The Harms of Homeschooling? Where Are the Premises?
Brian D. Ray
National Home Education Research Institute, Salem, Oregon, USA
Keywords: Homeschooling, harms, premise.
Data-based research has consistently revealed favorable things related to the modern homeschool movement for about 25 years.  Theoretical philosophical research, on the other hand, argues conflicting things about home-educating families and students. For example, professor Robin West (2009) recently published a controversial piece entitled “The Harms of Homeschooling” that will be the main subject of this article. To set the stage for this discussion, a very brief summary of research on home education is important.
Repeated studies by many researchers and data provided by United States state departments of education show that home-educated students consistently score, on average, well above the public school average on standardized academic achievement tests (e.g., Ray, 2005, 2010; Rudner, 1999; Wartes, 1988). To date, no research has found homeschool students to be doing worse, on average, than their counterparts in state-run schools.
Multiple studies by various researchers have found the home educated to be doing well in terms of their social, emotional, and psychological development (R1y, 2005). Further, the limited research on the topic to date reveals that adults who were home educated are typically doing well on all measures considered, and they appear to be happy, on average, productive, and civically engaged members of their communities. No research has controverted these two general conclusions.
Finally, regarding empirical studies, this author is not aware of any research that has involved collected data and has shown that the practice of home-based education, homeschool parents, homeschool students, or adults who were home educated are harming, on average, one another, their neighbors, their communities, or their nations.
The purpose of this article is twofold, to show that the “harms of homeschooling” that West alleges basically have no foundation in research evidence and to note that West’s proposal for the state to control homeschool parents and their children is based on a worldview that it is antithetical to one held by a significant portion of Americans.
Overview of West’s Article
West, in her piece, attempts to do two things. She begins by asserting that homeschooling that is not regulated more by the state is likely to harm children in several ways. She then moves on, from a particular but unspecified worldview, to propose government law and policies to control private homeschooling so that children and youth are less likely to be harmed. Her basic thesis and most of her ideas are not new. For example, Reich (2002) has argued that the state must control home-based education to make sure that the students learn basic knowledge and skills, become psychologically autonomous, are not “ethically servile,” and become decent, civil, and respectful. Similarly, Yuracko (2007) argued that the state must increase its control over home education to make sure children and youth are exposed to “liberal values” (p. 10) and to “… check rampant forms of sexism in homeschooling” (p. 11).
West’s first explicit claim regarding the “harms” of homeschooling is as follows: “First, children who are homeschooled with no state regulation are at greater risk for unreported and unnoticed physical abuse, when they are completely isolated in homes” (p. 9). She offers no research, and no statistics to directly support this claim. This author knows of no such research. West quotes, out of context, a piece of information from a court case that it is only tangentially related to her claim. Further, there is some evidence, including government-supplied statistics, that the information West cited from the court is not accurate (see, e.g., Oregon Home Education Network, 2010).
Next, West claims, “… there’s a public health risk. ….. Thus, deregulated homeschooling means that homeschooled children are basically exempted from immunization requirements. They are more susceptible to the diseases against which immunization provides some protection” (p. 9). It may be true that a given state may not mandate immunization of children in some private educational settings. West, however, provides no facts to support her claim that home-educated children “…are more susceptible to the diseases …” This author knows of no such data. In fact, perhaps homeschool children, whether immunized or not, are healthier and less susceptible to the diseases to which West refers than those in institutional schools.
Third, West makes a complicated psychological claim and second sub-claim, as follow:
Children are loved in a family because they are the children of the parents in the family. The “unconditional love” they receive is anything but unconditional: it is conditioned on the fact that they are their parents’ children. School—either public or private—ideally provides a welcome respite. ….. The child is regarded with respect equally to all the children in the class. In these ways, the school classroom, ideally, and the relations within it, is a model of some core aspects of citizenship. (p. 9)
She offers no research or other empirical evidence that children need a “respite” from their parents’ love, nor that institutional schooling “… provides a welcome respite …” to children from the “conditioned” love of their parents. Nor does West offer any evidence that institutional school classrooms generally offer “…a model of some core aspects of citizenship,” especially with the implication in mind that the home-based education environment does not offer such.
Robin West then moves to her next claim, the fourth of seven.
