Homeschooling Research: Fish Climbing Trees

Homeschooling Research

There’s a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein (although there is apparently no evidence connecting it with him): “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I thought of it as I read a tiny homeschooling research study comparing schooled kids to homeschooled and unschooled kids.

Thirty-seven homeschooled kids and an equal number of schooled kids between ages five and ten were volunteered by their parents to undergo standardized testing. The kids taught at home performed better on standardized tests than kids taught at school. That’s not news, although the researchers did correct some flaws in past research methodologies. They also recognized that there are different philosophies among the homeschool population – but only two: structured and unstructured, rather than the continuum along which most families move.

The twelve “unstructured homeschoolers” in this homeschooling research study did poorly on those standardized tests. Of course they did! Those fish in a tree-climbing competition were bound to lose the race.

The question for me is: Why were they involved in the first place? The whole premise of unschooling/life learning is that learning happens as a result of the learner’s interest, rather than somebody else’s agenda or timeline, and doesn’t rely on a standard curriculum, testing, or accountability to anyone but the learner. The researchers do give a nod to that, wondering if “the children receiving unstructured homeschooling” might eventually “catch up or surpass their peers given ample time.” But they don’t say if they want to study that. (Nor do they say if the unschooled kids were coached in testing writing techniques, which is important, since testing measures test-taking skill as much as anything.)

Such studies happen because academics believe that academic achievement – that is, the best performance on standardized tests – is desirable. These particular researchers define the goal of both schooling and homeschooling as “accelerating a child’s learning process,” whatever that means. Babies learn pretty quickly, after all…. Although they make much of the fact that “very few independent (i.e. nonpartisan) studies have focused on the academic achievements associated with home education” and that their study “was conducted by an independent research body that has no ties to homeschooling organisations,” they don’t understand that they, themselves, are not “nonpartisan.” Like most others who conduct homeschooling research, they work at academic institutions that are obviously biased toward, well, academic institutions. Like school.

Although I’m not big on measuring children at all, I understand that it’s part of ensuring that taxpayers money is spent well on schools (whether it does that well or not is another question!). So I will be happy when someone designs a study using unschooled kids as the norm and figures out how to measure schooled kids against that. I’m not holding my breath; there’s too much money at risk in the school industry to have someone prove schools don’t need to exist.