Stop Using My Homeschool Success Story to Erase Others’ Educational Neglect

CC image courtesy of Flickr, CollegeDegrees360.

Editorial note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. It was originally published on February 22, 2016.

In a commentary piece in the Chicago Tribune, David McGrath, a college professor, explains his transition from believing that homeschooling deprives children of their right to an education to believing that homeschooling is superior to other forms of education. Here’s the bit that stopped this homeschool graduate up short:

All that changed when I started teaching at the college level, on an evening when I came home from work, slipped off my shoes, collapsed into the recliner and announced to my wife that the best student in my college composition class had been home-schooled.

An 18-year-old only child, who had been educated by her parents for all 12 grades, chose a seat in the front row on the first day of class.

The following 16 weeks, she maintained eye contact throughout lectures and discussions, listened intently to me and her classmates, raised her hand to offer an observation, an answer or to ask a question when no one else would, followed instructions to the letter, communicated verbally and in writing more clearly than everyone else and received the highest grade on every assignment.

She was the first student to arrive, had perfect attendance the entire semester and was a catalyst for every lesson I ventured.

McGrath could be describing me as an undergraduate a decade ago. I, too, had perfect attendance, sat in the front, listened carefully, followed instructions perfectly, raised my hand constantly, and got the highest grades on every assignment. I was every professor’s dream student. I graduated college with a stellar GPA and went on to graduate school at a research university. But you know what? I am not at all okay with the way McGrath is using my story and that of other homeschool graduates like me.

Take a look at this bit, for example:

In the past 15 years, I’ve known of over a dozen home-schooled students in my college freshman and sophomore classes. All were competent in social interaction, and all had already developed their own methods of inquiry for independent learning.

Do you know who McGrath didn’t meet? Homeschool graduates so severely educationally neglected that college was completely out of the question.

According to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, there are actually a number of reasons to believe that homeschooling depresses college attendance rates—potentially by a lot. The number of homeschooled students who take the SAT and ACT is surprisingly low, and the only extant random-sample study of homeschool graduates found that having been homeschooled decreased the amount of higher education respondents went on to receive. But McGrath wouldn’t have any way to know about the educational wellbeing of those other students, because, as a college instructor, he’s only seeing the ones who attend college.

Let me put it more personally. McGrath didn’t met the kids I grew up with who were not educated, and for whom college was simply not an option. McGrath isn’t meeting educationally neglected homeschooled children because they’re not going to college. In a study published in 2010, researcher Michael Cogan found that the homeschool graduates at the private university he studied had higher GPAs than their public or private school graduate peers, but you know what he left unexamined? The question of why only 1% of the students at that university were homeschool graduates when a full 3.4% of students were homeschooled in 2011. In other words, Cogan was looking at the cream of the crop, and the other students were simply missing.

I’m also wondering how McGrath knows that every homeschooled student he has encountered was a good student. I’m a college instructor too, and you know what? I don’t usually know whether my students were homeschooled, public schooled, or private schooled. That’s because I don’t generally have any reason to ask that. I’ve taught roughly 250 students over the past year and a half, and I’m sure at least some of them were homeschooled, but I wouldn’t know because I’ve never asked. I suspect that McGrath has also met homeschool graduates who were underprepared for college—and I know plenty such individuals personally—but doesn’t realize it because he assumed they weren’t homeschooled because they didn’t meet his stereotype.

I’m also put off by McGrath’s insistence that homeschooled students are automatically independent critical thinkers who love learning and drink up knowledge. Sure, that describes me and others like me, but what about the homeschool graduates I know whose homeschooling consisted of nothing more than being made to fill out worksheets at the kitchen table for years on end? I know situations where homeschooling killed students’ love for learning. McGrath talks about the benefits of receiving one-on-one instruction, but what of homeschooled children who were one of six, eight, or ten children, who clamored for attention but got lost in the mix because there were too many diapers to change and meals to fix? What of them?

Anyway, McGrath goes on as follows:

While my experiences are anecdotal, clinical studies have arrived at similar conclusions, such as the one conducted by Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute. His study of 11,000 home-schooled students found they scored higher, on average, than public school students on national standardized tests by a whopping 37 percentile points.

McGrath is a college professor. He should know better than to fall for shitty statistics. The study he cites used a volunteer sample of students from highly motivated highly educated non-poor families. To match the effect of homeschooling you need to compare these students with demographically matched peers, not the public school average. The results of studies that use from a more comprehensive data set (see the data covered here) or pair students with demographically matched peers (see Martin-Chang here) look far different from those released by Ray, whose National Home Education Research Institute is for all intents and purposes an arm of the Home School Legal Defense Association.

