Art Carden  

On The Effects of Homeschooling: A Bet

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I can't wait for Bryan's The Case Against Education: every semester, my beliefs move in favor of the signaling model and against the human capital model of schooling. This isn't to say there aren't a lot of students who are there for the human capital. Far from it: one of the great pleasures of my job is being around students who really want to wrestle with great ideas. As a matter of public policy, though, I think a lot of education subsidies are subsidies for wasteful arms races.

With respect to primary and secondary education, the Carden children are being home schooled (I write "are being" because while they're not of school age yet, we take advantage of lots of opportunities to learn cool new stuff). We're letting them follow their developing interests and then using those as contexts in which to explore the natural and social world, at least as far as we can go with kids who aren't yet five, three, or one.

This raises a lot of interesting questions from people who send their kids to traditional schools, and with respect to public policy there are a lot of questions about the effects of homeschooling. It's relatively easy to do in some states and relatively difficult in others, which raises potentially testable questions: what are the effects of homeschooling?

I think the burden of proof in public policy should fall on those who seek power rather than those who seek liberty; in short, there should be a presumption in favor of liberty. I offer the following $100 bet to those who do not think there should be a presumption of liberty with respect to schooling, to be settled on April 1, 2033, which will be when our youngest is finishing college (you might recognize this from Facebook if you're in my network):

Over the next two decades (around the time our kids are finishing college), scholarly research will show that the treatment effect of homeschooling--after controlling for selection effects, ability bias, etc--is either neutral or positive relative to government-operated schools on a majority of academic and social outcomes (test scores like GRE and ACT, # of friends, # of close friends, behavioral problems, parent/child relationships, etc). "Negative and statistically significant" can still count as neutral if the negative effect is small enough to still pass a cost/benefit analysis that we can agree is reasonable. To offer an extreme example, I think we would agree that (say) a 0.0000001 point reduction in ACT score, even if statistically significant, might be worth the trade-off that comes with a better parent/child relationship. The bet will be settled in nominal dollars to keep things easy.

First come, first served. Here's the article that inspired me. So far, no one has stepped forward to take me up on it.

COMMENTS (25 to date)
Keith writes:

Maybe no one has taken the bet because of the confrontational tone of your offer. You've addressed yourself to "those who do not think there should be a presumption of liberty with respect to schooling." This label is simultaneously unappealing and vague.

And why limit the offer to those people anyway? One need not oppose a presumption of educational liberty to disagree with the testable prediction you have made.

Good luck finding a bettor, though. I'd like to see the betting norm more widely practiced.

david writes:

Part of the impressiveness of the intellectual bets that Caplan & co. are conscientiously rigorous in them - so rigorous as to put cash on the line..

So it hurts that your bet is a non-sequitor with regards to your philosophical argument about the desirable burden of proof. However the bet turns out, it doesn't say anything about the direction of burden!

Art Carden writes:

@Keith: Forgive me for the confrontational tone; perhaps I should have written "those who think home schooling should be restricted" or something like that. I think we should be starting from the presumption of liberty and asking "should we restrict this?" rather than starting from the presumption of power and asking "should we allow this?"

@david: With respect to the burden of proof issue, I'm with Caplan in that I think the case for restricting acceptable educational models should be like the case for war: we should be absolutely certain that the benefits will outweigh the expected costs. This won't resolve the burden-of-proof issue--perhaps that's another topic for a future post--but for now I take that as as assumption rather than a proposition to be tested.

Eric writes:

Positive results are already coming in.

[Link fixed. The html was incomplete.--Econlib Ed.]

Mark writes:

Are you going to homeschool your kids through four years of undergraduate education? What about homeschooling them through their Masters and Ph.D.?

You're qualified (At least as far as undergrad goes; I concede that graduate degrees require greater specialization.) Or does this dilemma further bolster Bryan's argument about signaling?

Greg G writes:

My prediction is that "over the next two decades...scholarly research will show" a wide variety of conclusions that correlate quite closely with the ideologies of their authors.

I would expect that the main effect of home schooling will be to magnify the importance of how good the teacher is. If you spend almost all your school time getting private one on one instruction from one or two teachers, a lot depends on how good those one or two individuals are at teaching.

The overall statistics on home schooling (and public schooling) will mask a lot of individual variation and depend entirely on what metrics are used. If we use Spelling Bee performance, for example, home schooling will look especially good.

David R. Henderson writes:

I won't take the bet because I'm on the same side of the bet as you. But I don't like bets when the resolution is double-digit years away. You might get more takers if you made a bet for, say, the end of 2020 or some such.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

Do you plan to use the newly announced Ron Paul curriculum?

Mike W writes:

Nominal dollars in twenty wild and crazy risk-taker you.

