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Is Ben Carson Right About Homeschooling and Private Schools?

“I’ve found that for instance homeschoolers do the best, private schoolers next best, charter schoolers next best, and public schoolers worst,” Ben Carson said this week in a speech to CPAC – the Conservative Political Action Conference. Carson is running for President of the United States, so it’s important that we pay attention to what he says, and consider it carefully.

Ben Carson says that he has “found” that homeschooled students have the best performance, that private school students do that next best, and that public school students perform the most poorly. Where, though, has he “found” this fact?

ben carson educationBen Carson has not conducted any actual research into the relative academic or professional success of homeschooling, private education, and public education. He didn’t cite any statistics to support his assertion. He just made a claim, and expected his audience to accept it on faith. He searched his own brain, and “found” a belief.

Let’s look at what actual research suggests.

Ben Carson’s categorical statement that public school students are outperformed by private school students isn’t an accurate of educational research. There is plenty of reason to think that public education is at least as effective as private education, and perhaps more effective. A 2006 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that, when demographic variables were controlled for, public school students had a 4.5-point lead over private school students on standardized tests. Furthermore In 2007, a Center on Educational Policy study found that:

“1. Students attending independent private high schools, most types of parochial high schools, and public high schools of choice performed no better on achievement tests in math, reading, science, and history than their counterparts in traditional public high schools.
2. Students who had attended any type of private high school ended up no more likely to attend college than their counterparts at traditional public high schools.
3. Young adults who had attended any type of private high school ended up with no more job satisfaction at age 26 than young adults who had attended traditional pub- lic high schools.
4. Young adults who had attended any type of private high school ended up no more engaged in civic activities at age 26 than young adults who had attended traditional public high schools.”

So much for the private school advantage that Ben Carson “found”. What about homeschoolers?

Homeschooling proponents like to cite a study by Lawrence Rudner, published in 1999 in the Education Policy Analysis Archives. The study found that homeschooled students participating in the study scored “well above” both private school students and public school students on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

The Rudner study was seriously flawed in many ways, however, as Lawrence Rudner himself has admitted. Rudner writes that, in his study “reported achievement differences between groups do not control for background differences in the home school and general United States population”. Additionally, “it was not possible within the parameters of this study to evaluate whether this sample is truly representative of the entire population of home school students,” Rudner acknowledges. In other words, the Rudner study failed to meet the basic standards of statistical research.

An additional problem with the Rudner study was that, while students in private and public schools took the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills under carefully proctored by teachers to ensure that no cheating took place, and to strictly enforce time limits in test taking. Homeschooled students, on the other hand, took the tests at home, with only their parents to watch over them, if they were watched at all, and with no time limits. It is little wonder that the homeschooled students got higher scores on the tests, and reasonable to conclude that these higher scores might have nothing at all to do with superior academic ability.

A 2011 study by Sandra Martin-Chang, Odette Gould, and Reanne Meuse found a remarkable variability of achievement within homeschoolers. While those homeschooled students in the study receiving structured education at home were able to achieve higher scores on standardized tests than public school students in the study, homeschooled students in the study receiving relatively unstructured education at home performed much worse than public school students. On the whole, the homeschool difference was a wash.

The 2011 study also should give pause to those like Ben Carson who seek to extrapolate educational research findings into educational policy. Statistical correlations do not indicate particular directions of causation. The fact that homeschoolers with structured education in the study were achieving better at standardized tests than public school students does not necessarily indicate that structured homeschooling leads to increases in standardized test scores. An alternative explanation is that families with children who are already academically high-achieving tend to take their children out of public school in order to provide structured education at home that is more adequately-matched to ability.

Furthermore, the 2011 is limited in its measurement of academic success – the standardized test. Standardized tests are highly-structured modes of assessment, and so may reasonably be considered biased toward students who have received highly-structured forms of education. Academic achievement isn’t as simple as a score on a standardized test, but Ben Carson doesn’t seem capable of understanding this sort of nuance. Carson only speaks of which groups of students perform “best”, without even bothering to define what “best” means. Who says that Ben Carson’s idea of what’s best in education is something that most Americans want to go along with?

