Bob Adelmann’s Deceptive Use of Homeschooling Statistics

Bob Adelmann, YouTube screenshot.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on May 13, 2015 with the title “Can You Be More Deceptive? Homeschool Edition.”

I just came upon an article by Bob Adelmann of the New American discussing U.S. test scores as compared to those in other nations, and then arguing that homeschooling is the solution to U.S. underperformance. I bring it up because it is a really good example of the way some homeschooling parents use bad data and outright lies to argue that homeschooling is academically superior to other methods of instruction.

I was homeschooled from kindergarten through 12th grade. While there were some gaps, I got a pretty good education overall and went on to excel in college. As a homeschool alumna, there is nothing that bothers me more today than people using bad stats and deception to argue that homeschooling is better than public or private schooling when in fact there is no data that actually says this. Accuracy matters, people! Do we really need to lie to make homeschooling look better? Really? 

Okay, end rant. Let’s look at what the piece said:

The recent flurry of test results on how American students are faring in school has resulted in much commentary decrying their dismal performance compared to their international peers.

. . .

This prompted George Nethercutt, a former member of the House of Representatives, to declare that “Americans get an F in civics” in his article in The Hill last week. He asserted, “The findings showed broad failures. If policymakers don’t soon pay attention to such failures, the perpetuation of citizen understanding of the basic concepts of the American system will continue to be at risk.”

. . .

Nethercutt’s conclusion, with himself and his performance in the House as a prime example, is correct: Students with little or no understanding of their history will have little ability to steer the ship of state in a constitutional direction in the future.

That’s why the home-schooling movement is so vital to keeping that ship afloat and away from the shoals of authoritarianism. In another study (that Nethercutt failed to mention) from the DOE’s Educational Resources Information Center, homeschoolers are learning precisely the skills needed:

Homeschool student achievement test scores were exceptionally high. The median scores for every subtest at every grade were well above those of public … school students.

On average, homeschool students in grades one to four performed one grade level above their age-level peers on achievement tests….

Even with a conservative analysis of the data, the achievement levels of the homeschool students in the study were exceptional. Within each grade level and each skill area, the median scores for homeschool students fell between the 70th and 80th percentile of students nationwide….

For younger students, this is a one year lead. By the time homeschool students are in 8th grade, they are four years ahead of their public/private school counterparts. [Emphasis added.]

Nethercutt is a product of the public schools and traditional universities, and so is severely limited in his ability to see what’s really needed in education in America. That’s why his solution misses the mark when he suggests that “all states should adopt basic requirements for graduation.” No, George. States and the federal government should remove themselves from the educational process altogether and allow the home schooling movement to flourish and grow even more rapidly.

At this point you may be curious to which study Adelmann is referring. I was too! Adelmann says the study is “from the DOE’s Educational Resources Information Center” but does not provide its name or link to it. One wonders why.

It turns out that the Department of Education’s Educational Resources Information Center does not conduct research itself, it merely archives digests of existing research conducted by a variety of scholars in a sort of library to make it easier for researchers or policymakers to find information. The study in question is The Scholastic Achievement of Homeschooled Students, by Lawrence Rudner, published in 1999 and funded by a grant from the Home School Legal Defense Association. You can see a digest on ERIC here.

Portraying a study conducted independently from the Department of Education with money from the largest homeschool lobbying group in the country as though it is in fact an official study conducted by the Department of Education is incredibly deceptive. Adelmann doesn’t even give the reader a link where they can go to find out more about how the study is conducted. Given that linking is standard procedure, especially when quoting, I can’t help but see this as intentional deception.

And what does the study itself say? How was it conducted? You can read an overview at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. In sum, the study was conducted using a volunteer sample, and it does not correct for background factors. To quote the overview linked above:

Rudner’s study tells us essentially nothing about homeschooled high schoolers, children of color, poor children, unschoolers, children with poorly educated parents, children being raised by single parents or by parents who both work, abused or educationally neglected children, or disabled or special needs children. The higher-than-average standardized test scores earned by Rudner’s highly privileged group of homeschoolers are only what we would expect from a study where nearly all disadvantaged children are excluded.

Adelmann makes it sound like the study he is citing proves homeschooling superior to other methods of education, but in fact the study shows only that privileged homeschooled children tend to score well. That’s no surprise, but it’s also no solution for our education system, where the majority of U.S. schoolchildren now live in poverty.

But perhaps what’s most shocking about Adelmann’s use of the Rudner study is this statement by Rudner himself, at the end of his study:

These comparisons between home school students and students nationwide must be interpreted with a great deal of caution. This was not a controlled experiment. Students were not randomly assigned public, private or home schools. As a result, the reported achievement differences between groups do not control for background differences in the home school and general United States population and, more importantly, cannot be attributed to the type of school a child attends. This study does not demonstrate that home schooling is superior to public or private schools. It should not be cited as evidence that our public schools are failing. It does not indicate that children will perform better academically if they are home schooled. The design of this study and the data do not warrant such claims. All the comparisons of home school students with the general population and with the private school population in this report fail to consider a myriad of differences between home school and public school students. We have no information as to what the achievement levels of home school students would be had they been enrolled in public or private schools. This study simply shows that those parents choosing to make a commitment to home schooling are able to provide a very successful academic environment. [emphasis added]

In other words, even Rudner himself did not claim that his study showed that homeschooling was superior to public or private schooling! In fact he insisted that his study did not show that! Rudner argued only that his study shows that homeschooling can work, not that it always does or that it works better than other methods of instruction. Indeed he explicitly stated that his study does not show that children will preform better if they are homeschooled.

In other words, not only did Adelmann act deceptively by portraying Rudner’s HSLDA-funded study as a government study, he used the study’s findings in a way that Rudner explicitly said they should not be used and to mean things Rudner explicitly stated they did not mean. If this isn’t gross deception, I don’t know what is. I am utterly disgusted.

3 comments

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  • Saying homeschooling would be better for all students is, I dunno, classist? Proper homeschooling requires a lot of work on the part of the parent. In addition, the parent needs to be sufficiently educated. Most households today can’t get by unless both parents are working, and the kids who need education the most probably don’t have well educated parents.

    • While suggesting homeschooling would be better for all students MIGHT be true, it is not all all pragmatic. In fact, one could easily argue that we could solve our educational problems by hiring a personal tutor for each student – same thing, right? As the parent of two K through 12 homeschooled students, I know the benefits we have seen (full scholarships to our state university and successful engineering jobs thereafter), but that doesn’t mean it’s feasible for most or even many families.

      I disagree with Sarah J with respect to the parents’ education level. My wife, the primary educator, left school after 10th grade. When our kids reached high school level, they started supplementing with community college classes, entering regular university with 40-50 accumulated college credit-hours. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or even a college graduate to home school your kids.

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