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Guest Column: August 2020

WHAT’S IT LIKE TO BE A HOMESCHOOLED KID?

It was great then, and it’s even better now

Damon Neiser,

Regional Vice President of Partnerships,

MIND Research Institute

THANKS TO THE pandemic, the fastest growing trends in education are homeschooling, virtual schooling, and micro-schooling, the term for small neighborhood schools that typically enroll fewer than 10 children. And yet, parents who’re new to these concepts are probably—and understandably—facing this coming school year with trepidation: How’s it going to work? Will it be good for my child?

Speaking as a purveyor of educational software, I can tell them that there’s never been a better, more technologically rich time to go in this direction. But speaking as a person, I can tell them that homeschooling was one of the most rewarding periods of my life.

In the pre-Internet era of the early ‘90s, my younger brother and I were homeschooled from first grade through sixth grade, and it was wonderful. We loved not being held to the traditional hours of a school day. We lived in Cashmere, Washington, and there was a ski mountain about 15-20 minutes away from us. So on weekdays we would often head to the mountain about 10 a.m. and get in four or five hours of skiing, then come home and complete our school work in the late afternoon before dinner.

Our mother had been a guidance counselor in a public school, so she was used to working with kids in that early education range. When we moved from the Seattle area to Cashmere, she didn't know much about the school district other than it didn't have the best scores in the world, so she decided to homeschool us—me first, and later my brother—with a special focus on teaching us about life beyond the classroom. Back then Mom was shoeing horses and doing all kinds of things with animals, so we'd go to a client's house where she'd be working on the horse, and I'd be sitting there with my studies.

Washington state had a recommended homeschool curriculum, but we were able to modify it as we saw fit, as long as we were hitting the four core areas that the state wanted us to focus on—math, English language arts, social studies, and science. We adopted some of the resources that were used in schools, like the McGraw-Hill textbooks, to keep us on grade level. We were tested by the state twice a year, just to make sure we were continuing to learn. But the great thing was that on any given day I didn't have to focus on all four subjects if I didn’t want to. If I was really into what I was learning in math, say, I could just continue to focus on that and knock out a week's worth of work in one day. If I learned something in science that I thought was really cool, we could immediately go test that theory in the real world by doing experiments.

I think the flexibility was the best part of homeschooling—having that adjustable schedule, and being able to go at your own pace. There’s a lot to be said for having one teacher per two students versus being in a class of 30 kids. In that case, what typically happens is that the neediest kids absorb the most time from that educator, and the one who’s left on the backburner is the kid who gets it, but who needs to be challenged to go to that next level. I always had that challenge, and I think it was great for everyone involved.

Mom took us on field trips and forged collaboration with other homeschool families, so in a sense I experienced an early form of that “micro-school” concept as well. That’s important for helping develop a child’s social-emotional skills. Eventually, I started playing sports and doing band and other things with the actual school itself, even as I was being homeschooled. So we felt like we had the best of all worlds. We could take a vacation outside of the traditional summer months if we wanted to, and still continue our studies while we went on a road trip. And to top it off, when we finally moved to my mother’s home state of Arkansas and I transitioned from homeschooling to public education, I was a grade and a half ahead of my age group.

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SO WHAT ABOUT those parents who’re tied in anxious knots over the coming school year? With COVID-19 still threatening the safety of students, teachers, and school staffs, more and more of them are finding themselves considering some form of remote learning for their children despite their anxiety about it.

Back when my mom was homeschooling my brother and me, she had two choices—homeschool or public/private school. The good news for today’s parents is that there are many more options available to them. If homeschooling is at one end of the educational spectrum and full in-class schooling is at the other end, in between there are micro-schools, virtual learning through public or private schools, and 100-percent virtual academies that have been doing this very successfully for two decades.

Eighteen states in the U.S., including Arkansas, now help fund alternate learning options for parents with school vouchers. Their tax dollars are still going to support that local school, but if they choose to take their student out of that school system, they get a portion of the dollars that follow in the form of a school voucher, and that's typically worth around $6,000 per student per school year. Those vouchers can be used to help fund a private or parochial education. Parents who take the traditional homeschool route will still incur some expenses, the average out-of-pocket homeschool cost running $300-600 per student per year. While some states fund a portion of the cost of traditional homeschooling or provide resources, Arkansas does not.

To a great extent, developments in technology have made possible the changes that we’re seeing in U.S. education. The Internet and social media have brought connectivity and collaboration to homeschool networks, so the kids don't feel cut off from the world. In many ways, the world has moved toward them. One of the fastest growing education systems in the U.S. right now is the “virtual school option,” whereby a public or a private system provides support to students who’re still learning from home. The Arkansas Virtual School is available to kids all the way from kindergarten to 12th grade. And it looks very similar to homeschool in the sense that you can complete your work whenever you want. In fact, the majority of the virtual school students do their work between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. So it’s very similar to my homeschool experience in the sense that they do other things during the day, and get their schoolwork done at night.

Finally, software programs like mine mean it doesn't matter where students are—learning can take place as long as they have an Internet connection and a device in their hand. My company is called MIND Research Institute. It’s a non-profit social-impact organization comprised of educators, mathematicians, artists, scientists, and game designers located in Southern California on UC Irving’s campus, and what we do is focus on preparing kids for STEM careers in the 21st century.

There are really some stunning statistics about kids who’re interested in math early on, and how as they grow and move into higher-grade-level content the feeling of defeat starts being instilled in them. Of second graders who say they want to be an astronaut when they grow up—or in fact say they want to work in any of the STEM-related careers—less than nine percent pursue it after eighth grade. Algebra is what breaks people, and so our entire philosophy is: Let’s not only get kids ready for algebra, let's get them excited about mathematics in general. Let’s give them a low-stakes environment where they can experiment and not be afraid to fail.

Our approach to learning was developed by studying how the brain learns information. More than 50 percent of the cortex, the surface of the brain, is devoted to processing visual information. Given that degree of dominance, the spatial- temporal approach to learning has become very important in both K-12 and higher education.

Spatial-temporal just means the movement of objects through space and time, so visual learning. One of our programs is called ST Math, which is a way of learning mathematics through spatial-temporal reasoning. We provide ST Math to individual families, to homeschool networks, and of course to individual schools and entire school districts. In fact, ST Math is available to families for free until January 1, 2021.


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MY TERRITORY COVERS 29 states, so I have a pretty clear view of how U.S. education is changing as a result of the coronavirus. This is forced innovation, made possible by technology. I would say we already had a broken education system when we were coming in 37th in the world in math, and 35th in the world in English language arts achievement. But now this pandemic has forced school districts and colleges to innovate their approach, to think about things differently, and in doing that, they’re using more effective tools. But the really exciting part is that those tools that used to be employed just to help the kids who were really far behind are now being used to benefit every student in the building—or even if they’re not in the building.

This is giving American students and families many more educational options. So while students and parents are feeling anxious these days, good things are happening in the U.S. education system. There’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

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