A Provocative Thesis

IN THIS MODEST volume, Gary Wyatt focuses on effects of home-schooling that he claims have been neglected in previous research: strengthening of families and socialization of children to resist the norms of dominant culture. Research on why parents decide to educate their children at home, he contends, does not identify these as conscious aims. Three claims are central to Wyatt’s argument:

1. Families initiate homeschooling primarily because they or their children have had problems in school, not for religious reasons (although these may plan a secondary role).
2. Families persist in homeschooling mainly because of the improved family relationships they discover.
3. Conventional socialization is not a proper test of success, because homeschooling families seek to resist the influence of peers and the dominant culture.

Wyatt’s argument is provocative in a way that he himself does not appear to recognize. Homeschooling is generally regarded as a heterogeneous phenomenon, with some families motivated by religious commitments and some by pedagogical beliefs (Van Galen, 1991). Wyatt argues that they are more alike than they are different; researchers have failed to recognize this in part because families themselves are not fully cognizant of their motivation, and in part because of the limitations of survey research.

Wyatt’s own research relies on participant observation: the researcher participates actively in the social world that is the subject of study. A sociologist by training, Wyatt draws on personal experience of his own family: he and his wife home-schooled two of their three sons, one starting after 3rd grade, the other after 5th. Family experience is supplemented by interaction with other home-school families and participation in home-school support groups, conventions, campouts, lobbying efforts, and online discussion groups.

To analyze data drawn from these sources, he employs a symbolic interactionist framework, probing statements and actions to try to understand what subjects mean by them, rather than trying to impose meaning from the outside. This approach is well-suited to uncover motives of which subjects are not fully aware, for it requires the researcher to probe social meanings and dig beneath the surface of conventional answers.

Unfortunately, methodology is one of the weakest aspects of this study. Participant observation, skillfully executed, enables the researcher to observe and interact with subjects in context and thus to generate “thick description” of the social norms and institutions which shape their lives. Mitchell Stevens made good use of this methodology in his (2001) Kingdom of Children: a wealth of descriptive detail brings church-basement book fairs and family dinner tables to life. There is very little thick description and few references to context in Family Ties; the primary source of evidence is direct quotations from other homeschooling parents, which could have been obtained from interviews. Unfortunately, weaknesses in methodology undermines what is in many respects an interesting work with a number of unusual insights.

Aims, Motives, and Outcomes

WYATT’S FIRST CLAIM is about initial motivation. Nearly all his informants cite their own or their children’s negative academic and social experiences in school as reasons for homeschooling. Contrary to many surveys (e.g. Bielick, Chandler, & Broughman, 2001), he claims religious or ideological motivation is secondary. Actively religious homeschoolers “were either the only member of their congregations who home schooled their children or one of a few who did” (p. 13). This conclusion is reinforced by homeschoolers who “take a surgical approach,” as Wyatt and many of his informants did, homeschooling children for just a few years or homeschooling one and sending another to school. Ideological considerations, according to Wyatt, could not motivate such behavior.

The inference is not completely implausible. Indeed, Van Galen (1991) suggested that religious families initiated homeschooling for pragmatic reasons, and only afterward attributed religious significance to their choice. There is, however, an obvious problem with Wyatt’s argument. It doesn’t follow that if only one family in a congregation homeschools, they can’t be doing it out of religious belief. Many non-ideological factors could have deterred other congregants. Conversely, “surgical” homeschoolers, could be ideologically motivated, even though limited by employment, financial stability, or other life circumstances. Wyatt ought to have put this theory to his informants to see how they would explain the other-congregants and surgical-approach problems. He doesn’t report doing so.

Wyatt draws a distinction between initial motivation and the motivation to persist. He contends that reasons to start homeschooling do not serve as reasons to keep doing so. Discontent with school can motivate a change of direction, but to continue in that direction, one must see some sort of advantage in doing so. This is particularly true, Wyatt argues, because so many unavoidable disadvantages accrue to homeschoolers: material sacrifices, time demands, risk of family conflict, and disapproval from friends, family, and neighbors.

