Study: Private, Faith-Based School Students a Year Ahead

An education professor at California State University – Long Beach has published a study showing that students who are educated at private schools — most of which are religious — are academically a year ahead of their public school peers.

Student demographics at private schools and traditional public schools are different, but after controlling for variables — income, race, gender, parent involvement — William Jeynes found that private school students performed 7 months ahead of public students.

Ron Matus of redefinED points out that this research could have a tremendous impact on how the growing school choice movement views itself. By focusing on charter schools, which are funded like public schools but have autonomy over their management, curriculum and overall operation, Jeynes says that school choice advocates could be ignoring an effective model:

“It really seems in terms of school choice that this nation has decided to throw all kinds of resources at developing charter schools but has really overlooked the broader approach to school choice,” Jeynes said in a phone interview. “We really ought to include private schools.”

The reasons for private school success seem to derive from the schools’ culture. First, a belief in seriousness of purpose and self-worth seem to drive private school students in a unique way — as Jeynes puts it, they think that “God doesn’t make junk.”

“You can’t say, “God doesn’t make junk” in a public school,” he said. “There’s something about that. It’s not just saying, ‘You can do it.’ It’s that ‘Hey, you have a creator who made you, and he made you well, so you can do this.’”

And there is a marked difference in a sense of belonging and caring in a private school, which Jeynes cautiously summarizes as “love.” In short, private school students tend to believe that teachers and the school care about their lives and academic outcomes. That bears fruit on academic performance, as students thrive in such a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere compared to a less-personal traditional public school model.

The research doesn’t condemn public schools as soulless factories of pain and disinterest, but it does identify and contrast two general models that can be very different.

Some charter and public schools have adopted bits of the culture and environment that have proved effective in private, faith-based schools, but there continues to be resistance to learn from religious institutions. Jeynes thinks this is a shame:

“If there is a certain group of schools that is reaching inner city kids and doing a better job at it, we should rejoice at it, no matter our religious affiliation,” he said.

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at www.matthewktabor.com , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.