Public Schooled, Homeschooled or Unschooled: Who Makes the Grade?

Last week, the Atlantic reported on a new Canadian study that compared the test results of children in different educational environments. The conclusion: homeschooled children score higher on tests.  For most people, this is probably not a surprise. But what does it mean?

The Study

Sandra Martin-Chang, Odette N. Gould and Reanne E. Meuse published their study on the impact of schooling on academic achievement in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science. The study involved 74 Canadian children between the ages of five and ten years old, half of whom were attending public schools and half of whom were homeschooled. Among the homeschooled students, 25 were following a structured home schooling program while 12 were in an unstructured (unschooling) environment. Using standardized tests focusing on reading, writing, math and other subjects, the children were evaluated across seven academic measures.

The results showed that children in a structured homeschooling environment had the highest scores, with a half-grade advantage in math and two grade level advantage in reading over their public school counterparts. Children from an unstructured homeschooling environment had the lowest scores across all seven academic measures. The authors of the study concluded that “children taught in a structured home environment may have an academic edge over their peers in traditional schools” (source: The Atlantic).

The Critique

What was this study really testing? According to critics of the study, it wasn’t really testing intelligence or knowledge or potential. It was simply testing children’s test-taking ability. In a post entitled Homeschooling Research: Fish Climbing Trees, author and publisher Wendy Priesnitz wrote:

The twelve unstructured homeschoolers did poorly on those standardized tests. Of course! Those fish in a tree-climbing competition were bound to lose the race. The question for me is: Why were they involved in the first place? The whole premise of “unschooling” is that learning happens as a result of the learner’s interest, rather than somebody else’s agenda or timeline, and doesn’t rely on testing or accountability to anyone but the learner. The researchers do give a nod to that, wondering if “the children receiving unstructured homeschooling” might eventually “catch up or surpass their peers given ample time.” But they don’t say if they want to study that. (Nor do they say if the unschooled kids were coached in testing writing techniques, which is important, since testing tests test-taking skill as much as anything.)

Academic achievement, standardized tests and grade levels are ultimately an arbitrary and artificial measure of intelligence developed by people who design curriculum and testing instruments.  They are biased in favor of students who are following a curriculum that closely patterns the things that are being measured on the test.

Additionally, the study did not include any children in private schools, so there is no information on how they fared compared with the other three groups that were tested.

No Easy Answers

While this study reads like an endorsement of structured homeschooling as the best way to educate children, proponents of public schools, private schools and unschooling can all likely cite reasons why their preferred approaches provide an advantage to students and their families.

What do you think? Which educational environment have you chosen for your children and why?

Related stories:

Classmates’ Parents Demand Home Schooling for Girl with Peanut Allergy

Tea Party Plans to Dismantle the Department of Education

Four Reasons Finland’s Schools are Better Than Ours

Photo credit: Andrew Stawarz on flickr


Sarah M.
Sarah M7 years ago

Standardized tests are pretty much worthless and a complete waste of time.

Lika S.
Lika P7 years ago

Standardized tests are lame. Anyone can regurgitate information, and it doesn't really show what the children learned.

Home school allows the child to be themselves, the way schools USED to be. Now that virtual schools are present, you can have the best of both worlds. YOU are still in charge of the education, where you can guide your child personally in every way. but, the virtual school is a publicly funded school, to where the traditional brick & mortar schools of your district must pay them for your child, so your curriculum, school work, etc get delivered to your door, and there are online teachers to help you. Of course you become the learning coach, but, you're not doing it alone, and you're not the teacher... The teacher is on the other end of the computer and will help, every step of the way.

Please check out Wisconsin Virtual Learning - that's where my son is enrolled, and it's an awesome program.

Francoise Souverville

Speaking from my own experience....three of my five kids preferred home-school when they reached middle school....I was able to provide it for them only because it was becoming popular at that time.....and they became much more socially adapted than my first two a decade before who went mostly to public school...I say mostly because I always searched for alternative schooling with all my kids.

Gloria Morotti
Gloria Morotti7 years ago


David Anderson
David Anderson7 years ago

William, thanks for the clarification.

Denise L.
Denise L7 years ago

Another benefit my girls have gained from homeschooling has been the flexibility in their schedule that allows them to go away for a week each September on a camping trip with their Grandmother or being able to stay with their Great Grandmother for a week each winter. Our elders are so valuable, they have a lifetime of learning that they are only to eager to share with young minds.

Please don't assume homeschoolers are not well socialized.

When my daughter went to college she had a great experience, enjoyed, her classes, made friends, participated fully in college life, held a part-time job and did volunteer work

I'm not saying homeschooling is for everyone, I just believe that all parents deserve options in their child's education and unfortunately it seems that for the most part only wealthy families have had choices. Homeschooling in a small way helps by giving an option to the rest of us

Denise L.
Denise L7 years ago

Homeschooled kids may not spend 7 hours a day with different kids with different personalities from different backgrounds, but they do interact with different people from different backgrounds on a regular basis. In my experience homeschool kids are often much more comfortable interacting with people of various ages which is something that will serve them well in life as once you leave school you are no longer only with groups of people your own age.

I don't know that all the 'socialization' that happens at school is always a good thing, there are bad parts like bullying, intolerance (read the article on Care2 of the gay teen that recently committed suicide) and of course you're not socializing for all 7 hours, most of it you're being taught.

I have deliberately chose to go to a Unitarian Church so my girls could meet with people of all religions and from all parts of the globe, we have volunteered at nursing homes, with the cancer society, spca and helped with much fundraising for a local arts groups as well as all our homeschool activities, girl guides, theatre classes, hockey,ets. Interacting with with others is definitely not an issue and from my experience most homeschoolers have a very full life

Roger B.
Roger Bird7 years ago

Let freedom ring even more.

Roger B.
Roger Bird7 years ago

Let freedom ring.

William Y.
William Y7 years ago

@ David A. No ie: the periodic law, which has the effect of a law, but remains a theory since it can be falsified and modified, which has happened several times since its acceptance as a scientific law. Many theories are in fact a combination of laws & additional theoretic parts. Ie; gravity is a fact, but as to why it occurs id still theory. A complete law would be something that could not, under any circumstance be falsified.