Homeschooling is an educational method; like any other educational method, it can succeed and it can fail. Given its individual nature, homeschooling is prone to far more variability than other educational methods. Parents who choose homeschooling take on a substantial responsibility, often without the aid of state guidance or support. Some children who are homeschooled experience educational neglect, with longterm consequences: upon reaching adulthood, these individuals may struggle to attend college or enter the workforce in a meaningful way. While public school students who struggle academically have access to guidance counselors and other supports, homeschooled students lack access to these resources. In effect, there is no bottom to the cracks through which homeschooled children may fall.
Most states lack even the most basic safeguards to ensure children who are homeschooled receive an education that is at least comparable to that offered by our nation’s public school system. There is no educational safety net, or even a pretense of one. This failure to ensure that children who are homeschooled actually receive an education renders the idea that children have a right to an education meaningless. This failure to provide meaningful oversight for homeschooling creates a problem for public schools as well, creating a channel by which children who experience chronic truancy due to family instability can, when pressed, disappear altogether.
“I was unenrolled from public school at 8 years old. My parents had every intention of continuing my education but life got in the way … I never had any additional education until I started GED classes as an adult.” ~ Lacy Carroll
“I am a former public school teacher that has witnessed the difficulties experienced by former homeschooled children who tried to transition into the public schools as teens. Both children were functionally illiterate.” ~ Lisa Burton
“Working for a school district, I see first hand the students that are withdrawn from public school to be homeschooled and know the conditions that they are living in and the education they are not receiving.” ~ Sarah Walker
While public schools must offer at least a basic minimum level of education and meet certain standards, homeschooling takes place at the individual family level. As a result, one homeschool may offer a robust education while a homeschool across the street offers no education at all. Studies of homeschooled children can describe a subset of students, or even an overall average, but homeschooled children’s actual experiences are highly variable.
Few states collect and report homeschooled students’ test scores. This poses a challenge for researchers, who often resort to using volunteer samples, which are typically not representative. Until 2015, the state of Arkansas required homeschooled students to take an annual standardized test and released a report each year with summaries of these students’ scores; on average, homeschooled students scored slightly better than the public school average in reading and roughly the same in math. However, the state did not collect demographic information, leaving no way to compare homeschooled students’ test scores with those of their demographically matched peers. In a study published in 2020, we attempted to correct these problems. Using testing data from Alaska that included demographic information, we that in most demographic categories and subject areas, homeschooled students underperformed their peers.
For more, see our brief on academic achievement.
Studies of homeschool graduates’ college performance typically find that theses students fare well in college. However, these studies do not typically address the number of homeschool graduates who attend college. Homeschooled children are far less likely than other children to take the SAT or ACT, which typically function as college entrance exams. Findings from a report in Kentucky, the only report of its kind, reveal that homeschool graduates may be only half as likely to attend college as other students; our preliminary review of unpublished college attendance data from Virginia offers similar findings. Several studies have found that college students who were homeschooled during high school are less likely than other students to major in STEM fields, likely the result of a homeschool math gap.
For more, see our brief on homeschool outcomes.
Some parents may use homeschooling to hide abuse or make truancy problems go away. In 2014, a study found that 47% of victims of severe child abuse were removed from school to be homeschooled; researchers rpeorted that “no true educational efforts were provided to the homeschooled children.” A 2018 study by the Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate found that 36% of children removed from school to be homeschooled lived in families with a history of child abuse or neglect reports. A 2018 Kentucky study found that two-thirds of children removed from school to be homeschooled were previously chronically truant from school; four in five attendance officers “often” or “sometimes” observed parents transferring a child to homeschooling to avoid consequences for ongoing truancy. Note that when parents are homeschooling to avoid other problems, they are unlikely to participate in a study of homeschooled children’s academic achievement, or indeed even to have their children tested.
For more, see studies of abuse and neglect.
