A Notre Dame sociologist is using data to challenge a Harvard Law professor’s assertions that homeschooling is “dangerous”, and detrimental to society.
The controversy stems from a recent paper by professor Elizabeth Bartholet in which she calls for a presumptive ban on homeschooling in the United States.
Bartholet, as quoted in a Harvard Magazine piece based on her paper, points to unspecified “surveys of homeschoolers” to assert that “up to 90 percent” of homeschooling families are “driven by conservative Christian beliefs, and seek to remove their children from mainstream culture.”
“Some” homeschooling parents are “‘extreme religious ideologues’ who question science and promote female subservience and white supremacy,” she writes.
David Sikkink, associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, analyzed surveys of homeschooling families— including a 2016 government survey— and found that these families are not overwhelmingly Christian nor religious, and are not as universally closed-off to the outside world as Bartholet asserts.
In the analysis Sikkink conducted, just 16% of homeschooling parents said they were homeschooling primarily for religious reasons. The number one reason homeschooling parents cited was a concern about school environment, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure.
Eleven percent of parents reported homeschooling because their child has special needs.
While approximately half of the homeschooling parents surveyed mentioned religion as a factor in their decision to homeschool, Sikkink notes that the parents who cited religion as a reason were, on the whole, more highly educated than those parents who did not.
In terms of Bartholet’s assertion that some homeschooling parents “believe that women should be totally subservient to men and educated in ways that promote such subservience,” Sikkink’s analysis did not find evidence that religious households oppose higher education for girls.
Among the homeschooling families in the survey who use a religious curriculum, there was no difference in their self-reported educational expectations— i.e., what education level they expected their children to reach— for their male children vs. their female children.
Several past studies have shown that homeschool students typically outperform their public and private school counterparts on things like standardized tests and college performance. A 2016 study from the National Council on Measurement in Education showed that, when adjusted for demographic factors, homeschool students were on par academically with their demographically-similar peers.
Moreover, the data Sikkink analyzed suggests that after family background and demographic controls are accounted for, about 64% of homeschoolers “completely agree” that they have much in life to be thankful for, compared to 53% of public schoolers.
On feelings of helplessness, or lack or goals or direction in life, homeschoolers do not substantially differ from their public school counterparts, the analysis suggests.
In the Arizona Law Review, Bartholet argues that while homeschool children may perform as well as their peers on standardized tests or in college, they are also often isolated from their peers and denied experiences and exposures that would make them more productive citizens.
Bartholet claims in her article that “a very large proportion of homeschooling parents are ideologically committed to isolating their children from the majority culture and indoctrinating them in views and values that are in serious conflict with that culture.”
“Isolated families,” she asserts, “constitute a significant part of the homeschooling world.”
In contrast, Sikkink’s analysis found that among the schooling groups surveyed, homeschooling families had the highest level of “community involvement” of all school sectors.
“Community involvement” activities included attending sporting events, attending concerts, going to the zoo or aquarium, going to a museum, going to a library, visiting a bookstore, or attending an event sponsored by a community, religious, or ethnic group.
Homeschooling graduates are almost identical to their public school counterparts in likelihood to vote in federal and local elections, Sikkink found.
Furthermore, the total number of volunteer and community service hours for homeschooling graduates is very similar to or slightly higher than public school graduates, the analysis found.
Bartholet asserts that some homeschoolers “engage in homeschooling to promote racist ideologies and avoid racial intermingling.”
In contrast: “The reality is that about 41% of homeschooled children are racial and ethnic minorities,” Sikkink writes.
“When asked about four closest friends, about 37% of young adult homeschoolers...mention someone of a different race or ethnicity—exactly the same as public schoolers.”
This diversity also extends to schooling practices— increasingly, Sikkink says, homeschooling adopts new forms, including “hybrids” that combine the benefits of home and institutional schooling.
“About 64 percent of homeschoolers are using some form of instruction outside the family,” Sikkink told CNA in an email.
“That includes using tutors, private or public schools, colleges or universities, or homeschooling coops. That percentage would be higher if we included those who reported obtaining curriculum from formal institutions, such as public schools.”
Moreover, about a third of homeschooling parents obtain their curriculum or books from a public school or school district.
“Altogether, 46% of homeschoolers have some pedagogical relationship with public schools,” Sikkink asserts.
Bartholet argues that homeschooling puts children at risk of abuse by their parents, while if children were in public schools, they would be among teachers who are mandatory reporters of any suspected abuse that may be taking place.
“The issue is, do we think that parents should have 24/7, essentially authoritarian control over their children from ages zero to 18? I think that’s dangerous,” Bartholet asserts in the Harvard Magazine piece.
“I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.”
Sikkink says Bartholet’s image of a child confined to the home “24/7...from ages zero to 18” is not consistent with the data.
“When we look at the use of homeschooling for each year of the child's upbringing, we only find a small percentage that report that the child was homeschooled for all their years of schooling,” Sikkink told CNA in an email.
Many of these students are part-time public schoolers— about 25% of homeschoolers receive some instruction in public schools during their school-age careers, he wrote.
Homeschooling regulations vary widely by state. Sikkink told CNA he hopes future studies will examine the effects of state-level variation in regulation on homeschooling quality.
“The question of schooling oversight remains, of course, but it would be short-sighted not to keep homeschooling and other creative schooling options in the mix, including the hybrid models that cross sector boundaries,” Sikkink concludes.