Home Education Magazine
September-October 1997 - Columns
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Survey and Lobbyists Cause Problems for Homeschoolers
As homeschoolers who want our friends and relatives, the general public, legislators, and others to have accurate and meaningful information about homeschooling, we realize that we must take responsibility for providing it. However, using the results of a recent survey of homeschoolers will not only provide inaccurate and misleading information but will also limit our homeschooling options and decrease our freedoms.
As homeschoolers who value our rights and responsibilities and who oppose increased government regulation of homeschooling, we recognize the importance of communicating with our legislators. However, an analysis of a plan to have a national homeschooling organization represent state homeschooling organizations in the U. S. Congress shows that this plan would be unlikely to resolve legislative challenges, could easily increase the possibility that homeschooling would be challenged on the federal level, and would weaken grassroots homeschooling organizations.
Both of these examples, discussed in detail in this column, show that the ways in which we choose to work to protect our freedoms have a strong effect in determining which freedoms we are able to regain and maintain and which we lose. Once again, we are reminded of the importance of thinking carefully about the consequences before we move ahead with what may seem at first glance to be a good idea.
Part I. Problems Raised by Use of a Recent Homeschooling Survey
The National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) recently conducted a survey of homeschoolers. 1,657 families were included. The survey was largely sponsored by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). At first glance it may be tempting to share results of the survey with other people, using the results to convince friends, relatives, legislators, and others that homeschooling works; to silence critics; and to feel good about how well homeschoolers are doing compared to conventionally schooled students. However, further thought and investigation show that this survey is inaccurate and using the results could reduce our homeschooling alternatives and freedoms.
Results of This Survey Are Inaccurate
A logical first question to ask about a survey is whether it is accurate. Social scientists have developed criteria for determining accuracy and ways of avoiding errors. Priscilla Salant and Don A. Dillman's book How to Conduct Your Own Survey, a widely respected resource on survey research, outlines four major errors that can easily lead to inaccurate surveys and ways in which they can be avoided.
(1) "Coverage error occurs when the list-or frame-from which a sample is drawn does not include all elements of the population that the researchers wish to study." (p. 16) Obviously, surveys of homeschoolers will have very serious coverage error because there is no way to come up with a good list that includes all elements of the homeschooling population or even a list that includes more than a small fraction of the total homeschooling population. The partial lists that do exist all have problems. Fortunately for us as homeschoolers, federal and state privacy statutes prevent names of homeschoolers who have registered with state or local school districts from being released, so they are not available to researchers and others. Most homeschooling organizations, many curriculum providers, and some homeschooling magazines will not release or rent their mailing lists. In any case, it cannot be assumed that everyone on these lists is homeschooling. Also, some homeschooling families do not appear on any of these lists. Therefore, any homeschooling survey is going to be, to a greater or lesser degree, inaccurate because of coverage error.
(2) "Sampling error occurs when researchers survey only a subset or sample of all people in the population instead of conducting a census." (p. 17) Sampling error is inevitable unless a census is conducted in which every member of the population is contacted. However, sampling errors can be minimized if enough people are "sampled randomly to achieve the needed level of precision." (p. 15) Given the coverage errors discussed above, sampling errors in the survey are so large that the survey only represents the families who responded, not the larger population of homeschoolers.
(3) "Measurement error occurs when a respondent's answer to a given question is inaccurate, imprecise, or cannot be compared in any useful way to other respondents' answers." (p. 17) For a survey to avoid measurement error, "Clear, unambiguous questions would be asked so that respondents are both capable of and motivated to answer correctly." (p. 15)
The first question of Part A of the survey reads, "1. How many years of formal schooling did each parent have? (e. g., completed high school =12; bachelor's degree = 16; master's = 18; doctorate = 22) _____Father _____Mother" Many people attended preschool and/or kindergarten and later completed high school. Should they answer "12" to indicate that they completed high school or "13" or more to answer the original question about years of formal schooling? What about people who spent 5 years earning a bachelor's degree? When a survey contains questions that are this confusing, especially on what should be straightforward information, measurement error abounds.