There’s another point worth noting here. McGrath is an English professor. Why does that matter? Because homeschooling appears to decrease students’ math scores while either having no effect or a modest positive effect on their reading scores. And it’s not just me saying that, either. Allow me to quote from an exhaustive research review published by professors Milton Gaither and Robert Kunzman:

Given this persistent corroboration across two decades we might conclude, tentatively, that there may be at least a modest homeschooling effect on academic achievement—namely that it tends to improve students’ verbal and weaken their math capacities.

In other words, McGrath’s experience would likely have been very different had he been a math professor rather than an English professor. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education draws on a variety of different data sources to outline this discrepancy in their post, The Homeschool Math Gap. In fact, there is research to suggest that having been homeschooled even affects students’ choice of major, making them less likely to major in STEM fields. McGrath probably doesn’t know this, but then, has he ever thought to even ask, or to look into it? It sounds as though he did a quick google search, fell for the first statistic that confirmed his anecdotal experience, and determined that there was no need to research further.

McGrath began his essay talking about his doubts about homeschooling and his concern about there being “little oversight of home-schooled students in half of all states” including his own. He finishes his essay with this statement:

An estimated 1.8 million students are home-schooled in the United States, often for religious reasons, or for insulation from schoolyard problems such as bullying. But the best reason may be that they get a better education.

Yes, that’s right, he flat-out states that homeschooled students “get a better education.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad McGrath has learned that homeschooled students can receive a good education! I am just as unhappy with stereotypes that posit all homeschoolers as backward and uneducated as I am with stereotypes that posit all homeschoolers as innovative and well educated. Both stereotypes are wrong. But while McGrath may have decided that there’s nothing at all to be concerned about with regards to homeschooling, I know that this is not the case.

The lack of oversight for homeschooling in most states is a very serious problem, and leaves too many children without an education. I saw it growing up, and I see it today in networks of homeschool alumni such as Homeschoolers Anonymous. Some children thrive being homeschooled while others fall on their faces with no way to pick themselves up. I know homeschool graduates whose parents gave up teaching them algebra because it was too difficult. I know homeschool graduates who had to teach themselves to read at 16. I know homeschool graduates whose education was so spotty that they can’t pull together a high school transcript. And don’t even get me started on child labor law violations, because what I’ve seen is completely egregious. We desperately need accountability for homeschooling parents.

I am not okay with McGrath using homeschool graduates like me as an excuse to display an utter lack of regard for my less-fortunate friends. I am not okay watching my friends and their pain erased in a paean to an educational method that is only as good as the parents who facilitate it. I am not okay with being part of an argument for maintaining a status quo that deprives children of their right to an education.

Count me out.

Falling from Family Dysfunction into Nightmares Realized — Another Story of Homeschool Abuse: Lana Martin’s Story, Part Two

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< Part One

My life during this time was bleak.

I was almost completely isolated, subject to my mother’s personal drama on a daily basis. She lost control of her hoarding behavior, eventually lining the walls of our home with piles of dusty books, magazines, and papers which seemed dearer to her than family living space and respiratory health. She instigated disputes with her siblings and raged about perceived injustices. She spent time planning parties that never happened. Until the last few years, she refused to work outside the home, even though her supplemental income would have enabled me to enroll in music or foreign language lessons. When she finally began working part-time, she spent the income on a new car. She fretted about falling behind in educating me, while doing nothing to improve the situation.

She instructed me to lie about our daily routine.

Despite her awareness that this situation had become quite terrible, she still believed keeping me at home was preferable to exposing me to the horrors of public school. HSLDA purports homeschooling is all but necessary to preserve a child’s decency.  It was, no doubt, far easier for my mother to ignore the reality of the situation while consoled with this noble image.

Despite isolation, my mother continued to monitor my behavior, watching for signs of emergent “teenage behavior” and un-Godly beliefs which might have seeped into our household against her wishes. Laughing at the wrong joke in a movie, for example, might unleash a torrent of shaming rage. One day, wearing nail polish would be acceptable and “pretty” — another day, it would be shamefully worldly and warrant usage of the label “slut”. By the age of 16, I became severely depressed and had lost significant weight, but was not offered counseling or medical treatment.

My mother instead chastised me for exhibiting teenage rebelliousness.

