on homeschooling

Pretty much every time I read or hear a discussion about homeschooling, somebody says something to the effect that they know some people who homeschool and that these people are crazy (anywhere from somewhat antisocial to raging, wild-eyed religious fanatics). Alright, suppose for the moment that these reports are true, i.e., that the person speaking really does know crazy homeschoolers (myself, I’m inclined to doubt some of these reports, but that’s perhaps neither here nor there since I am confident that there really are some crazy homeschoolers around somewhere). I take it that these reports are somehow supposed to be part of an argument against homeschooling. For example, in an oral discussion the person who makes this sort of observation will subsequently look at whoever was defending homeschooling as if the defender now ought to make a response.  But it beats me what the argument is supposed to be. Does someone want to take a stab at filling in the argument, i.e., supplying the missing premise(s), so that it would at least approach being reasonable?

In order to avoid some false starts, let me point out a few reasons why I have a hard time seeing how this observation about crazy homeschoolers is going to provide for much of an argument. First, there are obviously also crazy people who, say, send their kids to public schools. To be sure, most people who send their kids there are normal, decent people. But not all of them. So does the fact that some crazy people decided to send their kids to public schools entail that it’s a bad idea to send kids to public school? Surely not.

But, you will say, I missed the point. The point is that there are far more crazy people among homeschoolers than among public schoolers. It’s that comparative claim that is relevant. Okay, perhaps.  But now the claim being made is a great deal more controversial. Figuring out whether this comparative judgement is true will require a good bit of research and statistical analysis. Importantly, the people who report knowing crazy homeschoolers are making entirely irrelevant observations in exactly the same way that somebody who defends smoking by noting that he had a chain-smoking 90-year old uncle in good health is making an irrelevant observation. For these sorts of comparative claims to be meaningful, we’re going to need a whole lot more data than a couple of acquaintances.

But suppose we find such data. Suppose some researcher does a very good study with a large population sample and with impeccable methodology and so forth, and finds that, say, the percentage of crazy people is twice as high among homeschoolers as among public schoolers. So what?

Suppose a study found that there were twice as many rapacious monsters out to conquer the world for their own benefit among those with a college degree as among those without (a college degree helps with the conquering). Does this mean that the rest of us should decide that it would be bad for us to go to college? Surely not. College may be good for more than one thing and I may know that I have different motivations for going. Or suppose a study found that there are twice as many people with cancer among churchgoers as among non-churchgoers. Does this mean that we should worry about going to church? Of course not.

So why exactly should the presence of wild-eyed zealots among homeschoolers make us worry about the merits of homeschooling? I’m sure there is a better argument to be made from this premise, but I’m not seeing it. Can anyone suggest how this premise is relevant?


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7 Responses to on homeschooling

  1. Lisa says:

    I believe the stat I heard was that about 75% of homeschooled kids in the USA are evangelical Christians. So, we could argue that evangelicals are more likely to homeschool their kids than other religious groups.

    That said, this doesn’t tell us whether the outcome of homeschooling is positive or negative for anyone. These kids would be evangelical christians whether they learned at home or not. They might be exposed to a wider variety of ideas (evolution, sex ed, etc.) at a public school, but otherwise, if they receive a quality homeschooling curriculum and meet some peers in other social activities, I can’t imagine they’d be any worse for the wear.

    I think the only way to test the outcome would be to randomly assign kids to the 2 conditions (school vs. homeschool). Of course, this would be impossible ethically, you couldn’t control for quality of teaching, etc. I suppose the alternative would be to see how homeschooled vs. public schooled kids fare on standardized exams (SAT, AP, etc.). It may have been done.


  2. fustianist says:

    Some more or less random comments:

    (1) Is 75% much higher than for public schooled kids? This depends of course on how exactly the study defines evangelicalism, but on the looser definitions I think around 45% of Americans claim to be evangelical. On the assumption that evangelicals have more kids than the general population (I’m not sure this is right — they certainly have more than the secular part of the population but I don’t know how they compare to the Catholic part), we might end up with the percentage of evangelical kids not being that far from 75%.

    (2) Is the suggestion that people making these observations about crazy homeschoolers are equating ‘crazy’ with ‘evangelical’? I was hoping there was a little more substance to what they were saying than such silly bigotry.

