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 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?