The Next City
March 21, 1998
When the public system gets failing grades, home schooling soars
MOST OF US SEND OUR CHILDREN TO SCHOOL when they are four or so, and we expect certain things from schools in return. At a bare minimum, we expect that our children should learn to read, write, do some algebra, and ultimately become functioning members of society. And at most, with a little guidance from us, we expect them to reach their full potential, ultimately becoming creative, loving adults.
Do schools fulfil our expectations? Not according to an August, 1996, Angus Reid poll. A substantial number of Canadians, according to the poll, are not happy with our public school system. They don’t like the quality of education in general, they don’t like the quality of teachers, and, rejecting the new directions in teaching methods, they perceive a need to “get back to the basics.”
In the poll, only 9 per cent of Canadians described themselves as “very satisfied” with the school system, while 44 per cent said they were “somewhat satisfied,” and 43 per cent gave it the thumbs down.
Lukewarm results like those, in one of the most important areas of our children’s lives, explain why parents consider alternatives to public schools. The Angus Reid poll found a solid majority (60 per cent) of Canadians would consider hiring a private tutor for their child and 39 per cent would consider spending $5,000 for tuition at a private school. For families who can’t afford even bargain basement private schools — the majority of us — a surprising choice soared to the head of the class: home schooling.
Once considered the domain of aged hippies and Jehovah’s Witnesses, home schooling is now cutting edge. Twenty-five per cent of those Angus Reid questioned had reached the point of saying they would “seriously consider” home education as an option. In increasing numbers, and despite the hardships involved, Canadian parents are doing just that. Tia Leschke, a home-schooling mom on Vancouver Island, despaired when her eldest son didn’t thrive and gain confidence in a school. Due to a severe problem with fine motor control, in Grades 1 and 2, he would either get in trouble for taking too long to finish his work (he was trying to make it neat) or finish on time and be told it was too messy. In Grade 2, his mother took him out of school and began teaching him at home, using the curriculum of Life 101 as she calls it, and considering herself a “facilitator,” not a teacher. She let him use the computer for writing, and soon he learned to progress well. “He began to think he was smart and that learning might be fun,” says Leschke. Now 19, he’s back in school and has his Grade 8. His experiences, as well as those of her two daughters who did not enjoy school (one has her Grade 11, one will graduate from high school this year) prompted Leschke to keep her youngest, a 10-year-old boy, out of school entirely.
Donna Sheehan, a home-schooling parent in Toronto, laughs when she realizes that she sounds like a cross between a socialist and a Reform party member while discussing her reasons for keeping her two kids at home. “The school system promotes competition and a grading of people,” she says. A few minutes later, she is onto the topic of morality, saying she doesn’t believe public schools produce good people with good values anymore. “Which puts me on the same side as the right-wing Christians, which makes me very uncomfortable, but they have a lot of valid points.”
Since the late 1970s, the number of home-schooled children in Canada has increased more than 20-fold, from a mere 2,000 home schoolers to somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000. Home schooling is a movement gaining popularity across Canada. In the Ottawa Valley, for example, the Home Based Learning Network started up in 1994 and counted only three families as members. Now it boasts 50 families, with over 100 children. Home schooling is also growing overseas. In 1977, fewer than 20 British families were known to be home schooling. In 1996, the London Evening Standard estimated the number at 15,000. Australia has an estimated 20,000, New Zealand 7,000.
In the United States, the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimates 1.23 million American children (out of the 52 million K-12 students total in the U.S.) were being taught in their homes in the fall of 1996, up from 475,000 in 1990 and 10,000 in 1980, when home schooling was illegal in all but a handful of states. Today, home schooling in some form is now legal in all 50 states. The number of home-schooled kids in the U.S. exceeds the total number of students in the Atlantic or western provinces.
On a per capita basis, twice as many U.S. kids are home schooled as Canadian ones, possibly due to U.S. individualism, mistrust of government, pioneerism, and a greater population of fundamentalist Christians. Gary Knowles, a professor of adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and one of the continent’s leading experts on home schools, also points to the difference in school systems. “Canada has had a much fairer education system than the States,” he says. “Let’s face it. There are great inequities in funding in public schools in the U.S., leading to better standards in some situations but much worse ones at other times. And Canadian society has not had the same kind of problems of immorality and drugs.” A 1996 Florida Education Department survey largely bears him out: Sixty-one per cent of parents indicated dissatisfaction with public school instruction and environment as their principal motive for home schooling.
