Two School Reforms You Don’t Have to Wait for Educators to Implement

Too much importance and energy is given to the question of whether homeschooling is academically sound, causing parents and educators to focus on test scores and other school metrics as the main determinants of success for homeschoolers, too. Typically, educationists push their hard line that the more time children spend in school, being instructed by trained professionals from the youngest possible ages, the better educated they will be as adults. Facts disprove this though: Finland compels children to attend school when they are older than kids in the U.S. are; Finnish schools don’t emphasize quizzes and test scores anywhere near the level we do, yet Finland’s students consistently outscore America’s on international education comparisons (we also significantly outspend Finland on education to little benefit). This strongly indicates there are other ways to approach the problem of how we treat our young people while the adults work away from them.

Indeed, I’ve always been struck by this comment of Ivan Illich’s: “The forces which are now expended toward schools should be redirected to education in a broader perspective.” Homeschooling has been showing us the broader perspective for decades, but as long as the “nose to the grindstone” educationists dominate schooling in America it is unlikely any of these actual practices will be promoted to families or schools. However, rather than tout the benefits of technology, such as massive online open courses (MOOCs), and compulsory social programs to enhance student academic achievement, I want to tout just two benefits of being a warm, responsive adult to the children you know instead of acting like a professional educator lecturing to thousands of students at once. These common-sense ideas are easily implemented at home by parents, and have been used successfully by families for decades (if not centuries!), but you will find little accommodation or support for them in conventional schools today.

SLEEP. Homeschoolers can let their children sleep while the neighbor’s children are getting on the school bus, something that might not seem like a big deal at first. However, speaking from experience and particularly as our girls became teens, it became apparent that letting them sleep in and take responsibility for their own schedules worked far better in the long run than us waking them up and getting them out of bed each morning. For a more recent example (my girls are now women, ages 26, 23, and 20), Amy Milstein writes how her unschooled children have become self-regulated with sleep yet easily rise early when they need to. Now research done by Dr. Lisa Meltzer, at National Jewish Health in Denver, CO, claims a direct benefit for teens who are homeschooled: they “benefit from healthier sleep habits than those who go to most private and public schools. The findings provide additional evidence of teens’ altered biological clocks and support an argument for starting traditional high school later in the morning.” Dr. Meltzer describes how simply sending teens to bed earlier doesn’t solve the problem, because melatonin levels (which govern your ability to sleep) are shifting a lot in a teenager’s body. Meltzer notes that sleep deprivation diminishes concentration and one’s ability to learn, and affects teenagers’ moods and ability to drive cars in the morning. “It’s not that they don’t want to go to bed, but physiologically they simply can’t fall asleep earlier. So, the logical solution, is to allow them to sleep later,” said Meltzer. The article claims:

The study concluded that more than half (55%) of teens who were homeschooled got the optimal amount of sleep per week, compared to just 24.5% of those who attend public and private schools. Conversely, 44.5% of public and private school teens got insufficient sleep during the school week, compared to only 16.3% of homeschooled teens.

RELATIONSHIPS: “You can always find another teacher, but you can’t easily find another parent. Don’t sacrifice your relationship with your children upon the altar of education.” I’ve said those words to thousands of parents over my three decades in homeschooling and unschooling, and I solidly believe in them. Now I have discovered research that backs that claim up—but I must note that we, and many others, trusted our own experiences and results with this issue and never waited for research to give us the green light before we would let our teenagers sleep in or decide to unschool. You have to trust in yourself and your children to make corrections, admit error, and recalibrate as you need: research studies will only take you so far. That said, researcher Joseph Murphy of Vanderbilt University wrote an overview of the homeschooling movement that was published in August, 2012, Homeschooling in America. Capturing and Assessing the Movement (Corwin, 2012). He concludes with some interesting theories about why homeschooling is successful at creating positive learning environments despite the wide range of motivations and approaches families use for homeschooling:

Homeschools, it is argued need not develop the institutional scaffolding and impersonality that define conventional schools (Medlin, 2000; Smith & Skikkink 1999). The key here is the development in homeschools of a highly personalized climate in which the child is known, cared for, and respected more deeply than is possible in models of collective schooling (More, 1982; Ray, 1997b). Holt (1981, 1983), for example, consistently maintained that the absence of “professional distance” found in conventional schools sets the stage for enhanced learning among homeschoolers. On the positive side of the story ledger, research confirms that these personalized environments are key in the student learning equation (Murphy, Beck, Crawford, & Hodges, 2001) and that such climates define homeschools (Wartes, 1988). Teachers in the home are more likely to know children well (Holt, 1981). They maintain more personal connections than are found in conventional schools (Moore, 1982). There is significant potential for the forging of strong bonds between children and parent. Or as Ray (1997b, 2000a) has regularly reminded us, it is easier for positive social capital acculumate in homeschools than in other forms of schooling.

You can wait until another study comes out that may convince schools to create a schedule that adapts to your sleep-deprived teenager’s schedule, or you can diligently follow your expert-designed, expensive curriculum and turn your home into a miniature school. Or you can do what thousands of parents have successfully done and homeschool in partnership with your children, instead of in domination of them: you might all sleep better, and create meaningful relationships as a result.