As another example: It is highly unlikely that the test scores reported on the survey are representative. States that require testing are probably over represented because more people from those states have scores to report. Also, people are more likely to include test scores if their children did well. In addition, remember that many homeschooled children do not take such tests and would have nothing to report. (4) "Nonresponse error occurs when a significant number of people in the survey sample do not respond to the questionnaire and are different from those who do in a way that is important to the study." (p. 20, authors' italics)
In addition to the questions that were confusing and therefore difficult to answer correctly, few questions were written in a way that would have motivated people across the spectrum of homeschoolers to answer them fairly. For example, question 19 on part C says:
"What kind of curriculum did you use for this child during 1994-1995? (Mark all that apply.) (1) ___ Parent-designed curriculum (major components handpicked by parents) (2) ___ Satellite school curriculum (3) ___ Home school program provided by a local private school (4) ___ No particular curriculum plan (5) ___ Complete curricular package (includes language, social studies, mathematics, and science material for full year.)"
Many homeschoolers would have had difficulty choosing an accurate response from among the choices given. In fact, most questions on the survey would have been most easily answered by people with more structured approaches to homeschooling. These people also would have felt more successful as they were completing the questionnaire, while families with less structure or those without test results or with lower scores would have been more likely to feel misunderstood or inadequate. Since responding was strictly voluntary and took a large amount of time, people with structured programs were more likely to complete the questionnaire and send it in. This leads to nonresponse errors.
Because of these errors, the survey is inaccurate and not useful to people seeking to present accurate information about homeschooling to individuals, the media, legislators, the courts, etc. In addition, anyone who uses or refers to the survey runs the risk of having homeschoolers appear incompetent if the survey is examined in light of widely accepted criteria for accuracy.
Using Survey Results Would Decrease Homeschooling Freedoms
Although questions about the survey's accuracy are important, even more important for us as homeschoolers are questions about how using the survey results is affecting the homeschooling movement and us as individuals. As ethical people writing for an ethical audience, it is a little difficult to present as a serious question: Should we homeschoolers use the results of an inaccurate and misleading survey? However, some people may not be convinced that the survey is so inaccurate as to be worthless. In addition, unfortunately, this is not a theoretical question since survey results are already being used. For example, an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on March 5, 1997, presented the survey results as if they were accurate and applied to all homeschoolers. The survey was referenced again in the Wall Street Journal on June 9, 1997. More serious, survey results have appeared in national homeschooling publications, giving the survey publicity and credibility it certainly does not deserve. Therefore, let us move from questions of accuracy to those of effects.
Unfortunately, presenting the results of the NHERI survey would limit the options and opportunities that are available to us as homeschoolers and decrease our homeschooling freedoms.
Among the reasons:
* Each time the survey is cited, it becomes more of a definition of who we are as homeschoolers. We lose freedom. We limit ourselves. We say in essence that this survey can accurately describe homeschoolers. Why would we as homeschoolers want or allow ourselves to be defined in the conventional terms that this survey uses, to be defined by standardized test scores and hours spent "in structured learning"?
In our society, basic freedoms are determined by public perception. Therefore, if we allow homeschoolers to be described as people who score above average on standardized tests, have parents with more formal education than average, use standardized curriculums, etc., that's how we will be treated. It will be expected, and in a very real sense required, that we be and do these things.
* It is especially serious when the survey results are cited in homeschooling publications.
1) The survey gains credibility it does not deserve,
2) homeschoolers use the survey and believe it, and
3) the survey becomes the definition of who we are.
* Reporting homeschoolers' standardized test scores implies that these tests are a good way to measure and evaluate homeschoolers. It also implies that we don't mind taking such tests and that we accept them as a reasonable measurement of how well we're doing in educating our children.
* This survey and reports on it play right into the hands of people who are pushing Goals 2000, state standards (including outcome-based education [OBE]), and especially state-mandated tests and certificates of mastery as part of school-to-work programs. These programs are impacting education in this country in ways that concern many homeschoolers and that would have negative effects on homeschooling.
* Presenting the results of this survey to the media, legislators, etc. allows the general public to think homeschoolers as a group can be categorized and described in one set of well-defined terms. Many members of the general public are delighted to seize on such a simple description and use it to rigidify their ideas about homeschoolers. It is easier for them to deal with us if they can generalize and oversimplify. This makes it more difficult for us to communicate to non-homeschoolers the richness and diversity of homeschooling and what it really offers to individuals, their communities, and our society.
Better Alternatives than Surveys
The definition of homeschooling that has evolved is serving us well: Homeschoolers are people who choose approaches to learning that work for them from among the wide range of options that are available. Homeschooling works for a wide range of people. Effective ways that information about homeschooling is being provided to non-homeschoolers include the following.
* Homeschooling stories and case studies do a much better job of conveying the importance, depth, diversity, and results of homeschooling. No one story is representative, but several stories begin to convey a sense of the possibilities of homeschooling.
