Sunday, October 23, 2011

Homeschoolers -- Do they make the grade?

A friend sent me an article which mentioned a recent study of homeschooling by researchers at Concordia and Mount Allison (see more details here).   The study was designed to compare homeschooling with institutional schooling; it took 75 kids between ages 5-10, controlled for demographics, and compared their test results.

The surprise finding, which has been publicized particularly by homeschool curriculum providers, is that homeschoolers who describe themselves as mostly or completely structured outperform their public schooled peers by 1-2 grade levels, while homeschoolers who describe themselves as using little to no structure generally test behind their peers by 1 or more grade levels.

So the conclusion drawn is that structured homeschooling gives an academic edge, while unstructured homeschooling (say, unschooling) leaves the kids at an academic disadvantage.

A few caveats come immediately to my mind, as no doubt they do to yours:

This is a very small and localized study -- 75 kids from Novia Scotia and New Brunswick, half homeschooled and half public schooled.

A commentary by Dr Jay Wile of Apologia Science draws out this element
,,,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.
(he does go on to mention that the differences were fairly marked, so you could draw some conclusions in spite of the small size and incidental nature of the findings).  
The study didn't set out to measure disparities between structure and non-structure in the homeschool -

-it was set up to measure the difference between homeschooled and public schooled kids.  The structure vs non-structure finding was incidental, and broke down to approximately 25 children in the structured group and 12 in the unstructured group.

 The categories, according to this site, were described as:  

• Kids who “often” or “always” got structured, organized lesson plans, and
• Kids who “rarely” or “never” got structure

That leaves a lot of ground for vagueness.... what is meant by structured, organized lesson plans or lack of structure?

An analysis of the study at Homeschool Research Notes mentions this:   

 I found the distinction between “structured” and “unstructured” homeschoolers a bit unsatisfying, especially given how significant it is in this analysis.  Here’s why.  As any veteran homeschooler will tell you, there’s no hard-and-fast distinction here.  There’s a continuum.  Furthermore, researchers have consistently found that over time families tend to move along that continuum from structure to unstructure.  This paper’s facile distinction misses both of those points.  The paper also fails to consider length of time homeschooling among its subjects.  Had the “structured homeschoolers” been homeschooling their entire lives?  For just a few months?  We don’t know, though the researchers themselves pointed out the significance of this question in their opening discussion of Rudner.

All the kids tested were between the ages of 5 to 10.  

This to me makes a BIG difference, especially as a mom of older AND younger kids who has used both structure and non structure (and various other styles on the continuum)   

  Primary age children are by no means finished educational products.  It is sort of like measuring 10-15 month olds on their ability to walk.  The natural variations are immense at that age, not due to innate capacity, but simply maturity levels and developmental pacing.  Relaxed forms of schooling tend to respect the child's natural developmental pace, presumably with the confidence that this is best for the child in the long run.  We can't see by this study whether or not this trust is warranted, since it doesn't extend to older children.   There seems to be an assumption that children who are "behind" at age 8 will continue to be "behind" at age 18, but this is by no means a safe assumption to make, especially with regard to homeschoolers.  Evidence abounds that children progress rapidly when readiness and opportunity are there.

 I know kids who between the age of 5 and 10 could relish and understand Shakespeare, who were thoughtful conversants in history and literature, who yet scored poorly on tests of spelling and mechanics.  But by age 18 there was a different picture, as those same kids were excelling in all areas, reading voraciously,  invested in and serious about their learning.   And on the other hand, I  have met my share of kids who have had years of structured schooling and are pretty much burned out on academics by the time they graduate.  Of course, anecdotes are not statistics, but the matter does definitely seem to warrant further study. 

Finally, we are talking about scores on academic achievement tests. 

In other words, we are assuming that achievement tests are a good way to measure ... .um, what?  Success in learning?  Ability to have a meaningful life?   Success in taking achievement tests?   That is unclear, at least in the articles I found that discussed the study.   For purposes of clarity, it might be good to at least state the premise, which seems to be that academic achievement test scores given to 5 to 10 year olds marks something more significant than simply practice, or the lack of it, in doing the kind of thing presented in achievement tests.

Just to take the example that comes readily to mind, Bitzer would score way better than Sissy Jupe on what a horse really is, in the School of Gradgrind.    There are certainly some legitimate philosophical differences on how seriously to take standardized test scores, especially pre-highschool.  

This article comments:

Does this study mean that unstructured homeschooling–sometimes called “unschooling”–is a bad idea? No. The sample size is too small, and we lack information about causation.

Maybe some parents choose unschooling because their kids have characteristics than make them perform poorly on standardized achievement tests

Bottom line is that there isn't  a  bottom line yet.

There is no immediate call to rush out and buy a bunch of workbooks or sign on for a correspondence program, if that isn't what you think is best for your homeschool.      And there is a possible danger in doing so for the wrong reasons.    Most homeschoolers are working hard at educating their children  for reasons that go beyond high scores in standardized tests for their under-tens.   So recall those reasons and do what seems to be best in support of those. 

Some interesting further questions that come to mind as possibilities for future study:
  • Are there different kinds of non-structure?  (perhaps intentional vs chaotic?)  Are there different outcomes depending on the type? 
  • How closely do lower scores in achievement tests reflect future achievement in homeschoolers? (the picture would look different in schools, since kids who aren't reading on schedule are sometimes placed in remedial classes which can sometimes add up to a self-fulfilling prophecy.)
  • Are there different types of "structure?" (I have never used very many workbooks or textbooks in my homeschool, for instance, but some years are more planned than others.  Unit studies and Montessori also come to mind as alternative forms of structure, which might look different on standardized tests in the early years).
  • Do some homeschoolers start off relaxed in the early years and become more structured as the children grow older?  Or vice versa?
  • What type of homeschooler is most likely to "stay the course", to homeschool throughout the whole course of education and have good results in terms of life success?  Are there any predictive markers or traits for this kind of long-term results?


  1. I wouldn't put any stock in this 'study', the size being so small. Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing that will be quoted and misused because most people won't know what you've shared here, they'll only get the quote at the website selling curriculum. Homeschoolers need to take a closer look at who their friends really are.

  2. Thanks for presenting this in such a thought provoking manner!

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I'd seen references to that study and really appreciate the perspective. The questions you raise at the end are especially interesting.

  4. Yes, my unschooled 9 year old is "behind" her 9 yo peers as far as standardized tests go. So what? If I wanted her to be at or above grade level I'd have to "teach" her what those children are learning. I'd say she most likely knows more about birth, neurology, and the Catholic faith than public school students twice her age, just because that's the life we live atm.

  5. Both Raymond and Dorothy Moore ("School Can Wait" and other similar titles on delayed academics) and Dr. Arthur Robinson (Robinson Curriculum, which is very unstructured) said that children following their plans always scored behind their peers in the elementary grades but were exceeding them by high school.

  6. I know my younger kids would test below grade level and I don't really care. The only standardized test we have ever done is the SAT. I don't teach according to someone else's scope and sequence; I teach organically according to the abilities of each of my children. I taught second grade in a Catholic school before marrying and I know all about those ridiculous requirements and tests. There were some very bright (often very verbal) children who did not test well and were made to feel inadequate and hate learning because of poor scores. I decided never to do that to my own children. I myself still have bad memories of the Iowa Basic Skills tests from my school years.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!