Fourth, there are political harms. Fundamentalist Protestant adults who were homeschooled over the last thirty years are not politically disengaged, far from it. ….. Their political action … is limited to political action the aim of which is to undermine, limit, or destroy state functions that interfere with family and parental rights. ….. They don’t question authority, and they can’t go AWOL. With little education, few if any job skills, and scant resources, their power either to influence the lines of authority within their own sphere, or to leave that sphere, is virtually nil. (p.9-10)
Although there is some research evidence that adults who were home educated are civically and politically engaged (e.g., see Knowles & Muchmore, 1995; Ray, 2004; and Van Pelt, Allison, & Allison, 2009). West does not cite it. Nor does she provide any evidence that their political action is limited to the aim of undermining, limiting, or destroying particular state functions. Nor does she provide premises to support her assertions that the home educated do not question authority, have “… little education, few if any job skills, and scant resources …” or that “… their power either to influence the lines of authority within their own sphere, or to leave that sphere, is virtually nil.” This author knows of no research evidence to support what West says here.
The fifth harm West covers is what she calls “ethical.”
Child-raising that is relentlessly authoritarian risks instilling what developmental psychologists call “ethical servility”: a failure to mature morally beyond the recognition of duties of obedience. ….. But whether [ethical servility is] a virtue or a disability, homeschooling—where the parents have full responsibility for the extent and substance of the child’s education as well as upbringing—clearly multiplies the risk. (p. 10)
One could assume that professor West’s claim about “relentlessly authoritarian” child-raising causing ethical servility is true, but her article does not clearly provide research support for it. Regardless, she gives no empirical evidence that “… homeschooling … clearly multiplies the risk,” assuming there is a considerable risk in the first place. It is possible, but it is a simple claim and she expects the reader to fill in the missing pieces of how she arrived at her conclusion.
An educational harm is the sixth in West’s list. She says it “… is the most immediate, direct risk of unregulated homeschooling. ….. There is indeed no credible evidence that homeschoolers as a group do worse on standardized tests, but contrary to their claims, there is also no credible evidence that they do better” (p. 10). No credible evidence? Credible means “offering reasonable grounds for being believed” (Merriam-webster.com., 2009). One should consider the evidence regarding the academic achievement of the home educated. And may the reader note that this author recognizes there are many reasonable ways to measure educational success. Standardized academic achievement tests are only one way, and they are a well-known and widely accepted way to do so.
The State of Oregon, for many years, required all homeschool students to be registered with the state and annually take state-approved achievement tests. Consistently, year after year, the home-educated students scored, on average, well above the national average (e.g., median scores of the 71st to 80th percentiles, 21 to 30 percentile points above the national average) (Oregon Department of Education, 1999). Test data from other state departments of education have also shown the home educated to be scoring above average. Many studies over the course of about 25 years have consistently found the home educated to be scoring well, typically above the national average of public school students (e.g., Ray, 2005, 2010; Rudner, 1999, Wartes, 1988).
Those who are careful critics of research design and tend toward caution about the practice of homeschooling are often quick to point out that research on homeschooling is descriptive, not experimental, and that representative samples of homeschool students are challenging to obtain, and it is true that these two points are important to consider. They often claim, then, that nothing or very little is really known about the academic achievement of the home educated. Contrary to this claim, much is known. First, as just cited, research consistently finds the homeschooled to be doing well. Second, multiple researchers who have examined several variables and their relationship to homeschool achievement keep finding positive things. For example, research findings consistently show that regardless of whether home-educated students are in low- or high-income families, have parents who are of low or high educational attainment, are engaged in a relaxed homeschool pedagogical environment or a highly structured one, have parents who hold to atheism, Buddhism, or Christianity, have none or many siblings, reside in states with low or high control/regulation over homeschooling, they, homeschool students, consistently score above average on academic achievement tests (Ray, 2005, 2010; Ray & Eagleson, 2008; Rudner, 1999).
If critics of homeschool research study designs were genuinely concerned about homeschool students as a group and whether they are receiving a “good academic education,” why would they not take it upon themselves to find the funding for and execute something like a carefully designed cross-sectional, explanatory study (or causal-comparative study) (Johnson, 2001) that they think is of a better design to answer their own questions and concerns?
Further, on her claimed “educational harm,” West states:
Nevertheless, it is clear from both anecdotal accounts, memoirs, and trial transcripts that some homeschoolers are suffering educational harm which would be avoided or minimized, were they either in public school or were their homeschool subjected to decent regulation.
