HOSTILITY OR INDIFFERENCE? Why There’s not More Homeschooling Research

Record: Charles Howell, “Hostility or Indifference? The Marginalization of Homeschooling in the Educational Profession” in Peabody Journal of Education 88, no. 3 (2013): 355-364.

Summary: Howell, a philosopher of education and Dean of Beeghly College of Education at Youngstown State University, here provides a counter to some of what Brian Ray claims in his Peabody Journal article, about which you can read more here. Ray’s article argued rather stridently that intellectuals and bureaucrats in the public school system have partisan ideologies that blind them to the empirical fact that homeschooling works.  While the success of homeschooling should make them want to learn more about it and apply its lessons to public education, in fact they either oppose homeschooling outright or at least want to regulate it more.

Howell, a longtime homeschooling father who has also spent years working within the public school system as a teacher, college professor, and now administrator of a teacher training program, thinks Ray is simply mistaken.  Granted, there are some aggressive critics of homeschooling within the ranks of professional educators, but these people “have only questionable influence on educational policy.” (p. 357) It is not animus against homeschooling that is driving the paucity of attention it receives from public school personnel and researchers.  What is it then?

Borrowing from Thomas Kuhn, Howell thinks inattention to homeschooling is really just a product of the overarching educational paradigm that dominates American schooling.  That paradigm has long taken the public school system as the normal way of doing things.  A researcher looking for a good topic to study would be much more likely to study public education than homeschooling, for at least six reasons:

1. Most educational research is concerned with classrooms and schools because that’s where most children get educated.  Factors like race and family background can’t be controlled by schools, so researchers screen that sort of thing out in their search for something, anything, that might help kids learn regardless of their background.  In homeschooling, on the other hand, family background is nearly impossible to separate out.

2. Developmentally appropriate practice is a second paradigm that emerges from the public school context.  Given the segregation of children into age groups, the search is on for the best way to gear instruction to each group.  Homeschooling again just doesn’t apply here since the children involved are usually all grouped together regardless of age.

3. School-based research is much easier to do than home-based research.  The children are already there.  The school already has lots of information about each child.  Tests are easy to administer and collect.  Large-scale, quantitative studies are much, much easier to conduct and confounding variables much, much easier to control for than is the case in homeschooling.

4. The potential policy impact of school-based research is much greater than that of home-based research.  If a researcher finds out that something done in schools is a great success or a great failure, this knowledge can very quickly lead to changes throughout the entire school system, affecting millions of children.  That just won’t happen with homeschooling research no matter how compelling the finding.

5. The academic job market favors school-based research.  Position notices for faculty searches often privilege research agendas that will lend prestige and funding to the university, and prestige and funding comes from a school-based research agenda that promises significant impact on policy.

6. Finally, education professors make their living training future public school teachers by teaching classes and field observation.  Homeschooling research may be fascinating, but what relationship does it have to education professors’ main job?  Howell notes that hardly anyone could make a career as a homeschooling researcher alone because “no one can procure a university position instructing homeschooling majors.” (p. 361)

After laying out his case Howell then speculates about the future of homeschooling research.  He encourages homeschooling researchers in the Ray tradition to overcome the binary us-versus-them stance they often employ, and he offers a suggestion for a more productive agenda: study differences within homeschooling.  Rather than claim that homeschooling itself is a singular phenomenon that will benefit all children equally, look at differences among homeschoolers to try to determine the most successful and least successful approaches.  An example of such a difference could be the theme of persistence.  Most homeschoolers do not continue the practice for longer than three years, but some do.  What differences exist between these two groups of people?

Howell concludes by reminding homeschooling researchers that the consequences of real, accurate scientific knowledge about homeschooling might not be the most welcome thing:

The findings of science might well provide clues about how to improve home education.  But it is not clear that prolonged and enthusiastic attention from legislatures, state boards of education, and education professionals would be welcomed by homeschooling families. (p. 363)


In my own comments about Ray’s article I intentionally avoided responding to Ray’s apocalyptic argument about a clash of worldviews between homeschoolers who see reality through the lens of Biblical presuppositionalism and the godless State system that will not rest until every child is socialized into its secularist outlook.  Howell’s piece here is I think a pretty good response.  Recently I was scanning the radio dial and lit upon a radio preacher explaining to a rapt audience how recent developments at the United Nations were clear signs of the impending rise of the Antichrist.  This preacher’s sure knowledge of the hidden machinations of power that are secretly at work to delude the entire world and Ray’s sure knowledge of the underlying ideological warfare driving good homeschoolers and bad public educators share in the same reductive, binary approach to the world.  Richard Hofstadter famously called it “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” and I’d urge everyone reading my post to stop now and read Hofstadter if you haven’t before.

It is not easy to convince someone who claims secret knowledge of how the world really works that things are not so simple.  But Howell has done as good a job as can be done I think explaining how educational research, like everything else, is really too complicated to reduce to a good vs. evil binary.  Public education is a big, complicated, mess of a thing that cannot be reduced to an ideological label.  Home education is a small, complicated, mess of a thing that cannot be reduced either.  The sooner we all realize this the better our research will be.

Milton Gaither, Messiah College, author of Homeschool: An American History.

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