In most states, homeschooling law is so lax that it effectively eliminates compulsory education altogether. In Montana, a parent wishing to homeschool need only turn in a statement that they intend to homeschool to the local superintendent; there is no follow-up, no academic assessment, no requirement that this parent show any evidence that they are actually homeschooling. In Texas, a parent need not even notify the school district; no form or registration of any kind is required. Even states that appear to have more requirements often fall short on closer examination: in Georgia, parents are required to have their children take a standardized test every three years, but they are not required to submit their child’s test results—in fact, superintendents are barred from requiring proof that this testing has taken place!
█ No Notice: No required contact with state or local officials.
█ Notice Only: Notice of intent to homeschool only.
█ Assessment w/ Exceptions: Assessments with various exceptions.
█ Moderate Assessment: Assessments with low thresholds for intervention.
█ Thorough Assessment: Assessments combined with other provisions.
For more information on what homeschool law looks like in each state—and for comparisons across states—see Inside Homeschool Policy. For background on how we ended up here, see ProPublica’s Small Group Goes to Great Lengths to Block Homeschooling Regulation.
The inadequacy of even the most robust homeschool requirements currently in place cannot be overstated. In Pennsylvania, parents swap tips for finding the portfolio evaluator who asks the fewest questions while some school districts choose not to enforce the law. Our survey of superintendents in New York state found that the majority allow home educators to administer their children’s evaluations themselves, providing room for bias or deliberate fudging of results, despite a state requirement that these assessments be administered by a certified teacher. In North Carolina, a homeschooling parent can be reported to the state’s Division of Non-Public Education for educational neglect, but the parent need only show that their child has taken a standardized test; the child’s score is irrelevant. In almost every instance, homeschooling policy is a race to the bottom, and it is the children who pay the price.
Repeatedly, individuals who have experienced educational neglect while being homeschooled point to the lack of oversight for homeschooling as a causal factor. “If I had been required to have an evaluation done by a teacher unrelated to my family, I think I would have had a better chance at a decent and well rounded education,” writes one formerly homeschooled individual. “I am absolutely convicted (sic) that some form of accountability by the state would have prevented the inadequacies of my education,” adds another. “If we had been required to submit a plan, my parents would have made us follow it,” one homeschool graduates insists. “Because there was no one to show the work too, and there was no measurement of failure as homeschoolers, my parents were not motivated enough on their own to provide a good education,” another adds.
Enacting basic standards for homeschooling is not only about catching cases of severe educational neglect and ensuring that children are sent back to school; accountability can also provide well-meaning parents with the motivation they need to ensure that subjects are taught. Some home educators agree: “I think complete dysregulation is dangerous and harmful,” writes one. “I can all too easily see how someone can start homeschooling with the best intentions only to get overwhelmed and let it slide. We hold schools accountable for educating students, so I don’t see why we also shouldn’t ensure that parents are educating their children.” “Policies protecting children from educational neglect would weed out the people who are not doing their job as homeschoolers and would only serve to support and protect people like me who are trying their hardest to give their best to their children,” another adds.
Homeschooling is not a monolith. Families that choose homeschooling may be wealthy or low-income; white or minority; two-parent families or single parent households. A parent’s socio-economic factors do not determine their success or failure at homeschooling. In some cases, families with limited resources may homeschool and thrive; in other cases, a child may grow up in a wealthy, well-connected family, and still experience educational neglect. Homeschool educational neglect does not appear to be limited to any particular demographic. We have identified a number of factors that can contribute to educational neglect in homeschool settings.
Homeschooling is a large responsibility; in some cases parents become overwhelmed and let things slide. Sometimes parents have every intention of providing their children with thorough academic instruction, but because of factors like chronic illness, the demands of raising a large family, or economic instability, are unable to follow through. In some cases, older kids may have to put their education on the back burner when they are called on to help with housework, childcare, or educating their younger siblings. Ideally, a homeschooling family that became overwhelmed would enroll their children in a school; in practice, this does not always happen.
