I’ve found an extremely enlightening study that provides some answers to this question and I wanted to share some of the key insights here.
An independent research organization called Cardus released a report last year on an extensive study they conducted with the largest-ever sample of Christian school graduates in North America. The key question was this:
Do the motivations for private religious Catholic and Protestant schooling in North America align with graduate outcomes?
Cardus Education Survey Overview
This survey examined the lives and attitudes of graduates ages 24-39, focusing specifically on their spiritual formation, cultural engagement, and academic achievement.
There are so many thought-provoking findings in their extensive report that I’m going to break the highlights into a three-part series.
Before you read the results, here are some key facts you should know:
- The survey is based on a random sample of the entire national population. In other words, the individuals were not volunteers, which can lead to a biased result. This is very important for statistical credibility.
- The statistical analysis “controlled” for over 30 variables known to impact development, such as family structure, the closeness of one’s relationship to parents, religious service attendance, race, and educational attainment. As a data lover (I have an MBA in marketing and statistics), I have to emphasize how important this is in interpreting the results. For example, if you find that people who went to a private Christian school pray significantly more as adults, how do you know if that is due to the fact they came from Christian families who prayed more often or if it’s due to the impact of Christian school attendance specifically? The great thing about statistical methods is that you can mathematically isolate these effects. In this study they have actually identified the effects of school choice alone.
- The original report has many pages of graphed results. In the interest of helping highlight the most interesting findings, I am reproducing some of the graphs here. The base line in these graphs represents the average response for public school graduates. Each graph compares four types of private schools to that average public school graduate response: Catholic private schools, Protestant private schools, non-religious private schools and “religious” home schools. The orange bars represent the overall result for each group versus the public school graduate average, while the gray bars represent the statistically-isolated effect from that school choice alone. This will make more sense in a moment.
In this post, I’ll highlight some key findings on the factors related to “spiritual formation.” In my next posts I’ll highlight the findings on cultural engagement and academic achievement.
School Impact on Spiritual Formation
Preparation for Vibrant Spiritual Life
Interestingly, all private school graduates reported feeling much more prepared than public school graduates did for a “vibrant religious and spiritual life” (even non-religious private school graduates felt more prepared). Homeschool graduates felt this more strongly than any other group.
Frequency of Religious Service Attendance
Catholic school actually had a negative effect on eventual church attendance versus public school. Interestingly, the impact of the school effect alone from Protestant schools and homeschooling is positive, but somewhat minimal (see gray bars); however, the total impact of all family factors is very significant (see orange bars). This says a lot about the value of a comprehensive faith upbringing – just placing your child in a religious educational setting will not substitute for a faith-based home!
Belief That Morality Should Be Based on Absolute Standards
Catholic schools and nonreligious private schools had less effect on this belief than public schools, with homeschooling having the highest positive impact. Overall, I’m surprised to see there is such a minimal impact on this measure from private Christian education.
Belief That the Bible is Infallible
Protestant schools had a significant impact here, as well as homeschooling. It’s highly interesting to again see, however, that the overall family impact (orange bar) is almost twice as strong as the school impact alone. It’s clear that belief in the Bible comes as much (and more) from family factors as from educational choice.
Results from three key “value” statements are presented in the report: premarital sex is wrong, it is morally wrong to live together, and divorce is morally wrong. On all of these values, Catholic school had no or negative impact versus public schools. Protestant schools and homeschooling had similar positive impact on all three.
Protestant school graduates tithe three times more often than their public school counterparts and give significantly more money than all other school graduates despite having a lower household income. All other school choices had very little impact on charitable behaviors compared to public schools.
Commitment to Church
Graduates of Protestant schools appear to be more committed to their churches, volunteering more and giving more money to their congregations. They are also committing to mission trips in their adult lives significantly more than all of the other groups.
Frequency of praying alone – Again, Protestant schools and homeschooling positively impacted this compared to public schools, but controlling for other factors, the school effects (especially from homeschooling) were minimal.
Reading the Bible – This result is very similar to the one above; the school effects were very limited. Almost all of the positive impact came from the other familial factors.
Spiritual Practices as a Family – When looking at spouses/partners praying together, talking about God together and reading the Bible together, there is a very strong Protestant school and homeschool impact versus public school. However, after children are introduced to these families, that impact is significantly minimized; public school graduates are almost equally likely to participate in these activities with their children. As the report points out, this may very well have “less to do with Protestant school and homeschool graduates reducing these activities and more to do with the historical tendency of nominal Christians to begin these practices when children are born.”
The things that stood out to me most in these results are that:
1. Catholic schools had such little (or even negative) impact on spiritual formation when compared to public schools.
2. The one area where the school effect is greater than the overall impact of personal/family factors is in the feeling of being “prepared for a vibrant religious and spiritual life.” However, the school effect itself made little difference compared to overall personal/family factors on the specific spiritual practices of prayer and Bible study. My own interpretation of this is that the additional time spent in Christian education contributes very significantly to a person’s overall Christian worldview/approach (likely because they’ve spent more hours having to think about spiritual matters!), but the application of that world view through prayer, Bible study and attending church is dependent much more on home life. This to me is very, very eye opening and shows just how important it is that faith is never “outsourced” to school (or church).
3. Lastly, I found the strong similarity between the results of Protestant schools and homeschooling to be interesting. I would have expected to see any type of school have less spiritual impact than homeschooling given the amount of personal attention possible in the homeschool setting.
What did you find interesting? Did these results surprise you, or do they seem consistent with your experiences?