Positive results, Wyatt contends, are needed to overcome these disadvantages. One might expect that the great learning experiences reported so often in the promotional literature of homeschooling would suffice, but according to Wyatt they don’t. There is no way to be sure that something equally good wouldn’t have happened in school. Emotional satisfaction of strengthened family relationships, however, is not vulnerable to second-guessing. Family intimacy “emerged as a serendipity of sorts, an unexpected yet satisfying outcome” that “provided a motive to continue what would otherwise be an exhausting undertaking” (p. 21).

The link between homeschooling and improved family functioning is not new to the homeschooling literature. Van Galen (1991),  Wartes (1988), and  Gladin (1987) identified strengthened families as an initial motivation. Evidence of strengthened families as an outcome, however, is limited and mostly indirect. Carlson (1996) cites fertility data to support his hypothesis that homeschooling makes families more functional. Farris and Woodruff (2000) interpret a lower divorce rate as evidence that shared commitment to educating children strengthens marriages. McDowell (2000) reported that homeschooling reduced stress on families, mainly because of reduction in external demands, but did not address interrelationships. Allie-Carson (1990) found that a small sample of homeschooling families scored higher on measures of family cohesion than the general population. Only Resetar (1990) asked parents specifically if homeschooling strengthened the family; 47% said that it did. Interestingly, Resetar also distinguished between initial and persistence motivation; strengthened family relationships did not figure prominently in either category.

Wyatt, in short, does present an original argument, and does offer credible evidence to support it. But are his results generalizable?

Wyatt appears to believe that they are for two reasons. First, he contends that homeschoolers would not persist without evidence of success and emotional intimacy is the only reliable evidence available. Second, he reports that families he interviewed who abandoned homeschooling typically did so because of conflict between parent and child and/or between spouses. “Home schoolers who persisted were successful home schoolers,” Wyatt concludes, “and much of that success depended on how emotionally and socially rewarding they found it to be” (p. 23).

These arguments are ingenious but not very convincing. Once again, Wyatt does not deploy his preferred methodology very effectively. Participant observation ought to have yielded rich evidence of emotional intimacy, as well as conflict within those families that abandoned homeschooling. There is no such direct evidence, only the self-reports of interview subjects.

Methodological weaknesses notwithstanding, Wyatt’s claim is intriguing, and suggests a novel research agenda. In-depth studies of how relationships within families evolve over the course of homeschooling would be a welcome addition to the literature. Small, intensive, richly-detailed studies of family life could generate variables to be tested in large-scale comparative studies of home-school and public-school families, permitting researchers to test Wyatt’s thesis about persistence and to identify factors associated with advantageous outcomes either within or across educational modes.

Socialization and Counter-socialization

WYATT’S SECOND “LESS obvious, often unarticulated” motive for homeschooling is “providing a means of resisting the dominate [sic] culture and the youth subculture that many home school families find objectionable” (p. 2).
Wyatt does not present evidence to show that resistance is an outcome, serendipitous or otherwise. Nor does he offer evidence that it is a motive for his subjects. His aim, instead, seems to be to make a theoretical argument contributing to the debate about socialization.

He starts by defining socialization as “interactions in which people learn the ways of their culture, are integrated into society, and negotiate identities” (p. 27). Homeschooled children engage in these interactions, just as traditionally-schooled children do. Hence there is no question of them not being socialized; the issue is that they are socialized by different agents with different results. Homeschooled children, he contends, “are influenced more by parents and siblings, and traditionally schooled are influenced more by the youth subculture” (p. 28).

Wyatt goes on to review the research literature on negative aspects of youth subculture and social life in schools. This literature suggests that traditionally-schooled students do not enjoy the social advantages critics of homeschooling say that they do. But Wyatt does not exploit this advantage. He does not offer evidence that the homeschooling environment is superior.  He does not offer evidence that homeschooled students are better able to criticize and resist dominant social norms and the pressure of peers and the youth culture. The claim is made twice in early passages. Why not defend it here? Surely he must have witnessed family socialization strategies in action and seen their results. Once again, the methodological weakness of the book is conspicuous.

This omission, while disappointing, does suggest directions for future research. Participant observation would allow researchers to document (a) family socialization strategies, (b) the content of socialization, and (c) the results of socialization. Comparative studies of home-schooled and conventionally-schooled students would be of particular value, with large-scale studies identifying correlations between family socialization strategies and outcomes, and smaller-scale qualitative studies picking out causal mechanisms that might explain these correlations.

