Thursday, June 04, 2009

A "Profound Shift"?

There's been a lot of comment on homeschooling websites about the article in USA Today a few days ago entitled "Profound Shift in Kind of Families Who Are Homeschooling Their Children." My biggest criticism of the article has to do with their use of U.S. Department of Education study recently released by the National Center for Education Statistics, "The Condition of Education 2009." After having reviewed that study, it simply does not appear to support the claims in the first sentence of the USA Today article that "Parents who home-school children increasingly are white, wealthy and well-educated — and their numbers have nearly doubled in a decade."

Here are some of the problems in that statement and in the reporter's support for it:

1) The fact that "3.9% of white families homeschool, up from 2% in 1999," does not in fact mean that homeschoolers are increasingly white, but rather reflects the fact that the total number of homeschoolers has doubled since 1999. A review of additional material associated with the study makes it clear that while the percentage of blacks who homeschool has declined over the years of the study, from 1% of black families to .8%, the percentage of Hispanics has increased from 1.1% to 1.5%, and the percentage of families of other races has increased from 1.9% to 3.4%. All this is not to deny that far more whites homeschool than those of other racial/ethnic groups; it is simply to point out that when the number of homeschoolers overall is increasing, an increase in the number of white homeschoolers does not mean a corresponding decrease in those of other races. Looking at the table further makes it clear: In 1999, 75.3% of homeschooling families were white; in 2003, 77% of homeschooling families were white; in 2007 (the year the most recent survey was done), 76.8% of homeschooling families were white. But because this distribution for each of these has a standard error of over 3%, this difference is not statistically significant; in other words, the 1999 number COULD have been as high as 78.6%, and the 2007 COULD have been as low as 73.5%. But of course, this would not have supported the reporter's contention that "homeschoolers are increasingly white" - because the study simply does not support that conclusion.

2) The reporter's contention that "homeschoolers are increasingly . . . wealthy" is questionable because neither the article nor the study mention the effect of inflation on family income levels over the years between 1999 and 2007. The table is quite clear that in 1999, 30.1% of homeschoolers had incomes below $25,000; 32.7% had incomes between $25,001 and $50,000; 19.1% had incomes between $50,001 and $75,000; and 17.4% had incomes over $75,001. In 2007, the distribution of homeschooling families had changed: only 15.9% had incomes below $25,000; 24.1% had incomes between $25,001 and $50,000; 26.8% had incomes between $50,001 and $75,000; and 33.2% had incomes over $75,000. That clearly represents a huge increase in income - but it's important to remember that during that time, the median household income increased from $38,885 to $50,233.

In 1999, the federal poverty threshold for a family of 4 was $17,030; in 2007, it was $21,203. Thus, in 1999, many families who made under $25,000 who were not under the poverty level; by 2007, most families who made under $25,000 were. In 1999, many families who made less than $50,000 made more than the median income; by 2007, none did.

The median income for families increased from $47,469 in 1999 (under $50,000) to $62,359 (halfway into the third group). These changes in income levels are obviously going to have a very significant effect on homeschoolers as well as the non-homeschooling population. I do see one trend that seems significant: there has been an increase in the homeschooling among those who make over $75,000 per year. This increase is greater than can be accounted for simply by inflation; it seems likely that as it has become clear that homeschoolers can do very well, those who make more money are willing to give it a try.

The reporter, however, does not mention that increase as support for his contention. Instead, he uses this statistic: "In 1999, 63.6% of home-schooling families earned less than $50,000. Now 60.0% earn more than $50,000." In light of the above-mentioned increase in median family income, that change is exactly what would be expected if homeschooling families simply kept pace with the rest of the nation, and shows no increase at all in the "wealth" of families who are homeschooling.

3) As for the contention that "homeschoolers are increasingly . . . well educated," the data in the study does not seem to support that well. Among those with a graduate or professional degree, homeschooling has actually declined since 1999. In 1999, 47.4% of homeschoolers had at least a bachelor's degree; in 2007, 49.9% did. This difference is not statistically significant. In 1999, 81.1% of homeschooling families had at least some college; in 2007, 86.3% of homeschooling families did - so if you consider "some college" to be "well educated," I suppose you might agree with the reporter's statement.

Articles like these are frustrating, because the authors appear to be searching for data to support their own pre-drawn conclusions. On the other hand, Albert Mohler has a new article, drawn from the same study, that provides a much more solidly supported perspective. It's entitled, "A Major Force in Education," and I encourage you to check it out. :) He points out some interesting, and some concerning, trends indicated by the report. Here's his conclusion:

Education cannot be reduced to statistics, but the trends revealed in this new report from the Department of Education deserve close attention. In our day, education represents a clash of worldviews. Increasingly toxic approaches to education (or what is called education) drive many schools and many school systems. In that light, the fact that so many . . . parents are taking education into their own hands is a sign of hope. As this new report makes clear, we should expect homeschooling to be a growth industry in years ahead.

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