This author does not know of any homeschool advocates who claim that no homeschool children are doing poorly academically. However, West does not offer an operational definition of educational success or lack of educational harm. And this lack of definition leads to the more philosophical issues that will be addressed later in this article. Furthermore, West’s claim that homeschool children who are suffering her undefined “educational harm” would have such harm avoided had they been in public school or had all homeschooling been more controlled (regulated) by the state begs many questions. For example, what empirical evidence exists to support this claim? West offers none.
Also, later in her article, West suggests that her alleged harms of homeschooling would be notably blunted or ameliorated by the state more assertively and aggressively controlling or regulating homeschooling, a form of private education. Which leads to another question begged by her claim about how educational harm would be lessened for homeschool children. What would West suggest be done with, or to, a home-educated child or teenager who was sent to public school and, after two years, was suffering educational harm at the hands of state-school personnel? Or, what would West suggest be done with or to a public school child or youth who is suffering educational harm? Would West promote a law that compels them to attend a private institutional school or be home educated?
West also claims the following regarding the “educational harm”: “What is sacrificed most immediately by the radical deregulation of homeschooling is some children’s knowledge base, literacy, and numeracy” (p. 10). One must quickly wonder after her assertion: Has the attendance of roughly 87% of all school-age children in state-run public schooling over the past 50 years confidently assured the American public that only a tiny portion lack a “… competent knowledge base, literacy, and numeracy”? Is West implying that the de facto and all-encompassing state regulation and control of public schooling ensures a lack of educational harm – whatever that means, since West never defined it – in state schools?
Professor West then goes to a little more length regarding the educational harm of homeschooling, as follows:
Also sacrificed is their exposure to diverse ideas, cultures, and ways of being. Again, this is not incidental; it is the fully intended result of the deregulation movement. The children of the most devout fundamentalists are being intentionally shielded from those parts of a public school curriculum that have this broadening potential. (p. 10)
If West had not done so earlier in the article, it is at this point that she fully opens the philosophical issue. Which weltanschauung (worldview) – a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint (Merriam-webster.com, 2009) – is driving this academic and what she will soon propose in her article?
West appears to be particularly concerned about Christians, “fundamentalist” ones. This begs some questions. Is she not concerned about “fundamentalist metaphysical naturalists” homeschooling their children? What about “fundamentalist secular humanists”? What about “fundamentalist neo-Marxists”? Is she concerned about “fundamentalist democratic socialists” who home educate? And how about “fundamentalist pagans” homeschooling? But this, too, will be addressed in more detail at the end of this article.
It is true that some “fundamentalist Christians” are intentionally shielding their homeschooled children from certain curriculum, but West does not provide evidence to support this assertion. (On an important related note: it is true that parents of a wide variety of philosophical/religious/worldview perspectives are using home-based education partly to keep their children away from some curriculum content and engaged in other curriculum. The author of this article could cite research to substantiate this conclusion but the author’s time is limited and it is not necessary since the author is not recommending legal or policy that affects parents and children change based on these research findings.) Furthermore, West does not provide any empirical evidence that homeschool children being shielded from certain parts of public school curriculum harms them or the communities in which they live. This author knows of no such evidence.
Professor Robin West will likely incite the homeschool community with her next claim, the seventh and final one, that follows here:
Finally, the economic harms. ….. The radically fundamentalist “movement” family, however, is considerably poorer than the population, and it is the participants in these movements—the so-called “patriarchy movement” and its “quiverfull” branch and related groups —that are the hardcore of the homeschooling movement. The husbands and wives in these families feel themselves to be under a religious compulsion to have large families, a homebound and submissive wife and mother who is responsible for the schooling of the children, and only one breadwinner. These families are not living in romantic, rural, self-sufficient farmhouses; they are in trailer parks, 1,000-square-foot homes, houses owned by relatives, and some, on tarps in fields or parking lots. Their lack of job skills, passed from one generation to the next, depresses the community’s overall economic health and their state’s tax base. (p. 10)
Once again, she provides no empirical evidence that the “radically fundamentalist ‘movement’ family” is “considerably poorer.” Nor does she provide any evidence they are the “hardcore of the homeschooling movement.” Problematically, she does not define “hardcore” with respect to the “homeschooling movement.” The implication is that within the “movement” there is a hegemony regarding some key variable, but West does not explain any of this, if it is true. Next, her choice of words, such as “religious compulsion,” “homebound,” and “submissive” appears skewed and the implicit claims are not substantiated, even if they might be true. (For example, some Christians do think that their holy scriptures, both the Old Testament and New Testament, teach that having as many children as God gives them is a good and blessed thing.) The author provides no statistics to substantiate what percent of these generally undefined homeschool families live in “trailer parks,” “1,000-square-foot homes,” “houses owned by relatives,” or “on tarps in fields or parking lots,” nor what percent of other Americans of similar educational attainment, race/ethnicity, and income categories so live. West does not offer any evidence that they lack job skills or depress their community’s economic health or “their state’s tax base.” Not one iota of supporting evidence is given. This author knows of no evidence to support West’s claims.
