Record: Albert Cheng, “Does Homeschooling or Private Schooling Promote Political Intolerance? Evidence from a Christian University” in Journal of School Choice 8, no. 1 (2014): 49-68. [Abstract Here]
Summary and Critique: Cheng, a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas, here reports the results of a quantitative study comparing college students who were homeschooled with those who attended public and private schools on a measure of political tolerance.
He begins with a very problematic literature review. Part of his problem is that there really isn’t much literature to review on his actual question. There are some studies that are asking questions in the same ballpark, but it’s a stretch to go from a claim like “homeschoolers are more civically active” (even assuming that to be true) to “homeschoolers are more tolerant.” Unfortunately even this less relevant lit review isn’t very thorough. Though he mentions at the end of his lit review the Cardus Education Survey and Jeremy Uecker’s piece using NSYR data, he for some reason doesn’t include their conclusions in his discussion of the literature. Had he done so, and if he were to throw in the more recent article by Hill and Den Dulk, he would not be able to assert so easily that homeschoolers actually are more civically engaged. According to these recent studies, based on better data than the studies he does cite, homeschoolers are not more engaged in their communities.
Cheng’s lit review also makes a few generalizations about homeschooling that the data just cannot back up. He states that homeschoolers “typically attain a higher degree of self-actualization” than students who attend other schools because of the personalized pedagogy and the strong world-view inculcation. This is very debatable. The Cardus Survey found the opposite to be the case. My own hunch would be that homeschoolers probably have a very similar self-actualization spread to their peers at other institutions, and that this spread depends more on individual personality and family background variables than on where a student is educated. Similarly, his claim that “religious values are consistent with values necessary for a liberal democracy” needs serious qualification. All religious values? If this is so, and if religion has been present since prehistory, why has liberal democracy only appeared in recent times, and only in a few countries? Why are many of the most religious places in the world today the least democratic? These are just careless statements that distract the reader from the article’s main point.
When he gets down to business the article improves significantly. Cheng notes that many critics of homeschooling and of private schools base their criticism on the claim that such forms of education encourage intolerance in children by cocooning them from outside influence. While this may in fact be what at least some parents hope such forms of education will do, Cheng wants to know if this really happens. To find out he came up with an ingenious research design.
Cheng obtained a sample of 304 students at “a private, Christian university in the western United States.” I presume it to be Biola University (where Cheng attended as an undergraduate). Each of these students filled out a standard survey for gauging political tolerance (the Content-Controlled Political Tolerance Scale), and Cheng also recorded several demographic characteristics, including what sort of school each of these students attended for each of their 13 years of education. 26 of these students had been homeschooled for between 1 and 6 years, 23 for 7-12 years, and 15 of them for their entire k-12 lives. Larger numbers of students had attended public and/or private schools, but there is enough variability in these numbers to give us a pretty good sample. Since ALL of these students self selected to go to Biola it is fair to compare them against one another in terms of their political tolerance. Again, this won’t tell us about homeschoolers, public schoolers, and private schoolers as such, but whatever results we find will at least be valid for this self-selecting group.
And what did he find? Using a sophisticated regression analysis that allows him to control for variables and compare the impact of each variable upon the differences in scores on the political tolerance test taken by each subject, Cheng found that every year a student spent in home schooling increased political tolerance by about .04 scale points, or 5% of a standard deviation. This is not very much, but if you extend it to multiple years of homeschooling it begins to take on more significance. He also found, for what it’s worth, that private schooling had a small effect in the other direction. Students attending private schools were less tolerant than public schoolers, but only by a fraction.
While these are interesting findings on their own, and they are what Cheng stresses in the paper, when you look at the data he provides it is clear that the differences between homeschoolers, public schoolers, and private schoolers in political tolerance really aren’t that profound, especially when compared to differences between different racial groups (multiple groups were very well represented in this sample), or between class indicators like parental educational background or family income, or between the sexes. When such differences were factored into the equation there still is a little bit of a difference between homeschoolers and students attending other schools, but it’s not much (and the difference between private and public disappears).
Cheng thus is able to make two observations. First, he is able to assert that, at least for this self-selecting population of students attending an explicitly religious university, private schooling does not make them more intolerant. Second, he can claim that for this population at least homeschooling actually makes them a little bit more tolerant. As Cheng puts it,
members of the very group for which public schooling is believed to be most essential for inculcating political tolerance (i.e., those who are more strongly committed to a particular worldview and value system) actually exhibit at least as much or more tolerance when they are exposed to less public schooling. (p. 64)
But why? Cheng is quick to recognize that it might not be homeschooling itself that is doing this. It could be, for example, that something else, such as perhaps a libertarian ideology other researchers have found to be pervasive among homeschoolers, is what is really contributing to the increased tolerance demonstrated by homeschooled students.
Here’s another possibility: though he doesn’t quite say it, Cheng’s own lit review suggests the possibility that devout Christian kids who attend secular public schools might as a result of their status as ideological minorities become less tolerant than other public schoolers. Students like this might easily self-select a Christian university rather than a secular one. If that is correct, then Cheng’s finding might say more about public schools than homeschooling.
Neither of these two possibilities are Cheng’s preferred speculations for why homeschoolers scored higher on tolerance measures. He theorizes that it might be 1. because homeschoolers are more self-actualized, and people more secure in their identities tend to be more tolerant of others, or 2. because they’re more religious, and religious values are consistent with political tolerance. I have already given above my criticisms of both of these claims.
Implications: What can we conclude from this article? Two things. First, though it doesn’t prove anything about homeschooling as such, it at least provides the beginning of an empirical answer to a very important question. To generalize as far as possible, we might with trepidation say that homeschoolers who have the inclination and abilities to attend a selective, racially diverse, broadly Evangelical college or university are no less and probably even a bit more tolerant than similar young adults who attended institutional schools (though whether homeschooling or some other factor is at work here we do not know). As this is a fairly large group of homeschoolers, we can further conclude from this study that homeschooling does not by definition create intolerant adults. There may be some groups of homeschoolers who are less tolerant than this sample who might never attend a school like Biola because it is far too liberal, and there may be other groups of homeschoolers who are more tolerant than this sample who might never attend a school like Biola because it is far too sectarian. But at least for this group, homeschooling is not the threat to civil society some critics make it out to be.
Second, we can conclude that both Cheng’s research agenda and his methodology are welcome departures from what has gone before on this question. Other populations could easily be studied in the same way. For example, Marc Snyder’s excellent doctoral dissertation comparing academic achievement among students at Ave Maria, a much more conservative school than Biola, could be run again but this time with Cheng’s instruments. It would be fascinating to see how the very conservative homeschoolers who attend that school would measure against their similarly conservative peers who had attended public or private schools. A similar research design could be applied perhaps to seniors at a cybercharter school or some other more secular environment to see how students in that orbit compare to institutionally schooled demographic equivalents. Multiple studies like this would eventually give us a compelling empirical base to make legitimate statements about the relationship between homeschooling and political tolerance.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College