For a while I was suicidal, high-risk given my secrecy and feasible plans. No adult in my life acknowledged that this stress and isolation might have negative effects on me. No one asked me if I felt I was being prepared to enter the adult world or to attend college. My father, despite living in the same house, never inquired about my education or wellbeing. Grandparents expressed concern and curiosity but were silenced by my mother’s convicted assertions. More distant family members inquired skeptically but were blown off with her combative resolve. I felt trapped and hopeless, unwanted and invisible.


I did escape this situation at the age of 18.

My mother’s employment during the last few years enabled me to get out of the house more often and, in turn, my mental health improved. I earned my GED, began working in retail, attended community college, then moved to another city and supported myself through university. I somehow emerged with a strong sense of self and the ability to form healthy social relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have always had my doubts about Christianity. Today I follow a self-constructed spirituality stemming from Buddhist philosophy, yoga, and meditation, with occasional dabbling in occult divination via cartomancy.

However, there is a dark side of myself that only a close few know.

For years I have struggled with PTSD symptoms, depression, social anxiety, and low self-esteem. Often I cannot identify with my peers as the experiences of my first 18 years were so atypical and potentially stigmatizing. I mourn the loss of my childhood and the absence of positive parental figures.

These days I can’t imagine away the pain of this long-term isolation and having been physically abused.

I was thrown under the bus to fulfill my parents’ fantasies of the perfect family.

Nor can I align myself with my parents’ perspective that children and teenagers are indentured servants. I can’t stop caring about how poorly they treated me, nor suppress the feelings of disgust and unease that arise when I see them or imagine visiting them.

I am currently no-contact with my parents. My mother flatters herself with historical revisions, presenting my acceptance to a prestigious graduate program as the success of her home education efforts. They have not acknowledged the truth of our shared history, and I do not know how to relate to them as anyone other than authority figures. I have no emotional attachment to them, and for now their presence in my life merely reminds me of the horrible things they did to me.

But, gradually, I am feeling less shame about what happened to me. I am starting to feel less embarrassed by it and more proud of how I overcame the situation. I am beginning to empathize with my past self, appreciating the things I did then to help me survive into the present. Lately I feel more “human” in some vague sense. Specifically, I feel more capable of relating to other people and knowing what I want and need. On that note, my therapist of five years is a total rock star.


At its core, this is clearly a story about growing up in a dysfunctional family and with an abusive mother failing to manage her mental health issues. However, several aspects of the Christian subculture homeschooling movement stand out as fueling the existing fire of my misfortune, or creating the perfect storm of an abusive, neglectful homeschooling situation.

Regulations on homeschooling may have discouraged my mother from wanting to homeschool, or brought outside attention to my terrible situation. Currently, in many states, future homeschool students silently fade away behind a vague letter of withdrawal and intent. Registration with the local school district would require parents to face school officials and engage in dialogue about their rationale and preparations. Annual lesson plan approval and testing would encourage earnest academic investment and would identify on-going cases of neglect. It has become apparent lately that, upon legal emancipation, many homeschooled teenagers no longer desire to attend Bob Jones University or marry into a Quiverfull movement. Documenting grades and filing transcripts with the local school district would expand higher education opportunities for these children. Such regulations would have imposed reality on my mother’s mostly unchallenged fantasy world, one which placed me at a severe disadvantage.

HSLDA’s promoted image of homeschooling provided an ideal fantasy for my mother to latch onto.

She saw herself most importantly as a warrior for Christ, less so a dedicated teacher. HSLDA propaganda, in fact, less heavily emphasizes the importance of proving quality education and social opportunities for children. One can walk away from an HSLDA forum thinking, “the most important thing is that I remove my child from the evil public school environment.” Dispassionate, research-based information about the work needed for legitimate homeschooling would place the value of teaching above “fighting the culture war”. Availability of such information may have undermined my mother’s romanticized image of the homeschool-mom as an anything-goes hero-by-default. HSLDA’s insistence to avoid regulations and legitimate research on homeschooling does nothing to protect or improve home education, only to help obscure appalling cases such as mine.

It’s clear from my description of family dynamics that one may not expect me to have had a “good-enough” childhood regardless of how I was educated. Sometimes I ask myself, “how would public (or private) school have improved my situation?” My parents failed to educate me; it would have provided a baseline education that was, at least, better than nothing. My parents believed that children should not be allowed a voice; it would have provided access to adult mentors who might have listened to and respected me. My parents were socially isolated, lacking friendships; it would have provided opportunities to acquire developmentally-appropriate social skills rather than learning it all at once as a working college student. My parents did not provide extracurricular activities for me; it would have provided a means to expand myself with arts or athletics.