Glen Smith writes:

The data that I had raw access to indicates that those who receive a secondary education in a home-school environment perform no better than drop-outs from a traditional HS when ability bias and such are controlled for.

Mike W writes:

From the Martin-Chang, Gould and Meuse paper @ Eric above:

[T]he decision to homeschool and the decision to unschool [unstructured homeschooling; ‘self-directed learning on the part of the child—free from teachers, textbooks, and formal assessment’] involve parents exercising their rights to assume the primary responsibility of educating their children, the two groups deviate radically in their views of the parent-as-teacher and in the use of preset curricula.

It has been estimated that approximately 150,000 children in the United States were being unschooled. However, the academic effects of this practice are largely unknown. Our data suggest that this group is being outperformed on academic tests both by the traditionally schooled [public and private schools] and the structured homeschooled groups.

It appears that while homeschooling in a structured way might prepare children for later life at least as well as traditional schooling, unstructured homeschooling seems to be inferior in that preparation.

So, “starting from the presumption of liberty” whose liberty is being infringed when a kid is forced to accept a parent’s nonconventional actions that result in limiting the child’s future options? Should the state step in with minimum requirements (*restrictions*) on homeschooling in the interests of the child?

wd40 writes:

I suspect that a large percentage of parents who homeschool their children do so because they do not want their children either to learn subversive ideas like evolution or to interact with people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds whom the parents disfavor. So in such cases, not allowing homeschooling decreases the liberty of the parent to exploit their children toward their own ends. In previous centuries, schooling was made mandatory. This too denied some parent's the liberty to exploit their children for their own ends. So here is the question put most starkly: is the welfare of children on average increased or decreased by allowing homeschooling? This depends to a great degree on the numbers of parents filling the above description and the attitudes of the majority (who more or less decide the school curriculum and the nature of the classroom learning experience). In some places (countries) the majority wants their children not to learn but to maintain the same beliefs as they hold. In such circumstances, homeschooling is an improvement. In other countries, the majority wants their children to learn, and homeschooling is desired by those who want their children to follow their own beliefs. In such cases, homeschooling will on average diminish children's welfare. I note that some of these arguments hold for private schooling (do the readers of this blog approve of religious schools in Pakistan) and that there are middle ways. For example, regulating home schooling so that even homeschooled students must cover evolution. But here too the liberty of parent's is curtailed.

patrick writes:

To add on to Mark's comment above, are you planning to home-treat your kids' medical conditions too? Perhaps personally treat any major dental work like braces? Etc etc etc.

I find it fascinating that folks presume they will provide a superior educational experience for their kids vs more formal education. Will that be true for some parents? Sure, of course. But it strikes me as yet another example of Lake Wobegon syndrome. Everyone thinks they are above average. Let's face it - most people aren't particularly good parents, let alone good teachers.

Then again, we know a bunch of really smart, educated, well-adjusted kids who are home schooled. Probably because they have good genetics and are the beneficiaries of great parenting. You know, the things that are usually correlated with smart, educated, well-adjusted kids in any school.

Best of luck. I'm guessing your kids will be in good shape whichever path you choose for their education.

Mark writes:

patrick said: To add on to Mark's comment above, . . .

I have to distance myself from these comments because this is not what I was implying. In fact, having taught many undergrads and graduate students who were homeschooled, they were better prepared, more disciplined, self-motivated, and overall better learned students. The fact that so many parents do a better job with their children is a strong condemnation of government schooling.

Now, the parents who do homeschool their children are typically better educated and motivated themselves. It may not necessarily be that they have superior knowledge or are better at teaching than government school teachers. But they don't have to deal with the riffraff government school teachers have to deal with, which detracts from their job of educating students.

I do not attempt home surgery (at least unless it's a minor issue), but I also know that if an unruly patient enters the doctor's office or the OR, that person will be removed, not that the doctor has to spend the majority of his or her time dealing with the riffraff at the expense of my child.

My point was simply to ask how far Art perceives the benefits of homeschooling to go. My guess is that he would likely homeschool through four years of college (I have heard from more than one source that Art is an outstanding teacher) if the credential did not matter. Unfortunately, signaling is necessary, which precludes him from carrying on the homeschool tradition beyond high school.

Maybe what we need is an employment test comparable to the SAT for college. Oh, that's right, that has been ruled discriminatory. We've simply substituted a four-year degree costing tens of thousands of dollars in place of an IQ test.

MingoV writes:

@Mark: "... he would likely homeschool through four years of college... if the credential did not matter"

It's quite possible that two decades from now USA workplaces will not be using college degree-based signaling and credentialing because they will have low correlations with workplace needs.

JKB writes:

I would expect the benefits would be how the homeschooling is done. Those who seek simply to replicate the damaging classroom method used in government schools for control, with or without some curriculum changes, there would be far less difference.

