Homeschooling in the Time of COVID-19 Reveals Learning Gap

By Tara Houle
Tara Houle
Tara Houle
Tara Houle is a parent advocate, the founder of WISE Math B.C., and publisher of a provincial math petition.
April 27, 2020Updated: April 27, 2020


As we shift to the new normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s understandable that our priorities have also shifted. Our daily schedules are much different than a month or two ago. Those with school-aged children are experiencing this rather acutely, as parents are now fulfilling a dual role as mum/dad, and now, as teacher. As we navigate these uncharted waters, there are certain realities that have come to light.

First, online learning is proving to highlight the growing inequity in our public school system, and it’s worth examining why our education leaders exacerbate this by moving forward with screens and chromebooks in our schools. Second, during this lockdown phase, more parents are finding out what their kids are actually doing in school. Our assumption about what our kids should be learning doesn’t necessarily align with what they are learning.

Our curriculum in British Columbia was implemented years ago to create a more student-centred learning environment. Millions of dollars have been spent to ensure B.C.’s education system would be cutting edge—revolutionary, in fact—and the emphasis on technology would place the bulk of the learning in the student’s hands. Personalized learning is supposed to create a more meaningful learning experience, one that would create a more engaged student. Teachers would become a “guide on the side,” a facilitator in a collaborative learning environment where ideas would flow seamlessly between teacher and students, and creativity would replace mindless rote learning where facts no longer mattered (just Google it!).

As with most progressive ideology, what we are now seeing is the reality of what student-centred learning in a technologically driven environment looks like. It’s chaotic, with many teachers juggling both an increased workload and figuring out online platforms that they have little or no experience with. As for teaching the new curriculum, it’s so vague that no two teachers can discern what the learning standards actually are, and everyone is expected to have their own interpretation about what, and how, their students should be learning.

So how’s it working so far?

Results indicate that since the new curriculum was implemented, academic achievement has plummeted. British Columbia has been on a downward trajectory for the past 20 years, but since the BCEd plan was implemented in 2015/16, our academic performance, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2018 PISA report, has dipped even below the Canadian average in all three subject areas: reading, science and mathematics. It’s the lowest level ever recorded in B.C.

The equity gap between our brightest and struggling students has increased, and the number of our top-performing students has declined. As student-centred/inquiry-based learning has infiltrated our classrooms, we’ve seen a significant decline in academic achievement, leaving our kids even less prepared post-graduation than in previous generations.

So when I read a recent op-ed by the chairs of three B.C. school boards saying trust us, we’re the experts, and urging parents to be patient, it reminded me of when our eldest was struggling in elementary school.

“Don’t worry, she’ll get it eventually” was a common refrain. For years. Until we finally had to enroll her in a tutoring centre because she never did get it. So how much longer are parents expected to wait? What solutions are magically waiting to transform my youngest’s efforts in her final year of high school so that she will be ready for post-secondary this September?

The BCEd plan has claimed to embrace self directed/online learning since its inception. British Columbia has been a frontrunner in promoting this view nationwide, so why are they so far behind? This entire fiasco is not a failure of teachers to mobilize in the face of crisis. It is what it has always been: a house of cards built upon a premise of platitudes and horrible science. We’re now just finally seeing it in real time.

It’s acknowledged that not everyone is set up for online learning at home. I agree. However, in my household we are, as are many others. Yet the learning gap grows larger with every day that goes by without receiving any meaningful instruction from our children’s school.

Another flaw in the new curriculum is that it does not support any cognitive data about how kids learn best. Based on the list of resources and guidelines provided by school districts and the education ministry, many parents are discovering that these supports are rather useless. Studies show that many kids learn better via textbooks and worksheets, yet none are being provided on a formative level. It’s been left for individual teachers to come up with them on their own for some of their students, but this has only added to their increasing workload. There are still far too many kids, particularly those with special needs, who aren’t receiving any meaningful instruction from their schools, pushing them further behind.

This leads to my second point: as a result of home-schooling during the lockdown, what are parents finding out about their children’s education thus far? Many are learning their kids can’t count properly. In the advent of Google and calculators, kids haven’t memorized their times tables or even heard the term “long division” (there’s no mention of it in the curriculum). Most parents know that without these basic facts, kids can’t possibly grasp more complex problem-solving. Yet parents are discovering that it’s not that difficult to teach these math fundamentals. So why aren’t our kids learning these basic principles in school, yet seem to be capable of learning them at home?

There’s no question that the connection between a teacher and his or her students cannot be replaced by an online learning environment. My own two kids despise online learning and want it to be over. However, the problem goes beyond criticism of online learning. Even when children are in the classroom, why is there such a huge deficit in their learning? Why aren’t they mastering fractional arithmetic even when we know it’s the foundation of understanding higher order mathematics? Why are so many unable to spell? Evidence-based learning is lacking in today’s schools, and there’s no reason for it.

It’s inexcusable that so many students and teachers have been left to fend for themselves during the lockdown, with parents expected to fill the gaps for hours every day. The fact that multiple jurisdictions elsewhere have managed to connect meaningfully systems-wide with their teachers and students means that our education system here in B.C. requires much more scrutiny, especially when it’s being held as a shining example of 21st-century learning.

Kids require explicit instruction and teachers need to teach. There are ways to move forward, without patronizing us about how every child learns differently and that parents need to be patient. The sooner this can be acknowledged, the sooner we can begin to see our kids learning again, even in a COVID-19 environment.

Tara Houle is a parent advocate, the founder of WISE Math B.C., and publisher of a provincial math petition.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.