Anya Kamenetz, who covers education for NPR, is the author of “Generation Debt” and “The Art of Screen Time.”
Until a few weeks ago, about 3% of the nation’s children were home-schooled. Now with schools closed in almost every state - probably for months - to fight the spread of the coronavirus, the vast majority of the nation’s children are doing their learning, and nearly everything else, at home. Here are some myths about home-based learning as it’s likely to play out in these very unusual times.
1. Home-schoolers perform better than traditional students
Families that choose to home-school have reason to be confident. Attempting to reassure parents in early March, Kerry McDonald, who co-founded Unschool.school, wrote in Forbes that peer-reviewed studies "find that homeschoolers generally outperform their schooled peers academically, and have positive life experiences." Similarly, Jacqueline Kory-Westlund wrote for Fast Company that while some parents will be temporary stand-ins for teachers during the pandemic, "others might find that classroom-free learning suits their kids' needs better than a more typical education."
But everything we know about home schooling up to now has been based on families that choose it. Conversely, research on places where schools have been forcibly closed because of natural disasters or war, such as one study of girls from Afghanistan had either informal schooling and homeschooling, shows that the outcomes are dismal in terms of educational achievement and social-emotional development. During the pandemic, children who would normally get special accommodations in the classroom, children who rely on school meals or those whose homes are not safe are likely to fall far behind. And children who simply thrive in the social atmosphere of a classroom, or miss the predictable order, will not make as much progress as they ordinarily would.
The upshot is that forced home schooling is likely to intensify existing inequalities. Families with the time and resources can nurture their children's capabilities, but families with less of everything will have less to give to their kids.
2. The most important thing is to keep a rigid daily schedule
"Most kids work off a schedule in their classrooms, so recreating something similar at home can ease the transition to a different learning environment for the foreseeable future," one CNN article suggested. Images of color-coded schedules for home schooling have made the rounds on social media, with the promise that they will help parents "figure out how to engage [their] kids after March Break."
It is true generally that children thrive on routines, especially in uncertain times. But individualized instruction, by definition, means spending more time on the areas where kids both need and want to work, which requires flexibility. Children also need ample breaks, including going outside while maintaining social distance, even if it isn't scheduled. If your kids have an attention-deficit disorder, research shows, they may concentrate better after a walk in the park - a 20-minute "dose of nature" with its relaxing sights and sounds has been shown to improve attention. And home-schooling parents might allow their teenagers to get up later in the morning; most teens don't get enough sleep.
This is a terrifically stressful time, and everyone in your house has serious social and emotional needs to attend to. That will require flexibility as well.
3. Teaching by video is the best option
Online platform Outschool announced it was hiring 5,000 teachers to meet the needs of students during school closures. “I didn’t realize the benefits that video-conference learning offered over automated online learning,” wrote Janelle Randazza, who is home-schooling her kindergartner because of the coronavirus, in a review of Outschool on Reviewed.com. “It’s engaging for kids, because it’s not like they just sit there passively trying to digest content,” Amir Nathoo, chief executive of Outschool, told Fast Company. “They’re interacting with other kids and the teacher.” One teacher in Fort Myers, Florida said her kindergartners who read with her using Zoom “were involved, they were with me, they stayed with me, so I think they know this is our time together so they take it seriously and value it.”
But this is not the best practice, online-learning researchers say. According to Justin Reich, who studies online learning at MIT: "Young people don't have the attention or the executive-function skills to be able to sit and learn online for hours every day on their own," he said in reference to learning from home.
Reich said in an interview that research shows better results with a "blended," "hybrid" or "flipped" model, which combines some computer-based, real-time teaching with self-paced work and plenty of breaks - a rhythm similar to what remote workers follow.
Equity is also a huge issue with any technology-driven home-schooling model. Teachers in high-poverty schools told Common Sense Media in 2018 that more than 60% of their students do not have computers or internet access at home.
4. Finding the ‘perfect’ resource is key
With parents desperate to keep kids engaged, outlets are offering a bevy of resources, on the premise that parents can throw tools at the problem. Zinc Learning Labs says, for example, that its literacy technology "generates robust data to TARGET instruction and monitor progress." Achieve3000 promises that its literacy games and math exercises with short videos will help "meet the challenges of educating students in the face of coronavirus" and prevent students from regressing academically while away from the classroom.
There's nothing wrong with resources. But the enthusiasm for "amazing" and "free" home-schooling solutions bears a striking similarity to last decade's craze around the free streaming of college classes over the internet - known as "massive open online courses" or MOOCs. The idea was touted as the future of education, until studies showed that most of those who took advantage of MOOCs already had degrees and that only a small fraction of the millions who signed up sustained interest past the first lecture.
What the education world learned then, and what a broader community of parents is about to learn now, is that content - whether textbooks, AI-enabled tutoring programs or interactive webinars - does not equal education. "There's no such thing as educational content,"argues Jordan Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which researches education technologies. "Content is always neutral. It doesn't become educational until there is an interaction. And there is a particular way of interacting with content that constitutes an educational engagement." Translation: There is no website or game that will magically engage and teach kids for hours on their own without guidance.
5. It’s impossible to home-school kids with disabilities
About 14% of public school students receive special-education accommodations of some kind, and their families may have trouble wrapping their heads around what it means to home-school. Some education leaders worry about inadequate assistance for these students. "Some of our students have one-to-one support when they're in school, so imagine if you don't have that at home. It becomes virtually impossible for us to do that," Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Joel Carstarphen told NPR's "Weekend Edition." The Northshore School District outside Seattle tried distance learning for a week before determining that it could not offer adequate services for disabled students. "We can't replicate the services in a traditional setting," Superintendent Michelle Reid said.
But even before the pandemic, many families chose to home-school their kids with disabilities, drawing on resources like Accessibyte apps for those with visual impairment and Fastbraiin for learners with ADHD.
Amid the outbreak, the U.S. Department of Education has weighed in with new guidance, urging school districts to come up with solutions to serve students with disabilities and not to avoid offering remote-learning plans. Services like speech therapy, tutoring and even physical therapy are available online, and districts are still required by law to connect families to these services. One online provider of therapies, Enable My Child, told me it is swamped with requests from states and districts to be able to reach more kids.