West’s “Harms,” Solutions, and Worldview, and the Problem
Although Robin West claims there are seven serious harms of homeschooling, she is ineffective in providing premises to support her claims. She apparently has nearly no statistics or research evidence to back up her assertions.
Her basic solution to reducing her alleged harms of homeschooling is for the state to enact “reasonable state regulation” (p. 11) of said parent-led home-based private education. She apparently wants the state to compel (a) all home-educated children to submit to state-approved “annual standardized testing” (p. 11), (b) all parents to submit their home-education curriculum to review and control by the state (p. 11), and (c) all families who choose homeschooling to submit to periodic in-home visits by state agents.
The professor of law and philosophy explicitly or implicitly alleges that giving all of the above power to the state (the government) to control and regulate homeschooling – a form of private education – would, among other things, “… give the state a window into the quality of home life, and a way to monitor signs of abuse as well as immunizations” (p. 12) and “… protect the children’s interest in both acquiring the necessary skills for active, autonomous, and responsible citizenship in adulthood, and in being exposed to diverse and more liberal ways” (p. 11-12). Again, West offers no empirical evidence to support these claims. Perhaps more enlightening, however, is that her solutions to alleged problems quickly make it clear that particular presuppositions underlie her entire article and apparent thesis, the thesis that homeschooling likely inflicts harms on a significant number of home-educated children and increased state control over this form of private education will significantly reduce the chance of these children being struck by these injuries.
One might deduce West’s worldview regarding the proper – that is, right or correct – jurisdiction of the state and what should be its power regarding the upbringing and education of children by guessing her answers to several questions (based on her article), as follow:
1. Who will decide the right (i.e., correct, proper) curriculum for children and youth in private home education? The state.
2. Who will decide the correct way to measure whether the home-educated student is learning what he or she should learn? The state.
3. Who will decide what are the “…the necessary skills for active, autonomous, and responsible citizenship in adulthood” (p. 11)? The state.
4. Who will decide what are the correct “… diverse and more liberal ways of life” (p. 11-12) to which all children and youth should be “exposed”? The state.
5. Who should decide whether a child or youth is trending toward “ethical servility” in his psychological, social, and emotional development and makeup? The state.
6. Who should decide whether all children should be injected with immunization substances? The state.
7. Who should be the one monitoring all children for signs of abuse? The state.
8. Should it be assumed that private educators (in this case, the parents) are not providing a proper education to their children unless they prove, according to state standards, that they are doing so? In other words, are these parents assumed guilty until proven innocent? Yes.
Considering the questions and answers above, this author posits the effects of two differing worldviews that seem to be at work when the topic of who should control the education of children and youth arises. The worldviews manifest themselves in two perspectives on the upbringing and education of children. For the sake of discussion, the perspectives will be called “State Authority” and “Parental Authority,” and are as follow:
1. State Authority: There are three stakeholders, parent, child, and state, concerning the upbringing and education of a child. The state, however, should have the ultimate authority to decide whether all individual children’s best interests are being met. In reality, therefore, the state makes final decisions for the child. It is right that the state (i.e., civil government) must exert its power to ensure, for example, that a child becomes autonomous, internalizes select state-approved psychological and social traits, and meets certain academic standards; all of the criteria regarding the aforementioned are state/government-determined. The authority to guide and punish parents in the upbringing and education of their children is not only over whether the child is being “harmed” but whether what the parents are doing for him or her is “best,” according to the state’s criteria (i.e., the opinions of those having the most influence over laws and court decisions at the time). It is not enough that a citizen obey the state’s laws when he becomes an adult, but the citizen must be raised – inculcated with values and skills – as a child, according to the state’s perception of its own needs. (The author could provide references to substantiate this typology but his time is limited at this juncture. The basic concepts of this typology date back in history at least to the philosopher Plato.)
