An Introduction by HSLDA Attorney Jim Mason:

Dr. Steven Duvall is a college professor who teaches PhD candidates how to become school psychologists—the professionals who evaluate students for learning issues and help them get educational services. Steven is not just a pro in the land of student assessment: he is the pro’s pro.

His article, “Primary Reason Behind Homeschooling is Lack of Safety in the Public Schools,” is based on 40 years of experience and is grounded in hard, cold facts.

Steven taught me one of the most important lessons I have learned since coming to HSLDA in 2001: homeschoolers can tend to fixate on high standardized achievement test scores as proof that homeschooling works well for kids. And that is true, as far as it goes.

But Steven has done important research to show that homeschooling works well for kids with special needs, too. For those kids, standardized achievement testing alone is not a good measure of homeschooling’s effectiveness.

Ten years ago, I asked Dr. Duvall to do a full assessment on a 15-year-old boy whose parents had been charged with child endangerment based on late homeschooling paperwork. The prosecutor, in a taunting manner, offered to dismiss the case if provided with “acceptable” standardized tests.

But standardized testing shows only half the picture. These test results show how a child compares to other children of the same age or grade and ranks these children on a bell curve. Homeschoolers as a group score better than public school students as a group. But one of the inexorable truths about bell curves is that out of any 100 test takers, 15 will be in the lowest 15 percent.

Which is why standardized testing for children with low IQs or with learning challenges tells us very little about the quality of the education those children receive. To get an accurate picture, we need to compare how well a child’s educational achievement—which is what standardized testing measures—compares to a child’s innate abilities.

In the case Steven helped me with, his assessment revealed that the 15-year-old boy’s achievement was indeed low when compared to his age and grade peers. But when compared with the boy’s innate abilities, Steven found that the boy was achieving much higher than expected.

How is that possible? Steven has also previously conducted groundbreaking research on measuring academic engagement in different educational settings, including public schools and homeschools. In this case, he did an assessment on the quality of instruction the boy’s mom provided and found that her approach was off the charts—in a good way.

In one of the most telling observations that Steven ever made to me, he said this untrained mom had adapted her instructional methods to meet her challenged boy’s strengths, which he attributed to her caring, one-to-one teaching. He marveled that her approach seemed almost intuitive.

Dr. Duvall knows a lot about public schools, and his academic interest in home education has made an important contribution to our knowledge about why homeschooling is a good educational alternative for many kids.

Jim Mason, Vice President of Litigation and Development

* * *

During my 40 years in the field of school psychology, I’ve observed a significant shift in parents’ primary reasons for homeschooling. Although years ago, many parents used to rank religious reasons at the top of their motivations for homeschooling their children, they now first list their safety concerns for their children in traditional schools, especially public schools. The data show parents are right to be concerned.

 Long before I began directing school psychology training programs at the university level, I learned of families who were homeschooling in the districts where I worked as a public school psychologist. At the time, having no personal interaction with these families, homeschooling seemed to me to be nothing more than a peculiar way for parents to provide religious instruction unavailable through public schools for their children. However, my views of homeschooling as a serious form of education began to develop after being summoned to evaluate the educational progress of homeschooled children with disabilities.

Finding that most homeschool students performed at or above expected levels of achievement was surprising and intriguing, especially considering that the parents were rarely, if ever, certified teachers. Eventually, I had the opportunity to work with other researchers to conduct some studies observing instruction and learning taking place in homeschooling. Several research studies in the late ’90s and early 2000s, including ours, confirmed the phenomenon that I had observed: high levels of active academic engagement (AAE) occurred during home instruction.[1] Because AAE was known to be a key ingredient for helping students to develop their basic academic skills, [2] this data explained, at least to a degree, why most homeschool students—even those with disabilities—could do well at home. Furthermore, because small instructional groups typically yield higher levels of AAE levels than do larger groups,[3] it followed that the very small groups or, in some cases, one-on-one instruction that occurs in homeschool environments, could often result in high AAE levels.

