How Does School Impact a Child’s Faith Development?

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:

  1. 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.

  3. 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.

  5. 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.
Spiritual Practices
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.”

In Summary

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?

6 thoughts on “How Does School Impact a Child’s Faith Development?”

  1. This to me is very, very eye opening and shows just how important it is that faith is never “outsourced” to school (or church).

    What a powerful conclusion. It’s the old proverb/idiom, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” It’s also the new take on that proverb, “If you want to do the right thing, do it yourself.”

  2. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. All three of our children have attended a private Christian school since kindergarten and I have never doubted the value of this investment into a Christian education for our children. Interestingly, having taught in both a public school and a private Christian school (different than the one my kids attend) I agree that the strongest factor in a child’s faith will come from home. I saw several instances where the parents of students at the Christian school assumed that the child was “good” just because they were attending church and a Christian school, but kids are still kids and fall into the same temptations as all students do. A Christian education is not a guarantee of a strong faith walk. Kids need – and want – their parents to be involved in their lives. I think one of the major benefits of a private Christian education is to reinforce – not fully provide – the Christian beliefs and morals that should be being taught in the home. I think it makes a significant impact on a child to see that people other than mom and dad believe the same thing, and for them to see the ideals of the Christian faith being lived out by people – especially peers – outside of the home. The fact that my child will be in the majority when living out his faith while attending a Christian school, rather than in the minority as he would be in a public school, is a comfort to me – and hopefully an encouragement to him.

    Ultimately, I think that every parent knows his/her child best and sometimes children need different options for a variety of reasons. However, for the reasons stated above, I believe that a Christian education will be the best financial investment I ever make and will continue to make private Christian education a priority for my children, always keeping in mind that ultimately my children’s education, behavior, and spiritual faith are MY responsibility, NOT the school’s. Thank you for proving this point with the research and your article. Keep up the great thoughtful and informative posts!

    1. Natasha @ Christian Mom Thoughts

      Jennifer, This is so well said! I love what you said here especially: ” I think it makes a significant impact on a child to see that people other than mom and dad believe the same thing, and for them to see the ideals of the Christian faith being lived out by people – especially peers – outside of the home.” This is a whole other factor that is rarely considered but is so real. When kids get to a certain age, they become more interested in what their friends are doing than what their family is doing. To the degree it’s possible for them to have a peer group with similar values, the better. As long as we are mindful of having the ultimate responsibility for our children, as you said, there is little doubt a Christian education can be a significant reinforcement of family values. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, and for your kind words!

  3. Natasha,
    Again, thank you so much! As a public school teacher (and formerly Christian school teacher) this research is so helpful. My daughter attended a Christian preschool but has been with me at my public school K-3rd grade. I plan on putting her back in a Christian school 6th-8th, but will do so sooner if anything detrimental begins to happen at my school before then. My first choice would be to home school and my second choice would be Christian school. Since she has had to be with me at public school it has given me opportunities to support her in learning how to stand alone in her beliefs and to swim against the tide in the choices we make each day. I would rather not have her in that position but it does build spiritual muscle and provide ample room for discipleship. She absolutely loved the movie God’s Not Dead and is really enjoying Lee Strobel’s books for kids. I thought that Catholic high school might be an option for high school, as it is much less expensive than the Christian high school (25-30k per year) but after seeing this research I would be hesitant to do that. If she seems thoroughly grounded after 8th grade we may consider public school again.

  4. Since this is a random sampling I’m assuming the non religious school kids were mostly from non Christian homes? I’m really curious to know statistics on kids from Christian families that instill Christian believes in their kids yet they attend public school and how likely they are to leave the faith versus those that are homeschooled or Christian school. Also statistics on forcing your kids out of public school to put them in a Christian school and if that has a negative effect on their faith. My kids are now eighth and 11th grade and I can see them slowly becoming more like the world in the world of you that I don’t agree with. They see my views more as harsh and don’t agree with me as much as before. However they are adamantly against me putting them in Christian school. They don’t want to leave their friends. I have wanted to take them out since they were in fourth grade but they have been so opposed to it and threaten to be depressed and miserable against me etc. I don’t know what’s best overall at this point.

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