Finally, my parents did not offer a structured means by which I could assess my personal changes and growth. Formal schooling, no matter how angst-ridden it might be for many young people, at the very least grants the student a sense of autonomy in deciding whether they love or hate school, admire or despise authority figures, agree or disagree with society at large.

My parents robbed me of that experience by imposing their selfish whims on me, unchecked by the isolation.

Although I survived with a fair bit of myself intact, going through this experimental phase while an employee and student, alone in a new city, was both risky and terrifying.


A question I continue to grapple with — and perhaps will, for a while — is: who do you turn to when your own mother is trying to destroy your metamorphosis into a healthy, functional adult? When your father ignores your plight?

What do you do?

No adult in my immediate or distant family intervened, nor were child protective services ever alerted to my condition. Family members cannot be depended on to identify and report educational neglect and abusive behavior. Turning a blind eye is easier for many than dealing with a difficult person or sacrificing the perfect family image for a child’s so-called “rights”.

Homeschooling is a dangerous plan when abuse, isolation, and dysfunction already exist within a family. Homeschooling is also a unique challenge when parents or children already struggle to maintain mental health. A first step toward preventing tragedies similar to my own would be access to dispassionate home education information and enactment of regulations that screen for high-risk families.

Until stories like mine cease to appear, influential organizations such as HSLDA owe such efforts to the wellbeing of these particularly vulnerable children.

Falling from Family Dysfunction into Nightmares Realized — Another Story of Homeschool Abuse: Lana Martin’s Story, Part One

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The HSLDA promotes a certain image of the average homeschool family, a cozy picture which convinces thousands of parents each year to withdraw their children from public school.

Parents in the conservative Christian subculture explicitly use homeschooling to shelter children from secular beliefs. Regardless of the degree of their sheltering, they often want to provide an emotionally and spiritually healthy educational environment for their child. While HSLDA propaganda acknowledges that homeschool parents experience a range of “ups and downs”, it neglects to provide critical, data-driven information on specific challenges. God will lead any willing parent to successfully homeschool, they say, avoiding the issue that some families could be considered high-risk for unsatisfactory, even abusive, homeschooling outcomes.

Instead, these promotional materials vaguely assert that God will use each parent’s strengths to provide a positive and effective home education environment. They assure potential homeschooling parents that, regardless of their educational background, any follower of Christ can give their child a better, safer intellectual and social development than formal schooling would.


My experience as a neglected homeschool student growing up in an abusive, dysfunctional family is testimony that this scenario does not always unfold so neatly.

My mother was encouraged by HSLDA propaganda to homeschool me, and my parents were enabled by lack of regulatory oversight to proceed with little consideration for my needs.


Over the past few years, the confusion and pain that has haunted me for over a decade has driven me to tease apart how my bizarre past came to be and how I managed to survive it. I grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist Southern Baptist family. True to form, my parents believed that children, relative to adults, lack basic rights of respect and agency. They bought into the Dobsonian authoritarian parenting philosophy that rose in popularity during the 1980s: parents are responsible for their children’s eternal salvation, a task best achieved by breaking the child’s willful inner core of sin through severe physical punishment and verbal shaming.

My mother, in particular, was extremely controlling and sheltering. As long as I can remember, I had to sit patiently and listen to her rants about “contemporary culture” and her demonization of public school, working moms, divorced couples, the existence of sexuality, almost all the music out there, and (of course) spaghetti-strap tank tops.

I later realized that her polarized perspective, especially her black-and-white thinking, relates to her poorly managed mental health issues, which most likely expand far beyond official diagnoses of major depression and anxiety disorder. She partially blamed these illnesses on energy lost in battling the devil — particularly in guarding her children against influences of the more liberal family members who were, in fact, instruments of the devil placed on earth to challenge her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, her personal friend and savior.

My mother’s parenting decisions were driven by fear and paranoia. She lacked empathy, a psychological freedom that allowed her to place ideology above a child’s needs.

My father’s choices were driven by his desire to pacify my mother. He wanted peace and quiet, a need I was happy to comply with, as I had been trained to do since birth.

Life in public school grades K-3 was no picnic. My mother frequently initiated conflict with teachers and administrators. She confronted teachers over which G-rated secular movies were shown in class; she became incensed when her VHS cassette of a cartoon Christian Easter Story was not allowed to be shown due to religious content. Appeal to follow the norms of mainstream society means nothing to someone who is convinced they have discovered the one right way to live.

