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Homeschooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement

reviewed by Brian D. Ray - January 10, 2014

coverTitle: Homeschooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement
Author(s): Joseph F. Murphy
Publisher: Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks
ISBN: 145220523X, Pages: 200, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

Homeschooling in America gives insights to perhaps the most fascinating and aberrant movement of the past half-century in U.S. educational history. Murphy’s first chapter informs and engages both the newcomer and veteran regarding research-based information on the modern homeschooling movement. He properly gives definitions of homeschooling, provides statistics on the growth of the homeschooling population, and makes introductory comments on the overall state of knowledge about homeschooling. From the beginning of his book, Murphy cautions the reader with his judgment that “there is not an overabundance of solid empirical work on homeschooling,” (p. 3) and “ there is a nearly universal call for more research on homeschooling in the scholarly community, and increasingly for more sophisticated and stronger research designs” (p. 13). With these points in mind, Murphy launches into his very readable and reasonable summary of “the state of knowledge” (p. 12) in Chapters Two through Seven.

Regarding demographics, Murphy reports that homeschool families, on average, are solidly middle class, with that status relying on one wage earner, have parents who tend to be better educated than non-homeschool parents, have a high amount of marital cohesiveness among them, and are larger than the average U.S. family. The homeschool community is becoming somewhat more ethnically and racially diverse, while whites continue to be very overrepresented, and they are “overwhelmingly Christian, usually Protestant . . . tend to be socially and politically conservative, but not withdrawn from issues of the larger community in which they live” (p. 27).

Chapter Three provides a sweeping and fast-paced history of the movement and part way through the author asks, “How did homeschooling go from being on the fringe, and often a hostile venue on the fringe, to the mainstream?” (p. 37). Murphy focuses his answer on how the people involved in homeschooling created a robust, effective, and encouraging network of support groups and associations and worked for “the legalization of a practice that was on the margins of legality [in many states] only 30 years ago” (p. 39). In this chapter, as in all chapters, the author gives a succinct and useful chapter summary.

Murphy’s fourth chapter explores the “environmental conditions that foster homeschooling” and it is here that he weaves in much language and theory from some of his specialties, school improvement and leadership, education policy, and privatization (or not) of education. His sections on the social context related to homeschooling – “before homeschool (1800-1890),” “before homeschool (1890-1970),” and “homeschooling (1970 on)” are pithy and pointedly describe the competing forces of centralization and government control over children’s education versus local and/or parental control over education. Current forces supporting homeschooling are localization (decentralization, localism), more populist conceptions of democracy, “a rebalancing of the control equation in favor of lay citizens while diminishing the power of the state and educational professionals” (p. 69), the ideology of choice, and the rise of democratic professionalism in the political infrastructure of schooling and “the gradual decline of control by elite professionals” (e.g., professional managers, teacher unions).

The Calculus of Departure: Parent Motivations for Homeschooling” (Chapter Five) is a solid overview of the research and Murphy lays out a clear and parsimonious framework for understanding why parents choose homeschooling rather than institutional state or private schooling. The framework includes basic reasons most readers have probably already considered, such as those related to religion, family, school academics, and school social elements, but Murphy also includes the very important variable of parental control (rather than state or private institutional control) over a child’s rearing and, finally, the insight that there are things pushing families away from public schools and pulling them toward homeschooling.

Chapter Six provides fascinating glimpses into the very wide diversity and rich array of how parents and children and local homeschool communities act out “homeschooling” on a daily and yearly basis. He allows the reader to see, in adequate detail, that curriculum materials, pedagogical approaches, social experiences, and daily educational and family practices are myriad and diverse across home-educating families.

For those who want to focus on whether homeschooling is “better,” “worse,” or “no different” for children and youth compared to institutional public or private schooling, Chapter Seven will be a key passage. Murphy addresses “the impact of homeschooling” (p. 121) on schools and school systems, on families, and on students, in terms of their academic achievement, social development, and relative success beyond secondary education. Regarding academic achievement, “… we know more than some analysts suggest we do,” “… we know a lot less than advocates of homeschooling would have us believe” (p. 140), there is a growing body of evidence that reveals homeschool students are performing above average on standardized tests, and “… there is a fair amount of suggestive evidence that homeschooling can tamp down the effects found in public schools of family socioeconomic variables” (p. 140).

