Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
A two-year study of graduates from Catholic, Protestant and home schools found the choice of private education, when compared to public education, had significant effects on the students’ academics, civics and faith – but not necessarily the effects one might expect.
For example, the study found, the adjusted net effect on students of private, Catholic schooling versus public schooling was to produce graduates even less likely to believe in moral absolutes, to respect the authority of the Catholic Church, to believe in the infallibily of Scripture or to condemn premarital sex.
The study also discovered, for example, that “the stereotypical picture of the highly political right-wing Protestant Christian is false,” finding that graduates of Christian schools are less engaged in politics than their peers, as measured by talking less about politics, participating less in campaigns and donating less to political causes.
“In contrast to the popular stereotypes portraying Christian schools as promoting a socially fragmented, anti-intellectual, politically radical and militantly right-winged lifestyle,” claims the survey from Cardus, a think tank focusing on North American society, “this comprehensive study reveals a very different picture of the Christian school graduate.”
“Compared to their public school, Catholic school and non-religious private school peers,” the study determined, “Protestant Christian school graduates are uniquely compliant, generous, outwardly-focused individuals who stabilize their communities by their uncommon commitment to their families, their churches and larger society. … Graduates of Christian schools donate money [to charity] significantly more than graduates of other schools, despite having lower household income. Similarly, graduates of Protestant Christian schools are more generous with their time, participating far more than their peers both in service trips for relief and development and in mission trips for evangelization.”
The study also found dozens of intriguing comparisons in the areas of academics and faith.
The Cardus Education Survey, a million-dollar study conducted by Cardus in a research partnership with the University of Notre Dame, analyzed both quantitative and qualitative research into the lives of nearly 2,500 American high school graduates between the ages of 24-39, measuring at least 43 different categories of academic, spiritual and civic life.
The results of the survey were then weighted against over 30 variables known to impact student development – such as the closeness of a student’s relationship to parents, religious service attendance, race and so forth – in order to “isolate the effect of school type on the spiritual, socio-cultural and educational outcomes of students six to 21 years after high school graduation,” according to the study’s report. The effect of school type was then compared to public school graduates as a control group.
Though the study also included graduates of home schools (separated into “religious” home education, based on mothers’ church attendance, and non-religious home education) and non-religious private schools, the most statistically significant results came in comparing Catholic to Protestant:
“In many cases, the difference in outcomes between Catholic and Protestant Christian schools is striking,” the study states. “Catholic schools provide superior academic outcomes, an experience that translates into graduates’ enrollment in more prestigious colleges and universities, more advanced degrees and higher household income.
“At the same time, however, our research finds that the moral, social and religious dispositions of Catholic school graduates seem to run counter to the values and teachings of the Catholic church,” the study concludes. “For example, students graduating from Catholic schools divorce no less than their public school counterparts, and significantly more than their Protestant Christian and non-religious private school peers. Similarly, having attended Catholic school has no impact on the frequency with which those graduates will attend church services, and Catholic school graduates are less likely to serve as leaders in their churches.”
The study also found, “On every measure of traditional religious beliefs, Protestant Christian school graduates show significantly more adherence to the church teachings than their peers, findings that hold up after rigorous controls, indicating the impact of the Protestant Christian school on the long-term religious beliefs of their graduates.”
The authors of the study concluded, “Protestant Christian schools play a vital role in the long-term faith of their students, while Catholic schools seem to be largely irrelevant, sometimes even counterproductive to the development of their students’ faith.”
Other intriguing findings included the following:
All private schools, even non-religious and home schools, showed significant positive effect over public schools on graduates reporting “feelings that their high school prepared them for a vibrant and religious spiritual life,” with religious home educated graduates faring the best, scoring on average over 3 points higher on a 7-point scale than public schooled students.
The net effect of Protestant and religious home education was an increase in graduates’ reported attendance at religious services, while Catholic and non-religious private school grads reported a decrease in attendance.
