How do they compare?
© 2011 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Homeschooling gets high marks...when parents provide structured lessons
Are homeschooled students good students?
When the topic comes up in conversation, people often cite
studies showing that homeschoolers score higher on standardized tests.
For instance, Eric Rudner analyzed the test scores of over 20,000
American homeschooled students and found them to be “exceptionally
high—the median scores were typically in the 70th to 80th percentile”
That’s impressive, but we have to keep in mind: This wasn’t a random cross-section of homeschoolers.
Participants were recruited from a special subset of the
homeschooling population--families who subscribed to a fee-based testing
Compared to their peers in the public schools, these kids
were more likely to have affluent, well-educated parents. Were the
parents also more committed to educating their children? Perhaps.
Then there is the problem of self-selection. Who agrees to participate in a study of this kind?
Parents may be more likely to sign up if they believe their
children will test well. About 52% of those approached agreed to
participate in Rudner’s study. So we have to wonder about the people who
declined. When we compare Rudner’s homeschoolers to the general
population, it’s a bit like apples and oranges. The parents of public
school kids aren’t a select group of motivated volunteers.
Finally, there were differences in the way the tests were
administered. Ideally, we’d want everyone to take the test under the
same conditions, under the eye of a trained test administrator. But
whereas public school students took their tests in the classroom, many
homeschoolers took their tests at home with a parent.
New data: “The Impact of Schooling on Academic Achievement: Evidence from homeschooled and traditionally schooled students”
Recently, Sandra Martin-Chang of Concordia University led a new study that attempts to address these problems.
Martin-Chang and her colleagues sought Canadian participants from both the homeschool and public school populations, recruiting through community announcements, radio ads, and email.
They ended up with 37 homeschool students, and matched these with
37 similar-age public school students living in the same area. Overall,
the students had these characteristics:
• They ranged in age from 5 to 10 years, and almost all of them lived with married or partnered adults.
• Most had mothers with college degrees (65% for homeschoolers,
54% for public school kids), and kids in public school were more likely
to have mothers with graduate degrees (11% for homeschoolers, 30% for
public school kids).
• Homeschool families had lower incomes, presumably because
mothers in these families were more likely to have left the workforce.
In addition, the researchers discovered that the homeschooling group fell into two categories.
1. Most homeschooling parents took a structured approach to education.
They “set out clear educational goals for their children and offered
structured lessons in the form of either purchased curricula or
self-made lesson plans (often some combination of both).”
2. A minority of homeschooling parents said they rarely or never used premade curricula and structured lesson plans. Some called themselves “unschoolers.” As the authors note,
"These parents identified more with the pedagogical view that
education is gained via the natural consequences of the child’s
Obviously, these parents offered very different educational
experiences to their kids. So Martin-Chang and colleagues didn’t lump
them together with the structured homeschoolers. Instead, they decided
to study three groups:
• Public school students
• Structured homeschooling students
• Unstructured homeschooling students
Achievement testing, and the results
How did these groups compare?
To find out, researchers administered a 45-minute achievement
test in the children’s homes. The questions—which were borrowed from the
popular Woodcock-Johnson Test of Achievement—covered seven distinct
academic areas, including reading comprehension, science, and
Overall, the structured homeschooling group performed much better
than the public school group. And the margin was pretty dramatic.
In 5 of 7 test areas, (word identification, phonic decoding, science, social science, humanities) structured homeschoolers were at least one grade level ahead of public schoolers.
They were almost half a year ahead in math, and slightly, but not significantly, advanced in reading comprehension.
But this is a relatively small study. Was the homeschool advantage due to random factors?
Researchers calculated the probabilities of getting these results
due to random chance alone. For science and calculation, these
probabilities were 1.9% and 2.6%. For word identification, decoding, and
social science, the probabilities were all below 0.07%.
Was the homeschool advantage merely the result of socioeconomic
privilege? That seems rather unlikely too. Homeschoolers retained their
edge even after researchers made statistical adjustments for differences
in family income and mother’s education level.
And if the recruitment process selected for homeschoolers with
high skill levels, we can say the same about public school students.
Both groups--structured homeschoolers and public schoolers--consisted of
volunteers. Both tested well above grade level.
So the implications seem clear: Canadian kids receiving structured home schooling are testing very well, and it's not merely a reflection of their parents' affluence or educational levels.
But the story may be very different for kids who receive unstructured homeschooling.
In every test area, unstructured homeschoolers got lower scores than the structured homeschoolers did.
In 5 of 7 areas, the differences were substantial, ranging from
1.32 grade levels for the math test to 4.2 grade levels for the word
Where the structured homeschoolers performed above grade level, the unstructured homeschoolers performed below it.
The chance that unstructured homeschoolers performed worse due to random factors? Less than 0.07%.
And again, the pattern held even after controlling for family income and maternal education.
Unstructured homeschoolers also performed worse than the public
school kids did, though not by enough margin to rule out chance.
The researchers conclude that "structured homeschooling may
offer opportunities for academic performance beyond those typically
experienced in public school."
What are these opportunities?
They seem pretty obvious. Homeschooling typically involves a low teacher-student ratio and highly individualized instruction. It's private tutoring, which has always been associated with efficient learning.
But Martin-Chang and colleagues are keen to point out the
limitations of this research. We need more studies with larger samples.
And the researchers would like to investigate the relationship
between structure and academic achievement. Might homeschool students
benefit from a mixed approach? If so, how much structure is optimal?
I wonder, too, about individual variation. We all know that some
kids find it harder to adapt to demands of formal instruction. Are some
parents are drawn to unstructured homeschooling because their kids don't
fit the mold?
If so, that might explain some of the results here. And it
suggests that homeschooling parents--like many classroom teachers--need
to find new ways to reach these students.
References: Homeschooling outcomes
For a concise analysis of the history of research on this topic,
check out Eric Isenberg’s article for the Peabody Journal of Education:
Isenberg E. 2007. What have we learned about homeschooling? Peabody Journal of Education, 82: 327–409.
See also these papers (cited above):
Kunzman R. 2009. Understanding homeschooling: A better approach to regularization.
Theory and Research in Education, 7: 311–330.
Martin-Chang S, Gould ON, and Meuse, R E. The impact of schooling
on academic achievement: Evidence from homeschooled and traditionally
schooled students. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 43(3):
Rudner L. 1999. Scholastic Achievement and Demographic
Characteristics of Home School Students in 1998. Education Policy
Analysis Archives, 7(1) 1-38.
Content last modified 9/11
Image of students at blackboard by Masae / wikimedia commons