Record: Joseph Murphy, “The Social and Educational Outcomes of Homeschooling” in Sociological Spectrum 34, no. 3 (April 2014), 244-272. [Abstract Here]
Summary: Murphy, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the excellent book-length review of homeschooling scholarship Homeschooling in America, here again summarizes much of the literature on homeschooling, attending especially to studies of the outcomes of homeschooling on the children who experience it.
He begins with an extended lament that the scholarship is not better than it is. Most studies conducted are qualitative and use very small samples whose generalizability is questionable. Most of the quantitative studies depend on parent report data that makes comparisons with children who attend other sorts of schools impossible. Basically we have anecdotes and bad data. Moreover, some of the most important questions homeschooling raises are not being asked by researchers, who often seem more interested in seeing if students score a little better on standardized tests than on the values and outcomes most parents who homeschool actually care about. Most parents of course want their children to score well on tests, but they homeschool more for moral, familial, and pedagogical reasons than as a strategy for success on bubble sheets.
With such caveats in mind, he proceeds to summarize what the literature has found on some of the more interesting questions. The first is the impact of homeschooling on the broader society. Some critics worry that homeschooling is contributing to the segregation of society and that homeschooled children will be ill-prepared to engage the diversity of modern life. Advocates, in contrast, often claim that homeschoolers make great citizens. What does the data say? Not much:
Research provides little evidence about the impact of homeschooling on the larger public sphere. More accurately, remarkably little attention had been devoted to this important outcome in the homeschool literature. (p. 250)
How about impact on schools? Here Murphy considers three possible domains. First is “withdrawal impacts.” Critics worry that homeschooling removes motivated parents from the public school, thus weakening the social capital of school communities. In addition, the withdrawal of children from schools costs that school money (though it saves the district and state money overall). Second are so-called “lighthouse effects,” the claim that homeschooling serves as a powerful alternative model from which public schools can learn innovative pedagogies and practices not found in conventional institutions. Finally comes “competitive effects,” the claim here being that when parents remove their children from schools, schools have to up their game to win them back, which is good for everyone.
Withdrawal and lighthouse effects seem so far to be minimal, or at least research about them is minimal. Most kids who homeschool were never enrolled in public schools at all (though many come out of private schools), and to date there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of innovative practice coming out of homeschooling that schools are finding helpful. Competition, however, is another thing. Murphy notes that a good bit of scholarship is finding that public schools are adopting new forms, such as online courses, satellite campuses offering special classes for homeschoolers, or dual enrollment programs, all of which are breaking down the dualism between conventional schooling and homeschooling. Murphy also notes in this section that the real costs of homeschooling fall not on school districts but on the families who do it, partly because of the cost of curriculum but more because of the loss of a parent’s (usually a mother’s) earning power. State coffers also suffer, for states do not receive the tax dollars from mom’s income.
The next domain Murphy considers is the impact on families. Desire for stronger family bonds is a major motivator for many homeschooling parents. Does it work? Again, scholars haven’t pursued this question like they should. What is known is that homeschooling isn’t easy. Mothers bear the brunt of the work, at great financial sacrifice, but they also reap the rewards of satisfaction when children do well and the joys of spending time with them.
Last but certainly not least, Murphy spends the bulk of his article considering the impact of homeschooling on the children themselves. Here he canvasses much of the more familiar literature. He explains in detail how most of the studies of academic achievement, socialization, and adult outcomes are so badly designed that their data is basically worthless. Nevertheless, here’s what it has found:
1. Homeschooling may reduce the negative impacts of poverty and minority status on academic achievement, though again the scholarship here lacks scientific rigor.
2. Socially, homeschoolers spend less time with same-age peers and more with mixed-age groups, especially family members and like-minded others. They are engaged in many extracurricular activities, often more than their public-schooled peers.
3. Homeschoolers seem in general to do fine on tests of self concept and self esteem.
4. Homeschoolers also score well on measures of social competence.
5. Homeschoolers perform well in college and graduate school, though they’re more average than some of the slanted studies finding off-the-charts test scores would have predicted.
6. Homeschoolers in the military seem to have trouble–higher rates of attrition, lower grade positions, and more frequent negative experiences than other school types.
7. Homeschoolers seem to participate in community activities and be more satisfied with life than public schoolers.
Murphy concludes by reiterating yet again that the claims I’ve just summarized rest on very weak data. Nevertheless, at the very least we can say:
the evidence currently at hand leads us to be cautious about too readily accepting the claims of homeschool critics that the academic and social well-being of youngsters is harmed by homeschooling. (p. 266)
Appraisal: Here again, as in his book, Murphy shows his remarkable skill at summarizing and synthesizing a large body of work into manageable categories and at making the whole thing easy and enjoyable to read. My only real criticism of the review he presents here is that it fails to include a good bit of the most recent scholarship, much of it very good, that would alter or at least qualify some of his assertions. If you look at his bibliography it is striking that he includes only four sources from 2010, two from 2011, zero from 2012, and one from 2013 (his own). Basically, the last four years of research are hardly represented at all. Readers of this website know that there has been a huge outpouring of work, some of it excellent, on the very questions Murphy considers here. Though it would be tedious to recount everything that he should have included, here are a few highlights:
1. Impact on the Broader Society: The Cardus Education Survey and Hill and Den Dulk’s 2013 article are both based on far superior data than all earlier reports, and the findings of both are not nearly so positive for homeschooling as are the older studies Murphy cites.
2. Impact on Families: Jennifer Lois’ excellent 2013 book Home is Where the School Is and recent work by Vigilant and colleagues and Hoelzle do exactly what Murphy complains that the scholarly literature doesn’t do enough–which is to take homeschooling parents’ actual motives and practices seriously and investigate their results. Including these and other recent sources on family impact would dramatically improve this section of Murphy’s article.
3. Impact on Children: Martin-Chang, Gould, and Meuse’s 2012 article is the best designed study yet attempted on the question of academic achievement, and again, it would challenge some of Murphy’s generalizations. On the question of race he doesn’t even touch the excellent recent work by Fields-Smith and Kisura and by Mazama and Lundy that is shedding much light on at least the experience of African American homeschoolers. The social class generalization would be challenged by some of the qualitative data presented in Kunzman’s book (which Murphy does have in his bibliography). Medlin’s 2013 summary should be included in his discussion of socialization, and again it would qualify some of the claims made here. For recent studies of homeschooler experience in higher education click on the “homeschooling and higher education” category to the right. Lots of good work there Murphy doesn’t have.
So the bottom line is that though this article is very recent, its literature base really goes back mostly to 2009 and before. For the pre-2010 literature Murphy’s article is a reliable guide. But a lot of work, some of it exactly what Murphy is calling for in this article, has been done since then that, if considered, would change a good bit of what Murphy says here. Reading Murphy’s excellent summary of the older literature reminds me of what a thrilling time today is to be a homeschooling researcher. There’s a lot more really good stuff coming out nowadays than there was when I started studying homeschooling in 2004.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College