The Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents

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Homeschooling: Response to a Concerned Neighbour

Over the years, we’ve received several emails from concerned neighbours or relatives of homeschooling families. If you’re in that position yourself, let me first say that I understand how difficult it can be for neighbours, friends, and relatives, to understand a homeschooling family’s educational choice and trust that it’s working out. I hope you’ll find some clarity and reassurance in the following response I gave to one such letter a few years ago, from someone whose neighbours were homeschooling four children.

“They are well looked after but I feel the education is not up to standard.”

If you acknowledge that the children are well looked after, can you trust that this means that the parents are conscientious and caring, and therefore also tending to their children’s educational needs with as much care and conscientiousness? Sometimes learning and teaching outside of the conventional school setting looks very different from the kind of directive, instructional approach that schoolteachers take in the classroom.

“There are no rules for home schooling that makes sure these kids are getting the proper education.”

Learning doesn’t have to happen on an institutional schedule

If the parents take a directive approach that is similar to how a schoolteacher teaches (what you would consider “proper education”), you may not be in a position to witness it: it may be happening in the privacy of their own home, perhaps at a different time of day than you would expect. For instance, the kids may be outside playing at a time when you think they should be doing school work, because they may have already finished any structured educational work that was planned for the day. It’s more like a tutoring situation than a classroom: each child gets individual attention and can therefore master a lesson in much less time than in school. Also, there’s no time wasted on keeping a whole class of 30 children behaving properly, and no time wasted waiting for the rest of the class to grasp what the individual child has already grasped. So the “school” day of a child receiving structured homeschooling is usually shorter than the school day of a child attending school. The timing of the lessons may be pre-determined (for instance, every morning from 9 to 12) or it may vary according to what else is planned in the family’s life (for instance, a morning appointment or non-school activity might postpone the “schoolwork” until later in the day). It all depends on the family, and each one determines their own schedule according to what works best for them.

Non-institutional learning is still learning

If the parents take a non-directive, facilitative approach instead of something more directive and structured, you may not necessarily recognize it as teaching even if you witness it, because it doesn’t conform to the kind of teaching you’re used to seeing in schools. Nevertheless, the government recognizes that non-institutional methods of teaching are valid alternatives to the instructional approach practised in the schools, and it allows this kind of homeschooling as legal. In our experience with many, many families who take such an approach, children do in fact learn quite well in this environment. The truth is, the desire to learn is a natural urge in humans, and all children do an enormous amount of learning long before school-age. In the natural approach to homeschooling, parents simply continue the same facilitative approach they took when their children were younger. Just as a baby learns to walk and talk through trial and imitation and encouragement, a child can learn to read and write and count and multiply by being shown the ropes by parents and siblings, encouraged and stimulated by those around them and motivated by their own inner curiosity and desire to master the same skills as the “big people” in their lives. They also learn interesting facts about life (which in school would be called history, geography, science, and such) by exploring the world and asking questions about it, and pursuing their interests through books, the internet, and other media. This kind of homeschooler tends to be a self-motivated, life-long learner, and is the kind of student universities like Harvard and Stanford actively recruit for their maturity and independent study skills.

“I’m not sure how anyone can teach when the most education they’ve had is high school.”

Whichever type of homeschoolers your neighbours are, you needn’t worry about the parents’ abilities to provide an adequate education based on their own level of education. The primary grades are well within the grasp of someone who has gone through some high school, and the children’s high school years are often covered through distance courses, tutoring, or self-directed research. Studies have shown that the level of education of the parents has no negative impact on the success of homeschooling. Here’s what it says in the 2007 Homeschooling research study available from the Fraser Institute (https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/Homeschooling2007.pdf):

Students taught at home by mothers who never finished high school scored a full 55 percentile points higher in math and 49 points higher in writing than public school students from families with comparable education levels (Ray, 1997a). According to Rudner, “The mean performance of home school students whose parents do not have a college degree is much higher than the mean performance of students in public schools.”

Home Schooling: From the Extreme to the Mainstream, 2nd edition, by Patrick Basham, John Merrifield, and Claudia R. Hepburn

“These kids that are homeschooled need to be assessed so that the education system knows they’re ready for the working world.”

In terms of the education system knowing that students are ready for the working world, the truth is that the system hasn’t managed to guarantee that readiness even in the kids they themselves educate in school: the literacy scores of the adult population (age 16 to 65), as measured by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), show that 48% of Canadians have a reading level of 2 or less (2 being the second lowest level out of 5). That means that almost half of the adult population can read only — at most — at a level that “makes it hard to conquer challenges such as learning new job skills.” It would take at least level 3 to “denote the skill level required for successful high-school completion and college entry.” (For the description of all 5 levels, see https://web.archive.org/web/20120525105743/http://www.ccl-cca.ca/cclflash/proseliteracy/map_help_e4.html and for a visual aid to see the extent of the problem by region, see https://web.archive.org/web/20120719103216/http://www.ccl-cca.ca/cclflash/proseliteracy/map_canada_e.html). Since the vast majority of the adult population attended school as children, the low level of literacy comes almost exclusively from school education. If educating 99% of the population in the school system results in such dire literacy rates, that system can hardly demand more of the 1% of the population that is homeschooled.

Learning at their own pace is a good thing

Luckily for your little neighbours, they don’t need to worry about whether the school system will fail them in the way it has failed those 48% of the adult population that left school with a reading level of 2 or less. Instead, your neighbours get to learn at their own pace with individual attention from caring and conscientious parents. It’s likely they’re not on the same learning curve as their schooled peers, but that’s a good thing: it means their education is tailored to their own pace and they can take time to pursue their own interests, quickly surpass their schooled peers in any subject for which they have a natural aptitude, and take the necessary time to go step-by-step at their own pace in any subject they’re not naturally “good at,” even if it means they’re “behind” the conventional curriculum in one area for a certain time. That conventional curriculum and pace is only there for logistical reasons, for the purposes of mass instruction — it has nothing to do with what’s good for a given child at any given time in their life, development, and learning readiness. Having the opportunity to go at their own pace, your neighbours will most likely eventually master even the subjects they find a little difficult. And if they don’t, well… they won’t be any worse off than the 48% of people who go through the school system and still don’t know how to read well enough to do well in the working world.

Conformity is not the goal

You haven’t said specifically what it is that you’ve observed that makes you feel concerned about their level of learning, but if you do observe something that seems a little “behind” what you’d expect for their age, just remember that, just as some babies walk at 9 months and others don’t start walking until 18 months or later, kids who learn naturally may master reading at age 3 or at age 13 or anywhere in-between, it really depends on the individual child.

Conformity in education is an artificial construct, and the adult literacy rates resulting from it show that conventional schooling doesn’t guarantee a good outcome. Customized learning at one’s own pace, however, has a lot more chance of success by the end of the childhood learning period, even when the pattern of learning to get there follows an unconventional path. As members of the homeschooling community, we’ve seen it first hand. We hope the information we’ve provided above will allow you to trust in it as well.


Copyright © 2020 Marian Buchanan