In some cases, parents who are unprepared to oversee their children’s education turn to homeschooling in a mistaken belief that it is academically superior to other methods of education; they may continue to homeschooling long after it is clear something is not working, because they believe that what little their children may learn at home is still better than what their children would receive in public schools. In some cases, parents may hold mistaken ideas about public schools, or public education more generally. A belief that homeschooling is de facto superior to other forms of education can also prevent a parent from recognizing that the education they are providing their children is deficient.
While some homeschooling parents do enroll children who struggle academically at home in public school, others continue homeschooling because homeschooling has become such a central part of their identity that they can’t fathom doing anything else. “I was self-taught throughout high school, and went an entire year without doing any math because I couldn’t teach myself geometry,” homeschool graduate Amanda explains. “By that point, homeschooling had become such a moral mission for my family that putting me in school was not even on the table.” In these cases, parents are putting their ideas about education—and who they are and want to be as people—above their children’s educational needs.
Some Christian homeschooling leaders argue that providing religious instruction is more important than providing academic instruction. While there is nothing wrong with parents passing their religious beliefs on to their children, feedback from the first generation of homeschoolers indicates that in some families this adage may lead parents to devalue the importance of education, or to tell themselves that it doesn’t matter if their child can read or do basic math provided they are growing spiritually. Similarly, college attendance may be actively discouraged, often because college is seem as too secular. (Note that this only describes a specific subset of conservative evangelical or fundamentalist Christians.)
Some conservative Christian homeschool leaders endorse “biblical patriarchy” and encourage parents to raise their daughters to be homemakers rather than to have careers. “My parents graduated me when I was 15 so I could help take care of the kids my mom kept having without having to worry about school,” writes Kieryn Darkwater. “And, it’s practice anyway, right? They stopped trying to teach me higher math when I didn’t get it right off the bat, because I was female and wasn’t going to use algebra ever anyway, since I’d be a homemaker.” Jessy writes that her parents deprived her of a diploma and transcript. “They did not give me a transcript, because I didn’t NEED to go to college. I needed to be a stay at home mom.”
In some homeschool circles, it is common for parents to speak negatively about formal education, with the claim that children will learn as much from life as they would from textbooks. While hands-on or project-based learning can play an important part in any educational framework, these ideas can lead to an assumption that children will learn on their own, or that “book learning” is unimportant and that children should be allowed to do as they please. These ideas are sometimes called “unschooling.” While it is possible to have an alternative education and still be prepared for college or the workforce, some parents use this devaluation of formal education to justify actual educational neglect.
The existence of a gap between homeschooled students math and reading performance is perhaps the most well-evidenced finding relating to homeschooling to date. For a time, whether homeschooled children were outperforming their traditionally schooled peers in reading or actually underperforming them in math was an open question. Taken together with several other data points, our study of publicly available testing data in Alaska suggests that homeschooled students actually perform worse than other students in math. On some level, this makes sense: it is easier to teach children to read and set them loose on books than it is to teach them math, particularly given the number of American adults (including parents) who have negative perceptions or phobias of math. Unfortunately, homeschooled students’ math gap appears to shape their choice of college major (and may limit their ability to attend college to begin with), meaning that this math gap can have very real and serious consequences.
For more, see The Homeschool Math Gap.
In most cases, homeschooling parents are responsible for creating or maintaining their children’s academic records, which includes creating diplomas and transcripts for their children. Some homeschool parents neglect to provide their children with diplomas or transcripts upon reaching adulthood, making it difficult for their children to apply for college or pursue other opportunities. “My parents did not give me a diploma or a transcript,” writes twenty-six-year-old Justin. “I had neither a HS diploma or a transcript, though this was due to ignorance on my parent’s part and not malice,” adds John. “When entering college I had to take the GED and create my own transcript from scratch.” Hannah’s story is similar: “I printed out my own high school diploma from our home computer and had my dad sign it. If I hadn’t, I still wouldn’t have one.” “Not having a transcript meant I couldn’t go to the college I wanted to when I decided to go,” writes Jessy. “I had to go to community college first.”
