The New Home-schooling

It's twice as common today as it was a decade ago. But can "regular" families do it?

Alex Roslin
Today’s Parent, May 2010

It had been snowing for a week straight in Mansonville, a mountain village nestled in the Appalachians, 150 kilometres east of Montreal. But there was no hope of a snow day for 10-year-old Kira Nichols — she’s home-schooled. So she doesn’t even need to get out of her PJs to hit the books.
Besides, Kira doesn’t need cajoling to start school. Before breakfast, she’s already spent an hour engrossed in Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls. After reading for a while in French, Kira turns her attention to math, practising fractions on some worksheets that her mom, Kim, printed from an educational website. Then she works on a short story that she’s writing about mythical creatures, plays Scrabble with Mom (building Kira’s vocabulary) and plays outside.
School’s done for the day and it isn’t even time for lunch; Kira virtually never needs to spend more than two hours a day on academics to stay ahead of the school curriculum for her grade.
Kira and Kim are part of a fast-growing movement: In Canada, the number of home-schooled kids has doubled in a decade to an estimated 60,000 to 80,000, or two percent of this country’s school-aged population. In the US, 1½ to 2 million kids are home-schooled — about 3½ percent of all school-agers — and that number is growing seven percent a year.

What is home-schooling?

Home-schooling — once considered fringe or “granola” — has come of age. Many universities are now courting home-schoolers and designing special admissions rules to allow them to enter without a high school diploma. And home-schooled kids are showing they can compete with their more traditionally educated peers on the academic playing field. Studies of Canadian and US home-schoolers found they outperform their public-school counterparts by solid margins in math, language ability, reading, social sciences and science. They even tend to beat private-schoolers, whose scores average in the 65th to 75th percentile in these areas, versus the 75th to 85th percentile showings of home-schoolers.
Still not impressed? A study of more than 20,000 home-schoolers found that in grade four they are, on average, a grade ahead academically of their public and private school peers. By grade eight, they’re almost four grades ahead, even though the average home-schooler spends only three hours a day on academic learning, compared to the typical six-hour school day.
Presented with statistics like these, and the idyllic impression made by Kira and Kim, few would argue home-schooling is intriguing. But how doable is it really? And how can you tell if it’s a good fit for your family?
Home-schooling parents and even some education professionals say the first question is easy to answer. “It’s less daunting for parents than they might think,” Kim says assuredly. You don’t need to know how to develop a lesson plan or have any teaching experience. Parents can get all the curriculum materials they need from the Internet, by mail order or through swaps with other home-schooling families. (See Resources for a list of helpful home-schooling websites.)
You can choose an existing teaching philosophy that reflects your family’s values and goals, or develop your own by combining teaching materials from several different sources. Approaches range widely, from the so-called traditional or school-at-home method, using the same textbooks and tests as your child would see in a public school setting, to “unit studies,” which encompass self-directed learning through books, worksheets, online resources and field trips, all the way to “unschooling,” where the idea is that learning opportunities are everywhere; a walk in the woods can turn into biology class and an evening walk, an astronomy lesson.
Abbi Miller’s parents were early proponents of unschooling, visiting places like the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota to teach their children geography and history. “The world is your school” is how Abbi, now 25, sums up the approach. Looking back on her experience, she believes the more freedom kids are given to learn what interests them, the more likely they’ll be to retain their love of learning. A self-proclaimed “math geek,” Abbi was allowed to teach that subject to herself — something she did with great enthusiasm. “I would be like ‘Mom, I want more workbooks!’” she recalls.

Home-schooling successes

That kind of motivation and energy are a big part of home-schooling success. “The kid has to be not just willing, but highly motivated to do this,” says Gary Knowles, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who’s worked as a school principal and a teacher of teachers for 30 years. He notes that chances of home-schooling success are better when families draw strongly on learning opportunities in the community — libraries, art galleries, museums, farms — and are open-minded and curious about the world.
Kim Nichols’ approach is to let her daughter, Kira, take the lead regarding what she wants to study. Mom helps set goals of how many hours should be devoted to various subjects each week, and answers questions when Kira gets stuck. Otherwise, she says, “Her schedule is pretty much her own.”
That kind of flexibility can be a boon to kids who like to dig deep into topics that interest them; a class doesn’t have to stop after the usual 45 or 60 minutes if a child is enthralled. And parents can custom-fit learning to nurture a young person’s interests and adapt to special needs, whether a child is gifted or having difficulties. Interestingly, a 2003 study of Canadian home-schoolers with cognitive limitations found they were performing at the same academic level as the average public-schooled kid.

