- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

I naturally am excited to hear of the latest research, commissioned by the Home School Legal Defense Association and guided by the National Home Education Research Institute, which found that home-schoolers perform at the 87th to 89th percentile when taking standardized tests — from 37 to 39 percentile points better than the public school average.

Interestingly, these numbers represent a significant increase from the last major survey, conducted in 1998 by the University of Maryland’s Lawrence Rudner, in which a sample of 20,000 home-schoolers performed at the 80th percentile. This would indicate that home-schoolers have increased in their overall performance in comparison to their institutional counterparts by close to 10 percentile points over the last decade.

What is especially heartening is that the results varied little according to the parents’ level of education or income, or the level of state regulation and requirements. In fact, highly regulated states and those with low regulation had exactly the same results: 87th percentile performance.

The funny thing is, I really don’t value so-called standardized tests as proof of learning. They only measure a small segment of what actually goes on in the human learning process. They might measure the ability to read and comprehend, or to compute an equation or an angle using certain math skills — but can they measure someone’s ability to render an image on paper, to reproduce a melody with their voice or an instrument, or to invent a new system or tool?

We all are aware that human intelligence is more than factual knowledge. Tests are flawed instruments, according to this viewpoint. It seems strange to me that in recent years, the educational establishment has chosen to focus more and more energy in the area of preparing for tests, rather than expanding educational structures to fit what research shows us the human mind actually is capable of doing.

If we are to look at success in life, we can see that people become successful in a myriad different skill areas. How do you “test” for a Michael Jordan, Chris Rock, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg or Mother Teresa? Picking out a few numeric indicators to gauge how well people are learning doesn’t begin to show the real picture.

In my experience, home-schooling works on a level that can’t be quantified. It’s not something explained by minutes of instruction or numbers of pages read or percentages of correct answers. It’s not dependent on lesson plans, organization or instructional techniques.

Most home-schooling families I know go through a (blessedly) short period of trying to mimic classroom-type learning. At some point, they realize this doesn’t work. At some point, they start to notice when “real” learning is happening, and they gradually begin to trust their observation, and to work with the child’s natural interests and curiosity. At a certain point, the student becomes a self-directed learner. Parents shift from instructing into facilitating. When the student wants to join an orchestra or get flying lessons or travel to another country, the parent helps arrange for that to happen.

As exciting as the test scores are, in showing that home-schoolers are learning well in the traditional areas, the scores don’t show the entire picture: young learners who are self-directed and have a personal stake in mastering the information because they see it as meaningful to their own lives.

I believe home education is more than just an intense, one-on-one tutelage that crams information into the child’s mind more efficiently. Rather, home education is natural learning. It allows people to work from strengths, free of unnecessary blocks to learning. With a wholesome, supportive atmosphere, the students can explore subjects with open minds, free of worry that short-circuits the brain’s natural learning process.

The recent great results for home-schooling are to be celebrated, but I believe we should look beyond a mere comparison of educational results. Our common goal is to increase the level of preparedness and the success rate for all kids. I would hope educators consider expanding the entire academic universe, and seek all successful educational models, rather than focus narrowly on one set of data to validate any particular approach.

Kate Tsubata is a freelance writer and home-schooler living in Maryland.

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