Because I have seen homeschool instruction work so well in so many instances, reading “The Risks of Homeschooling” in Harvard Magazine, in which Elizabeth Bartholet issues an unnecessary and extreme call for banning homeschooling in all but an extremely small number of situations, compelled me to respond. Furthermore, banning homeschooling in the way Professor Bartholet proposed ignores or overlooks the top reason why most parents choose to teach their children at home: the lack of safety in traditional school settings.

Safety issues . . . only in homeschools?

Elizabeth Bartholet’s article leaves readers with the notion that homeschooling must be banned—or at least severely restricted—to protect millions of children from child abuse, weak or non-existent academic instruction, or religious-oriented instruction that is not mainstream. However, Professor Bartholet’s focus on religious instruction as the main reason people choose to homeschool is misguided. That is an important factor for many, but safety concerns are the leading reason why most parents remove their children from traditional schools and educate them at home.[4] 

Parents are justified in their concerns about school safety because, in 2015–16 (the most recent school year for which NCES data are available), at least 1.4 million crimes occurred in the nation’s public schools.[5] Weapons were not involved during 257,000 threats of physical attack; 567,000 actual attacks; and 9,500 robberies. But, appallingly, weapons were used during 5,300 attacks or fights; 18,300 threats of violence; and 600 robberies. During that same year, 1,100 rapes or attempted rapes and 6,100 sexual assaults occurred in schools.[6]

Many nonviolent crimes were also committed in schools during 2015 to 2016.[7] These incidents involved approximately 350,400 students having firearms or explosive devices and 10,500 students with knives or sharp objects in their possession. Additionally, 166,000 crimes involving theft, 31,600 involving vandalism, and 17,800 involving possession of alcohol occurred—there were also 82,200 incidents related to the distribution, possession, or use of illegal drugs and 15,100 incidents with prescription drugs.[8]

Taken together, the number of violent and nonviolent crimes listed above seems excessive, but these numbers are actually conservative estimates because school officials underreport crimes to the police about one-third of the time.[9] Consequently, the statistics lend credence to the notion that many public schools are, indeed, unsafe environments for school children.

An even more widespread safety problem: bullying

Another safety issue that students get exposed to across the country regardless of sex, grade, race, ethnicity, household income levels, school size, student-teacher ratio, and school locale (i.e., city, suburb, town, rural areas) involves bullying. [10]  For example, roughly 20 percent of students attending public and private schools (i.e., 11.2 million of 55.9 million students in the US) reported being badly treated by other students in a variety of ways.[11] For example, in 2017, 3.2 million students reported being made fun of, called names, or insulted, while the same number of students were the subject of rumors. Additionally, almost one million were threatened with harm, while 1.3 million said they were pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on. About 466,000 students reported that others tried to make them do things they did not want to do, and roughly 1.3 million students indicated that they were purposely excluded from activities. Finally, 348,000 students reported having their property purposely destroyed.[12] Bullying is a significant and long-standing social issue facing students and educators, but the gap between research findings and real, tangible solutions seems to be growing.[13] Because translating research knowledge into real solutions is proving to be difficult, the problem of bullying is not likely to decline significantly any time soon.

With crime and bullying regularly occurring in traditional public and private school environments, it comes as no surprise that male and female students of all races and ethnic groups feel less safe in school than they do away from school, regardless of whether they attend public or private facilities in urban, suburban, or rural areas.[14] Furthermore, if these dangerous patterns of behavior persist, one should not expect parents’ concerns for their children’s safety to subside nor be surprised if the number of homeschool families continues to increase.


Critics like Elizabeth Bartholet may think that regulatory processes are necessary to control the instructional processes and the curriculum materials used by parents in homeschools across the nation. However, instead of banning homeschooling to address these concerns, significantly reducing or eliminating the safety concerns that compel most parents to homeschool in the first place would likely be a better, more sensible place to begin. In the meantime, no one should be surprised that increasingly greater numbers of families choose the safety of their own homes in which to educate their children.