Mariana, head of OLPC Foundation, from Queretaro, Mexico, has children in both the 5th grade and the 10th grade. They are doing well in school – better than most of their friends, whom they see only for sports and other extracurricular activities. But they don’t share a classroom – Mariana’s children are homeschooled instead.
When it comes to their children’s education, more and more parents are choosing to “vote with their feet,” in the words of the late political scientist Albert Hirschman. The often low quality of traditional public schools, and the awareness that a globally competitive world will demand more developed skills, is pushing parents to opt for different models – including, increasingly, homeschooling.
A sign of this shift is that today in the United States, more than two million students are studying at home. Only 25 years ago, this was an option that for the most part didn’t exist – and now it is permitted, and practiced, throughout the country.
Misconceptions remain regarding alternative education practices, however, and homeschooling is no exception. For many, studying at home conjures up images of an awkward, lonely child spending the day in the middle of nowhere, learning from outdated books and falling behind the social development of their peers. In reality, it is often the case, instead, that a number of families come together to study at one of their houses, or a space rented for the purpose. And in addition, new technologies mean that these students can have access to the cutting edge of learning tools, and take part in online coursework that parents sometimes are not well prepared to teach.
While homeschooling is certainly not a solution for everyone, it has become an important alternative in an education system that is not delivering equal results for every student. For those from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder – like many Hispanic immigrants – it can help overcome the inequalities inherent in the current education system.
At a time when public schools do not have the necessary resources for children with special needs, for instance, alternatives can do a better job. As Milagros Cima, a special education teacher and applied behavior analysis therapist, says, “Homeschooling is a way that children with disabilities can get the services they need, when public schools can’t provide them. Parents then have two choices: they can send their children to private school, or they can develop a home-based program, funded by the government.”
These programs comprise hand chosen team members, from physical therapists to play or music therapists. The child receives a completely individualized education, one that is tailored for his or her needs only. The many families who choose to home school their children point out that regular schools do not pay enough attention to quality, that teachers are not motivated, and there are too many students per classroom. They argue that, at home, learning is more personalized and is imparted in smaller groups.
In Latin America, traditional education is performing poorly, with high dropout rates and low student performance. Families are “voting with their feet” to private schools, but what about homeschooling – is it even a plausible option in the region?
Indeed, in countries like Mexico, as Ms Cortes stated, it is already happening. An official homeschooling system has been approved by the National Adult Education Institute (Instituto Nacional para la Educacion de los Adultos, or INEA). INEA administers a required exam for students when they are 10 years old, in order to demonstrate that they are keeping up with the standards of the rest of the formal system.
Alternative methods such as homeschooling seem less farfetched when we consider the ways in which education is becoming increasingly competency-based. Learning is about acquiring both theoretical knowledge and applicable skills in order to compete in the global marketplace. Less and less is it about being in class for a certain predetermined amount of time or checking certain courses off a list. It is becoming both more demanding and more flexible, which opens the door for new technologies and methods.
In the words of education expert Lisa Nielsen, “at home, learning is customized to what the child and parent feel is best. In school, students are grouped by date of manufacture…Parents have woken up and realized that the industrial model of schools of today are preparing their children for a world that no longer exists. They know that those who receive outdated, classroom-based instruction will have more difficulty moving up in the career ladder.”
The famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once remarked upon how good his education had been – until, that is, he started school. Perhaps that sardonic remark remains more valid than many of us would care to admit.
GABRIEL SANCHEZ ZINNY
President of Kuepa.com, a Latin American Blended Learning company, working in incorporating technologies to reduce drop out rates. He wrote this column for Latinvex.