But the gap between the U.S. and Canada may be smaller than the official stats show. Jackie Luffman of Statistics Canada’s Centre for Education Statistics notes that many Canadian home schoolers don’t notify their local school boards, either because they live in a province that doesn’t require it or because they simply choose not to, especially when children are below mandatory school age.
Among Canada’s provinces, Alberta has the greatest proportion of home schoolers, partly because it is a fairly conservative place with a large number of back-to-basics Christians, but also because Alberta has done the most to integrate home schooling into the education system. Prior to 1994, under the Alberta Education Act, the province gave school boards about $1,500 per registered home-schooled kid, $500 of which would go to the family. In 1994, the government required parents to register home-schooled kids with a school board and dropped the school board grant to $900. Boards now either provide parents a per child grant (usually $400) or ask the families to keep receipts for books, curricula, and other educational material — whatever a family might need to educate at home — and reimburse them.
This doesn’t mean, however, that home schoolers in other provinces are envious. Generally speaking, when money is given, conditions follow. Leschke, for one, says she prefers British Columbia: “We don’t get any of the kind of control that they have to put up with in Alberta.”
Control includes, apart from registration, testing. Alberta’s Ministry of Education mandated a provincial achievement test for students in a variety of grades, including home schoolers. Alberta home schoolers must also prove that their children are progressing through a curriculum, though not necessarily the curriculum followed in Alberta schools, in meetings with certified teachers at least twice during the school year.
ALTHOUGH HOME-SCHOOLED KIDS often don’t have the money for private schools, although they don’t benefit from the resources or the facilities in public schools, and although their parents generally aren’t trained teachers, home-schooled kids have outstanding academic records. A 1992-93 survey of 808 Canadian home-schooling families that had used a standardized test ranked them, on average, in the 82nd percentile (the average is the 50th percentile). The parents’ educational backgrounds had no impact on test results, nor did the parents’ professions or income levels. In the U.S., about 5,500 home schoolers tracked during the 1994-95 and 1995-96 school years scored between the 80th and 87th percentile on standardized tests taken by public school students, tests that included math and science. Again, factors like the parents’ levels of education made no difference in the test results. In a 1996 Iowa Test of Basic Skills, home-schooled kids performed better in reading than 79 per cent of other students. And it’s no longer a newsflash when home-schooled kids get accepted into a top university.
A desire to do better for their children is behind most decisions to home school — in a 1990 survey of home-schooling parents sponsored by the Canadian Alliance of Home Schoolers (CAHS), 72 per cent of respondents said they home schooled for philosophical reasons, and 55 per cent criticized the public school system for being overcrowded and breeding a certain mediocrity. Another 18 per cent had experienced “some kind of conflict” with public education authorities.
Most Canadian parents who home school do so not for religious reasons: Even among the 53 per cent of home schoolers in Canada who consider religious commitment fundamental to their lives, only 25 per cent home schooled to give religious instruction. Religious connections may show up among home-schooled kids more because churchgoers have more community resources to draw from. “I would say that the number of home schoolers has grown so quickly because church-based groups have encouraged it,” says CAHS founder, Wendy Priesnitz.
Nevertheless, the absence of religious instruction in the public school system also draws people to home school. “People who home school for religious reasons have that ready-made support group within their religious communities,” says Priesnitz, referring to evangelical Christian groups who want creationism and the like to be taught in the school system. Many of these families, she says, order Christian curricula from the vast American network of home-schooling organizations. “And some of them Canadianize those curricula, and some, unfortunately, don’t even do that,” she says.
Only three per cent opt for home schooling because they live far from schools. OISE’s Knowles himself understands that concern, having home schooled his two oldest children when his family lived in a remote area of the South Pacific.
None of the families surveyed in 1990 mentioned their children’s special needs as a specific factor in their decision, although such children are prime candidates for home schooling, and many of them are home schooled. “All indications are the population [of special needs kids who home school] is growing fast. Home schooling appears to be effective for them,” says NHERI’s Brian Ray. National Challenged Homeschoolers, an organization in Washington state, started out with two families in 1990 and now represents more than 7,000 throughout the United States.
Statistics Canada’s Luffman agrees that special needs children may help explain the explosive growth in home schooling. Seven years ago, parents would have been less likely to talk about their children’s challenges, she explains. People are now more aware and less embarrassed about having a child with a physical or mental handicap. She also points to many recent cases where children were diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), or some other learning challenge, by a school counsellor or school psychologist, and unhappy parents decided that the school was the problem and not the disorder. Some parents even feel that schools aggravate existing problems for special needs kids.