As I faced my entrance into junior high school, my mother grew terrified of my impending exposure to a more rigorous secular education, jealous of the increased time I would spend away from her during extracurricular activities, and paranoid of “worldly influences” from the more complex peer relationships I might form. She expressed alarm when I began budding as an independent person. I recall her rebuking me for my change in personality, blaming my new attitudes and opinions on peer influence, and shaming me for “becoming a different person”. No developmental change could be attributed to my unique thoughts and emotions; her shame- and fear-based authoritarian parenting creed declares children do not (or should not) have their own. Her need to use her child as a mirror to understand herself prevented her from acknowledging my identity.

My mother’s behavior created intense chaos and embarrassment for me as a child. I became fearful of her near-constant scrutiny of my tone, expressions, and reactions. In his passivity, my father did little to mitigate the negative impacts my mother’s intrusive, unpredictable behavior had on me.


My journey down the rabbit hole begins when I was placed in a Baptist private school, which I actually liked because the 4th grade classes were small and intimate. But half-way through the school year, my mother once again generated conflict with school officials.  The more “secular” aspects of an otherwise quite religious curriculum were questionable. She had taken a part-time job in the after school care program and developed irresolvable interpersonal problems with her co-workers. Suddenly everyone at this school was bad, dumb, not up to her standards. She abruptly moved us back to the local public school for the second half of the year.

I remember this mid-year move as a turning point in my childhood, when I first fully realized that my mother had serious problems which were not being addressed by other adults in my life. I realized that her selfish whims would be catered to at the expense of my needs. That I had to shut up and put up, as I would not be listened to nor respected. I silently grieved the departure, leaving friends I would likely never see again. My last few months in public school were disastrous. I struggled to cope with the change, was self-conscious of my mother’s erratic behavior, and developed behavioral problems. My grades fell from As to Cs. This shift strengthened my mother’s resolve to remove me from this “toxic environment” and teach me at home.

Around this time, my mother became attracted to HSLDA’s portrayal of the homeschool family. Through HSLDA, she learned that children did not need to learn how to be independent, mature teenagers because the concept of “teens” is a modern myth. She declared that dating would not be allowed, but she would supervise a parent-controlled courtship. Participation in athletics, the arts, or science labs would have to be carefully censored and restricted to prevent exposure to un-Godly influences. She learned that mainstream education, socialization and rampant acquaintance-making would be unnecessary for and harmful to my development.

As a homeschooled child I would, presumably, learn how to become an adult through observing and imitating my mother in the home. As an emancipated 18-year-old, I would then either attend a Christian Bible-based private university (Pensacola and Bob Jones were popular ideas) or marry some family-approved fellow I had successfully courted under her supervision.

This was the reality I faced as a 10-year-old girl.

This might have all been faintly reasonable had my family been functional and my mother a healthy, responsible adult. Rather, my mother was increasingly overwhelmed by self-gratifying fantasies and obsessions. She became easily bored with reality, distressed by responsibility. Clearly, between her crises and my family’s financial struggles, even courtship and extracurriculars would not happen. My father was surely aware of these weaknesses and would have had compelling reason to question her competency, but he did not intervene. Even as a young child, I could see that I would not be taken care of in this bizarre world. And I would not have the childhood or education that would prepare me for a successful, fulfilling life in the real world.

This nightmare was my reality.

And so, beginning with 5th grade, I was “homeschooled”. I bracket this term in quotes, because without doing so would be an insult to families who legitimately home educate. At first my mother kept me involved with the local Christian home educators group. We attended meetings, field trips, and play dates. My mother purchased a years’ stock of A Beka, Bob Jones, and Saxon Math textbooks. She planned out a few months of lessons and graded my work for a few weeks.

She voraciously consumed every hyperbolic HSLDA-issued line about using homeschooling to save children in the “culture war”.

At first this seemed better than being in school because I suffered less conflict and chaos. But, predictably, over time the people in our homeschool group became bad, dumb, not up to her standards. My mother withdrew herself socially, effectively withdrawing me from the outside world except for trips to the public library and grocery store, occasional visits with extended family.

My mother’s mental health declined severely as my eight years spent “homeschooling” progressed. For much of this time, my mother slept all day in a depressive state while I cooked, cleaned, watched television, and read library books. My mother continued to purchase textbooks on an annual basis, but most remained uncracked until boredom drove me to fill out and “grade” workbooks on my own. Aside from the secular math curriculum, information I gleaned from the homeschool curricula was uselessly biased toward a fundamentalist Christian worldview.

Somehow I was aware of this and, when a particular subject interested me, I filled in gaps using the latest technological innovation we had acquired: the Internet.

Part Two >