Part 3: How Does School Impact a Child’s Faith Development?

This is the third and final post highlighting the findings from the Cardus Education Survey. The survey, conducted with the largest-ever sample of Christian school graduates in North America, was designed to answer this question:

Do the motivations for private religious Catholic and Protestant schooling in North America align with graduate outcomes?

Previously, I highlighted the findings related to education’s impact on spiritual formation and cultural and community engagement. Today I am highlighting the findings on academic achievement.

Clearly, parents choose private religious school in large part due to the desire to incorporate faith in education. That said, the academic result of any school choice has to be a critical measure that cannot be ignored. Otherwise, as the Cardus report says, “a Christian school is nothing more than a tuition-based youth group.”

Overall Performance of Catholic Schools Versus Protestant Schools

If you read the other two posts on this survey, you probably noted that Catholic schools fared poorly on almost all measures of developing spiritual outcomes. In academics, however, it is the Catholic schools that shine. Catholic schools are providing superior academic programs, resulting in admission to and attendance at more high-ranking colleges. Catholic school graduates go on to higher degrees and more years of education than all other groups measured. More specifically, Catholic schools outperformed Protestant schools in:

  • Number of recruiters visiting by type of college or university (last 12 months)
  • Percent placing a student in a top 20 university in the last five years (while almost 90% of Catholic schools placed students in a top 20 university, only 50% of Protestant schools did)
  • Number of AP courses available (Catholic schools offer, on average, twice as many as Protestant schools)

Student Preparation for College

All private school graduates felt better prepared for college than public school graduates. This impact was more marginal for homeschool graduates.

Attendance at Open Admission Universities

The researchers looked at the percent of graduates attending open admission (i.e., non-competitive) universities as an indication of the quality of academic preparedness for college. Presumably, a solid academic experience would lend itself to a student wanting (and being able) to choose a more selective school. Catholic private school and non-religious private school graduates were less likely to attend an open admission university than public school graduates. Protestant school graduates were slightly more likely and homeschool graduates were significantly more likely to attend one of these less competitive schools.

Religious Affiliation of University

Protestant school graduates were the only group to be significantly more likely to attend a Christian university versus public school graduates. (Homeschool graduates were more likely based on overall family factors, but when controlling for the school effect alone, they were actually less likely than public school graduates to attend a Christian university.)

Educational Attainment

All private school options except homeschooling led to additional years of education versus public school (representing advanced degrees/higher educational achievement).

In Summary

Overall, I have found all three parts of this study to be quite enlightening as to what effect private Christian education does and does not have on a child’s faith development.

My children are not yet school-age, but we are considering either private Christian (Protestant) school or public school. My hesitancy about private Christian school has been my perception that Christian schools tend to be very average academically. I was disappointed to see that my perception was supported by this data. I’ve always felt that if I am going to pay for private school, there needs to be a superior academic outcome versus public school. You might say that I do not place a monetary value on faith development outside of the home (in this case, school). I’ve always felt that everything my kids need spiritually can and should come from home. This study has partially shifted my thinking on that. I still believe strongly that kids can learn everything from a Christ-centered home and that the home remains the central pillar of faith development. You could clearly see that in the first part of this survey, where adult Bible study, prayer life and church attendance were dependent on overall family factors and not on educational history.

That said, my belief that faith development should only come from the home (and church) has been challenged by these findings. There were many intangible faith benefits that measured strikingly positive for Christian school graduates, representing impact to overall worldview – and this was credited specifically to the school effect alone and not family factors. Perhaps the school can impact certain faith factors that I, as a parent, cannot. This has opened my mind to the reasonableness of paying for a private education that is not necessarily a superior academic education. I now feel much more comfortable considering private Christian school for my kids.

Has this study changed any of your perceptions on the impact of school choices on faith development?

2 thoughts on “Part 3: How Does School Impact a Child’s Faith Development?”

  1. A Protestant, I enrolled in a Catholic technical High School. I can say two things for certain about this experience. First, it was the most demanding, rigorous, academic experience among my peers who attended public high school. The grounding in English, Chemistry, Math and Physics was unbelievable. I freely admit I would have never succeeded at USC without my Catholic high school experience. Second, getting hit in the face with Catholic orthodoxy at the age of 13 shocked me into exploring my previously placid faith experience, forcing me to deeply embrace my faith for the rest of my life. I am grateful to and an admirer of the Catholic Parochial schools.

    1. Natasha @ Christian Mom Thoughts

      That’s a very interesting perspective – that as a Protestant being faced with Catholic orthodoxy, it actually shocked you into exploring your faith further! I think many people, especially at 13, would be confused by it. Thanks for this perspective!

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