Skip to main content

Children Deserve Uniform Standards in Homeschooling

With few states tracking who is being homeschooled and what they are learning, an untold number of U.S. children are at risk of a poor education or even abuse

Illustration of the shadow of a child reaching up to grab a book on a bookshelf shaped like a house

Thomas Fuchs

The number of children being educated at home has been growing for the past few decades. No one knows by how much, and that is part of the problem. Home­school­ing is barely tracked or regulated in the U.S. But children deserve a safe and robust education, whether they attend a traditional school or are educated at home.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that by last count, in 2019, nearly 3 percent of U.S. children—1.5 million—were being home­schooled. This number, calculated from a nationwide survey, is surely an undercount because the home­schooling population is notoriously hard to survey, and more children have been home­schooled since the COVID pandemic began. Eleven states do not require parents to inform anyone that they are home­schooling a child, and in most of the country, once a child has exited the traditional schoolroom environment, no one checks to ensure they are receiving an education at all.

Home­schooled students have won the National Spelling Bee; one was the most prolific mathematician in history. Many are well-rounded and well-adjusted children who go on to thrive as adults. But others do not receive a meaningful education—and too many have suffered horrific abuse. The federal government must develop basic standards for safety and quality of education in home­school­ing across the country.

On supporting science journalism

If you're enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing. By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.

When a traditional classroom setting cannot meet the educational, social or emotional needs of a child, homeschooling can allow parents to take over. For chil­­­dren facing bullying or gun violence or who need more challenging or more advanced schoolwork, a homeschooling environment may be best.

But many parents are attracted to home­­school­ing because they want to have more say in what their child learns and what they do not. Nearly 60 percent of home­school parents who responded to the 2019 NCES survey said that religious instruction was a motivation in their ­decision to educate at home. Some Christian home­school­ing curricula teach Young Earth Creationism instead of evolution. Other curricula describe slavery as “Black immigration” or extol the virtues of Nazism.

Some children may not be receiving any instruction at all. Most states don’t require home­schooled kids to be assessed on specific topics the way their classroom-based peers are. This practice enables educational neglect that can have long-lasting consequences for a child’s development.

In the worst cases, home­school­ing hides abuse. In 2020 an 11-year-old boy in Michigan was found dead after his stepmother used homeschooling to conceal years of torture. A small study of children who had been seriously abused found that eight of 17 school-age victims were ostensibly being home­schooled. In these cases, homeschooling was a farce—a hole in children’s social safety net for abusers to exploit.

Although it’s impossible to say how commonly homeschooling conceals abuse, data from Connecticut paint a concerning picture. Following the abuse and 2017 death of an autistic teenager whose mother had removed him from school, Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate found that 36 percent of children withdrawn from six nearby districts to be home­schooled lived in homes that had been subject to at least one report of suspected abuse or neglect. Not one state checks with Child Protective Services to determine whether the parents of children being home­schooled have a history of abuse or neglect.

Home­school­ing advocacy organizations promote studies that claim to show equal or higher levels of academic achievement among home­schooled students. But these studies often are conducted by home­school­ing advocates and are methodologically flawed. It’s difficult for social scientists to recruit representative samples for more rigorous research because of lax reporting requirements and the underground nature of homeschooling, making the kind of sweeping comparison between home­school­ing and non­home­school­ing students that some groups report im­possible. Still, studies of different home­schooled populations have shown that children’s success depends heavily on their parents’ education background. Despite this, in 40 states parents do not need to have even a high school–level education to educate their children at home.

The federal government usually leaves issues of education for states to decide, and home­school­ing is no exception. A dizzying maze of laws and legal precedents governs parents’ ability to home­school, and the rules differ in each state and sometimes even differ between school districts. Whenever a piece of state legislation is suggested or introduced to regulate some aspect of homeschooling, advocacy organizations such as the Home­school Legal Defense Association fight back. This year Michigan’s Education Department proposed a registry of home­schooled students in the state and was met with fierce pushback. In 2023 Ohio removed all assessment requirements for home­schooled students. South Dakota, Vermont and New Hampshire have also removed some oversight requirements in the past few years.

It is clear that home­school­ing will continue to lack accountability for outcomes or even basic safety in most states. But federal mandates for reporting and assessment to protect children don’t need to be onerous. For example, home­school parents could be required to pass an initial background check, as every state requires for all K–12 teachers. Home­school instructors could be required to submit documents every year to their local school district or to a state agency to show that their children are learning.

Education is a basic human right. We need to make sure kids have chances to investigate what makes them curious, study history and science and reading, and ask questions and learn from others. We want them to reach adulthood ready to take on the world.

Scientific American Magazine Vol 330 Issue 6This article was originally published with the title “Homeschooling Needs More Uniform Oversight” in Scientific American Magazine Vol. 330 No. 6 (), p. 70