This post reviews Jeremy E. Uecker, “Alternative Schooling Strategies and the Religious Lives of American Adolescents” in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47, no. 4 (December 2008): 563-584 [Abstract available here].
Uecker, a Ph.D. candidate at the U of Texas at Austin and author of many interesting articles on young adult religion and sexuality, here examines data from the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) to determine whether Catholic schooling, Protestant schooling, or homeschooling have any impact on the religious lives of American teens.
The National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) is a massive effort headed by Christian Smith seeking, through nationally representative phone interviews and select longer, face-to-face interviews, to track the religious lives of American teens. The first wave of interviews was conducted in 2002-2003 with a total sample of 3,370 respondents. Two follow-up surveys conducted on the same sample have been performed since then, with the third wave finishing up just a few months ago. This powerful data set has formed the basis for several important publications, perhaps the most notable being the excellent book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Smith and his colleague Melinda Lundquist Denton.
Uecker takes this same data set and asks of it the following questions:
- Everyone knows that parent religious commitment is the most important predictor of a child’s own religious life. Is this influence direct or indirect? Does the child learn directly from the parent or does the parent merely choose the environment to which children are exposed–schools, churches, friends, mentors, etc.?
- If we remove (control for) parental religiosity, does where a child goes to school affect his or her religious commitments? Uecker looks especially at Catholic schools, Protestant day schools, and homeschooling, though he also makes some comments about non-religious private schools and public schools. He wants to know both about communal religious behaviors like church attendance, religious education attendance, and youth group participation, and about private religious behaviors like prayer and devotional scripture reading.
To answer his questions Uecker submits his data to vigorous and sophisticated statistical manipulations. Because the NSYR data set is so complete, he is able to control for many variables and conduct a range of multiple regression analyses that yield the following results:
He finds, contrary to the theorizong of some sociologists, that parental influence is direct, and powerfully so. Parents don’t just “channel” their kids into religious or irreligious environments. They “directly influence their adolescents,” though his study can’t say exactly how this happens (p.582). Uecker guesses that it is probably some combination of example-setting, exhortation, and context-building. Families provide a “sacred umbrella” (an allusion to Peter Berger’s famous Sacred Canopy) that students carry with them into the broader world.
But if we screen out the parental influence, is there any special role that different sorts of educational configurations play? From the NSYR data, it seems that the type of schooling a child receives has very little impact on his or her religious commitments. Here are Uecker’s specific findings:
- Attendance at Catholic schools makes students a little bit more likely to attend religious services and to think of religion as important in their lives. It makes students less likely to attend religious education classes, probably because parents think the Catholic school covers that well enough. But the overall impact of Catholic education apart from parental religiosity is very minimal. This is made especially clear in data from adolescents who had had some Catholic schooling in the past but then shifted into the public school system. These students were indistinguishable from fully publically educated students in their religious practices when parent religiosity was controlled for.
- Protestant day schools have a bit more impact, partly because parents tend not to think of day schooling as a substitute for Church religious instruction or youth group activities. Thus Protestant children attending Protestant schools get a double dose of religious instruction. Furthermore, Protestant schools tend to place a higher stress than do Catholic schools on the religious formation of their students such that “increased exposure to a Protestant schooling strategy may result in heightened private religiosity” like prayer and bible-reading. But the differences here are very minimal compared to the differences based on parental religiosity, and as with Catholic schools, the effect doesn’t seem to last: students who “formerly attended Protestant schools are no different than public schoolers.” (p.581)
- For homeschooling the results are very interesting. Homeschoolers with irreligious parents are less likely to have a public or private religious life than are adolescents with similarly inclined parents in the public schools or in private religious schools. Why? Perhaps because they are not exposed to the religious elements (peers, teachers, etc.) of these schools. But what of homeschoolers with very religious parents? “Homeschoolers with extremely religious parents are not statistically different” in communal or private religiosity “than public schoolers with extremely religious parents.” (p. 579) Homeschooling parents of course have a huge impact on their children, but the act of homeschooling itself seems to have “very little effect on any aspect of adolescents’ religious lives.”
- Though it wasn’t the original focus of his research, Uecker found that secular private schooling actually has a documentable negative effect on religiosity. Religious parents who send their kids to secular private schools end up with slightly less religious kids, perhaps because kids in these environments “encounter intellectual cultures, expectations, or ideas that undermine religious commitment.” (p.581)
- Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, public schooling “is neither detrimental to nor beneficial for adolescent religiosity.” (p. 581)
The take home messages of this article are obvious. Parents play by far the greatest role in fostering (or not fostering) the religious habits of their children, even into adolescence. No other factors, from the school students attend, to their friends and mentors, to the degree to which they are closed off from other influences, seem “to attenuate the role of parents at all.” (p.581)
More provocatively, Uecker’s findings suggest that parents who pull their children out of public schools for fear that the schools will lead them religiously astray are worried unnecessarily. Parents who do so and place their children in Christian schools are making a move that will likely have a modest spiritual impact on their children, at least as long as they continue to go to school there. Similarly, parents who choose homeschooling are making a decision that may have all sorts of other benefits or costs. But speaking just of the religious behaviors and commitments of their children, such parents might just as well have left their kids in public schools.
I realize as I write that how counterintuitive it sounds. One of the problems with quantitative data like this is that it deals by definition with macro-level patterns, screening out the outliers. No doubt there are individual families whose stories this data does not fit. But speaking in generalities, Uecker’s case is rock solid. His data set is the best ever created to assess such issues. His statistical models and execution are flawless. His conclusions are therefore hard to resist.
My one quibble has to do not with homeschooling but with the Catholic/Protestant school comparison. Uecker’s stress on private religious practices seems to me to be construed in a Protestant fashion–devotional prayer and Bible reading. Of course Catholics, even pious Catholics, will score lower on such measures. But what would have been the result if children were asked how frequently they ask for the intercession of a Saint or how often they say the Rosary? I trust my point is made.