Homeschooling & Educational Neglect
Beth graduated from homeschooling so woefully undereducated that she was fired from fast food job after fast food job, underqualified and lacking the skills for even that line of work. She ended up pregnant, homeless, and alone. Josh Powell reached age 16 without having experience in basic writing, geography, or mathematics. He begged his local high school to admit him, desperate to learn what was taught there, but his parents objected. Melinda Palmer and her siblings, all of whom were homeschooled, were “barely literate,” and by age 29 Melinda still hadn’t been able to obtain a GED.
Homeschooled children can succeed academically, but only if given proper academic support from their parents. If homeschooled children are to succeed academically, their parents need to take their commitment seriously and provide individual instruction, seek out resources, and create a rich educational environment for their children. When these things do not happen—when parents are too overwhelmed to put in the effort or when homeschooled children are expected to work or provide instruction for their younger siblings rather than attending to their own studies—homeschooled children suffer educational neglect and may find their future prospects severely curtailed.
The quality of instruction provided in homeschool settings depends almost entirely on the parent. Some parents dedicate themselves to their children’s academic progress while others let academics fall by the wayside. One homeschooled child may take community college courses in high school to prepare for college while another homeschooled child’s education peters out around 8th grade.
At CRHE, we believe there should be basic standards in place to ensure that children being educated at home are actually making academic progress and gaining the skills they need for a positive and healthy future. With this in mind, we offer this brief as an introduction to the topic of educational neglect in homeschool settings, in the hopes that by drawing out common patterns we may be able to work toward effective and healthy solutions.
Table of Contents
- Research on Achievement
- Oversight of Homeschooling
- Without Accountability
- Limited Parental Effort
- When Education Is Devalued
- Truancy and Concealment
- Child Labor
- Transcripts and Diplomas
- Identification Documents
Research on Homeschooling Achievement
A variety of studies of homeschooled students’ academic performance have conclusively shown that homeschooled students can succeed academically. However, there have been no studies of homeschooled students’ academic performance that have used representative samples rather than recruiting volunteer participants. Further, study participants are inevitably from wealthier, better educated, more intact families, meaning that they likely would have scored well above average regardless of the educational option their parents chose for them. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that the homeschool population is significantly more diverse than the samples commonly used in studies of homeschool achievement, meaning that these studies likely miss whole swaths of homeschoolers. What these studies show is that homeschooled children in wealthier, better educated families with driven and motivated parents (the sort that would volunteer for studies of their children’s academic performance) tend to score well above the public score average, as should be expected. They do not show that homeschooled children as a whole score above average or that educational neglect does not occur in homeschooling settings.
The data we have on homeschoolers’ academic achievement also suggests that homeschoolers tend to do comparatively better in reading and worse in mathematics, suggesting a need for more effective and thorough education in STEM fields, and that structured homeschool environments may be more conducive to student learning (or at least the sort of student measured on tests) than unstructured homeschool environments. The data also suggests that homeschool graduates who attend college perform well or above average but that homeschool graduates are less likely to attend college than graduates of conventional schools. For more, see Academic Achievement.
More research is needed on both the extent of educational neglect in homeschool settings and the most effective ways to combat it and protect homeschooled children’s interest in receiving a basic education.
Limited Oversight of Homeschooling
Current oversight of homeschooling varies widely from state to state. Most states have some combination of notification, parent qualification, days of instruction, subject, bookkeeping, and assessment requirements. A few states have all six of these requirements, and a few have states none of them.
- Notice: Parents in eleven states do not need to file a notice of homeschooling with state or local education officials or have any contact with education officials whatsoever. In these states, there is little to nothing ensuring that homeschooled students receive an education.
- Parent education qualifications: Thirty-nine states have no parent education requirements, meaning that parents can homeschool their children even if they never completed school themselves.
- Required Subjects and Instruction Time: While most states have subject requirements and/or required hours of instruction, some have neither.
- Records: Most states have no record keeping requirements, meaning that there is nothing ensuring that academic records are either created or maintained.
