Leeds-Grenville Commentary on Satisfactory Instruction

In April 1996 the Education Policy Committee of the Leeds and Grenville County Board of Education proposed a Homeschooling Policy that would self-authorize the Board to require plans and evaluate instruction by parents. This policy was only slightly modified from the Board'’s current policy, with which, for several years, most home-based educators in the United Counties had refused to comply. At the May meeting of the Committee thirteen home-based educators and scholars submitted critiques of the policy, centred on the conviction that what the Board proposed contravened the Education Act. The trustees seemed to sense that the draft policy was unacceptable, it was unanimously voted out, and home-based educators were invited to join a subcommittee of Trustees and Board staff to help form a new draft.

A representative of the Ministry of Education was invited to the first subcommittee meeting, in June, to present the Ministry'’s position on the regulation of homeschooling. It was evident to the home-based educators on the sub-committee that she could not support her statements from the Act. No Ministry representative would agree to attend the next meeting, in September, and at that meeting and another in October, discussion of this question was suppressed because Board members did not want to "“drive a wedge between the two sides.”"

Section 21(2)a of the Ontario Education Act excuses any child from school who "“is receiving satisfactory instruction at home or elsewhere."” The Act does not state who is responsible for excusing a child from attendance at school, nor does it establish who determines what constitutes “"satisfactory instruction."” It does establish a procedure for disputes between school board or Ministry officials and parents or guardians in the form of an inquiry by a person who is not an employee of the School Board (Section 24(2)). The Ministry takes this to mean that "The board (through its supervisor officers) has the responsibility of determining whether a student is excused from attending school because its parents are providing a satisfactory instruction at home.”" (Martial A. Levac, Education Officer, October 21, 1994).

Yet when Schedule B (the same approach to home-based educators embodied in other Ministry directives) was being discussed in 1988, Jake Rogers, then Chief Attendance Officer for Ontario, wrote to Lyle McBurney, the head of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools: “"Before issuing the memo [Schedule B] we need legislative changes to the Education Act pertaining to attendance/private schools/home-based education.”" There has been no change in the legislation. The “"or elsewhere"” of Section 21(2)a refers to private schools, yet boards of education do not try to determine if private schools provide “"satisfactory instruction.”"

The home-educated student “"is excused"” by the simple fact of receiving “"satisfactory instruction"”; the Act does not require that this fact be reported to anyone outside the home. Many home-based educators in Ontario do not regard this as a grant of a favour by the legislature, but a statement of their intrinsic rights. They believe that responsibility for education is not shared between the state and the family, but it is delegated to the state by those parents who chose to institutionalize their children, rather than look after their education themselves.

Doubtless the boards and Ministry can'’t express it this way, but in the face of the home-educating provisions of the Education Act their cognitive dissonance is so profound that it leaves them unable to speak. At our meetings the Board members of the subcommittee are like Starlings who have crept down a chimney and are trapped in a house: they want to get out to their natural habitat of control and regulation, but the window of the Education Act keeps getting in their way, and they can'’t explain this invisible barrier. They are literally tongue-tied when asked to explain how the Act gives them the authority to do the things they claim they have the authority to do. We press again and again the point that our main thrust, expressed at the public meeting in May, is the belief that parents retain the prior right to educate their children. We get blank stares: no reaction, and no reply.

The planning and registration that most Ontario school boards want from us contradict the central principles of unschooling: learning grows out of day-to-day situations, scholars have a free choice of what and when to study, no work is done to be wasted, and there is no evaluation for the sake of evaluation. Our so-far-corroborated hypothesis that these are plausible educational premises cannot be fairly applied, studied, or appreciated if they are decked out, like Sheep in Wolves'’ clothing, in the garb of a board'’s “"lesson plans.”"

For an unschooler, the only the only way to assess "“satisfactory instruction"” is to simply ask the student. “"Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged...”" Parents must maintain family order, and may sometimes have to assess unsatisfactory performance, but satisfaction is an internal mental state, and there isn'’t anybody except the instructed student who can know when he is satisfied. “"Satisfactory instruction"” doesn'’t even require that parents do anything or teach anything directly if the student is satisfied that he is learning appropriate material by himself. Making the formal judgment of “"satisfactory instruction"” may lead to salutary evaluations of the program by the student. Coming at it from the other side, would any reasonable teacher continue a course of instruction that the student described as “"Unsatisfactory?”"

As parents we may be able to observe evidence of satisfaction, but we give away a lot of our position if we even let ourselves claim to judge it for the province. All we should do for any Board, to relieve it of any responsibility for making this judgment, and to help it report the population of home-educated children in its territory to the Ministry (Education Act, Section 170(15)) is to provide the board with an annual notice similar to:

“"As the parents of Jennifer, born 13 May 1986, we hereby advise the Leeds and Grenville Board of Education that she states that she is receiving satisfactory instruction at home, in compliance with Section 21(2)(a) of the Education Act."”