Ben Carson hasn’t even exhibited the sufficient intellectual rigor to carefully define what he considers to be educational success. Why, then, should Americans accept his conclusion that homeschooling is best, and public education is worst? Why, if Ben Carson is willing to engage in such sloppy thinking as he exhibits in the area of educational policy, should Americans support his bid to become President of the United States of America?

7 thoughts on “Is Ben Carson Right About Homeschooling and Private Schools?”

  1. Anissa Catlett says:

    I do not think that is true at all. As a homeschooling parent, It depends on the student, the curriculum, and parents. If parents are involved with their children’s academics it greatly helps with their success. I can recall a student, attending an F grade public school in Haines City, Fl getting a full ride to MIT. The school had a conflict resolution problem and lack proper socialization skills within it’s culture. I do think private schools and homeschooling has an upper hand in better socialization skills. All of my children attended public, private and were homeschooled.
    I’ve come across some homeschoolers lacking in one subject and better in other subjects just like private and public students. I think educationak programs in public schools are lacking one big element, socialization. It’ssosomething you gain in the early years.

    1. Peregrin Wood says:

      Anissa, everything you’ve said is merely an assertion.

      Do you have any research to show that your individual perceptions are in fact representative of the larger populations of homeschooled kids, private school students, and public school students?

      If you’re willing to make educational judgments without consulting any research, do you think that’s a wise approach coming from the federal government?

  2. Gary* says:

    I think all of the statistics can be misleading, even after adjusting for this, that or the other thing. I also find the bullets (evidence)above curious: job satisfaction? Civic activities? Even college attendance is meaningless with knowing the breakout of schools and majors. A real comparison would be to compare within any giving district. For example, do home school students who would have to go PS149 perform better or worse than those who do? In some inner city schools, I am sure they do. Elsewhere, maybe not.

    Individual students are not averages, and what might be best for them individually doesn’t fit a single mold. That is why I’m very pro-choice when it comes to education. I have been involved with the Bison Scholarship fund, and I can tell you offering options for parents who really care and are willing to sacrifice time and financial resources has changed the lives of many children who otherwise had little hope.

    1. J Clifford says:

      So, Gary, you’re proposing, given that there is no known consistent advantage to either private schooling or homeschooling, that we take money out of public education and redirect it to homeschooling and private schooling. That’s what “choice” policies in education entail.

      But, one big difference you’re not taking into account is that public schools are democratically-established by voters through local government, whereas homeschooling and private schools are not. Public schools are held accountable for their performance, but homeschooling parents and private schools are not.

      Why should we transfer huge amounts of money out of public schools for homeschooling parents and private schools to use, when homeschooling parents and private schools aren’t willing to follow the modes of transparency and accountability that we get from public schools?

      1. Priscilla says:

        The question is, why should we transfer huge amounts of money out the personal incomes of homeschooling and private school families, and give it to the public schools, when the homeschooling and private school families are not benefitting from their money being used in that way.

  3. Gary* says:

    I wasn’t making any proposal regarding the funding of education. It was about how achieving the best outcome, individually, is different than viewing the system in some monolithic form. As an example, I can tell you there are thousands of families in the city of Buffalo who are desperate for an alternative. Should they not have one?

  4. Ella says:

    It is true, that when comparing Home Schooled students directly to public school students, the final tests favor the Home Schooled students (by a 1997 study by HSLSA) “…30 to 37 percentile points over public…” schooling. There are several reasons why home schooled students out perform their counter parts in public schools. For example:

    1. Children are structured by their parent at home, there for are more familiar with rules set for their personal circumstances.
    2. Children are not subject to cultural biases of other students.
    3. A parent can give more personal attention to the student in teaching.
    4. Home schooled students are more encouraged to succeed in all subjects taught.

    Should there be public funding for home schooling? There should be provision for educational materials to be provided to the home or home group that wishes to study in home. Since there are no fees or professional salaries to pay, home schooling provides a service and relief to the over crowded public school system. It might even improve the environment in public schools. Give freer time to instructors through smaller class sizes. Not everyone wants to or is able to home school, but for those who wish to and are able to, the far less expensive costs should be subsidized, in my opinion.

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