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Rodney CliftonCanadian students have been out of school for more than two months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and parents are taking on increased responsibilities in homeschooling.

In many cases, parents are reluctant teachers, asking themselves if they’re doing an adequate job. There are three questions they probably want answered:

  • Can I do a good job of teaching my children?
  • How much time should my children spend on schoolwork?
  • What subjects or areas should I focus on?

Can parents teach their children adequately?

As teachers, parents have a definite advantage over classroom teachers. Simply, parents have fewer children to teach. But their role as parent is very different from their role as teacher. When parents are both the teacher and parent, children can become confused about how they should behave. I remember a Grade 2 student addressing her mother, a substitute teacher in the same classroom, as “Mrs. Mummy.”

Despite the divergent roles, the research literature shows that some parents can teach their children as well as – if not better than – many teachers. In the United States, considerable research has been conducted on a large group of students over the last 30 to 40 years, comparing homeschooled students with students who attended public schools.

Those studies clearly show that when homeschooled students entered colleges and universities, they were as well-prepared academically and as well-adjusted socially as students who had been educated in public schools.

But in the past, relatively few parents homeschooled their children, and most often they were highly motivated. =

During this pandemic, things are different. Now parents from all families, the motivated and the unmotivated, are educating their children at home.

Generally, parent-teachers don’t have teaching certificates while public school teachers are highly credentialed. Surprisingly, the research literature shows that parent-teachers can be as effective as certified teachers.

The truth is that certified teachers are not as rigorously educated or trained as many other professionals, including a number of the parents who are now teaching their own children. This evidence suggests that teachers are not necessarily more knowledgeable, skillful or competent than parents.

Why is this so?

One of the most important reasons is the way faculties of education recruit teacher candidates. More often than not, the candidates are selected on criteria that are not related to their future teaching performance.

At the University of Manitoba, for example, the Faculty of Education admits up to 45 percent of its student-teachers on their self-identification as having “been treated differently based on their perceived racial backgrounds, colour and/or ethnicity,” as well as a number of other self-identities. There is no empirical evidence showing that these self-declared identities are preconditions for these candidates to become effective teachers.

In addition, provincial departments of education do not rigorously evaluate graduating teacher candidates to ensure that they’re knowledgeable and skillful educators. There are, in fact, no rigorous certification examinations for teachers in any Canadian province or territory. In other fields, dentistry, engineering, and medicine, for example, professional candidates pass rigorous certification examinations that ensure they have minimum knowledge and skills to be competent professionals.

Because of weak recruitment and certification standards, skills and abilities among certified teachers vary substantially. In fact, teachers in the top 25 percent of the performance-distribution are about three times more effective than those in the bottom 25 percent.

Consequently, during this pandemic, many parent-teachers will be more effective than their children’s classroom teachers. For this reason, most parents should feel quite confident in taking over some responsibilities from their children’s classroom teachers.

Of course, parents and teachers must co=operate to provide good education to students while they’re forced to stay at home. Virtually all classroom teachers are providing lessons and assignments for parents to use, so parents will only need to supervise their children while they complete these lessons and assignments.

But it’s likely that the lessons and assignments will vary in quality. Thus, some parents may need to supplement the teacher created projects with textbooks and online educational resources.

By asking teachers to assist them in finding useful educational resources, parents will be encouraging – or forcing – some weaker teachers to improve their effectiveness as educators. By drawing attention to a teacher’s lessons and assignments, parents will be helping them improve their communication with other parents and students.

In this way, parents will be holding them to greater account than they have been held in the past. Greater accountability in teaching and learning could be a very positive outcome from this enforced homeschooling.

How much time do parents need to spend on their children’s education?

In Canada and the U.S, there has been considerable research on the time that students spend ‘on task’ while they’re in school. ‘On task time’ means the proportion of the school day – about six hours – that students are actually engaged on material that’s directly related to the educational objectives in their teachers’ lesson plans.

There are two important findings from this research literature. First, as mentioned above, there is great variation in the effectiveness of teachers. Some teachers spend about 90 percent of the students’ time on task while others spend only about 30 percent.

On average, in Canadian public schools, about 50 percent of the students’ time is spent on task. Thus, in a six-hour school day, an average student concentrates on educational tasks for about three hours.

Because education in private schools is paid directly by parents, the teachers have powerful incentives to be effective in comparison with public school teachers. As a result, private school teachers generally spend more time on task than public school teachers.

As well, teachers in Singapore and Japan, for example, are much more effective than public school teachers in Canada. In these countries, public school teachers not only spend more time on schoolwork than Canadian teachers, but they also have more highly structured lessons and better textbooks.

This research suggests that parents can easily spend more time on task than most public school teachers. But to do thism parents need to schedule specific hours during the day for their children’s schoolwork.

I suggest that early years students (kindergarten to Grade 4) spend about one hour a day, middle years students (Grades 5 to 8) spend about two hours, and senior years students (Grades 9 to 12) spend about three hours.

It’s probably understood that homeschool time should be scheduled early in the day before children become tired or bored.

What subjects should parents focus on?

Obviously, parents have greater knowledge and experience in some areas, particularly in their occupations and hobbies, than their children’s teachers. For this reason, parents should focus some of their teaching on things they know even if these things are not school subjects. Children could, for example, spend on task time learning about cooking, truck driving and farming, as a way of learning about biology, geography and mathematics.

There are, however, two core subjects that are fundamental for students: language(s) and mathematics. It’s vital that these two subjects are integrated into as many activities and projects as possible.

Of course, parents can do more than the minimum by engaging their children in a variety of other activities that are also educational. Many parents, for example, read to their children before bedtime, some parents play Scrabble with their children, and some take their children on virtual tours of world-famous museums. There are, in fact, many ways for parents to supplement their children’s homeschooling.

In essence, there’s little doubt that most parents can do an adequate job of teaching their own children even if they’re not as effective as the best classroom teachers.

Parents will need to spend between one and three hours a day helping their children with schoolwork. After that, parents can allow their children to explore subjects and areas that interest them without much oversight.

No matter what educational projects families use, they still need to wait patiently for this pandemic to end and for their lives to return to normal.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some parent-teachers decide to continue homeschooling their children.

Most parents, however, will probably be happy to return the task of educating their children to public school teachers. Perhaps these parents will have gained a renewed appreciation of the work that good teachers do.

Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. ([email protected]). His most recent book, edited with Mark DeWolf, is From Truth Comes Reconciliation: An Assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.

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