Regarding the social development of the home educated, Murphy addresses (cf., Medlin, 2013) several hypotheses that critics of homeschooling especially promote. For example, they postulate that the home educated will be socially isolated and therefore have poor social skills; research, however, clearly shows these children are not socially isolated. Second, some hypothesize the homeschooled will have weaker self-concepts (variously defined and measured), but research shows that “home-based education appears at least as capable of nurturing self-concept as conventional schools” (p. 146). “They are generally a happy group… score about the same as conventionally schooled peers on measures of social acceptance ,” and “[overall], they demonstrate appropriate prosocial behavior and social responsibility” (p. 147). Further, research, although very limited in the number of studies to date, indicates that the long-term effects of homeschooling on its “graduates” (p. 148) are adequately positive.

Joseph Murphy’s creativity, systematic thinking, and ability to synthesize come through in his final chapter, “Hunches: Explanations for Positive Effects.” Again, he cautions the reader that the designs of research projects thus far notably limit what can be said about causation and “how [italics in original] homeschooling impacts student learning” (p. 154). Murphy then presents his instincts about the positive effects, and he gives a succinct and useful-to-researchers “logic model” of the “influence of homeschooling on student learning” in Figure 8.1 (p. 155).

“If there is a beginning point in the logic of action for homeschooling’s impact, it is most likely parental involvement” (p. 155) that is part of the warp and woof of homeschooling but cannot be to the same high level with institutional schooling. Second, Murphy points out, the high amounts of one-to-one instruction that homeschool students receive is good for their academic and social development and it is possible “that extensive one-to-one engagement is more important than pedagogical technique,” and might trump the educational expertise that certified teachers and professional systems might have (p. 156). He posits that the more efficient use of time and more customization in homeschooling have positive effects. Murphy mentions that a “variety of reviewers also suggest that homeschooling promotes academic and social learning by providing structures that encourage good instructional practices to flourish” (p. 158). Further, parent-led home-based education provides a safe and nourishing climate. “On the one hand, this means the development of a climate that is safe and orderly, a nonthreatening culture in which the academic work of school can unfold,” and it is also here that there “is the elimination of the negative peer culture sometimes seen in conventional schools” and instead “a supportive culture that grows from committed families and loving parents” (p. 159). Finally, the author discusses the personalization of homeschooling. Murphy deduces from research that “a positive learning environment is made possible by the nurturing relationships that seem to be more easily forged in homeschools” and homeschools “need not develop the institutional scaffolding and impersonality that define conventional schools” (p. 160). He nails down this concept with the following: “The key here is the development in homeschools of a highly personalized climate in which the child is known, cared for, and respected more deeply than is possible in models of collective schooling” (p. 160).

Murphy does several things well in his book that should be considered the best to date on the overall state of the homeschooling movement and theory explaining the effects of homeschooling. He does a fine job of covering nearly all the research to date on homeschooling, is generous in giving credit where it is due regarding the research done, is calm in his tone of reporting research and findings that might irritate or please historical critics or advocates of home-based education, and wraps up his book with an even-keeled, judicious, and enlightening proposed “logic of action for homeschooling’s impact” (p. 155). His theory is complementary to but an improved conceptual advancement over my (Ray, 1997, p. 85-102; 2000, p. 91-100) circumspect explanations of the positive impact of homeschooling on children, youth, and society.