The Flynn family have three children, all of them “challenged” and all of them busy right now. Darren, 8, is practising cornet in the living room. His 11-year-old brother, Andrew, is downstairs working on the computer, and his four-year-old sister, Nicole, is using a bowl of beans to work on some math questions. The children are sweet and polite, and Nicole especially is friendly and eager to chat. The small house in Toronto’s east end is in that state of midmorning mayhem known to many families, while Duane Flynn, the children’s father, tries to finish up the breakfast dishes and Katherine Primrose, their mother, ushers the family dog into her bedroom to get him a little peace and quiet.
“He’s 14,” she says. “Sometimes all of this gets a bit much for him.” “All of this” is daily life with the Flynns, who home school all of their children. Unlike most homes, which are empty from nine to five most weekdays, the Flynn home continuously hums with activity and noise.
The Flynns do not remember the day they made the decision to home school. “We had no intention to home school,” says Primrose. Their oldest son, Andrew, went to junior kindergarten. “I think he made it to the March break, and then he retired.” It wasn’t Andrew’s decision, Primrose hastens to add, but rather hers and her husband’s. They saw a negative change in his behavior — including tantrums and anxiety — and decided he might be just too young at that point to handle school. They decided to keep him home for a year and try again in senior kindergarten.
“But then, as we got more involved in what home schooling was all about, we said, ‘Grade 1.’ And then by the time Grade 1 came around, we said, ‘Grade 3.’ And then we started learning that he really had challenges. We didn’t know that when he was younger.”
All three Flynn children have Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder. The boys have ADD, Nicole and Darren are asthmatic, and Nicole has Down’s syndrome. The various requirements of each, the blending, made it easier for the Flynns to keep their kids at home.
“So we said,” she smiles, “‘Grade 6.’ So now we’re there and we say, ‘Forget it!'”
Flynn works for the City of Toronto, and his work schedule leaves most of the teaching to Primrose, a former registered nurse. Flynn is an active household participant nonetheless, doing the kitchen cleanup as Primrose and I talk. At one point, Nicole bounds into the living room with her little blue shirt all wet, having just helped her daddy do the dishes. “You’ve got dishwasher belly,” teases her mother.
The Flynns have their scheduling — all of which revolves around mealtimes — down to a science. After breakfast, each child reads aloud from the Bible, just as their parents did when they were in elementary school decades earlier. Then comes a math lesson and typing tutorial (on the computer) for the boys, and cornet practice for Darren. The boys then work toward earning their Cub badge — their father is a Cub leader — which they’ll receive for successfully completing a space exploration project.
That takes about two hours. Then Primrose and her kids bake, cook, or do an experiment, or the boys just play while Primrose works on speech and reading with Nicole. After lunch, the kids do oral spelling and oral math or the interest du jour, the Second World War or solar energy, for example, usually suggested by the children. Some afternoons there are activities, swimming or cycling or tossing around a ball. The boys have a woodworking shop in their basement, which allows Primrose extra time to devote to Nicole. She finds time for the boys — and the more advanced things they might want to study — when Nicole attends her sports days for special needs children two mornings a week.
The only thing the children do at the table is math. Primrose tries to incorporate what the children are learning — even the math — into their lives. She uses board games for math or cooking for science, for example. “I don’t look at home schooling as how we educate our children,” says Primrose. “This is how we live our life.”
Primrose has nothing against the school system. She uses her local school resources from time to time and says she would not be bothered if one of her kids wanted to try “real” school. In fact, Andrew says he might like to go to university. She and her husband have even considered sending him to a local school of late. Schools just don’t work for her kids right now, that’s all. If she isn’t burdening the system, she reasons, why should anyone fuss? “After all,” she says, “Duane and I pay the same taxes as everyone else.”
SCHOOL AUTHORITIES DO MORE THAN “fuss,” however. Until recent years, school officials took parents to court to try to eradicate home schooling, explains Knowles, who — when conducting a recent survey of school superintendents in Michigan — was taken aback at their vehemence and negativity. In the U.S., in fact, the official position of the National Association of Elementary School Principals urges local and state associations “to support legislation that . . . prohibits at-home schooling as a substitute for compulsory school attendance,” and the National Education Association states that home education “cannot provide the child with a comprehensive education experience.”