* The positive coverage that homeschooling is now getting in major national and countless local publications can be cited.
* Thousands of homeschoolers in every state have done well when they entered or re-entered conventional schools, entered the workforce, or went to college. As homeschoolers, we have a sterling track record in areas that really matter. Why should we judge ourselves by state and conventional school standards such as state-mandated testing and standardized curriculum?
* Evidence of problems with homeschooling is lacking. A number of people (such as teachers union officials and other members of the educational establishment) have been looking hard for evidence of problems. Since the mainstream media is committed to preserving the status quo and receives substantial advertising revenues from corporations involved in education, it can be assumed that if examples of problems with homeschooling had been found, they would have been publicized.
Information of this kind has the overwhelming advantages of being much more accurate, helpful, and concrete than surveys. In addition, it strengthens the homeschooling community rather than weakening it.
What We Can Do
* We can decide not to cite or use the survey ourselves. Instead we can use the approaches discussed above as ways of providing more accurate and meaningful information about homeschooling.
* After considering our family's need for privacy, if appropriate we can share our homeschooling stories and encourage others to do the same.
* We can share our concerns about this survey with other homeschoolers.
* If we see this survey or other surveys with similar problems written up in publications, we can write to the editor expressing our objections and concerns.
* We can refuse to participate in such surveys and share our concerns with people conducting surveys and sponsoring organizations.
Part II. Problems with Plan to Have Lobbyists Represent Homeschoolers
In a letter dated May 12, 1997, a homeschooling organization located near Washington, D.C. asked leaders of state homeschooling organizations for authority to represent their organizations in talking with members of the U.S. Congress. HSLDA is working through its political division, the National Center for Home Education (NCHE), to collect letters from state leaders to be used by volunteer lobbyists in NCHE's Congressional Action Program (CAP) when talking with federal legislators.
An organization's representing homeschoolers in this way raises problems. Among them:
(1) This plan would not resolve the legislative problems that deal specifically with homeschooling on the federal level and is, in fact, likely to make them worse.
Except for a few federal grants programs, educational issues are dealt with on the state level. State laws regulate homeschooling.
In addition, such a plan could easily backfire by increasing the chances that federal legislation will be introduced that deals specifically with homeschooling. When homeschoolers involve themselves as homeschoolers on an issue, the response by legislators is to think that we want something or feel that homeschoolers are directly impacted by the issue being considered and need to be exempted. In either case, we run the risk of sparking legislative language about homeschooling in federal law. Once that starts, there is no good way to prevent it from turning against homeschoolers.
Remember that essentially any federal homeschooling legislation would be detrimental. Laws allowing the federal government to regulate homeschooling would obviously cost homeschoolers important rights and freedoms. Laws designed to protect homeschoolers' rights and responsibilities would have to begin by defining homeschooling, which would inevitably limit the freedom we now have. Programs granting federal money to homeschoolers would hold homeschoolers accountable in some way. This would limit homeschooling freedoms. In short, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to imagine federal homeschooling laws that would be helpful to homeschoolers.
Another reason this plan is likely to create problems is that with lobbyists in place, people are more likely to overreact to bills that do not really concern homeschoolers. In addition, people who set up such an arrangement have a vested interest in seeing it used; their self-esteem, sense of importance, and perhaps their jobs depend on it. For this reason, it is very important to be sure an arrangement like this is really necessary before forming one. State grassroots homeschooling organizations make sense, because states can and do regulate homeschooling, sometimes in unreasonable ways.
Recall that in 1994, some homeschoolers, led primarily by HSLDA, overreacted to H. R. 6. Actually, H. R. 6 would not have required or mandated anything of homeschoolers, but an amendment was added that stated that H. R. 6 did not apply to homeschoolers. This kind of exemption is potentially dangerous for homeschoolers. The more often homeschooling is mentioned in federal law, even in a statement that seems as simple as an exemption, the more opportunities there are for federal regulations to be written that would affect homeschoolers. In addition, these exemptions set a risky precedent. If a few laws specifically exempt homeschoolers, it could be argued that any bill that does not specifically exempt homeschoolers actually applies to them.
Even if there were significant homeschooling issues on the federal level, this arrangement would not be a wise move politically for homeschoolers. Lobbyists for large interests have power and influence in Congress because they bring money and large voting blocks to bear on issues. However, small interests such as homeschoolers are much better off if significant numbers of well informed individuals contact their legislators instead of trying to work through lobbyists.