    (3) Suppose that the percentage of evangelicals is much higher among homeschoolers than among public schoolers and suppose, per impossibile, that all evangelicals are crazy. I still have my “so what?” question. Suppose I am thinking of homeschooling kids and someone points these things out to me. Either I am myself evangelical or I’m not. If I am, I presumably will not be too disturbed to find out that most homeschoolers are evangelical. If I’m not, then these points seem irrelevant. So apparently some people homeschool because they are evangelical. So what? If I’m not evangelical, then that clearly must not be my motivation. So I’m still not seeing any argument against homeschooling here.

    (4) A more promising line of argument would be to talk about the outcomes for kids for different kinds of schooling. This, of course, is a line of argument that people frequently take, but I should note that the argument I was interested in in my post was meant to be separate from this question, i.e., it was supposed to be based on observations of the parents rather than of the children.

    (5) And, yes, there is some data comparing standardized test results from homeschooled kids with public schooled kids. For example, here are the average 1999 & 2000 SAT scores (NB: compared with the national averages in this case, not with public schooled averages):
    Verbal: 568 (vs. 505 national average)
    Math: 532 (vs. 514 national average)

    Of course, performance on standardized tests is presumably not the only relevant indicator of the merits or not of homeschooling.


  3. fustianist says:

    Okay, so Sydney and I have argued extensively about this (not on the blog), so I thought I would put out there what I’ve been telling him at home. The most plausible thing I can think of is that people who say this are trying to warn you, the potential home-schooling parent, away from homeschooling because it might mean you would come into contact with these crazy people (through attempts to get together to bring in a calculus teacher for a group of homeschooled kids, by your kid making friends with their kid, through parent-support groups, etc.). These kinds of group activities are becoming more popular among the homeschool set, and so it may be this social factor that they have in mind. You may well not meet the parents of other students in your child’s public school, but for homeschool clubs or classes there’s a lot more parent involvement, and, as a result, communication between parents. If those other parents happen to be crazy, then those interactions may be painful.


  4. Lisa says:

    Just to clarify, I didn’t mean to imply that I find evangelicals to be crazy. But I think a lot of people perceive them as “outliers” in society, perhaps shunning certain scientific theories (evolution, etc.), so I could see how the label “crazy” could be applied, albeit incorrectly.

    I don’t think the evangelical stats should influence whether or not you homeschool your child. I’m just saying, they’re a large percentage of those who do. If people don’t agree with evangelical beliefs/lifestyle, they might perceive 75% of homeschool families as crazy. I assume the people you hear saying negative things about homeschooling are not homeschooled and are probably not hardcore evangelical christians either.

    I guess another question: what is the advantage of homeschooling children? I could see the merit if you live somewhere very remote where there is no public school. Or, in the case of the evangelicals, if you don’t want the school to propagandize your child to believe things that you don’t. But otherwise, what’s the advantage? I feel like a “communal” school, public or private, allows the children opportunities to form peer relationships. Further, the teachers are all hypothetically “experts” in teaching their particular subject matter. While I did very well in school, I’m not sure I could teach calculus competently. I guess I don’t really see the point, the same way I don’t understand families that pay for expensive private schools when they live in towns with very good public ones…


  5. Kris says:

    Hmmm…I actually know some crazy homeschoolers. (completely socially inept) If I bring it up…it’s to warn people to socialize their children.

    Many of the homeschooling types that I know are all about sheltering their children…

  6. fustianist says:

    I’ve realized that my initial post isn’t clear enough about one critical point: when I’m talking about crazy homeschoolers, I’m talking about the parents and not about the children. That is, I was thinking of homeschoolers as opposed to the homeschooled.

    Importantly, that means I’m not talking about the argument that’s also frequently made that argues that homeschooling is bad because homeschooled kids are often crazy, i.e., socially inept. This argument makes perfect sense to me. As it happens, I doubt its merits too, since I doubt the crucial premise that homeschooled kids are more likely to be crazy than, say, public-schooled kids. But if the premise were true, then I can see why one might think the conclusion would follow.

    But I was thinking of the argument from the claim that the parents of homeschooled kids are often crazy. And in this case I don’t see how the argument is supposed to work, even if the premise is true.

  7. Lisa says:

    I think the “crazy” probably relates to their reasons for homeschooling their children. Depending on who is judging the “craziness”, this could include:

    1) Religious zealor
    2) Paranoia (about curriculum in public school, bad things that would happen outside the home)
    3) Delusions of Grandeur (thinking you’ll do a better job)
    4) Overprotectiveness
    5) Neediness of company from children
    6) Fear of losing authority
    etc. etc.

    I think barring the people that homeschool their children because there *is* no school at a reasonable distance, most people choose to homeschool their children for reasons that are a bit off the mainstream (if it weren’t, more people would probably do it).


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