In spite of the fact that schools exist for the sake of education, there is many a school whose pupils show a peculiar "school helplessness"; that is, they are capable of less initiative in connection with their school tasks than they commonly exhibit in the accomplishment of other tasks.

source: How to Study and Teaching How to Study (1909) by F. M. McMurry, Professor of Elementary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

I highly recommend Professor McMurry's book (it's online), it was widely cited prior to 1930. It is a treatise on how and why it is appropriate to teach children how to study. Today his factors of study would be called critical thinking. The real insight is that while some discipline is necessary, children don't really need to be taught critical thinking. They already have it but it is educated out of them in regards to school subjects by 3rd grade.

The way pupils study, depends on what is emphasized. The methods that are best to develop a sound knowledge of geography in pupils, will, as a rule, be the best to teach them how to study geography. The reason that mechanical memorizing is the main part of study in the elementary school, high school and university, is that reproduction is the primary thing required. If boys and girls find that the teachers' questions ask for a reproduction of the text, they will memorize before thinking and without thinking. If, however, there is a thought question, it will cause them to organize and analyze the subject matter of the book, and then mechanical memorizing can not occupy such a prominent part.

source: Teaching Boys and Girls How to Study' (1919) by Peter Jeremiah Zimmers, Superintendent of City Schools, Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Zimmers changed his school system using Prof. McMurry's ideas and created in Jr. high school, student participation most university professors dream of.

David Friedman writes:

It's worth making the distinction, implied by one poster, between unschooling and homeschooling. Our kid were initially unschooled in a small private school modeled on the Sudbury Valley school, then later unschooled at home.

So far as the medical metaphor, most of what kids learn through high school isn't heart surgery, it's stuff adults already know. Most of the rest is stuff kids can learn from other sources if they want to and are encouraged by the parents.

Furthermore, what kids learn, or pretend to learn, in high school is pretty much an arbitrary selection from a much larger body of knowledge worth knowing--it isn't essential that the home schooled kid learns all the same things.

ivvenalis writes:

Patrick: if the qualifications to practice medicine were comparable to those required to teach, you'd probably see a lot more people home-doctoring. Doctors would probably be a lot less respected as well, and justly. And this doesn't even address the subject of political indoctrination.

John writes:

My homeschooling outlook is positive, but I could imagine taking your bet just 'cause homeschooling has been around for a long time, so if high-quality research has not already been done along these lines (controlling for ability, etc.) who's to say it'll get done in the next 20 years? Is there really a good natural experiment for this? But suggests that homeschooling should work well for achieving educational outcomes, at least.

Andrew writes:

This needn't be an all or nothing debate. The prospects of part-time homeschooling are interesting and seem quite promising. Especially when combined with public charter schools. That's a public-private-homeschooling fusion of a solution. Why not the kitchen sink?

Tom West writes:

Given the caliber of many of the parents who are home schooling (smart, highly educated & highly motivated), I'd be dumfounded if the students *didn't* have substantially better outcomes controlling for everything else.

An upper middle-class dedicated home schooling parent may well have an opportunity cost of $100K. I'd hate to think that such a substantial cost to the economy didn't buy a really large differential in educational outcomes as that would be tantamount to finding teacher quality doesn't really matter.

Saliency writes:


If you are talking opportunity costs 100k will get you a very nice private school.

"Given the caliber of many of the parents who are home schooling (smart, highly educated & highly motivated)"

Did you actually do your homework on this?

CJB writes:

I don't know how you get rid of selection effects in testing this hypothesis. Specifically comparing home-schooled to public-schooled children even controlling for things like income and mother's highest level of education can not completely make these things equivalent populations to study. Why? Because parental characteristics of these populations are different. Otherwise what you are comparing is the motivation of the parents, not so much whether home schooling is better than public school. My hypothesis would be -- home schooling is better than public or private schooling in certain ways for certain populations. I wouldn't think this is a strong enough argument to sway from current public policy.

Tom West writes:


> Did you actually do your homework on this?

Not homework, just my personal observations.

My small personal sample of home-schoolers (3) is that they left high-paying jobs to home school. They put the sort of dedication into home-schooling (and raising their children in general) that they had previously put into their jobs as lawyers or academics.

I consider home-schooling to be another substantial step *above* private school in terms of personal cost and would expect the results to be commensurate. (Of course parents who can afford to home-school, even at significant sacrifice, are probably doing well enough that your looking at the upper-end of the socio-economic spectrum anyway.)

The opportunity cost is also partially lost corporate progression, etc. For a senior manager, academic, lawyer, $100K doesn't seem out of line for removal from the workforce for a year, but it is a WAG.

Art Carden writes:

Thanks again for the excellent comments, and I'm honored that David Friedman has jumped in. I'll Google what he has written on unschooling, which we also find attractive. Regarding the Ron Paul Curriculum, we're not sure yet.

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