Counting Sheep

sheep

By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

Recently Kathryn Joyce wrote a story for The American Prospect on the rise of the responsible homeschooling movement. I have never seen a piece on this movement spread as quickly as Joyce’s. It lit up Facebook and Twitter like a forest fire starving for oxygen.

If you haven’t read it, you should do so. (You should also check out responses it inspired from Hännah EttingerChris Jeub, and Kate Schell.) Don’t let the length scare you away. The piece is amazingly detailed, giving voice to a diversity of individuals previously not amplified in this conversation. And don’t let the name, “Homeschool Apostates,” cause you to hesitate. The name is an inversion of Kevin Swanson’s radio broadcast where he himself used the phrase to marginalize and dismiss us.

I shy away from Facebook wall debates when stories like this are shared by my friends. I watch them unfold, silently and from a distance. At the very least, I want to understand how our rhetoric is received and interpreted; I may not comment, but I am listening. I want to know what is being said — both positive and negative — so I can continue to improve my own communication and our shared messages.

One individual’s comment on a friend’s wall stuck with me.

I have heard this sort of comment before. In fact, I considered it ironic that this individual said it in such a way that indicated he thought himself clever. Fact is, it’s dreadfully unoriginal. Everyone in this movement has heard it a million times before. But this time it provoked new thoughts for me. The comment is as follows:

As long as millions of families homeschool, it will always be possible to find some who are outliers and thereby call into question the practice. Tis a common practice of the statistically challenged.

Ah, yes. A jazz riff on the “not all homeschoolers are like that” argument. “Not all homeschoolers are like that” is the broken record of homeschool abuse denialism. My inner sarcastic debater wants to respond like this:

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However, my shared humanity understands that sarcasm isn’t always the best rhetorical strategy. There are better strategies:

  • Reiterating time and time again that we do not think all homeschoolers are “like that”;
  • Reminding the skeptical voices in the conversation that, in the absence of required registration (or at least notification) of homeschoolers (which the mainstream homeschool lobby opposes), we will all remain statistically challenged because we will have no reliable statistics;
  • Pointing out that nearly all homeschool research has involved self-selective surveys that describe the participants but prove nothing about homeschooling in general.
  • Providing counter-self-selective surveys, like the 2013 HA Basic Survey which pretty much “proves” as much as most of Brian Ray’s research — namely, still nothing about homeschooling in general.

If you think the statistical side is lacking, you’re welcome to get in line. We’re right there with you. Those of us speaking up aren’t to blame for a lack of statistics.

That’s the fault of irresponsible homeschool advocates.

(What sort of statistics do you want anyways? Statistics of dead kids? Exactly how many dead kids will it take before we’re taken seriously? While we’re busy trying to make homeschooling better, you get busy figuring out how much abuse you can tolerate before you act, too. Deal?)

For today, however, we are all in the same position: we are feeling around in the dark with anecdotes and stories. You might tell different anecdotes and stories than I might. I choose to respect your storytelling. Whether you choose to respect mine is not in my control.

But at least remember that I have stories. In fact, I probably have more than most homeschool students and parents. I spent a decade of my life traveling around the United States because of homeschool speech and debate — meeting new people, making friends, competing in tournaments, and teaching thousands of homeschool teenagers. I have taught the children of national homeschool leaders.

All this while I was a teenager myself.

As a homeschooled teenager, I saw things that you parents have not seen in your own communities. I have lived a life that you parents have never lived. It is like an alternate universe. My first taste of hard alcohol was provided by the son of one of the most prominent national homeschool leaders. I have lived this life. So while I don’t have statistics for you, and while we in this movement are trying to fix that inherited problem, keep in mind that my “anecdotes” — and our stories — carry the enormous weight of experience.

Have you seen the underside of this world? Because I have. The rabbit hole goes down deep, and I have yet to reach the bottom. There are so many hurting kids, now as there was back when I was a kid. There are secrets and sorrows and fears. We have shared those secrets as friends, we have carried each other’s sorrows, we have whispered our fears like prayers.

But maybe you’re right. Maybe at the end of the day, we’re in the minority.

Maybe we are statistically challenged.

The possibility doesn’t faze me one bit.

Because I don’t look to you for a stamp of statistical approval. I don’t take my cues from your homeschool orthodoxies or your convention speakers.

I take my cues from my conscience. And my conscience says go to where the shadows lurk, to create safe places even where the wild things are.

See, a long time ago, I heard a story. It was about a shepherd who had a flock of 100 sheep. One day, one of those sheep got lost. Instead of remaining with the 99, the shepherd did not sleep, did not stop, until he found that the lost one.

I learned social justice from that story. I learned the meaning of activism. I found the meaning of revolution — that you can “change the world” all you want, you can “redeem the times” ad nauseum. But if you neglect the little ones, it’s all for naught.

See, I learned that Jesus of Nazareth was not content with 99 sheep when 99 sheep means that one gets left behind to suffer in silence and solitude.

And I saw how the Pharisees did not understand. I saw how they looked at each in bemusement, clicked their tongues at Jesus for fretting so much about that one fringe sheep, saying, “Tis a common practice of the statistically challenged.”

But Jesus dealt with human beings, not statistics.

Human beings are what I want to deal with, too.

