Maybe just rich people homeschool. Or, as storyteller Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show fame might imply: “Maybe homeschooling is the realm, simply by nature’s design, where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”1 And perhaps this is why their children consistently score above average in readin’, ’ritin’, and ’rithmetic. (Oh, and science and social studies.) This is one hypothesis the negative critics of home-based education have that is worth considering.

Context

Multiple studies over 30 years have consistently found positive things associated with homeschooling. Some critics — both of the research and of home-based education — claim, however, that almost no research tells us anything significant about the academic achievement of the home-educated.2

One of the most recent studies on home education, by academics Sandra Martin-Chang, Odette Gould, and Reanne Meuse, however, supports the hypothesis that at least a certain form of home-based education causes higher academic achievement than does public schooling.3 Their research, titled “The Impact of Schooling on Academic Achievement: Evidence from Homeschooled and Traditionally Schooled Students,” is worth a close look.

Martin-Chang and her colleagues considered some of the limitations on research to date and worked for a design with more built-in controls. For example, they chose solely home-educated and solely public-schooled students, and matched homeschool and public school students on variables such as geographical area in which they lived, did fresh achievement testing of both groups, and found that all but one of the mothers were “married or living in committed relationships.” In other words, the researchers tried to make sure that the children’s families were very similar on variables that are typically significantly related to academic achievement. Some of these are parental education level, household income, and marital status of parents.

Although the sample sizes involved probably appear small to a lay audience — 37 homeschool and 37 public school students of ages 5 to 10 — it should be kept in mind that having a “large” sample size is not necessarily more important than carefully controlling for certain variables. For example, the researchers statistically adjusted test scores for the mothers’ educational attainment and household income, even though “mothers’ education and median income were slightly higher for the public school group” (p. 6). In a sense, they used a matched-pair design and were exploring for causal relationships.

Findings

Once into the study, the researchers found that “structured” and “unstructured” homeschoolers — regarding how the parents delivered curriculum and education in general to their children — were two distinct groups. The authors focused their analysis on comparing students from structured homeschool settings with public school students.

The children who received structured homeschooling were superior to the children enrolled in public school across all seven subtests (p. 5). The seven subtests were these: Letter-Word, Comprehension, Word Attack, Science, Social Science, Humanities, and Calculation. Further, the researchers reported the following:

To gain a broad perspective of the level of standardized achievement in each group, we conducted a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) that included the scores from all seven Woodcock-Johnson subtests. ... Thus, all seven subtests were used as dependent variables, and schooling group (public school and structured homeschool) was the independent variable. ... All the variables showed a medium or strong effect. ... In conclusion, when comparing the test scores of the children attending public school and children receiving structured homeschooling, it becomes clear that the latter group has higher scores across a variety of academic areas. Moreover, there is no evidence that this difference is simply due to the family’s income or the mother’s educational attainment. (p. 5)