I started working with homeschoolers because while I was on the faculty at Ball State University, my best chemistry and physics students were homeschool graduates. At the time, I knew almost nothing about homeschooling, but since it was sending me my best university students, I thought I should investigate it a bit. As I looked through the academic literature that was available at the time, I saw that the few studies which had been done on homeschooling were in accord with my observation: homeschooled students are academically superior to their publicly- and privately-schooled counterparts.
Since then, a wealth of studies have been done on homeschooling, and the results are essentially the same. In 1999, for example, Rudner showed that homeschooled students academically outperform their publicly- and privately-schooled counterparts at every grade level.1 In 2010, a nationwide study of more than 11,000 homeschooled students showed that homeschooled students score, on average, more than 30 percentage points above the national average in all subject areas tested (which included math, science, social studies, reading, and language).2 In general, when you attempt to measure academic performance, the average homeschooled student beats the average privately-schooled student, and the average privately-schooled student beats the average publicly-schooled student.
Well, a recent study of homeschooled elementary students in Canada has produced very similar results, but in a different way. In addition, it actually compared two different homeschooling styles, and the results are very intriguing.
The authors (Sandra Martin-Chang, Odette N. Gould, and Reanne E. Meuse) of this new study3 decided to take a more “personal” approach than many of the previous homeschooling studies. Instead of relying on third parties to administer standardized tests in a wide variety of settings, for example, they administered the tests themselves. This allowed them to control the setting of the test, making sure that each student was tested in the same way. In addition, rather than comparing the homeschooled students to the national average (as Ray did in his 2010 study), they actually selected a comparable group of publicly-schooled students and tested them as well. As a result, they compared homeschooled students who they had tested to similar publicly-schooled students who they had also tested.
The authors also spent some time learning about the methods the parents used to homeschool their children, and that’s what makes this study intriguing. They found that slightly more than two-thirds of the students were homeschooled using a structured environment, where the parents tended to use premade curricula and some sort of lesson plan. However, the others were homeschooled in a much less structured way. The children’s day-to-day activities were used as the guide for their education. When they went to the store with their parents, for example, they learned about math. When they watched shows like Little House on the Prairie, they learned about history. For lack of a better word, this is often called an “unschooling” approach to home education.
Since the authors felt that these two methods of education are quite different, they decided that it would be unwise to group all the homeschooled students together. Instead, they compared the “structured” homeschooled students to the publicly-schooled students, and then they compared the “unstructured” homeschooled students to the publicly-schooled students.
What were the results? When comparing the “structured” homeschooled students to the publicly-schooled students, they found that the homeschooled students were academically superior in all subjects tested (letter-word recognition, comprehension, “word attack,” science, social science, humanities, and calculation). As the authors note:
…the children who received structured homeschooling were superior to the children enrolled in public school across all seven subtests.
Even though they tried to pick comparable publicly-schooled students, such factors as parental income and education were not quite equal. As the authors note:
Although we made efforts to ensure that the two groups were drawn from similar populations…mothers’ education and median income were slightly higher for the public school group. It should be noted, however, that this would have been expected to bias the study against finding a homeschool advantage. This was clearly not the case.
So despite the fact that the structured homeschooled students came from families with lower incomes and mothers with less education, they were still academically quite superior to their publicly-schooled counterparts. That says quite a lot!
Now for the bad news. In the authors’ analysis, the “unstructured” homeschoolers underperformed compared to the publicly-schooled students. As they note:
…the children in public school had a higher mean grade level for all seven measures compared with the unstructured homeschoolers.
So while “structured” homeschooling produced students who scored significantly higher than comparable publicly-schooled students, “unstructured” homeschooling produced students who scored lower than the same publicly-schooled students.
Now while these results are intriguing, I don’t see them as the final word by any means. This was a very small study. It had to be, given the fact that the authors tested each student. The “structured” group of homeschoolers had 25 students, and the “unstructured” group had only 12. There were 37 students in the publicly-schooled group. Such small studies make it hard to draw serious conclusions, unless the measured differences are very large. In the case of the comparison between “structured” homeschooled students and publicly-schooled students, the differences were large enough to produce a solid conclusion, despite the small size of the study. However, in the comparison between “unstructured” homeschooled students and publicly-schooled students, the authors caution:
Given the small sample size, none of the comparisons were statistically significant…
So the authors acknowledge that the “unstructured” homeschoolers’ poor performance compared to publicly-schooled students might not be real – it might be a statistical artifact.
Now I am inclined to think that “unstructured” homeschooling will not produce the strong academic benefits that “structured” homeschooling will. Even though this study hints that my inclination may be correct, the result is anything but conclusive.
3. Sandra Martin-Chang, Odette N. Gould, and Reanne E. Meuse, “The Impact of Schooling on Academic Achievement: Evidence From Homeschooled and Traditionally Schooled Students,” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 43(3):195-202, 2011.
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