Breaking News: Unschoolers Not as Good at School as Schooled People

Seems there was a study that came out a few weeks ago, which came to the conclusion that unschooling does not "work" as well as either schooling or structured homeschooling.

I realize I'm a little late on addressing this one, considering it's a study that was published in early September, so has already been blogged about pretty extensively, but with how little time I've spent at home (or at the very least in my home city--my family is currently staying in an apartment while some major repairs/renovations are going on at our house) in the last month (I've been in Ontario, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine) this is the first time I've been able to get around to it!

I'd suggest reading the whole press release, though I find these parts especially relevant:
"The investigation compared 74 children living in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: 37 who were homeschooled versus 37 who attended public schools. Participants were between 5 and 10 years old and each child was asked to complete standardized tests, under supervision of the research team, to assess their reading, writing, arithmetic skills, etc."


"The study included a subgroup of 12 homeschooled children taught in an unstructured manner. Otherwise known as unschooling, such education is free of teachers, textbooks and formal assessment.
'Compared with structured homeschooled group, children in the unstructured group had lower scores on all seven academic measures,' says Martin-Chang. 'Differences between the two groups were pronounced, ranging from one to four grade levels in certain tests.'
Children taught in a structured home environment scored significantly higher than children receiving unstructured homeschooling. 'While children in public school also had a higher average grade level in all seven tests compared with unstructured homeschoolers,' says Martin-Chang." 
Upon reading that, a couple of things immediately come to mind:
  1. The method of judging "success" that was chosen was standardized tests.  Schooled kids and schooled-at-home kids practice tests all the time.  They get good at taking tests, because they take tests.  Young, unschooled children who are not used to tests obviously will not be as good at taking tests, regardless of how much knowledge they have in the areas they're being tested on.  Unschoolers don't generally aim to be "successful" by being good at tests: they aim to be successful by being good at living life!
  2. Unschoolers learn on their own timeline.  The children in this study were between 5 and 10, and were being tested on the things the educational system has decided should be known at age 5 or age 7.  I couldn't even read until age 8 or 9, so if I had been tested at age 7 or 8, I would have been way below "grade level." However, that doesn't seem to have harmed my ability to read now...  I don't really agree with using standardized testing as a way to judge achievement and success at all, but even just going with those by-grade-level tests as a way to meassure such things, I feel that were the study to instead look at teenagers, say, between 14 and 18, the results likely would have been quite different...
  3. The definition of unschooling that was used seems less than accurate.  No teachers or textbooks?  As I've said before, unschooling doesn't have to mean unstructured.  It just means that unschoolers have the freedom to choose more or less structure.  So if (rather unsurprisingly) the authors of the study--the ones separating the children involved into different categories--don't even know what unschooling is, it doesn't seem that that separation will be very accurate. 
I also take issue with the fact that one of the professors overseeing the study notes that this is one of the first "nonpartisan" studies to compare school, homeschooling, and unschooling, when as Wendy Priesnitz points out, an academic institution, using the tools and criteria of an academic institution, is reviewing academic institutions (like schools), it's hardly nonpartisan.

Of course, the author of the study also had to throw in a little comment about how structured homeschooling may provide academic success, but that school is an important place for socialization.  I don't think I even need to add any comments to that one.

This study joins the many other studies showing that homeschoolers do better on standardized tests than do schooled kids, which isn't really surprising.  And I don't personally feel that yet another study saying so adds anything to the home education movement as a whole.  We already know that, and personally, I'm just tired of standardized tests being held up as the one and only sign of success for children and teens.  Instead, I worry that, as flawed as the methods in this study are, it will add fuel to the fire of disapproval directed at unschoolers, both from society at large and from within the home education community.


And all of this just brings me back to a question that seems to keep coming up in my life lately: what, exactly, constitutes success?  If you're using test scores as your criteria, then those 12 young unschoolers who participated in the study are failures.  But if your criteria are different, if instead you're looking--actually looking, not just marking tests and studying at a distance--for things like passion, joy, involvement, curiosity, excitement, learning, then I'm quite sure your results are going to look very different.

And really, which one would you prefer?

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