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Homeschooling vs. Public School: An Apples And Oranges Comparison

Updated: May 28



I recently had to redo some psychological assessment for my son. Upon further inspection it showed a clear bias towards public schooling with these kinds of questions:

  • “Do they stay seated when asked to remain in their seat?”

  • “Are assignments turned in on time and complete?”

  • “Do they follow directions without additional prompting?”

  • "Is disorganized?"

  • "Calls out answers before question is complete?"

  • "Are they easily distracted by others in the classroom?"

As now both the parent and teacher, I had tons of questions to answer. Some were almost impossible because we are no longer in the public school atmosphere, and we now do things differently.

Would he remain seated if told not to get up? Probably not. Do I see that as a big problem? No, not really.

He has ADHD and ASD he has always tested on the low to low-normal range of cognitive development and showed other cognitive delays.


This is a child who has never been able to parrot back information on demand on a subject that doesn't interest him nor does he do well with commands to stay in a seat. He does and can learn at great speeds when he's given the right tools. In my research I came across a psychologist, by the name of Peter Gray. He outlines five ways in which the school environment cam create a distorted view of child development and psychology. Here is his list of school characteristics and how they differ in a homeschool experience.


1. Adult Direction/Dictation


School is a place of constant adult dicration. Children are told what time they have to arrive, when they are allowed to leave, how long to spend on each task, when they can eat, when to go to the bathroom, what they have to wear, and what they must be focused on every moment of the long school day. Every second of the child's day is dictated to them by an adult who has all the power. Even at lunch the kids may get an option on the entrée but, are forced to take sides they don't want to eat.

Compare this to a homeschooling environment, where a child can sleep in if they’re tired, eat when they’re hungry, go to the bathroom when needed, and be interested in the Civil War even if the state standards say they’re to study the American Revolution this year. We can learn in pajamas, we can study what we want, and we can learn where we want. We sit outside on the back patio often. While there is parental direction, ultimately the child learns independence and has some say in Their day. Homeschooling gives kids some autonomy over their education.


2. Work Versus Play


Public school explicitly delineates between work and play. Math, History, Science, and Language Arts classes are not for play; it’s a time for you to pay attention and stay in your seat. Recess, if you have one, is playtime, but even that can be micro-managed by adults. It's often regulated to teacher led calisthenics in the classroom for maybe ten to fifteen minutes.


“Play is the work of a child.” ~ Maria Montessori


Homeschoolers instinctively mix work, life, and play. When there is no forced separation of work and play, learning can be effortless. Knowledge doesn’t have to be dispensed in the form of worksheets and textbooks to “count.” A family game can teach many math skills just as well as (often better than!) a workbook. We always finds ways to incorporate games into our learning. We even have an entire day of learning dedicated to fun activities. What better way to learn money management than Monopoly, spelling with Scrabble, or make use of vocabulary in Scatergories.


3. Norms, Rankings, and Measurements


Measurements of norms is the area where I think the co-dependent relationship between school and child psychology is most apparent. Public education and child psychology depend on each other. Could one even exist without the other? The schools need the tests and norms provided by the psychologists, and the psychologists need the research subjects. We then use these tests and standards to categorize children into different groups—the labels of which are nearly impossible to escape. Public schools were created to teach to the masses so with out rankings, norms and standards the school doesn't know what to do. This is one of the reasons special needs students struggle so often. They don't fit in the box.


In homeschooling, a child has the luxury of just having their needs met based on who they are, where they are, and how they learn best. They can continue working on a skill until they master it. They can move at a faster pace when a particular subject or area is easy for them. There isn't a hard and fast timetable. They can learn at their pace. They aren’t subjected to daily and yearly tests or assessments ranking them against every other child. There isn’t a “norm” demanded on a given day in a particular grade.


4. Age Segregation


Age segregation is the most defining element of public school. Age determines when they must begin, when they are free of compulsory attendance, what grade they are expected to be in and what specific things they are expected to learn each year. This age segregation also contributes to bullying and diminished adolescence. It creates a vacuum in which peer pressure determines what is acceptable and what is not. Most often making kids grow up faster than they would normally, just trying to fit in.


Homeschooling doesn’t rely on age segregation for its function. Children spend their time with everyone from people their grandparents age to newborn children, and doesn’t this more resemble the “real world” more than a group of thirty kids the same age ever will?


5. Competition


School is a place of constant competition. From class rankings, grade point averages, being the lead in the play, making the different sports team, and popularity everything is a competition.

Now many will say that this is real life and that competing is good, but I find this to be more a chicken and the egg argument. Do you believe though that because life really is like a series of competitions that every aspect of school life should be a competition? Or were you were conditioned by years of public schooling to view everything as a competition? Constant competition is exhausting. While I myself am a competitive person and my daughter is a competitive dancer. It's important to have balance.. Competition has a time and a place or you will quickly burn yourself out.


Within a family, of course, there can be some inherent competitiveness, but ultimately cooperation rules. Choices must be made about the allocation of time and resources, and everyone's desires are considered.

We don’t pit sibling against sibling and choose a victor each day. We look for ways to help and encourage everyone. Grit can be taught through collaboration and perseverance instead of through winning and losing. Cooperation or collaborative skills are life skills that a life filled with nothing but competition is often lacking which makes for incomplete adults. Homeschooling allows us to find that balance between competition and cooperative opportunities to have more well rounded children.


The Square Pegs And Round Holes Of Childhood


Institutional schooling and child psychology view all children as pegs, and they’re all treated similarly. They are sorted, graded, and sanded down till they all fit neatly in their little holes to move on down the assembly line. Round or circle pegs are the desire and if you don't fit your child is left with a label. This is what public schools were designed to do. Teach the most amount of kids together as they can. This leaves the kids who can't be sanded down or molded stuck in their hole unable to move on down the line.


As homeschoolers, we have circles, but we also have squares, stars, triangles, and rectangles. No two kids are the same, and we don’t value a circle more than any other shape. All people are important and unique and they bring new and different ways of thinking that can be innovative.

So as I hear the conclusions of the psychologist, I trust my own instincts and doubt the so called "expert." How can I expect my child, who no longer has to be judged by how well his square shape can fit in the round hole, to be an accurate description of who he is.


I can’t; they’re apples and oranges.


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