January-February 2010 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Countering Problems Created by Research on Families
Research on education and child development is often cited in debates about whether children need to be screened frequently from birth on, whether more children should be spending more time in preschool starting at younger ages, and whether so-called "experts" know more than parents about raising children. Professionals in child development, and their associations, cite research (and use money and lobbying) to support their claims that they know what children should be doing intellectually, socially, and emotionally at any given age, and to demonstrate the supposed benefits of relying on "experts," schools, and other institutions, at the expense of time children can spend with their families, and confidence parents have in their ability to raise their children well. The role of experts is being built into our statutes and institutions, and much of the general public, including parents, is going along with this.
Given the role research is playing in these developments, two important questions should be asked. First, is the research reliable? Most research on child development and education is basically flawed. Understanding this point is essential because many of the misgivings we have about homeschooling arise from or are supported by the constant barrage of research broadcast by the media that claims "experts" are needed. When we understand these flaws, we are in a better position both to prevent these inaccurate claims from undermining our confidence and to counter proposals from legislators and other public policy makers, the media, and the general public that are based on flawed research.
The second question is: Are there any credible studies that support families and identify problems with experts and increased schooling at younger ages.? Yes. Despite the flaws in the system of research, occasionally a strong and courageous individual asks better questions and comes up with results that have a strong impact on people's thinking and the course of events. For example, Richard Bolles' book What Color is Your Parachute? broke the mold for how to get a job, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring woke people up to the dangers of using pesticides and other environmental poisons. Therefore, we need to be alert for such research. It can bolster our confidence in our decisions, including homeschooling. If we work to educate more people about these studies, we will increase the chances that they will have a positive impact in supporting the role of parents in general and homeschooling in particular. Brief information about several helpful studies, reports, and books is included in this column.
Basic Flaws in Current Research
A review of the extensive recent research on children, families, and education would undoubtedly reveal that most studies support the idea that parents and families are the problem and professionals and institutions are the solution. Such a conclusion arises NOT because it's accurate but rather because research is financed and heavily influenced by a power structure that has much to gain by maintaining and expanding the roles of experts and large institutions. Here are some specifics:
• Research is controlled by professionals who have a vested interest in increasing jobs, salaries, and prestige in their fields. It is unrealistic to expect researchers who are part of a system that is based on institutionalized learning, screenings, and the importance of experts to plan and conduct research that would question their roles and ask whether their work does more harm than good. Therefore, it is not surprising that studies seldom ask questions such as the following:
--Since the procedures for screening, diagnosing, and treating so-called learning disabilities such as ADD are vague and unreliable, what are the costs to children, families, and society of acting on the resulting diagnoses of learning disabilities, including long-term costs associated with labeling, loss of confidence, addiction to drugs, inability to hold good paying jobs, and adult institutionalization?
--If we delayed academic instruction including learning to read and write and do elementary arithmetic until age 6, 7, or 8, as several European countries do, what would be the results in terms of children's academic skills at age 12, 13, and 14?
--How many children who begin academics at later ages would be identified as having a learning disability as compared to children who begin academics in kindergarten or preschool?
• Research is expensive. This gives a great deal of power to the people who fund it and makes research inherently political. It's funded by people who care about the outcome of the research, and often they are hoping for a specific outcome. This puts subtle but very real pressure on researchers and often distorts the results. Most researchers don't deliberately change their findings to get the desired outcome. But the realities of funding mean that they inevitably, perhaps unconsciously, lean in the direction they know their funders would prefer.
In addition, because the important work that families do is largely unpaid, corporations do not make a profit on it. Therefore, very few people want to pay for research that has the potential to show what important work families do and why children need extensive time with their families.
• Basically research is conducted more to benefit people involved in universities than to determine what would really be best for children, families, and our nation. Thousands of studies are done each year by people getting a graduate degree or furthering their academic career through publishing. Many of these studies are so narrow in focus and so poorly designed that, although they may advance individuals' credentials and be used as fodder to increase intervention in families by professionals, they should not be taken seriously.
• Research on people is difficult to do, and the results are often questionable. Here are two reasons. First, people and the lives they lead are extremely complex, so it is very difficult to show that one factor (such as the number of students in a classroom) causes a specific result (like increasing children's test scores). Social scientists often claim that their use of control groups, carefully selected representative samples, and longitudinal studies that follow the same individuals for many years make their results more accurate, but serious questions remain. Second, fortunately, our moral values prevent researchers from conducting some studies that might yield clearer results. For example, removing a group of children from their parents at birth and raising them in an institution would demonstrate the importance of parents but at far too great a cost to the children, their parents, and society.