- Assessment: Twenty-five states have no assessment requirement. In these states, state and local education officials do not monitor homeschooled students’ academic progress, and parents are not required to produce any proof of academic progress. Of the twenty-five states that have assessment requirements, all but nine either allow parents to educate their children at home under other options that do not require assessments, do not require parents to turn assessments in, or do not use these assessments to initiate an intervention process for students struggling and in need of academic assistance.
As a result of the current lack in homeschooling oversight in most states, homeschooled children’s education generally rests fully in the hands of their parents. When parents take their children’s educational needs seriously and are dedicated to finding good curricula, learning good teaching strategies, keeping thorough academic records, and finding resources for subjects out of parents’ depth, homeschooled children are able to achieve academic success. However, in cases where parents devalue the importance of education, are negligent when it comes to providing instruction or a stimulating educational environment, and keep no records of children’s educational progress, homeschooled children may reach adulthood woefully undereducated and without many options.
When There Is No Accountability
Homeschooling is a large responsibility, and in some cases homeschool parents may 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. “Because I was so overwhelmed with my life,” former homeschool mom Vyckie Garrison explains, “It was a real struggle to do the basics, so it didn’t take long for my kids to fall far behind. One of my daughters could not read at 11 years old.” Vyckie’s story may not be the norm, but it is far from unique. “When mom was pregnant, we didn’t school,” homeschool graduate Kieryn Darkwater explains. “So that was 6-9 months at random (earlier pregnancies weren’t so bad, and we still did some school) that I and my siblings were just, not schooling.”
In most states, there currently is little accountability to ensure that learning takes place in homeschooling settings. “If we had been required to submit a plan, my parents would have made us follow it,” explains Lana, a homeschool graduate from Texas. “It wasn’t that we were trying to do bad. We were out of touch.” This lack of accountability can, in some cases, contribute to parents letting things slide. Sarah, another homeschool graduate, says that her mother meant well and purchased textbooks, but that she let things slide and certain subjects were overlooked entirely. “There was no accountability,” she explained. In some cases, parents may simply be out of their depth but unwilling to seek out the resources needed to educate well. Kieryn Darkwater explains that their mother stopped trying to teach them algebra when it proved challenging—but that the problem was not them, but their mother. “It turns out, I did it RIGHT, my mom was just not getting it and kept insisting I show every line, which actually made me get answers wrong.”
We do not have statistical data on the extent of educational neglect in homeschool settings. All we have at this point are anecdotes, stories of homeschool graduates who find themselves limited by their substandard education, and news stories regarding the prosecution of individual cases of educational neglect in homeschool settings. “My parents did not give me a diploma or a transcript,” writes twenty-six-year-old Justin. “They also failed to teach me anything beyond what I have come to believe is an eighth-grade level education.” Sometimes the neglect is even worse. “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.”
Sometimes parents return homeschooled children who struggle academically to public school, but sometimes they continue homeschooling, often because homeschooling has become such a part of the family’s identity that they cannot fathom 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.”
When Parental Effort Is Limited
Sometimes homeschool parents blame their children’s lack of academic progress on the children themselves. “By second grade, all learning at home was self-taught,” Angela explains. “When my mom finally decided to put me in a small Catholic middle school, she said it was mainly because I was not disciplined enough in my studies. In other words, my education was my responsibility, the lack of structure my fault.” Other times parents lean on older children to provide the younger children’s instruction. “Mom decided that on top of my schooling, and caring for her, and making sure everyone was clothed/fed/clean, I had to teach all of my other siblings,” writes Kieryn Darkwater. “And that was my last six months of schooling.”
The HA Basic Survey asked participants to identify their primary homeschool teacher, and some of the responses reflect these same themes. “Myself,” wrote one respondent, before going on: “I also was responsible for teaching my brothers.” Another explained that “from first grade on, I did everything by myself but my parents would help sometimes if I got stuck.” “No real effort was made in my homeschooling,” said a third. “I was run around to activities but other than that largely self taught and given the answer key to check my own answers after I completed the booklet.”
