When Precision is a Red Pen

Heather Doney is the Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education and blogs at Becoming Worldly.

As someone who has been studying and working on homeschooling issues from an academic as well as personal angle and who recently co-founded the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), I want to say that Benjamin Keil makes some good points in “A Call for Precision”. He makes good points about the plural of anecdote not being data and also how we want to avoid confusing different types of arguments or reasoning for one another. I also think that Sarah Henderson made some good points, too.

We are talking about, within, and to a group of people who often suffered educational neglect. I know I did. Some people have been able to largely overcome it. I too have a masters degree today. Some have not. We want to be very careful not to intimidate anyone or make them feel like their story or perspective is not “correct” or “educated” enough to be told.

This is a place for people to tell their stories as they see them through their own eyes and for others to provide feedback and support, not judgement or academic critique.

So while I am working with a team of former homeschoolers who are trying to do our best to get the quantitative data we have (which is slim) all in one place and collect and share the qualitative data (which is just coming together), fact is we (and by this I mean all of us) do not have the kind of data to know how abuse and neglect in homeschooling compares to that occurring in other educational settings. It is a question to be answered, a known unknown. We just know that it happens and that there are some really bad cases and the watered down or nonexistent laws on homeschooling in many states don’t pass a basic common sense smell test.

I also think it is instinct for people to use the info they have and generalize based on their social milieu. It happens a lot, annoying social science researchers everywhere, since we want to measure and quantify.

But is a natural human tendency.

So I think Keil’s points would have been stronger if he had noted that homeschool parents who keep saying “these stories are rare” and “most homeschoolers are ______” really need to notice that they do this way too much, that it isn’t helping, and they need to knock it off. A really good example of exactly what we don’t need any more of: this post in Christianity Today.

“Anecdote passed off as data” doesn’t make for an airtight case if anyone does it and frankly so many of us have had to sit by and have our experiences silenced and dismissed while homeschool parents and leaders got a pass for this sort of nonsense for years. The “data” collected by Brian Ray’s NHERI was spread around in the media and the homeschool community as proof of homeschooling’s excellence across the board.

As a matter of fact, Ray’s “Strengths of Their Own” study isn’t proof of anything except that self-selected participants in a survey (with just under a 30% response rate, I might add) of white, middle and upper middle class Christian homeschool families usually do pretty good. I could do a voluntary study of prep school kids, say they represented American students as a whole, and it would be much the same kind of result.

Which is to say it is not an accurate depiction of the population at all.

My initial thoughts from combing through the quantitative and qualitative data available and also running a support group are that it seems that homeschools aren’t too different from public school in terms of us having “haves” and “have-nots.” The difference is we pretend our have nots just don’t exist because we don’t measure them. There are generally no mechanisms in place to shut down failing homeschools or fire failing or abusive homeschooling teachers.

Because there seems to be this huge socio-economic status/class difference in homeschool student experiences and outcomes, we will need to pay a lot more attention to that gap before any of us do any more generalizing about what homeschooling as a whole is and isn’t. We also need to make sure we leave wide open spaces where people can safely tell their stories without worrying that the rest of us will be judgy perfectionists or parse it apart harshly.

Even if we are well-meaning in taking the red pen to someone else’s story and perspective, that can be very intimidating and used as a means to quiet their voice.

Too many of us have already had more than enough of that happen in our lives and don’t need any more. So I want to say that while I want solid arguments and good data as much as the next person, even more than that I want people to feel free to tell their own story and share where they see it fitting into the whole. After all, it is because a growing group of people are telling their first-person stories that we are even discussing the need for data in the first place.

Stories are powerful things.

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