What the critics say

Still, home-schooling isn’t for everyone. Knowles has been keeping tabs on several dozen home-schoolers for nearly three decades, as research for a book. He’s seen that home-schooling does not often work well when parents have major personality conflicts with their kids, or if a child isn’t fully on board for the experience. Cloistered environments in which children are taught intolerance or don’t get to meet a lot of other kids are also problematic.
Even two children from the same family may be differently suited. Kim Nichols’ son, Jordan, 12, wanted to stop home-schooling last fall. Part of the reason for the switch was wanting to spend more time with male pals his age, of which there are few among home-schoolers in their remote area. Now, despite a two-hour round-trip commute by school bus to the regional high school he now attends, Kim says Jordan looks forward to school all weekend, has quickly made new friends there, and is doing “very well” academically. Meanwhile, Kira is still happy to learn at home with their mom, and she hooks up with a group of home-schooling buddies for regular educational and social get-togethers.
Some critics say that this is where home-schooling falls down — in offering fewer opportunities for children to be with other children. “The best place for socialization and education is a public school,” insists Réjean Parent, president of Centrale des syndicats du Québec, the province’s largest teachers’ union.
Education professor Knowles disagrees. Socialization, he says, can be learned and not all school contexts are ideal for gaining these skills. “If you are a 13-year-old, who is to say that 1,300 other 13-year-olds are the best people to be responsible for socializing you?”
Home-schooling parents must work to ensure their kids are in contact with peers, but it can be done. Hamilton mom Kristy Crawford, who home-schooled three of her five children, connected with other families through a local home-schooling association that organized “really cool” outings almost every day of the week — bowling, rock climbing, French lessons, visits to orchards, museums, libraries, historic villages. Similar groups exist in cities across Canada, and they are easy to find online.
Because children’s social — and academic — successes aren’t expressed in regular report cards, parents who home-school also need to take a different perspective on their children’s progress. “Don’t expect linear development,” Knowles advises. “Kids might go a long time without seeming to make progress. Parents who home-school have to take a more fluid or open view of kids’ learning.”
If that thought fills you with parental panic, perhaps home-schooling isn’t for you. But for parents like Kim Nichols, the rewards are numerous. “Being there when they learn something new — it’s like a miracle,” she says. “I want to be there for those times.”

Home-schooled kids, happy adults?

What are home-schooled kids like once they’ve grown up? According to a study by the US National Home Education Research Institute, three-quarters of them will have at least some post-secondary education, compared to half the general population. That’s thanks, in part, to a fast-growing number of universities that accept home-schooled applicants, including Harvard, MIT and the West Point military academy in the United States, and the University of Toronto, York and McGill in Canada.
The study also found that those who were home-schooled are nearly twice as likely to volunteer as others their age.
And a Canadian study found home-schoolers scored an average of 4.9 out of six on a life satisfaction test (with six being the best), compared to 4.2 for public-schoolers.

Home-schooling and the law

Across Canada, it’s perfectly legal to pull your child out of the public school system and teach her at home. However, provincial regulations (and individual school boards) impose varying conditions on home-schooling families.
British Columbia is seen as a home-schooling mecca because its School Act gives parents the right to educate children at home in any way they choose, so long as they follow some kind of “educational plan.” Parents do need to register with a public or independent school, or a distance-learning institution. The province provides funds to the schools for each registered home-schooler, creating incentive for schools to work together with home-schooling families. Home-schoolers can even borrow computer equipment and textbooks from the schools. Policies are also quite liberal in Ontario and Alberta.
At the other end of the spectrum is Quebec, whose provincial Education Act allows home-schooling, but says parents must provide education “equivalent to what is provided in school” and gives school boards power to scrutinize home-schoolers’ progress.
The remaining provinces and territories mostly fall somewhere in between.


Click on these websites for home-schooling tools and info: Excellent Canadian home-schooling resource info and articles from Life Learning magazine, started by Canadian home-schooling pioneer Wendy Priesnitz. The Canadian Home Based Learning Resource Page lists hundreds of links for learning resources, home-schooling support groups, as well as province-by-province info on legal issues. Home Education Magazine’s website has hundreds of free articles about home education, several blogs and a nice links library. Access nearly 36,000 pages of educational textbooks for free. Click on Wikijunior for books about math, science, social studies and more for babies to preteens. Quebec mom Kim Nichols blogs about her home education adventures and offers a great set of links to resources.