In short, as homeschoolers and as members of a small minority, we are in a much better position if we maintain a low profile in the U. S. Congress. With the positive media coverage of homeschooling these days and with the growing acceptance of homeschooling as something that is here to stay for a small minority of families, homeschooling is unlikely to become a federal legislative issue unless homeschoolers make it one. Let's not do that!!
(2) Using this approach for issues that do not deal specifically with homeschooling but that affect homeschoolers along with other families threatens to divide and weaken the homeschooling movement.
A second, somewhat different problem arises from the fact that the NCHE wants to represent homeschooling organizations on family policy issues such as supporting parental rights and responsibilities legislation, tax credits for dependent children, and the use of birth certificates instead of mandatory "TIN" numbers for tax deductions, and opposing the U. N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Many homeschoolers are concerned about these issues, although not necessarily for the same reasons as those cited by HSLDA. Some of these issues have been discussed in previous "Taking Charge" columns because they will affect us as homeschoolers. In addition, as homeschoolers we are often in a position to take the lead on such issues. We are used to asking questions, choosing positions different from the majority, and taking responsibility for our families. We know both how we can work to regain and maintain freedoms and how they can be lost. We have unique perspectives, opportunities, and challenges, and with these come the opportunity and the responsibility to lead and to act.
However, it would be a mistake for homeschoolers as a group to take a position on these issues or to include them in the objectives of state grassroots homeschooling organizations. To have the best chance of maintaining our rights and freedoms, we need to remain united around the one principle we agree on: that parents have the right to choose for their children an education consistent with their principles and beliefs. It is very important that we not jeopardize our ability to work together by asking homeschoolers to sign on to more than this one basic principle. If we start trying to include other issues such as those listed above, however worthy and important they may be, we risk dividing and weakening the homeschooling movement. In addition, the diversity of opinion that exists among homeschoolers strengthens and enriches the movement.
(3) Regardless of the issues involved, this plan is confusing and contradictory. It encourages homeschoolers to surrender our responsibilities to experts, authorities, and large national organizations. Such action is what we need NOT to do, and to convince others NOT to do, if we are to regain and maintain our homeschooling rights and responsibilities.
As homeschoolers, we need to take responsibility for our own decisions, for our communications with legislators and others in authority, for reading and interpreting laws and legislation ourselves, etc. It would not be wise for us to get into a pattern of surrendering our rights and responsibilities. In other words, this plan asks people to act in a way that is the opposite of our usual action. It asks people to give away freedom instead of exercising our rights and responsibilities.
How does it make sense for people in a free society to hand over basic rights they have as citizens to a lobbyist not knowing what issues the lobbyist will take up, what position the lobbyist will take on those issues, or what the lobbyist will say on one's behalf? By doing so, we risk having the homeschooling movement used by a national organization with a political agenda that includes more than homeschooling. We cannot maintain our homeschooling freedoms if we allow ourselves to be swept up in someone else's political agenda, even if we should happen to agree with every point on that agenda.
(4) Such an approach undermines and weakens grassroots organizations such as those that are the most effective part of the homeschooling movement. It decreases the number of people who are thinking for themselves and acting individually and through grassroots organizations. Grassroots organizations are strong when individuals work together, each taking responsibility, not when people turn over their rights and responsibilities to a person or organization that will supposedly take care of things for them. This arrangement would weaken the grassroots character of the homeschooling movement, which is one of its most important strengths.
What We Can Do
* We can decide whether we would allow lobbyists for a national organization to represent us as individuals when talking with our federal legislators.
* We can share this information and our concerns with others. If we are part of a state-wide organization, we can let them know how we feel about such a plan.
* We can let our federal legislators know that although they may hear from a national homeschooling organization that claims to represent some homeschoolers in our state or district, no such organization represents us and, in fact, we prefer to represent ourselves and will continue to do so on homeschooling questions as well as other issues.
As homeschoolers and as parents, we need to work to regain and maintain our homeschooling and family rights and responsibilities. On one hand, if we are flexible and use a variety of different approaches, we will increase our chances of success. But at the same time, we need to keep in mind that some approaches do not work and actually reduce our freedoms. Among the problematic approaches are using inaccurate survey results that limit our options and alternatives as homeschoolers and allowing lobbyists to represent us or our state organizations in the U. S. Congress. Opposing such approaches and choosing more appropriate and effective approaches that strengthen and support us as individuals and as a homeschooling community will pay big dividends in the long run. Copyright 1997, Larry and Susan Kaseman
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