I never realized how much I rely on open source and public libraries until I started homeschooling last year. When I started to write for Opensource.com, my son was in school. He's nearly eight years old, but he's already been in both public and private schools and in both special needs and gifted programs. I've thus been on both sides of the educational spectrum. As a librarian, former teacher, and homeschooling mother, I am familiar with what formal schools can offer and what homeschooling and open source resources (programs, tools, etc.) can offer.
Homeschooling is increasingly popular due to the differences between what schools can provide and what open source can offer homeschoolers. Even in China, bright children like my son are increasingly being educated at home or having their public or private education supplemented at home. Parental dissatisfaction with a school's environment is now the prime reason given in a recent survey by the US Department of Education for homeschooling, but dissatisfaction with the curricula and academic instruction still ranks high.
In the US, every state has their own laws, policies, frameworks, and standards regarding education for both public schools and homeschoolers. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) seek to rectify this issue and provide more consistency with standards nationally. However, the standards are still based on the content knowledge and academic skills that policymakers and others deem necessary. They seldom, however, cover the latest research or developments, such as with mathematics within the last 20 years, as Ian Stewart has argued. More significantly, public school standards and curricula are based on averages: for a hypothetical neurotypical child at a particular chronological age and in a particular grade. Gifted and twice exceptional/2e (gifted with special needs) advocates often voice concerns that the CCSS are insufficient to challenge students or meet their needs.
Within any given public school system, a principal, teachers, or other school officials select curriculum materials and resources for students to use in a classroom. For years, traditional curriculum publishers, such as Pearson or McGraw-Hill, have supplied public schools with printed textbooks and audiovisual materials. These textbooks are presented to the students by the teacher. Students are henceforth instructed largley based on these textbooks and what information is contained inside them, though teachers may supplement them with other material. Again, these textbooks are based on averages: what a hypothetical neurotypical child at a particular chronological age should learn in a particular grade in school.
Policies and laws for homeschoolers regarding curricula requirements or even access to the use of public school resources, including printed textbooks or academic courses, vary widely. Only a handful of states, including Minnesota, have laws that state homeschoolers have a legal right to borrow textbooks. With most states, it is a gray area. In many states, such as Massachusetts, the public schools are not legally obligated to loan textbooks to homeschoolers, though school districts may allow homeschoolers to borrow them upon request and written permission.
Perhaps not surprisingly, traditional curriculum publishers and other companies, including Microsoft, are aggressively marketing to the growing number of homeschooling families and those who supplement their child's public school education. To be sure, there is a huge market of educational supplies from traditional textbooks to classes and various software programs today. The costs of these educational supplies can vary: from free or inexpensive to hundreds or thousands of dollars. Such costs can soar rather quickly. But, unless these educational supplies differ remarkably from standard public school curricula and materials, they will still be pitched to what ta hypothetical neurotypical child at a particular chronological age should learn in a particular grade.
By using open source, families who homeschool or supplement a public school education may flip or extend this model of learning and not go broke in the process. Families are able to create a personalized learning environment (PLE). They can record a child's learning with a blog, wiki, web, or other means. They can share methods of learning, information, or create ePortfolios with Mahara. They can ask questions, compare notes, and seek advice. They can find and use as many or as few of materials as they like. A child can progress at their own speed and rate. Sites, such as Library of Books, Links, & More and the Sravani clan, deserve a lot extra credit and attention for helping so many others like me and sharing their knowledge and educational journey so freely and openly.
A child in a public school, by contrast, often faces limits with their learning and knowledge acquisition. Most schools have written policies on textbooks, the number of library books a student may borrow, and Internet use. Usually, printed textbooks are loaned to students under certain guidelines and parameters. Oftentimes, public schools simply lack access to printed materials. For instance, calculus textbooks are often not kept in elementary schools. Public high schools, too, simply cannot duplicate the range and depth or breadth of courses that a college usually can offer; and a school's lack of ability to access such courses or material outside the range of a public school's offering can frustrate students. For example, sociology may be an elective in a public high school, but there usually has to be a teacher available to teach the material and there also has to be access to a textbook or educational materials available to students for the course to be offered. Without this access and availablity to a teacher or educational materials, students are often out of luck.
Although there is nothing in the Common Core that prohibits student acceleration, this issue can become particularly thorny, especially with math. School districts usually determine math placement by age, classroom performance, and/or with tests. Policies on math placement, however, vary widely. Some states test at the end of 5th and 6th grade; other states do not test but require students to apply for permission and demonstrate mastery based on some other criteria. Some states wait to make decisions or course offerings on advance math placement until middle school or high school.
Outside of public school, there are national programs, such as the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) that recruits elementary and middle school students throughout the US and world based on standardized tests, but it's questionable how many public schools (or parents) are familiar with this program, and the courses are still expensive (and possibly cost prohibitive) as well. But without advanced math coursework, students are often prevented from many university degree programs and later future careers that require such advanced math coursework.
When my son was 5 years old and in pre-kindergarten, he was watching PBS Cyberchase online at home and plucked out the word tesselate. After my jaw hit the floor, he defined the word and showed me how to tesselate with his blocks. At our local public schools, the concept of tesselatation isn't introduced until 5th grade. Yet I knew that I had a potential mathy kid on my hands, who was exposed to higher math concepts at home and capable of comprehending them. I didn't want to damper his enthusiasm for math or for learning. So, I become an open source/twice exceptional advocate for my son and others like him. I found sites like Library of Books, Links, & More and the open educational journey became easier and less daunting.
Three free and open educational materials, support, and guidance sites for gifted and exceptional parents, teachers, and students; US-based, but have a worldwide audience:
- Davidson Institute's Gifted Issues Discussion Forum
- Hoagies' Gifted Education Page
- Gifted Homeschoolers Forum