From a Darwinian position of family solidarity, we must insist that anybody who presumes to evaluate our children must respect them, yet school boards seem constrained to respect only the opinions of “"professionals."” If our children can judge satisfactory instruction, then so should public school students, and no one doubts that the public schools would fail this test. The boards are threatened by guilt, because they fear (as one Leeds-Grenville trustee said at the May Committee meeting) that their good students succeed despite, rather than because of, their efforts. They dare not admit that there are children in the schools who are failing, and that all studies show home scholars doing as well as or better than their expensively class-roomed age-mates, so that the boards, as custodians of rate-payers'’ money, ought to be coming to us for advice, not trying to drag us down with the ideology of their professionalized employees.

Considered as a simple logical exercise, home scholarship falsifies the axioms of the huge education industry: the dependency of students on curriculum, the necessity of “"professional"” instructors, and the whole rigmarole of evaluation, certification, and coercion. If we don'’t need it, and if “"children schooled at home seem to be five or even ten years ahead of their formally trained peers in their ability to think"” (Gatto, 1992, Dumbing Us Down:26), then who does need it? When an unusually imperturbable student slips like a Watermelon seed through the dangers of co-option and failure and reaches the top of the layer cake, what does he find: the unlimited horizon of the Ph.D. program is nothing but a big home-scholar'’s project in which students work out new knowledge for themselves in consultation with their colleagues. “"Peer review”" rather than "“superior review"” validates published knowledge.

We also falsify the even more deeply rooted premises of professionalism. The foremost Canadian appraisal of human biology (Geist, 1978, Life Strategies, Human Evolution, and Environmental Design:406) * concludes that professionals “"are not normally knowledgeable of what environmental characteristics must not be disturbed lest the disturbance result in loss of the health and competence of the individuals affected. They are not informed of how to create and maintain environments that maximize health and human development."” Their world view "“is haunted by the ghosts of Rousseau and the French encyclopedists, by Platonic ideals, and has suffered relatively little distortion by science."” The fact that anybody can teach their kids revels that teaching and learning is a natural human exchange (not unexpected in the most intellectual species on the planet), rather than a sacrament that can only be mediated by a certified priesthood, decorated with the same kind of degrees and diplomas that they deign to bestow. The relatively weak correlation between home scholars'’ accomplishment and parental wealth and education, suggests, moreover, that we do a better job of bringing out our children'’s” intrinsic abilities than do the schools.

So it’'s no wonder that the boards are stricken dumb: they'’re falsified, fore, aft, and broadside, by our very existence, and we must be gentle and persistent in trying to teach them how socially and intellectually free People live. In Ontario part of that lesson can be the demonstration that it is possible for bureaucratic guidelines to contradict the legislation they are supposedly founded on, and that it is possible for citizens to recognize such a discrepancy. Since district Ministry offices are “"no longer involved with home schoolers,”" and the provincial attendance office will not discuss the issue because it would "“just be a rehash of old questions and the same issues argued in the same old ways,”" home-based educators can also point out that the Ministry has, however reluctantly, de facto, accepted our interpretation of the Education Act. Ontario school boards will foster goodwill with home-based educators within their territory by acknowledging that no harm will come from complying with the simple language of the Education Act.

* Footnote: Further, “"Education ought to be based on face-to-face instruction, that is, tutoring, in which the peer groups of juveniles should be very small, and always smaller in number than the group of adults... maximum attention is given to each developing individual with the greatest economy of instruction[,] tutor and child...know each other well [through] a long association. Learning should be based on play mimicking adults, which of course requires that the actions of adults be... accessible to the observations and questions of children. The children should be able to participate in or observe economic activities, ceremonies, and festivities cherished by adults [and] have ready access...to nature...and to man-made environments"” (p. 419). This is a book (Springer-Verlag, New York, 495 pp., ISBN 0-387-90363-1) which every unschooling family should read. Geist proposes bold evolutionary scenarios to explain many of the characteristics we seek to promote in our children and ourselves, and an uncompromised vision of an unschooled society. He defines health as the condition in which the characteristics that distinguish a species from its relatives are best developed (in our case including large brain, high capacity for exercise due to evaporative cooling, manual and bodily dexterity, highly developed intellect and language, music, tool manufacture and use, dance, visual mimicry, role playing, altruism, humor, self-control, complex traditions, and long life span), and documents what is known about environments that promote this kind of health.

Topics: Satisfactory Instruction