The first step is to remember what your (and your child’s) goals are, and make sure the schools you consider using as part of your homeschool program meet those goals. Keep these in mind as you explore the guide below.
The next step is to get accurate information. So often, schools answer questions in “clever” ways (A 21:1 ratio can still mean a teacher has 200+ students), and other times people define words differently (is it self-paced if you have due dates?) Learn how to navigate this and get straight answers.
Accreditation, and Does it Matter?
Accreditation often doesn’t matter until high school because that is when you might be concerned about credits being transferred from one school to another. Also, did you know that many public schools in the US are not accredited?
If accreditation is a concern, then visiting the necessary website to confirm accreditation status should be the next step. The school website should list the accreditation agency so you can go to that agency to confirm the accreditation. The US Department of Education Accreditation lists the different agencies, each with its own website where you can search for a school’s accreditation.
DEAC – an accreditation agency – is one option for discovering what online programs are even available the United States. Go to DEAC and view the list of online schools. Note that not all online schools choose to be accredited by DEAC. However, DEAC specializes in online schools, so it can still provide you with a great list for starting your search.
Meanwhile, NCAA lists if a school’s courses being approved by the National Collegiate Athletic Association is important for student athletes. While not an accreditation agency, NCAA approval is important for student athletes heading to college.
Read the Reviews Carefully
Once you think you find a school that meets your criteria, the next step is to find reviews and then ask questions. Remember that reviews posted on the school’s website were hand-picked by them, and that any parents you speak with are also selected by the school. It is better to search for the name of the school and the word “reviews” to locate review sites of unsolicited reviews.
Look for situations where there were several reviews made within a short period of time; this is probably due to the school actively asking people to provide them with reviews (and they might be asking only people who will give favorable reviews). Also pay attention to if the review seems to be from a parent or student, or from somebody who works from the school.
It is also important to look at the most recent reviews because schools can change over time, especially if they change ownership. New reviews from past students might not be accurate either.
If you are still interested in the school but the reviews raised some concerns, create some questions you could ask the school directly to learn more.
Asking Questions, and Asking Again
Common Challenge: when asking the school questions, sometimes answers provided can create confusion or even be misleading.
You often need to ask the same question in multiple ways, or be ready to ask follow-up questions to get to the information you really need. Also, never assume that a school is using key terms the same way you would! For example, schools who say they are self-paced might actually have due-dates. Also, schools that claim to be personalized might actually be using some “differentiation” and “individualization” techniques but are not truly personalized. The goal is to get a clear idea of what they are truly offering.
1. Ask for the actual number of students for each individual teacher, not ratios. You might need to rephrase your question several times. There have been situations where schools claiming a 21:1 ratio in reality had teachers serving 200 or more students each. In another situation, a school claiming a 10:1 personalized option had a teacher in reality serving closer to 30 students as a teacher while also serving over 150 more in another support role. The math done to determine ratios is tricky. Also some administrators will reason that it is normal for a teacher to be employed at greater than full time status (1.0 FT).
2. Regarding pacing, ask if there are hard start and stop dates or other due dates, including semester end dates. How much time is allowed to complete a course? Are extensions available? Does the course contain due dates, or is it only important that all work is completed prior to a specific end date?
3. Ask if the curriculum options or individual lessons can be personalized for an individual student. Can other curriculum be used instead? Can assignments be modified or even replaced? Also ask if a student can repeat lessons for higher grades.
Video Clip – Sharing about Shenanigans
This clip shares information from having spent years in the fields of both homeschooling and online education, and seeing some of the shenanigans that some programs will pull! [Clip from the Homeschool Quickstart class from Open Path Education.]
Important Questions List
Now that you are aware of potential biases, “clever” math, and other misleading information, here’s a list of some questions you can ask. Copy and paste this list, and then add your own questions to it.
The goal is to find a good fit: for you, your student(s), your situation. That will look different for everyone! Some people want set due dates while others need more flexibility. Some people do well with just text-on-a-screen learning while others need audio or video to be included. Also, some want live online meetings but others want to avoid this.
