New Homeschool Data Raises Questions about STEM Access

For Immediate Release: New data released by the NCES sparks concern over homeschoolers’ STEM access

Canton, Ma., 11/7/16—To date, most research on homeschooling has been limited by its reliance on volunteer convenience samples, because few states collect or report data on homeschooling. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) publishes some of the only data on homeschooling gathered using more scientifically reliable random sampling. This month, the NCES has released an analysis of data they collected in 2012, touching on homeschool numbers, demographics, and—for the first time—academics. “We appreciate the efforts the NCES puts into gathering this vitally important data on homeschooling,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a 501(c)3 nonprofit founded by homeschool alumni. “The results of their study raise major concerns about homeschoolers’ access to education in STEM fields.”

The NCES asked parents of homeschooled high school students whether their children had studied a variety of STEM subjects. The number of students whose parents reported that they had taken chemistry or physics was concerningly low—only 34%. While some of these students were likely in the early years of high school and might still take these subjects, children who attend public school generally take chemistry in the 10th grade. According to parents’ reports, 69% of these students had taken biology; this course is typically offered to public school students as high school freshmen. Less than half (47%) of homeschooled high school students had instruction in scientific inquiry or experiments, indicating a lack of exposure to the scientific method. While a confluence of research and data points has long suggested that homeschooled students experience a math gap, these findings raise concerns about homeschooled students’ STEM attainment more broadly. “We are very concerned about homeschoolers’ lack of science education,” said Coleman. “STEM fields are vital to our nation’s economy; homeschoolers should be receiving the same opportunities as other children to succeed in these fields.”

The report also provides new information on homeschooled students’ use of online courses. According to the report, roughly one-tenth of elementary school students (11%) and one-third of middle school (35%) and high school (34%) students took online courses. A number of studies conducted in recent years have found that children enrolled in online public school programs do not succeed as well as students who attend a brick-and-mortar public school. Whether this holds true for homeschooled students, who may use online programs to augment other learning, is unclear, and merits further research. “While online courses can give homeschooled students access to course materials they might otherwise lack, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction between students and their peers, students and their teacher/parents, hands-on science experiments, or field trips,” said Coleman. “Online teachers can be a vital resource for children who have no other person to go to, but children need in-person access to mandatory reporters and role models as well.”

According to the report, the number of families choosing homeschooling appears to be growing at a slower rate than it did in the early to mid 2000s. The NCES estimates that while homeschooling grew 32% between 2003 and 2007, it grew only 17% between 2007 and 2012. State-level data backs this up. Robert Lyon of the International Center for Home Education Research reported earlier this month that of the nine states that release homeschool enrollment data, the number of students homeschooled increased in six and decreased in three. “In the past, the rate of homeschooling grew as new families found out about it, but today’s parents are already familiar with homeschooling,” noted Coleman. “It makes sense that the growth rate would level out as homeschooling becomes more well-known; homeschooling is not for everyone, and most parents with the ability to homeschool and interest in doing so have heard of it by now.”

Finally, the report covers previously released demographic data, adding additional detail about its collection. When collecting its data in 2012, the NCES sent out two versions of its survey—one for parents who identified their child as homeschooled (either full-time or part-time) and one for parents who identified their child as enrolled in school. However, when looking at the data, researchers found that some parents who asked for the enrolled survey later identified their child as homeschooled part-time. These two groups—parents who asked for the homeschool survey, on the one hand, and parents who asked for the enrolled survey but listed their child as homeschooled part-time, on the other—had distinct demographic characteristics. In the new report, researchers included both the previously-released adjusted demographic data (which combined the two groups) and the unadjusted demographic data (which included only the group that took the homeschool survey).

The parents who asked for the homeschool survey were more likely to be white, have a high school diploma, and be living above the poverty line than those who asked for the enrolled survey and later marked that their child was homeschooled part-time. “It is likely that the parents who asked for the homeschool survey were those who identify strongly as homeschoolers,” Coleman said. “For years, researchers have differentiated between those who homeschool for ideological or pedagogical reasons and those who homeschool for more pragmatic reasons, and are often more open to combining homeschooling with other educational methods.” An increasing number of students in some states have enrolled in independent study programs run by local public schools, which allow parents to teach their children at home while receiving resources from the school district. “These data suggest that homeschool parents living below the poverty line or with low educational attainment may be less likely to self-identify as homeschoolers and more likely to use resources offered by a public school or cyber charter program.”

Studies of homeschool academics and outcomes have frequently relied on volunteer convenience samples from well-educated non-poor families. “This report should remind researchers that the predominantly white, college-educated homeschool families that often make up the public face of homeschooling are only one part of a larger story,” said Coleman. “Research on homeschool outcomes must include children in families with low socioeconomic status, like those captured in this NCES survey, rather than focusing solely on homeschooled children with non-poor, college-educated parents.”

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is a national organization founded by homeschool alumni and dedicated to raising awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, providing public policy guidance, and advocating for responsible home education practices.

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