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Are Stable Families Source Of High Test Scores?


HOME SCHOOLERS LAP THE FIELD Are Stable Families Source Of High Test Scores?

Date: 3/29/99
Author: Aaron Steelman

How many families educate their children at home? Estimates vary wildly. Some put the number of home-schooled children in the U.S. at about 750,000. Other say it's much higher - closer to 2 million.

One thing's for sure: The home-schooling movement has exploded over the last 20 years. ''There were probably fewer than 10,000 home-schooled children in 1980,'' said Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va.

Still, many questions remain. Who educates their kids at home? How are those students doing academically? Are they well-adjusted socially?

What may be the most thorough study of home schooling was published last week in the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives. Lawrence Rudner, a statistician at the University of Maryland, looked at the standardized test scores of more than 20,000 home-schooled children across the country.

The results, he said, are ''very surprising.'' Rudner found that home- schooled students score much higher than the national average, even higher than kids at private schools.

He looked at more than test scores. He also examined families' responses about income, schooling, religion and more. Some results weren't that surprising: Home-schooling families tend to be more religious than the general public. They're also more likely to be headed by a father and mother who live under the same roof.

Other findings may shatter the stereotype that home-schooling parents are somehow backward or lack formal education. Over half the families say they earn more than $50,000 a year, compared with about a third of all families. They're also nearly three times as likely as typical adults to have college or graduate degrees.

The study may also offer lessons for parents who send their kids to traditional schools. Home-schooled kids thrive because they have parents who spend lots of time helping them learn.

''If I had to pick one variable that's the most important (in explaining student performance), I think it's parental involvement,'' Rudner said.

To be sure, this study isn't the final word on home schooling. In part that's because one segment of the home-schooling movement may not have been thoroughly queried: the portion that comes from the countercultural left.

Rudner also says his study isn't meant to suggest that home schooling is for everyone. ''The big point is: Home schooling is one alternative among many. It works, and if a parent wants to do it, he should be allowed,'' he said.

For the survey, Rudner compared scores from the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, given in grades K-8, and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency, given to high schoolers. The median percentile for all students nationwide is 50, by definition.

In every category and in every grade level, home schoolers score above the national average. In fact, most of their scores are in the 75th to 85th percentile, meaning that home-schooled kids score higher than 75% to 85% of their peers.

On average, home-schooled 4th-graders score about one grade level above 4th-graders in traditional schools, Rudner says.

''By 8th grade, the median performance of home-school students . . . is almost four grade (levels) above that of students nationwide,'' he found.

Compared with private-school students, home-schoolers' scores are less impressive - but not much. Home schoolers tend to score in the 65th to 75th percentile.

Rudner also notes that kids who are home schooled all their lives tend to do better than kids who attend a conventional school at some time. Wealthier home-schooled kids also outperform kids from poorer families.

So is home schooling better than conventional education? Rudner says not necessarily.

''My big fear is that people will use this study to bash public schools. Some need help, but most of them are doing a wonderful job,'' Rudner said.

Farris, whose organization funded the peer-reviewed study, added: ''I don't believe home schooling turns every child into a Fulbright scholar. Instead, I think it tends to maximize the natural gifts of the child.''

About as many boys as girls were surveyed in Rudner's study. Home schooling is more common among younger children than high-school kids.

Rudner also found out lots of information about home-schooling parents.

The families Rudner studied are overwhelmingly white and Christian.

Over 97% of the parents are married. More than 60% of the families have three or more children.

Parents spend an average of $400 a year per child on educational materials. They also limit how much TV their kids watch. Nearly two-thirds of home-schooled kids watch less than an hour of TV a day; three-fourths of kids nationally watch an hour or more.

Politically, many of the parents probably describe themselves as conservatives.

Is this an accurate picture of the entire home-school movement? Not really, says Isabel Lyman, who schools her two teen-age boys at her home in Amherst, Mass.

''A big chunk of the home-schooling movement is represented by the people (in Rudner's study),'' Lyman conceded. But there are also a lot of home-school parents who have been influenced by the writings of left-libertarians like John Holt and Paul Goodman, Lyman says.

These parents typically don't teach their kids at home for religious reasons. Instead, they think that almost all schools - public and private - treat kids in a cookie-cutter fashion that crushes their spirits and stifles creativity.

If that's true, and there are a fair number of home schoolers among the countercultural left, how does Lyman explain Rudner's demographic data?

It's simple, she says. Parents had to contact Bob Jones University, a conservative Christian school in Greenville, S.C., for testing materials.

''Bob Jones is a fundamentalist Christian college. Come on, is a (home-school parent) with a hippie-type background going to sign up for that? No way,'' Lyman said.

Rudner admitted that ''there might be a bias. Some people are probably turned off by Bob Jones University.'' He added that left- leaning parents ''might have avoided this whole thing.''

Tim Lambert, president of the Lubbock-based Texas Home School Coalition, says the home-school movement is becoming more ethnically diverse.

''Just in the last year we have seen a growing number of minorities involved in home schooling. We are getting a lot of calls from Spanish-speaking folks,'' Lambert said. ''This is not just a white, right-wing thing.''

One area Rudner's study didn't address: How do home-schooled kids fare socially?

By most accounts, they're doing fine. They meet other kids their own age and learn the basic norms of civil society.

Christian Smith and David Sikkink, sociologists at the University of North Carolina, point to Education Department data that show home-schooled kids are more likely than their public-school peers to take part in civic activities, such as volunteering for political causes or joining community organizations.

Even so, home-schooled kids face obstacles. Some, like Lyman's children, have turned to public schools for extracurricular activities.

''My own son plays three junior varsity sports - ice hockey, lacrosse and football - at the local school. There's no home-schooling community in the country that could provide that for him,'' Lyman said.

Lambert added: ''(Home schoolers) don't have the numbers to put together these types of leagues on their own,'' especially in rural areas.

(C) Copyright 1999 Investors Business Daily, Inc.

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