Murphy will certainly annoy some (and please others) with his worldview and angle on interpreting educational/schooling history in Chapter Four on the “environmental conditions that foster homeschooling.” He points out that during the mid to late 1800s, “the key governance [over schools and education] issues were forged on the anvil of control” (pp. 55-56). One group pressed for more state schooling and more centralized control of it to implement the public school to mold citizens, give them the right knowledge, create productive workers, and create social harmony, and by 1970 public schooling was governed by a corporate bureaucratic model in a managerial state led by experts. The expansion of the “liberal democratic state brought activist government that assumed ever-expanding responsibility for social life” and “also diminished the influence of parents” (pp. 59-60). Murphy contends that homeschooling can be seen “as part of an ongoing debate about who should control the education of America’s children, government or parents” (p. 60). On this, Murphy is very correct, as many authors have explained. Murphy rightly posits that the homeschooling movement is against the liberal democratic state in that it is against “government domination of schooling and against the dominant role played by professional educators in the production known as schooling” (p. 60). Knowing the homeschool movement as intimately as I do, I think Murphy should have added to his preceding sentence “and against the production of knowledge and values that are transmitted to children and youth in places called school, whether state-controlled/public or private.”

I am not familiar with Joseph Murphy’s scholarship and writings but his conceptual framework seems to appear rather clearly in this same chapter. He talks about factors that account for discontent with the public sector and help “… fuel privatization initiatives such as homeschooling” (p. 61). He explains that some (he?) hold that (a) “the growth of the public sector contained the seeds of its own destruction” (p. 62), (b) “many of our social problems are in reality cratogenic—that is, created by the state” (p. 63), (c) perhaps public production (e.g., of education/schooling) is so inherently inefficient that it is worse than market failures it is supposed to correct, and (d) public employees (e.g., school teachers) are such direct beneficiaries of government spending that “they are likely to use the power of the ballot box to promote the objective of government growth” (p. 65) rather than the good of those they serve (e.g., students). One of Murphy’s points is that thinking in favor of less bureaucracy (and more grassroots), less of experts (and more of laypersons) being in charge, and less of state control (and more of parents) over individual and family life encourage and bolster the homeschooling movement. Regardless of whether the reader shares Murphy’s worldview or conceptual framework about society, economics, and schooling, he is correct about the overwhelming majority of homeschoolers thinking this way.

Homeschooling in America provides perhaps the most equable and yet insightful and engaging cohesive impression of the rising homeschooling movement (cf., Ray, 2013) proffered over the past decade. Joseph Murphy gives both an in-depth summary and evaluation of the research base on home education and offers a creative, yet reserved, theory that explains “the positive influence of homeschools on the academic and social learning of youngsters” (pp. 153-154). Every academic who studies or follows homeschooling in any nation will benefit from this treatise, and any layperson who is curious about or has an interest in parent-led home-based education will enjoy this book.


Medlin, R. G. (2013). Homeschooling and the question of socialization revisited. Peabody Journal of Education, 88(3), 284-297.

Ray, B. D. (1997). Strengths of their own. Salem, OR: National Home Education Research Institute.

Ray, B. D. (2000). Home Schooling: The ameliorator of negative influences on learning? Peabody Journal of Education, 75(1&2), 71-106

Ray, B. D. (2013). Homeschooling associated with beneficial learner and societal outcomes but educators do not promote it. Peabody Journal of Education, 88(3), 324-341.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 10, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17378, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 2:10:03 PM

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About the Author
  • Brian Ray
    National Home Education Research Institute
    E-mail Author
    BRIAN D. RAY, Ph.D., is the president of the nonprofit National Home Education Research Institute (www.nheri.org) that does research and reviews and disseminates research on homeschooling. Dr. Ray has been studying the homeschooling movement for about 30 years, and is an internationally well-known scholar in this field. He served as the invited guest editor of a special issue on homeschooling of the Peabody Journal of Education (2013) and wrote one of the articles in it, entitled “Homeschooling associated with beneficial learner and societal outcomes but educators do not promote it.” Another recent publication is on his research, “Academic achievement and demographic traits of homeschool students: A nationwide study” in Academic Leadership Journal (2010). Dr. Ray’s current projects include a study of the demographics and academic achievement of Black homeschool families and students, and a nationwide study of adults who were raised attending church, with a focus on family and social backgrounds, including the form of primary/secondary education (e.g., public school, private school, homeschooling) these adults experienced. His Ph.D. is in science education from Oregon State University.
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