For more, see Control of Transcripts & Diplomas.
In some cases, parents homeschool in an effort to conceal abuse, often with severe consequences. Teachers and medical professionals, along with other mandatory reporters of abuse and neglect, serve an important role in our nation’s child protective system; homeschooling allows parents to bypass this system by educating their children at home. While most parents who homeschool do not do so to hide child abuse, the number of families that use homeschooling to conceal maltreatment and keep their children from contact with mandatory reporters is not incidental. (For a sampling of these cases, see our Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database.) When hiding child abuse a motivation for homeschooling, children frequently experience educational neglect. (Please note that in some cases, homeschooled children may be both well educated and abused by their parents at the same time).
For more, see concealing abuse by homeschooling.
Failing to protect homeschooled children’s educational rights has unintended consequences that extend beyond homeschool graduates struggling to attend college due to receiving a deficient math education. In some cases, parents without any interest in or ability to homeschool—parents whose children have experienced chronic truancy due to family instability or other issues—claim to homeschool in order to avoid prosecution for chronic truancy. Lax state homeschooling laws often offer little to differentiate between responsible homeschooling and fraudulent homeschooling, creating problems for attendance officers tasked with enforcing a state’s compulsory education law. Sometimes, students removed from school to avoid truancy prosecution are teens; in other cases, they are elementary school students. In one case, a woman contacted CRHE concerned about her 7-year-old niece, whose home had a history of domestic violence and drug addiction, and whose mother decided to homeschool after the school told her she needed to get her daughter to school on time instead of dropping her off at noon each day.
For more, see truancy and false homeschooling.
In some cases, educational neglect may occur when a homeschooled child is expected to work rather than study. In some cases, like in Kieryn’s story above, homeschooled children may be treated as servants and expected to do childcare and housecleaning rather than completing homeschool lessons. In other cases, homeschooled children’s education may cease at age 12 or 14 as they are expected to work full time, often in family businesses or doing various manual labor. “By 11, he was working full time with his dad who did construction,” writes Miranda of her homeschool graduate husband. “By 14, he was in the woods logging, carrying the full weight of a grown man’s job, helping bring home income for his parents.” These children are frequently not paid for their labor, and are thus both deprived of an education and exploited. In some cases, these situations fall under the definition of human trafficking.
For more, see homeschooling and human trafficking.
“My husband said his mom quit doing any schoolwork with him at age 10,” homeschool graduate Miranda says of her husband, also a homeschool graduate. “At that point he still couldn’t read at a 2nd grade level (he is dyslexic, something no one knew until he was an adult). At around 15, he became interested in reading, especially his Bible, and he said that at that point he knew if he wanted to learn anything, no one would help him, he would have to do it himself. So he taught himself to read with a King James Bible. He is now an avid reader but still cannot write or spell well. His sisters taught themselves to read and his 25 year old brother can barely read—his wife has taught him how to read since they got married.”
While not all stories of homeschool educational neglect are this extreme, more mundane deficiencies can limit the opportunities open to homeschool graduates. In fact, these educational deficiencies may help explain why homeschool graduates appear to be on average less likely than other high school graduates to attend college. And as previously noted, for those homeschool graduates who do attend college, a homeschool “math gap” appears to limit their choice of college major. Educational neglect constrains children’s access to an open future: that is, the meaningful ability to successfully enter a career of their choice or to attend an institution of higher learning with the major of their choice without substantial impediment.
For more, see our Bill of Rights for Homeschooled Children.
The consequences of homeschool educational neglect reach into adulthood, constraining’ employment choices. Educational neglect can also have additional negative affects on children as well, especially given that it is often combined with social isolation or insular communities. In some cases, students may not learn to think critically, or may not be exposed to points of view that differ from those of their parents. To read the stories of individuals who experienced homeschool educational neglect and want to see change, see our Community Voices section.