So go ahead. Keep surveying your 99 award-winning sheep. Us “bitter apostates” will be out in the wilderness, searching for the one you abandoned.

How Bad Homeschool Research Hurts Homeschoolers

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Kathryn Brightbill’s blog The Life and Opinions of Kathryn Elizabeth, Person. It was originally published on July 24, 2013.

When I was in college, I was one of the participants who answered the NHERI/HSLDA/Brian Ray survey of homeschooling graduates. I don’t remember how I got the survey, probably via email forward from my mom, but what I do remember is sending an email to my family after taking it in which I said something about how I wouldn’t believe a thing from the eventual study results. Aside from the fact that an email forwarded among homeschool groups asking people to take an internet survey is a lousy way of getting a representative sample (especially when we’re talking more than a decade ago, when we were nowhere as close to ubiquitous computing as we are now and computer access was still largely along socioeconomic lines), the survey itself was rife with methodological problems.

My memory is of a survey where I could tell exactly what answer they were looking to find, based on both the questions asked and the possible answers given for those questions. It was a survey that, even as a college student who had a positive experience and didn’t have the criticisms of the system that I do now, was so bad that I wondered why anyone would design it the way they did unless the goal was not usable data but a certain set of predetermined results.

If I got anything out of being homeschooled for twelve years by a math teacher, it’s a healthy appreciation for numbers. Numbers explain the world, or at least they can explain the world if they’re used correctly. Without good numbers, you might as well be stumbling around in the dark bumping your shins into the furniture. Bad numbers are even worse than no numbers; they’re like spreading Legos on the carpet while stumbling around in the dark with bare feet.

The HSLDA/NHERI numbers on homeschooling are like stumbling around on that Lego-strewn carpet. Aside from the aforementioned homeschool graduate survey, they also have test scores that they trot out to prove that homeschoolers do better on standardized tests than other students.

Except that the numbers don’t show that. What they actually show is the results of those homeschooled children whose parents not only use achievement tests (which isn’t all of them), who were aware of the NHERI survey (again, not all of them), and who agreed to submit their children’s scores for a study that they were already told was intended to make homeschooling look good. We have no idea how representative that group is of homeschoolers as a whole because it was self-selected and we don’t know whether that self-selected group in any way mirrors homeschoolers as a whole.

The modern homeschool movement is more than 30 years old and we still don’t have a good idea of homeschooling demographics. We know that they’re predominantly white and might be mostly religious (but even the religious makeup is hard to guess because the religious and the secular homeschoolers seldom run in the same circles). We don’t know what the socioeconomic makeup of the homeschool population is, and we don’t know the average education level of parents or a breakdown of those parents’ degrees. Without that, we can only guess at whether the socioeconomic levels of homeschoolers in NHERI’s test score data in any way represent homeschoolers as a whole.

Homeschoolers are fiercely independent even without taking into consideration that the religious ones don’t trust outside researchers because they’ve been told by HSLDA for years that outsiders want to hurt homeschooling. As for the secular unschoolers, they aren’t exactly fans of the establishment, which makes it hard to pin them down as well. Compounding the problem, the people the religious ones do trust (aka, HSLDA and NHERI) aren’t interested in giving good data, they’re interested in giving a good sales pitch for homeschooling. And so, we’re stumbling around in the dark knocking our shins into furniture and stepping on stray Legos.

There are a handful of small studies about adult former homeschoolers, but the rest is guesswork. We don’t have a good picture of the socioeconomic status of homeschooling families. We don’t really know how homeschoolers as a population do on achievement tests because we don’t have any surveys that aren’t self-selected. We don’t even have a good idea of how many people are homeschooling. It might be a million and a half, it might be twice that. We need good data and we simply don’t have it.

Are the kids I knew in high school who were all upper middle class children, mostly of parents with degrees in STEM fields, an accurate representation? What about the kids I knew when I was younger whose blue collar parents had no college and were passing their non-standard English dialect on to the kids rather than standard English grammar? Was my dad right when he always said that math was a weakness that homeschoolers needed to watch out for because the kids were being taught primarily by mothers who had been put on the consumer math track in school? Was I right when I used to tell people that the reason they thought homeschoolers were weird was because the normal ones who are in the majority didn’t advertise that they were homeschooled?

I don’t know because no one does.

And yet the Brian Ray/NHERI research keeps getting repeated in conservative and mainstream media even though it doesn’t actually tell us anything.

I understand why homeschool parents want to like the NHERI numbers; they help reassure them that they’re on the right path and not totally screwing up their kids with the homeschool choice. That’s why what NHERI’s doing with self-selected, unscientific research methods is so messed up. Parents, good parents, are relying on data that’s given a veneer of science but that may well be leading them to make educational choices that aren’t the best possible for their children. If math education, for example, really is the weakness for homeschoolers that my dad thought it was, homeschoolers need to know that so they can compensate for the weakness. If more than a fringe number of homeschool kids are having trouble fitting in with mainstream society because of the homeschool bubble, parents need to know that to correct for it.

With nothing but bad data to rely on, parents are left stumbling around in the dark hoping that they aren’t going to bash their shin on the corner of the coffee table or step on a stray Lego. That’s not serving homeschool parents well, and it’s certainly not doing anything for the kids.