High Marks for Home Schooling, a Small Study Finds

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In some cases, home schooling may give kids a leg up on their public-school peers, finds a small, new study published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science.

As long as it’s structured and follows a set curriculum, home schooling may actually lead to better scores on tests of math and reading, compared with public schooling, say the researchers from Concordia University and Mount Allison University in Canada.

The researchers studied 74 children aged 5 to 10 living in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: 37 kids were schooled at home, and the other 37 attended local public schools. Each child was asked to complete standardized tests of reading, writing and math.

Researchers found that the public-school kids tested at or above their grade levels, but home-schooled children tested even higher than that — about a half-grade higher in math and 2.2 grades in reading, compared with the traditionally educated children.

VIDEO: At Home with Homeschoolers

The researchers said the difference remained even after they accounted for other factors that affect children’s academic performance, like household income and mothers’ education, employment and marital status. Although many previous studies have found higher academic achievement in home-schooled children, those results have often been ascribed to socioeconomic and education differences among parents who choose home schooling.

In the current study, the authors theorized that more personalized attention may have helped the home-schooled children do better. “This advantage may be explained by several factors including smaller class sizes, more individualized instruction, or more academic time spent on core subjects such as reading and writing,” said author Sandra Martin-Chang, a professor in the Concordia department of education, in a statement.

The achievements associated with home schooling were seen only in those children who had structured academic curriculums, however. The 12 children in the home-schooled group whose education was unstructured — a method known as unschooling, which uses no teachers, textbooks or tests — did worse on all academic measures compared with the structured home school group, falling one to four grade levels behind.

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Unschooling has been around for decades, but it has recently ticked up in popularity as more families seek to home school their children, according to an AP report published last month. Reported the AP’s Leanne Italie:

Reliable data is hard to come by, but estimates of children and teens home-schooled in the U.S. range from 1.5 million to 2 million. Of those, as many as one-third could be considered unschoolers … meaning their parents are “facilitators,” available with materials and other resources, rather than topdown “teachers.”

There’s no fixed curriculum, course schedule or attempt to mimic traditional classrooms. Unless, of course, their children ask for those things.

In Sugar Land, Texas, Elon Bomani’s 11-year-old son has never been to school and doesn’t know how to write cursive. She doesn’t care. When he was younger and had no interest in learning how to read, she found a video on the subject and put it on for him to discover — or ignore as he wished. He’s a reader today. Her younger son, who’s 6, learned to read when he discovered Garfield comic books.

“If children find something that they love, they’ll read,” Bomani said.

Proponents of unschooling argue that structured learning environments risk kids getting bored or feeling that they’re being forced to study things in which they have no interest. Some kids simply do better in a more hands-on, choose-your-own-adventure kind of atmosphere, they say.

Perhaps a child’s academic success depends on how parents choose to define it. If it’s higher test scores you’re after, children who have structured educational curriculums — either at home or at school — do significantly better than unschooled kids, according to the small Canadian study.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.