2. Parental Authority: It is self-evident that the “… Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God …” and the history of the citizens’ culture and practice in the United States give parents the responsibility and authority to raise their children as they deem fit or right. In order to protect this concept and its fulfillment, the people of any state (i.e., civil government jurisdiction) should explicitly affirm the proposition that parents have a fundamental right to direct the upbringing and education of their children and no state should violate this right without showing that a governmental interest of the highest order is not served in some other way (Declaration of Independence, 1776; see also, e.g., Ammitzboell & Ammitzboell, 1999; Diocese of Manchester, 2010; Klicka, 1993; ParentalRights.org, 2010).
The apparent presuppositions of persons holding to the State Authority position bring to mind several important questions that should be answered by adherents of the position. Here are some of the questions:
1. Do they consistently and clearly admit that their position is ultimately based on philosophical axioms held by simple faith or belief (the same as for the Parental Authority position)?
2. What empirical evidence do they have that state-run schooling (i.e., public schools), with all the state controls and regulation that are intrinsic to public schooling, are consistently effective at meeting the objectives of these people who advocate for state control over private homeschooling?
3. What evidence do they have that state control over homeschooling will meet their objectives?
4. Will they advocate and promote to legislators the same state control and regulation over all private schooling (e.g., atheist, agnostic, Baptist, classical liberal, Jewish, Lutheran, Marxist, Muslim, New Age, pagan, Roman Catholic, secular humanist, and all others)?
5. Will they advocate and promote to legislators the same kind of state-mandated and state-run in-home visits of all children and minors who are away from state-run public schools for more than one week (seven days) at a time (e.g., during “winter vacation,” summer break, mid-term breaks during “year-round schooling”)?
6. What empirical evidence do advocates of the State Authority perspective have that their worldview with its understanding of the state’s jurisdiction over the upbringing and education of children is the correct one for a happy society to exist?
The problem is twofold. First, if a person makes a claim about a harm related to homeschooling, he or she should provide solid evidence of that harm, and that is not done in West’s article. Second, persons who hold to and advocate the position of State Authority are often not clear, and they should make it clear, that they are operating from this position. It is a position based on a personally-held worldview that they think is correct – that is, right – and gives the state more authority and power over a child’s upbringing and education than the parents.
Those reading articles or theses by advocates of the State Authority position should realize that these advocates think the Parental Authority position is wrong and theirs, the State Authority position, is morally or philosophically superior. Finally, those who read the claims and proposed laws and policies of adherents of the State Authority position should keep in mind that those proposals are driven by a particular value-laden philosophical worldview and should not be distracted by arguments based on utilitarianism or pragmatism.
Conclusions and Cautions
Academics and others who voice concerns and claims about homeschooling like those in Robin West’s article bring two key points to the fore. First, they notably lack foundation, empirical evidence, to support their assertions about home-based education harming children or giving children and youth a less-effective opportunity than would state-run schooling or state-controlled homeschooling.
Second, their concerns about parent-led home-based education and solutions to alleged problems are driven by something like the State Authority perspective (described above). That is, they generally believe that the state should use its power to exercise final authority over the teaching, training, and indoctrination of children and youth. (All forms of education – whether state-run public schooling, private institutional schooling, or home-based education – consist of the teaching, training, and indoctrination of children and youth. See, e.g.: Baer, 1998; Nord, 1995; Ray, 2005). This is clearly antithetical to the perspective of most of the homeschool community and all Americans who hold to something like the Parental Authority perspective (described above).
Finally, it is understandable that people like West are concerned about the education – both academic knowledge and skills and values, beliefs, and worldview – of all children and youth, including those whose parents chose home-based education for them. Two questions must be kept in mind, however, when reading these persons’ concerns and claims. Will they clearly divulge their worldview and its basis? And will they (and, if so, when) apply their view of the state’s rightful power over all children and youth to all forms of private institutional schooling (e.g., agnostic, atheist, Baptist, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Lutheran, Muslim, Roman Catholic, secular independent) and all the children and youth who are so educated?
* This article was first published as follows: Ray, Brian D. (2010, January 4). The harms of homeschooling? Where are the premises? The Educible Review, No. 10.
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 The “Perspectives – News and Comments” section of this journal consists of articles that have not undergone peer review.
 This article was first published as follows: Ray, Brian D. (2010, January 4). The harms of homeschooling? Where are the premises? The Educible Review, No. 10.