Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Musings on Homeschooling

This is going to be a rambling post so forgive me. My thoughts aren't entirely organized on this topic and I am thinking I would like to just do a "stream of consciousness" kind of post.

Homeschooling has been on my mind for a while. I am not considering it for us - my income is too important so it isn't even something for consideration. Actually, what I should say is that exclusively homeschooling is not for us. I take learning very seriously and I love exploring new skills and ideas with Pk (and, down the road, with Iain, I hope). I plan several learning activities a week for Pk and will continue to do that when she is at school. Even the best teacher will not teach a child everything and we, as teachers, all have our weaknesses and can use extra help. I want Pk to have a thirst for knowledge and an understanding that learning doesn't have to be confined to a classroom.

Homeschooling wasn't something on my radar until the last couple of years. I grew up in a big city and I don't tend to think of homeschooling as a "big city" kind of thing. Frankly, in the past, I always associated it with people from the religious fringe or members of militias who were waiting for the government to invade. "Normal" people didn't do it and I didn't consider it to be a Canadian thing, at all. I wasn't even sure it was legal.

Since I have entered the blogging world, I have stumbled across blog after blog written by homeschoolers. Granted, I tend towards attachment parenting and Christian motherhood blogs, both being groups who often choose to withdraw from institutional society. Then, I met several rational and sane homeschoolers at our local organic food place and finally, a good friend from church has made the decision to homeschool. I see that it is rapidly growing in popularity.

As a teacher, I have to say that while I would love the chance to spend my days designing quality learning experiences for my daughter, I can't help but have some concerns about homeschooling. For some children, especially those of parents with a very controlling approach to parenting, getting away to school is their only chance at any freedom. Sadly, there are parents out there whose methods are NOT what is healthy for children (whether we are talking about learning or whether we are talking about punishment and school is a good place for bruises to be noticed and reported). As a teacher, I have concerns about curriculum-in-a-box and I tend to think that many of the programmes are heavily weighted to rote learning and worksheets or the computer equivalent (although I have seen a few programmes that look really exciting and innovative and on the flip side, there are school classrooms that are too programme-based as well). Like many educators, I have concerns about socialization and whether many of these homeschooled children are receiving adequate preparation to live in the real world (although, again, I have been amazed at some of the wonderful social environments created by many homeschooling groups). My biggest concern, though, is that in homeschooling situations, there are parents who have little experience with learning and age and who most likely wouldn't recognize that their child was behind or struggling beyond what is normal. In the case of my friend, that is my biggest worry - I am certain that her daughter has significant learning delays that should be addressed though some kind of special education programme with a highly trained teacher but I very much doubt that this friend would be able to see that herself (and that may be why she is leaning towards a homeschooling programme).

One other major concern I have is that I think that there is a great deal of marketing that is being done to parents that is definitely slanted to a particular position. This friend went to a workshop, not long ago, on homeschooling. She came back totally thrilled because they had been told that homeschooled children score better on standardized tests than public school students. She swore that they were referring to the grade 3, 6 and 10 tests that are given in Ontario but when she asked me the letters for the name of the tests, when I told her it was E.Q.A.O., she insisted that I was wrong (hello, I have only taught in Ontario for 12 years...) and that they were three letters, something like s... I am guessing that they were presented with American data and possibly American data that doesn't relate to elementary learning. I also tend to think that standardized test data is minimally relevant - while those trying to push various educational agendas on the world put great value on these tests, it is my opinion (after 12 years of teaching in wildly diverse schools and school boards) that the tests say much more about the home life of the children in question than about the quality of teaching they receive. I have taught in areas where the teacher could sit at the front of the room and read the newspaper all year and the students would be successful because of parental involvement and early learning opportunities and I have taught in places where we could have worked with the students 24/7 and they still would have failed. That presents a solid reason why homeschooled kids would be successful - they have parents who involve themselves in and facilitate their children's learning.

As an educator in the public school system, I have a hard time not feeling the teeniest bit offended at all these parents who think they can do it better than I can, despite my degrees and skills and experience. I think what we as educators need to take from this rise in homeschool is that our education system is broken. Parents aren't happy, teachers aren't happy, universities getting our graduates aren't happy and, most significantly, there are are growing number of students who are being left behind. Instead of complaining about and criticizing these parents who try another route, we need to really break open our faulty education system and begin to explore how we can change it. What is is about homeschooling that works for so many children? Is it the flexibility to learning at an individual's own rate? Is it the ability to plan the day around natural rhythms and temperaments? Is it the ability to explore areas of interest to greater depths regardless of what the curriculum says? Is it that in a homeschooling environment, people feel that their beliefs are valued and respected in ways that they are not in public schools (this is a big one for me, I don't see why we can't coexist together in a public school environment without making people's individual beliefs totally unwelcome when they are uncomfortable or go against the status quo)? Is it that parents want to be involved in what their children are learning and feel left out in the traditional education system? Is it that children in homeschooling situations are exempted from the bullying and having the emotional problems of other children imposed upon them (since "integration" is the name of the game these days, many classes are held hostage by children with significant emotional/behavioural problems)?

It's time that our society stops pretending that education is working and instead of spending millions on more tests that tell us nothing, we need to begin have frank and open discussions about the systemic flaws and how we might change things so that more of these families feel that a public education wouldn't be something that was inferior. If, after that, people continue to feel the need to opt out, fine, but at least we could truly say that we were offering education to all.

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