Record: Christopher Lubienski, Tiffany Puckett, and T. Jameson Brewer, “Does Homeschooling ‘Work’? A Critique of the Empirical Claims and Agenda of Advocacy Organizations” in Peabody Journal of Education 88, no. 3 (2013): 378-392.
Lubienski is well known as one of the most prominent critics of unregulated homeschooling. Here he and his colleagues do not challenge the rights of families to educate their children at home. They limit their critique to the research and underlying agendas of homeschooling advocacy organizations.
Lubienski and colleagues (hereafter I’ll just say Lubienski) begin with a survey of some of the breathless claims made by homeschooling advocates and organizations for the superiority of homeschooling over other forms of education. Such claims are usually based upon research funded by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), usually but not always conducted by Brian D. Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI). There are three claims in particular: 1. homeschooling leads to increased academic achievement, 2. homeschooling costs a lot less than public education, and 3. government regulation of homeschooling is unnecessary and intrusive.
For academic achievement, Lubienski argues that these studies do not in fact demonstrate what the advocates say they do, because they all compare an unrepresentative sample of motivated, two-parent, middle or upper class white families to national norms that include the entire population. He notes that Ray and Rudner, who was also funded by HSLDA, admit as much in the original studies, but that doesn’t stop HSLDA and even Ray himself from throwing caution to the wind and claiming a causal relationship between homeschooling and academic and social success. What these studies actually show, argues Lubienski, is that children from privileged backgrounds who homeschool do well on standardized tests, just as they would have done had they attended public or private schools. Lubienski notes that some of Ray’s own data contradict his claims for a homeschooling effect in that Ray finds no difference in scores between students who have homeschooled their entire lives vs. those who have only just started homeschooling. Lubienski concludes that the real policy lesson Ray’s studies show is that we should encourage “all familes to be more like homeschooling families: to be highly interested and invested in the education of their children.” (p. 385)
Regarding cost, Lubienski argues that the advocates are comparing apples to oranges, not accounting for many of the hidden costs of homeschooling. Comparing a public school’s entire budget for a child to what a homeschooling parent spends on curriculum is simply not accurate accounting. The actual costs of homeschooling would need to include utilities and meals provided by the home during homeschool, the cost to the family of foregoing a second income so one parent can stay home, and unquantifiables like homeschooling mothers’ “motivation, experience, commitment, and so on.” Lubienski points out some inconsistencies in advocates’ claims of cost savings, noting that removing a child or two from a grade of public school doesn’t actually save the school money. Only removal of a critical mass would do that, but in such a case there would be other negative consequences to the school, especially the secession of some of the country’s most engaged parents from the civic process. Advocates furthermore undermine their own claims that homeschooling saves the taxpayer money by pushing for new tax breaks for homeschoolers.
Regarding deregulation Lubienski claims again that the research simply doesn’t give us good data to substantiate the claims being made.
Lubienski closes by claiming that advocates are not really interested in these empirical questions. They’re just using these “studies” as cover for their real agenda, which is to deregulate as much as they can in the name of a strident abstract commitment to total parental control over children.
Many of Lubienski’s claims I’ve made myself on several occasions. He is absolutely correct that the Ray/Rudner/HSLDA studies don’t show that homeschooling is better, that the researchers themselves admit as much, and that nevertheless Ray and HSLDA never miss an opportunity to claim that the studies do show that homeschooling is superior. See, for example, the second graphic currently featured on NHERI’s homepage. Lubienski does not then go on to offer an alternative interpretation of homeschooling and academic achievement. For that one would do well to consult Joseph Murphy’s excellent review of the literature or the review Rob Kunzman and I published together.
His refutation of the cost comparison is likewise spot-on. Many scholars and commentators have described the hidden costs of motherhood, and homeschooling is perhaps the purest expression of the failure of modern economics to account for the economic and social contributions of mothers. It is ironic that homeschool advocates fall into this same trap when they claim, insultingly, that homeschooling only costs a family a few hundred dollars a year. Tell that to the women who do it. Homeschooling costs them a lot more than that.
That leaves the deregulation section. Here I think Lubienski falters, in two respects. First, his text gives the impression that homeschoolers are currently fighting to roll back requirements that parents be certified to teach by the state. But no state has required that since 1993! His mention of the 2008 California case doesn’t really apply. That case was really about the disconnect between California homeschooling practice and judicial precedents inherited from earlier decades. Lubienski claims that in this article he’s not really interested in the question of certification, but he clearly is. He needs to remember that any effort to force parents to be certified would also have to be applied to all private schools. That is simply a political non-starter, even if the academic literature had solidly demonstrated the superiority of state certification, which, even Lubienski acknowledges, it has not.
The second misstep in this section is Lubienski’s tendency to do exactly what he’s (correctly) accused advocates of doing throughout his article. He himself falls into unsubstantiated generalizations when he claims that “the socioeconomic and unmeasurable motivational advantages of homeschool families often make up for or mask any deficiencies in pedagogical training.” (p. 387) He seems to be saying both that the sort of pedagogical training one gets in ed school causes student improvement and that rich and committed teachers who don’t get this training can still do a good enough job to mask their inadequacies. To me that just doesn’t add up, and Lubienski’s got no empirical evidence for either side of the claim.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College