The University Record, April 12, 1993

Study: Home-educated children not disadvantaged

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Teaching children at home won’t make them social misfits, a U-M study suggests.

The detailed study of 53 adults who were taught at home by their parents is one of the first to examine the long-term effects of home schooling—a practice now followed by as many as 300,000 American families.

“One of the major arguments against home schooling is that it deprives children of the peer contacts needed for normal social development,” says J. Gary Knowles, assistant professor of education. “Public school educators and other critics also question whether home-educated children will be able to become productive, participating members of a diverse and democratic society.

“But I found no evidence that these adults were even moderately disadvantaged in either respect. Two-thirds of them were married—the norm for adults their age—and none were unemployed or on any form of welfare assistance. More than three-quarters felt that being taught at home had actually helped them to interact with people from different levels of society.”

For the study, presented recently at an educational conference in New Zealand, Knowles analyzed data from a mail questionnaire, then conducted extensive interviews in person or by telephone with 10 individuals who agreed to the indepth discussion and were geographically accessible.

The survey respondents were, on average, 32 years of age, and nearly three-fourths were women. One respondent was Hispanic, another was Black and the rest were white. “Minority home-educated adults are extremely difficult to locate and identify,” Knowles says.

More than 40 percent attended college, and 15 percent of those had completed a graduate degree. Nearly two-thirds of the individuals were self-employed. A few worked alone as artisans and in other solitary occupations, but most either provided employment to others or worked along with family members.

“That so many of those surveyed were self-employed supports the contention that home schooling tends to enhance a person’s self-reliance and independence,” he says.

While the reasons respondents gave for being educated at home varied widely, Knowles reports that most fell into two categories: practical and ideological.

Geographic isolation was the most common practical reason, cited most often by older respondents, including one man who literally lived on an island because his father worked as a lighthouse keeper.

“My own interest in home education began when I was working at a school in Fiji,” Knowles recalls, “and since my children were too young to attend, my wife and I educated them ourselves.”

A few years later, Knowles and his family moved to Utah where a Mormon family was then engaged in a protracted court battle to educate their children at home. The move brought Knowles into close contact with one branch of those who support home schooling for ideological, not practical, reasons.

“The religious conservatives who operate home schools are strange bedfellows with the often liberal proponents of the practice who support home schooling for its superior pedagogical benefits,” he notes. “What both groups share, though, is a feeling that public schools are not serving the best interests of their students, in one way or another. They’re perceived as run-down, dirty, dangerous places filled with drugs, weapons, immorality and poor teaching.”

Whatever the reasons for being educated at home, the adults Knowles surveyed had many positive things to say about the experience. When asked whether they would want to be educated at home if they had their lives to live over again, 96 percent said “Yes.”

“They had many warm memories about their home schooling,” Knowles says. “Many mentioned the strong relationship it engendered with their parents while others talked about the self-directed curriculum and individualized pace that a flexible program of home schooling permitted.

“I have strong personal reservations about the pedagogy practiced by more conservative practitioners of home schooling, who subject children to rigorous, routinized curricula and an often bigoted, limited perspective on life,” he concludes. “I question to what extent some children, whose parents have powerful ideological perspectives grounded in a right-wing, fundamentalist world view, are being blindered by being taught at home.

“But at the same time, this survey and the life history accounts that arose out of it clearly show that, done in an enlightened, broad-minded way, with plenty of flexibility in curriculum and methods, home schooling can be a positive experience for children with benefits that last for many years.”