How We Can Respond
• We can remind ourselves of the points made above and make sure that we don't inadvertently start taking research seriously and letting it undermine our confidence.
• We can share this information with friends, relatives, support groups, and our community. We can write letters to the editor, participate in online chat rooms and call-in radio programs, etc. It is important that people become aware of the role research is playing in the increasing intervention of professionals and institutions in families' lives and of the reasons we should challenge policies based on such research.
Research That Supports Families and the Importance of Parents
For over 40 years, a few independent researchers have shown the importance of parents and/or the lack of evidence to support the benefits of institutionalized learning. Their work is valid for a number of reasons. They generally are not associated with departments of education in universities or with associations of professional educators and therefore are less biased in favor of the educational establishment. They have done a thorough, critical review of the best research on various educational practices, so-called "learning disabilities," etc. Their work is broadly based and not limited to one or just a few studies. They have credentials similar to those of the authors being critiqued. Finally, these studies and reports have stood the test of time and continue to be cited and used.
Citing these and similar works can help us educate others about the importance of parents and the harm done by screenings, professional intervention in family life, day care, universal childcare, preschool, mandatory kindergarten, etc. Many of these studies and reports can be found on the Internet by doing a search for the author and title of the study.
• In 1966, James Coleman reported in Equality of Educational Opportunity that the difference in academic achievement between black and white students was much more strongly influenced by their family background than by the quality of the schools they attended.
• Since Coleman's study, many researchers have attempted to determine whether school variables such as per pupil expenditure, teacher training, etc. correlate positively with student achievement. The studies that are statistically significant have consistently been shown not to demonstrate a positive correlation. For example, in 1986, Eric Hanushek evaluated the findings of 147 of the most reliable studies. He showed that any number of school related variables cannot be shown to correlate positively with student achievement. He also concluded that, "Family background is clearly very important in explaining differences in achievement." See "The Economics of Schooling: Production and Efficiency in Public Schools" in The Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 24, Issue 3 (Sept. 1986), pp. 1141-1177. (To download, go to http://www.caldercenter.org/about/HanushekPubs.cfm and click on title of article.)
• "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education," a 2008 initiative by the Economic Policy Institute (a middle to liberal policy analysis group) demonstrates that schools are limited in what they can accomplish and concludes that what is needed for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed is investment in health care, parental support, and community involvement.
• Gerald Coles' 1987 book The Learning Mystique: A Critical Look at "Learning Disabilities" is a comprehensive study of the research and literature on "learning disabilities." Coles concluded that there is no reliable method or technique for identifying "learning disabilities." Thomas Armstrong's In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child's Personal Learning Style (2000) and Frank Smith's Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms (1986) demonstrated the severe limitations of the learning theory that supports most special education and programs for "learning disabled" children.
• Researchers such as Jay Belsky point to problems created by day care. Belsky concluded from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Study of Early Child Care (an ongoing survey of 1,100 children that is the largest and most rigorous study of day care to date) that the more hours young children spend in any type of day care, the more likely they are to be disobedient, aggressive, and defiant by age five. ("Emanuel Miller Lecture: Developmental Risks (Still) Associated with Early Child Care." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2001), 42:7:845-859 Cambridge University Press.)
• The abstract of another study of children in day care includes the following quote. Especially important is the point that day care creates problems for parents as well as children. "Finally, we uncover striking evidence that children [who were cared for at young ages through state supported childcare] are worse off in a variety of behavioral and health dimensions, ranging from aggression to motor-social skills to illness. Our analysis also suggests that the new childcare program led to more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships." Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber, and Kevin Milligan, "Universal childcare, maternal labor supply, and family well-being" NBER Working Paper No. 11832, 2005.
• A recent international study shows that the age at which a child begins formal schooling affects the outcome of their education through college. Specifically, the youngest children in any given class (that is, those whose birthdays are shortly before the cutoff date for school entry) score lower than the oldest in both fourth and eighth grades and are less likely to enroll in college prep courses in high school and in high-end academic universities than are the oldest of their classmates. This study provides strong support for the idea that children should enter school at later ages, and certainly not at earlier ages. Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey, "The Persistence of Early Childhood Maturity: International Evidence of Long-Run Age Effects," in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2006. (PDF download at: http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/%7Eedhuey/maturity_feb06.pdf)
Being aware of the biases, flaws, and untrustworthiness of most research helps us maintain our confidence in the face of research that claims our children need repeated screening from birth on and attendance at a conventional preschool at early ages. It also helps us work for public policies that support children and their families. At the same time, we can also use the studies and other resources that support families and homeschooling to help maintain our own confidence and to educate others.
© 2010, Larry and Susan Kaseman