Sample graph of findings from Cardus Education Survey, where a control gropu of public schooled graduates is represented by the zero line, demonstrating the net effect of private schooling
Religious home education produced the greatest effect on increasing graduates’ belief that morality should be based on an absolute, unchanging standard (see graph at right), while Catholic schooling actually decreased this belief.
Protestant and religious home educated graduates showed a net increase in belief in the Bible as an infallible guide for personal life and behavior, that premarital sex is wrong and that divorce is wrong, while Catholic and non-religious private schooling showed a net decrease in these beliefs.
Protestant school graduates showed a significant increase in financial giving – both to their churches and to other religious groups – when compared to public schooled students, but all other forms of private school showed a net decrease in giving.
Protestant school graduates were also far more likely than all other groups to report volunteering in their churches, traveling on missions trips and serving on relief trips.
Protestant and religious home school graduates showed a greater likelihood to talk with their spouse about God, pray and read the Bible together, but all those gains were reduced to statistical meaninglessness when the graduates’ children entered the picture, showing private schooling to have no significant effect on future family religious life when compared to public schooled graduates.
All groups of private schooled graduates reported “feelings that their high school prepared them for personal relationships, friendships and family relations, especially marriage” at rates higher than their public schooled peers.
Catholic schools – whose administrators also reported to Cardus a higher emphasis than their Protestant peers on academic achievement – produced more graduates attending top 20 universities and significantly more attending Carnegie Research I and II universities.
While much more likely to report high school diplomas, graduates of religious home education were far less likely than all other groups to report advanced or college degrees.
All four groups – Catholic, Protestant, non-religious private and religious home schools – showed a net negative effect when compared to public schools in producing graduates with college or advanced degrees.
The Cardus team again summarized their findings: “This research finds that Catholic schools are providing higher quality intellectual development, at the expense of developing students’ faith and commitment to religious practices. Protestant Christian schools, conversely, are providing a place where students become distinct in their commitment to faith, but are not advancing to higher education any more than their public school peers. Graduates of Catholic schools and non-religious private schools show a significant advantage in years of education, while Protestant Christian school graduates have statistically identical attainment levels as their public school peers. Additionally, graduates of Protestant Christian schools attend less competitive colleges than both their Catholic and non-religious private school peers.”
The researchers suggested the differences between Catholic and Protestant schools may be directly tied to the institutions’ priorities, as measured by an included survey of over 150 private school administrators in the U.S. and Canada.
“These outcomes closely reflect the values reported by school administrators,” the study concludes. “While Catholic school administrators rank university as the top priority more than any other option, more Protestant Christian school administrators rank family as the top emphasis of the school.”
What about homeschooling?
Dr. Brian D. Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute warned WND that while the study raises some “wide-ranging and fascinating” questions about how homeschooling stacks up against public, parochial and Christian education, careful analysis of the research prevents drawing too broad of conclusions:
“In the end, however, the findings presented reveal very little dependable information about the graduates of home-based education,” Ray wrote in a mass email. “[First], the homeschool sample size was very small. Less than 90 of the roughly 2,000 respondents were homeschooled, and only a portion (that was not reported) of the 90 had been in religious homeschools … and religious instruction was a critical consideration in this study.
“Second, ‘homeschooled’ in this report is operationally defined as the respondent marking that he or she primarily attended homeschool during high school,” he continued. “The report does not reveal for how many of their K-12 years they were home educated.”
Ray wondered in particular about one statement the survey made, saying it sounded awfully discouraging: “One of the most significant findings in this study is the long-term commitment of Protestant Christian school graduates to stay within the Protestant faith. … Other schooling types, including Catholic schools [and religious homeschools], have no impact on the religious affiliations their graduates choose as adults.”
Still, Ray warned, such a statement should be taken with a grain of salt:
“The authors executed a good design that offers solid findings mainly about high school graduates who primarily attended public school, Catholic schools, religious schools (not Catholic) and non-religious private schools during their high school years,” he said. “[Βut] certain limitations, such as the extremely small sample size for graduates of religious homeschool high schools, do not allow much of substance to be said about those who were raised in ‘religious’ homeschool families. Perhaps the authors of this research project will offer more in future reports about adults who were home educated.”