Because of this war waged by the public school establishment, a bias against home schooling — as well as a fear of keeping kids out of school — has long pervaded society. Twenty years ago, very few parents frustrated with public schools knew that they weren’t required to send their kids to one. Even those who should have known were out of the loop. In 1979, while speaking on a CBC radio show, then Ontario education minister Betty Stephenson stated — incorrectly — that home schooling was illegal.
That was the year Wendy Priesnitz founded the CAHS. It was also the year that John Singer died in Utah, giving a lot of media attention, at least in the United States, to home schooling. Singer was killed on his farm when he drew a gun on law enforcement officers, who were trying to arrest him for disobeying a court order to send his children to public school. Singer is a stereotypical American poster boy for the home-schooling movement, having been a fundamentalist Mormon. Priesnitz is more in keeping with the sedate Canadian landscape. With her, individual rights didn’t come into it at all.
Priesnitz and her husband, Rolf, started a home-based publishing business to let them be at home with their two daughters 21 years ago. Prior to then, Priesnitz had gone to teachers college and then had taught Grade 5, in the north end of Hamilton, for four months. That was enough for her. “The kids didn’t want to be there by and large. I spent most of my time disciplining them, keeping them from jumping out the window and swinging from the lights.”
After the Priesnitzes’ own kids were born, both parents noticed how actively they learned; they didn’t sit back and wait for their enthusiasm to be motivated. “I thought that if they had learned how to walk and talk, and we had facilitated that process, then we could probably facilitate other kinds of learning as they grow older.”
The Priesnitzes home schooled their children until the oldest daughter, Heidi, decided, at age 13, that she didn’t want to do it anymore — Heidi was curious about school and was growing up, ready to step away from her close-knit family. Heidi enrolled in a performing arts high school and was followed there the next year by her younger sister.
Returning to school — or going for the first time at all — at about age 13 is fairly common among home-schooled kids. There is, of course, the age-old desire to be with the peer group, to go to the mall and dances and have silly crushes, but there is also, says Priesnitz, a practical reason. Kids often need to develop skills they can’t really develop at home. Most families, after all, don’t have biology labs in their basements, or the ability to put on a school show, or put together a basketball team.
The issue of adjusting to school brings into focus the most common battle cry of home-schooling critics — that home-schooled children are isolated and not properly socialized.
“Socialized to what?” one Saskatchewan parent asked me, pointing out that bullying and fighting are common to many schoolyards and classrooms. Another home-schooling parent, this one in Nova Scotia, told me that watching the interaction of children and teachers in a schoolyard — that much vaunted socialization — across from her house, loomed large in her decision to home school. “Public school was quickly ruled out,” Janine Taylor explained. She and her husband, Roger, considered private schools, but, as Taylor says, “I had been at home since the kids were born, so it seemed almost instinctive to keep going the same way.”
In Knowles’s extensive research conducted over close to 20 years, he has found no justification for such fears. “Where on earth did we get the notion that a thousand 13-year-olds are the best way to socialize kids into our society? Schools came out of factory models, and they were created to deal with the masses. They’re not meant to accommodate individuals,” he says, underscoring the problems of special needs kids.
In one study based on interviews with grown-up home schoolers, Knowles found most “reflected positively on their home education and their present occupations. Spirituality and a sense of moral purpose were values shared by many of the adults.” In sharp contrast to the negative views held by public school advocates, Knowles concluded that home schooling may have “positive characteristics that have hitherto gone unrecognized.”
Knowles found that kids have lots of other chances to be socialized, either through clubs or activities. “There are only a few families where contact with other kids is really excluded. For those families, I think there’s a real problem.” Apart from those “almost deviant families,” he says, “socialization is an absolute moot point.”
HOME SCHOOLING CAN NEVER MEET THE NEED of the majority of families, where both parents work outside the home, or where, even if they don’t, they consider schools a desirable way for their children to make friends, learn, and grow. Though it has gained widespread respectability and is growing rapidly in mainstream Canada, the number of children who are actually home schooled at any moment remains small — about one-fifth of the number in private schools and just one per cent when compared with the total school enrolment across Canada, including all schools (public, private, federal, overseas, blind-deaf schools, and Mennonite and Hutterite schools). The percentage is similar in other countries. But home schooling will continue to grow, partly because parents have begun to learn that it’s an option through organizations like CAHS, partly because the Internet provides low-cost educational resources, and mostly because the public school system remains lacklustre and inflexible, and private schools are unaffordable.