Home-schooling and it's sister idea, un-schooling, are twice as common today as they were a decade ago. But can "regular" families do it?
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.
Read on for success stories and what the critics think>>