Parents deciding between religious and public schooling face many unknowns. One of the most important factors is how the schools might affect the faith of their children. Yet for all the debates over education, we know little about the effectiveness of Christian education on the spiritual lives of students. Students at religious schools are probably more religious than are public-school students. At issue, however, is why they are more religious. Is it just that they come from more religious families, or does the school itself directly affect the religiosity of teens?
A recent study by Jeremy Uecker, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, provides a major step forward in answering this question. Uecker uses the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) — the best survey to date on adolescent religious life — to compare the religious lives of students in different types of schools: Catholic, Protestant (most of which are evangelical), public, home, and secular private schools. The NSYR includes a wide range of questions on the spiritual lives of over 3,200 adolescents, their parents, and their friends. The information on parents is critical because it allows Uecker to tease out the effect of schools while taking into account the religiosity of the family.
There are two major findings that parents — and prognosticators — should consider when evaluating school options.
1. Protestant schools affect the private religious practices of students, but have no impact on church-related activities.
Even taking into account the religiosity of parents and friends, as well as a host of other factors, Christian-school students are more likely than public-school students to believe that "religious faith" is important "in shaping how you live your daily life." They are also more likely to pray and read their Bible on their own when they are alone.
However, there is no difference between Christian and public-school students on church-related activities — attending church, Sunday school, or youth group. This suggests that while being immersed in a religious educational environment leads to greater private religious life, students still value and need their local church activities as much as public-school students do.
2. Parents and peers have more shaping influence on the religious lives of teens than do schools.
At best, schooling has a limited effectiveness on student religiosity. Parents and friends, however, strongly affect each aspect of religious life in the study. Students who have more religious parents and friends are more likely to attend church, Sunday school, and church youth group. They are also more likely to consider religion more important to their lives and to have private devotions (praying and reading the Bible on their own).
The good news for parents is that while the choice of schooling is important, the most effective thing they can do to affect the religious life of their children is to take their own spiritual life seriously and to encourage their children to build friendships with peers who are also faithful Christians.
The study also compared homeschooling and Catholic schooling options. Neither was very different from public schooling. On average, homeschooled students have the same religious life as students in public schools. This finding may be due to the inclusion of nonreligious homes, or because there are relatively few homeschooled students in the study.
As with any study of this kind, it is important to remember that the differences that Uecker finds are average differences. Some students may become more religious in a secular, public educational system. Parents need to consider the unique characteristics of their children and the educational mission of their local Christian schools. This study should help parents as they make their evaluations. While there are still many questions that need to be studied, this is a long, first step toward understanding how different educational choices may affect the religious lives of adolescents.
Jeremy Uecker's article, "Alternative Schooling Strategies and the Religious Lives of American Adolescents," was published in the December 2008 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Tobin Grant is an associate professor of political science at Southern Illinois University — Carbondale. He is coauthor of Expression vs. Equality: The Politics of Campaign Finance Reform and dozens of academic articles on politics and religion.
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An abstract of Uecker's article is available at the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion site.
Milton Gaither discussed Uecker's findings on his Homeschooling Research Notes blog.
Grant earlier discussed research on religiosity during a recession and the abstinence pledges.
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