Some homeschool parents may neglect to provide their children with diplomas or transcripts upon reaching adulthood, thus making it difficult for their children to apply for college or pursue other opportunities. “I had neither a HS diploma or a transcript, though this was due to ignorance on my parent’s part and not malice,” writes 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.” Some are unable or unwilling to forge their own diploma and transcript and may take an alternate route. “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 to get “records” first. Waste of time and money and I am stilllllllllllll in college.”
When Education Is Devalued
Some Christian homeschooling leaders emphasize to their followers 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. Further, some Christian homeschool leaders endorse “biblical patriarchy” and encourage parents to raise their daughters to be homemakers rather than to have careers. One Christian leader told this anecdote:
The mother made a confession to me. She told me, “You know, my nine-year-old daughter doesn’t know how to read.” Now here is a good test to see how much baggage you are carrying around. Does that make you uncomfortable? Are you thinking, “Mercy, what would the school superintendent say if he knew?” My response was a cautious, “Really?” But my friend went on to explain, “She doesn’t know how to read, but every morning she gets up and gets ready for the day. Then takes care of her three youngest siblings. She takes them to the potty, she cleans and dresses them, makes their breakfasts, brushes their teeth, clears their dishes, and makes their beds.” Now I saw her rightly, as an overachiever. If she didn’t know how to read, but did know all the Looney Tunes characters, that would be a problem. But here is a young girl being trained to be a keeper at home. Do I want her to read? Of course I do, as does her mother. I want her to read to equip her to learn the Three Gs. [From earlier in the book, he notes the “Three Gs”: Who is God? What has God done? What does God require?] But this little girl was learning what God requires, to be a help in the family business, with a focus on tending the garden.
With this mindset, some Christian homeschooling parents may provide their daughters with less education than their sons, or at the very least may focus less on their daughters’ academic achievement than that of their sons. “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.” More research needs to be done on this form of educational gender discrimination. “
“Unschooling” is the idea that children learn best and most naturally when removed from a formal school environment and allowed to follow their own interests, with the parents acting as facilitators rather than as teachers. Unschooling de-emphasizes formal academic learning in favor of natural lifelong learning. Unschooling can be a legitimate educational option that can work in favor of children’s best interests, but in some cases parents may invoke unschooling as an excuse for what is actually educational neglect. These individuals may misunderstand unschooling’s devaluing of formal academic learning to mean that no effort at all need be put into facilitating children’s learning. Back to top.
Truancy and Concealing Abuse
In some cases, parents claim to homeschool their children in order to avoid prosecution for chronic truancy, but without any intent to actually educate. In many states, there is nothing in the homeschool law to effectively differentiate between responsible homeschooling and fraudulent homeschooling. Lack of homeschooling oversight can create a problem for truancy officers working to enforce a state’s compulsory education law.
“The home-school law is abused up and down, left and right,” explained Kalamazoo County, Michigan, attendance officer Jerry Jansma. “I despise the law, because the families I deal with use it as a loophole. Happens all the time. You’ll have a parent who is clearly neglectful and we can’t get resolution, and they’ll say, ‘I’ve decided to homeschool my child’ and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Joseph Piazza, child-welfare officer for the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District, California, also expressed concern about the laxity of the homeschool law. “I call at a house and say, ‘Bobby is not in school,’ and the first word out of their mouths is, ‘Homeschool.’ It’s like an ally-ally-oxen-free.”
In other cases, abusive parents homeschool in order to conceal their maltreatment. Sometimes academic instruction is provided, but in most cases these children end up woefully behind educationally in addition to facing abuse at their parents’ hands with little respite and limited contact with those able to provide help. In extreme cases, these children may spent their days locked in their bedrooms, deprived of not only academic instruction but also social contact. For more, see our Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database.
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.
Exploitation of homeschooling to allow for child labor is especially common among FLDS Mormon children, who have been homeschooled since 2000, when their prophet Warren Jeffs ordered his followers to withdraw their children from public school. “I wasn’t done with school, I didn’t feel like I was finished,” says Thomas Barlow, whose homeschool education ceased when he was sixteen. “I wanted to keep going. I didn’t want to be in construction when I was as old as my father.” These children often reach adulthood limited by their lack of education, their career path chosen by their parents through their failure to educate.