frequently made the same point myself (see, for example, here and here). However, there is some evidence that homeschooling’s outcomes might not be as rosy for all homeschoolers as Ray’s selective studies make them out to be. The Cardus Education Survey, a randomized sample that controls for variables Ray’s studies do not, found that homeschooled young adults scored lower on several quality of life variables than did graduates of public or private schools. Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull and Rob Kunzman’s Write These Laws on Your Children both provide several empirical examples of less-than-ideal homeschooling that does fit the ideological indoctrination model these critics often play on. Furthermore, it is irrefutably the unfortunate truth that child abuse cases do regularly appear before courts all over the country where homeschooling is being used as a cover-up. Ray is correct that homeschooling critics don’t usually do a very good job amassing evidence for their claims, but that doesn’t mean the evidence isn’t there.
My second point concerns Ray’s own lack of evidence for some of his claims. Is it true that most homeschoolers understand what they are doing to be a war of worldviews and that the efforts of these worldview warriors are successful at creating a new generation of warriors? Ray asserts but doesn’t provide evidence for these claims. I don’t have systematic evidence either, but let me at least provide a bit of anecdotal evidence. A careful read of Joyce and Kunzman’s books, and of Jennifer Lois’ Home Is Where the School Is, I think lend credence to the claim that most homeschooling moms are not ideological zealots in the Rushdoony mold. The male leadership of the homeschooling movement certainly is, and many of the fathers are, but not the mothers themselves. Furthermore, in both Joyce and Kunzman’s books several of the ideological fathers they profile gradually soften over time. The children themselves in both books typically turned out to be more moderate in their views than the parents. It is also not hard to find on the internet many, many testimonials from former homeschooling mothers and homeschooled children who in hindsight look back on their conservative Christian homeschooling experience as every bit as stiflingly close-minded as critics claim it can be, and they have since moved on to become more liberal. Again, all this is anecdotal evidence, but together it suggests to me that Ray might be wrong both about the degree to which homeschooling mothers and their children understand themselves to be ideological warriors and the degree to which homeschooling itself keeps conservative Christian kids conservative Christians. No doubt his generalizations apply to some families, but to how many? That to me is one of the most important unresolved questions in homeschooling research.
Interestingly, it seems to be important to Ray as well, given his role in yet another survey of homeschool graduates, again recruited from the most conservative sectors of the homeschooling movement. Unfortunately this new survey has many of the same methodological flaws as Ray’s other surveys, and some new ones to boot. While we desperately need good data on the long-term outcomes of homeschooling, Ray’s new survey is not likely to provide it.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College