WYATT SEES HIMSELF as a balanced observer, mediating between the extremes of those who condemn homeschooling out of hand and those who support it uncritically and predict the downfall of public schools. He fairly summarizes evidence for the effectiveness of homeschooling, but also points out its limitations.

A balanced summary of the evidence, however, is not the same as absence of bias. There are significant gaps in his experience, and these appear to influence his conclusions. Most conspicuously, the point of view of conservative Christian’s parents does not appear in the book.

Wyatt does acknowledge that some proponents of homeschooling don’t share his own “balanced” view, but his judgment of them is dismissive, and he presents their views only as caricature:

I have listened to numerous speeches and read many pamphlets and books calling for the demise of public education in the harshest terms. I cannot imagine anything good coming from these attacks. Some critics have told me they await with great anticipation the collapse of public schooling and they are sure home schooling can take up the slack. That belief is absurd. Home schooling could never take up the slack of a collapsed education system. If members of the home school community want the respect of the larger society for the educational decisions they have made, they must give it back in return. (p. 47)

Whether or not this passage accurately characterizes the speeches and pamphlets Wyatt has encountered, it falls well sort of a fair-minded summary of systemic critiques of state education, and it does not even begin to rebut them.
Politics, Homeschooling, and the Market for Research

WYATT’S BOOK IS interesting and provocative. It suggests a number of intriguing directions for future research. It is not, however, an effective piece of research in its own right. That is not surprising, given the resources that were likely available. This is a labor of love, not organized research supported by grant funds.

It is no surprise that funding was not available. Homeschooling is countercultural. Young academic researchers who want to make a career for themselves don’t apply for grants to study homeschooling. They pick topics related to public schools, giving them easy access to large groups of research subjects, huge statistical databases, funding from the Institute for Education Studies and the National Science Foundation, and the ear of policy-makers. Educational leaders are convinced there is a shortage of scientists and mathematicians, special education teachers, English as a Second Language teachers. No one believes America has a shortage of homeschooled students. No one, that is, except homeschool families themselves.

Homeschooling’s lack of influence in the educational establishment, however, can be a source of advantage for prospective researchers. As Wyatt’s book sadly illustrates, the existing research is very thin. There is not much competition. Many of the most interesting questions, including those raised by Wyatt, remain unexplored. Young academics in the human sciences, in fields such as education, sociology, and psychology, should be aware of just how open this field is. Homeschooling offers nothing to attract senior researchers: no endowed chair or multimillion dollar grants. But for younger academics with initiative, imagination, and research skill, the phenomenon of homeschooling could be a godsend. The provocative questions that Gary Wyatt has raised but not answered are the tip of the iceberg.


Allie-Carson, Jayn. (1990). Structure and interaction patterns of home school families. Home School Researcher, 6(3), 11-18
Bielick, S., Chandler, K., & Broughman, S. P. (2001). Homeschooling in the United States: 1999. NCES Statistical Analysis Report. NCES 2001-033.
Carlson, A. (1996). Will the separation of school and state strengthen families? Some evidence from fertility patterns. Home School Researcher, 12(2), 1-5.
Farris, M. P. and Woodruff, S. A. (2000). The future of homeschooling. Peabody Journal of Education, 75(1-2), 233-255
Gladin, E.W. (1987). Home education: Characteristics of its families and schools. Ed.D. Dissertation, Bob Jones University. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 301 925.
McDowell, S. A. (2000). The homeschooling mother-teacher: Toward a theory of social integration. Peabody Journal of Education, 75(1-2), 187-206.
Resetar, M. A. (1990). An exploratory study of the rationales parents have for home schooling. Home School Researcher, 6(2), 1-7.
Stevens, M. (2001). Kingdom of children: Culture and controversy in the homeschooling movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Van Galen, J. A. (1991). Ideologues and pedagogues: Parents who teach their children at home. In J. A. Van Galen & M. A. Pitman, eds., Home schooling: Political, historical, and pedagogical perspectives. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 63-76.
Wartes, J. (1988). Report from the 1987 Washington homeschool testing. Woodinville, WA: Washington Homeschool Research Project. 

About the Author

Charles Howell
Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology, and Foundations
Northern Illinois University, Dekalb IL, chowell@niu.edu