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Not so fast: Home schooling trumps full-day kindergarten

Some time ago, our library held an information night for home-schooling parents. The room was jam-packed.

Seated beside a mom with coiffed hair, polished nails and an elegant suit, I listened wide-eyed as audience members talked about a world I had totally misunderstood and stereotyped.

They talked about children who weren't being challenged at school - one daughter came home crying, begging her mom to let her stay home and "teach" herself. Another parent described a school that just didn't know what to do with her rambunctious boy, so she decided to take over. He excelled.

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None of them were hippies. None seemed overly religious or way out there. In fact, the only trait they shared was a conviction that they - as moms and dads - could better prepare their children for life.

And you know what? They can.

A 2001 study by the Fraser Institute - updated in 2007 - looks at the growing phenomena of home schooling in Canada and the United States and sets out compelling evidence.

"Many studies, Canadian, American and international, have found that home-schooled students outperform students in both public and independent (private) schools," write the authors, Patrick Basham, John Merrifield and Claudia R. Hepburn.

They point to a 1994 Canadian study that found that home-schoolers would score, on average, at the 80th percentile in reading, the 76th percentile in language and the 79th percentile in mathematics. Those in school score at the 50th percentile, on average.

In England, a three-year study concluded that home-schoolers achieved better results in both literacy and mathematics. Home-schooling movements are growing there, as well as in Germany, Japan and Switzerland.

So why isn't any of this mentioned in Charles Pascal's report on full-day kindergarten?

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I'll quote from John Taylor Gatto to answer that one. He's an award-winning public school teacher from New York who retired after 30 years on the job when he realized school systems were failing students.

"We have been taught (that is, schooled) in this country to think 'success' is synonymous with, or at least dependent upon, 'schooling,' but historically that isn't true in either an intellectual or a financial sense," Mr. Gatto writes in his 2008 book, Weapons of Mass Instruction . He argues that mass schooling is actually meant to serve economic and political interests, not those of the child.

Mr. Pascal's report is a natural extension of the mainstream's approach to education - let "specialized" people handle it. But parents are often better equipped to know what their children need and how best to deliver it. The problem is, parents get no support, no encouragement, and are usually working.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Jessie Wise, author of The Well-Trained Mind , was also a public school teacher in the United States before deciding to stay home and teach her own children. "When I started, I was convinced I could never do it," she writes. Her daughter, who co-wrote the book with her, is testament that not only could Ms. Wise do it, she could do it well. "I loved going to school at home," enthuses Susan Wise Bauer, now a novelist who teaches English and literature at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Most children do love it - research shows that home-schooled children have fewer problem behaviours, watch less television and, overall, are more content.

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The Fraser Institute's study also raises two startling points: Children who are home schooled by a parent trained in teaching achieve about the same academic results as children whose parents are not; parents who didn't even finish high school can still do a better job of teaching their children than public schools, scoring "a full 55 percentile points higher in math and 49 points higher in writing than public school students from families with comparable education levels."

Of all the provinces, only Alberta and British Columbia financially support home-schooling parents in one way or another. Other provinces barely notice them. But the number of Canadian home-schooled children is growing rapidly: One source puts the number at 2,000 in 1979 and 17,523 in 1996, an increase of 776 per cent! (The numbers don't include those who aren't registered with school boards, or Quebec home-schoolers who aren't counted at all. Home-school associations put the number as actually being closer to 80,000).

It makes sense for governments to offer parents incentives to take this on. It's cheaper and will give parents more choice while freeing up space in public schools for those without an alternative.

Amira Elghawaby is an Ottawa-based writer.

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