1. How many students will each teacher have at maximum? Clarify that you do not want a ratio, but actual numbers (if all of the teacher’s students for the entire semester were standing together in a room at once, how many would there be?).
2. Do any teachers also engage in other duties, other than teaching? Will this impact the number of students they are allowed to have? If the school offers different programs of instruction (some with higher ratios than others), get clarification if a teacher ever teaches for these other programs.
3. Ask if teachers are ever assignment above 100% time FTE (full time equivalent).
Pacing – Usually Not Really Self-Paced (even when they say it is)
Some programs are truly self-paced; many are not, even when they say they are. What they mean is “flexibly” paced, but you can still be on a tight schedule with hard due dates.
1. Are there due dates for assignments? What if a student cannot make a due date? If there are not due dates, do they offer suggested pacing guides?
2. Are there quarter or semester end dates for a class? What if a student cannot finish before a semester is up?
3. If there are due dates, how flexible is the flexible pacing? Does the student have to turn in work by certain days of the week? Is anything required to be done in a certain window of time (some classes will require exams to be done within a one-hour or perhaps 3-hour window!).
4. Is the class every synchronous, where there are live online meetings? Are these optional or mandatory?
5. Can a student see the whole class at the beginning, or is the content “dripped out” one unit or one week at a time?
6. Can a student work ahead? If yes, can the student work so quickly that they could finish the class in half the time if they wanted to?
Curriculum & Instruction
1. What curriculum do they use? Can you preview it?
2. What if the curriculum isn’t working well for your student? Can different curriculum be offered (by the school? by you?).
3. Are lessons offered through multiple modes of learning? For example, is it just text on a screen, or is there text-to-speech options? Videos? Any other approaches such as hands-on or interactive learning?
4. If a student is struggling to learn through the classes as they are designed, are there options for additional help, or to allow students to approach the learning in other ways?
1. Are students given choices in how they practice or demonstrate their learning? For example, are several options offered? If not, can a student suggest an alternative (and if equivalent, complete this instead)?
2. How are assignments graded? Are there clear grading criteria lists and rubrics?Are assignments carefully graded for the specific competencies (learning goals) or are points ever taken off for things such as spelling, being late, or even subjective evaluation by the instructor?
3. Are students provided with clear feedback for their work?
4. Can accommodations be made if the feedback is provided in a format which is difficult for the student (e.g. a student might need written feedback, or they might need auditory feedback; if they get one and struggle to process it, can a different approach be offered)?
An iterative process allows students to work through the learning process, to revisit lessons and redo work. This can allow for the most growth.
1. Can students revise assignments, applying feedback (and potentially earning higher grades)?
2. Can students retake assessments, or complete new assessments?
Availability of Instructor, Mentor, or Tutor
1. Do students have sources of live help, if needed, from the instructor or other support person?
2. If live support is available, in what forms? Group only? One-one-one? Phone or live online meeting?
3. Also, set office hours, or by appointment?
Student-Centric and Accommodation of Neurodiversity Needs
Saving likely the most important for last: will your student’s needs be accommodated?
1. Does a student need a formal diagnosis, doctor’s note, or IEP, or are needs accommodated when communicated by the student and/or parent?
2. Do they understand neurodiversity? Are there individuals on staff who are knowledgeable about [your child’s specific neurodiversity traits].
3. Are there staff or faculty who are [same neurodiversity trait(s) as your child]?
4. How can they accommodate [specific trait, needs], specifically?
5. If things are not working well, how quickly can a group meeting be called to make sure that the student’s needs are being met?
6. For all of the above, do they use neurodiveristy-affirming approaches that respect students?
As you read through the above questions, you might have come up with additional questions to ask. Write them down!
Remember: the goal is to find a good fit, whatever that looks like for you and your student. Hopefully the above helps you get the accurate information you need for this!