Sunday, 29 November 2009

Paula Rothermel and the mystery of the missing methodology!

On November 8th, I posted a short piece about Paula Rothermel's research on home education. I made the point that the assessments of academic ability only involved thirty five children. I also mentioned that of the literacy assessments, only five were conducted under controlled conditions. This information was contained in Dr. Rothermel's PhD thesis, which was to be found on her website. Three days after I posted the piece, the thesis was withdrawn from the website. This is an extraordinary development and I shall explain why.

Practically anybody discussing home education in this country quotes, or at the very least mentions, the research carried out by Paula Rothermel. It is used to substantiate claims such as that working class children taught at home do better than schooled children and that home educated children tend to make better progress in the acquisition of literacy than those who are taught at school. Almost invariably, those talking about this work say that it involved hundreds of children. It is impossible to overstate the significance attached to this work. Here is how it is frequently presented. This bit claims that home educated children are good readers;

Working with the idea of a normal bell curve distribution, we expect to find 16% of children in the top band. Percentages of home-educated children within this score band for literature were as follows:
94% of 6 year olds
77.4% of 7 year olds
73.3% of 8 year olds
82.3% of 10 year olds

It looks impressive until you understand that we are talking about fewer than fifty children who were tested and that only five were actually tested by the researcher herself; the rest of the assessments were sent out by post for the families to do. This information about the methodology is only to found in the original thesis which Paula Rothermel did for her PhD. Now that this has been removed, nobody else can examine in detail just how the work was carried out and the conclusions reached. This is a far from satisfactory state of affairs. The fact that it was removed so promptly after I drew attention to the methodology on this Blog, argues strongly that my criticism was well founded and that this work will not bear close examination. I can see no other reason why it should have been taken from the website.

Another point which those interested in home education should bear in mind is that there was only one piece of research, which was carried out over twelve years ago. All the other papers which one sees bearing Dr. Rothermel's name and presented at various conferences are not new research, but simply extracts and summaries of sections of the PhD thesis. In other words, every single reference to Paula Rothermel's work concerns only those same handful of children twelve years ago; there has been nothing since then.

I think it worth looking hard at this matter for the simple reason that so much has been made of this research. It has been quoted everywhere and the most extravagant conclusions drawn from the flimsiest evidence imaginable. If the methodology used in this work does not stand scrutiny, and the fact that Paula Rothermel pulled it from her site soon after I posted my piece suggests that this might well be so, then the foundation for much of what is routinely claimed about the benefits of home education in Britain could be called into question.


  1. She could have removed it because it was in danger of becoming a political football, of course. PhD theses are housed in university libraries, so it is still perfectly possible to access it if you really think it would make any difference.

  2. Interesting - it is seen as significant by the peer reviewers and the academics and journals in the community. It uses accepted / sound methodology etc. But you don't like it.

    If you truly were not waging a campaign Simon, why would you post yet again about this????

  3. Of course there is plenty of American research that reports similar findings to Paula's as well.

  4. The reason that I posted again on the subject of Paula Rothermel's research is that it is always being quote uncritically by home educators. The orginal thesis was quite adequate goodWife as just that, a PhD thesis. As the foundation for an entire belief system in the efficacy of home education, it is somewhat lacking. Most of the papers associated with this thesis are simply things read at conferences, they have not been peer reviewed. Articles for the TES are not peer reviewed either, otherwise they probably wouldn't print my stuff! I am also intrigued about the reluctance that home educating parents evidenty feel about being involved in any sort of research into their educational methods. I shall be posting a long piece on this tonight.