a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Vol. 31 No.2 Fall 2004
Comparing the Influence of Religion on Education in the United States and
William H. Jeynes
For nearly four decades there has been a considerable amount of debate on the effects of religious schools and religious commitment on educational outcomes.
About twenty years ago studies undertaken by Coleman and his associates,3 as well as other social scientists,4 indicated that religious school students enjoyed a significant academic advantage over their counterparts in public schools. Even when controlling for socioeconomic status (SES), race, and past achievement, religious school students enjoyed a distinct advantage. The results suggested that the quality of education offered in the schools was the major ingredient behind the "school effect."5 Other studies have suggested that the "religious advantage" not only exists at the macro or school level, but also at the individual level, i.e., at the level of religious commitment.6
The interest of social scientists in the impact of religious schools and religiosity exists both in the United States and overseas, principally in Europe.7 Given that this subject enjoys attention in different parts of the globe, the question arises whether the "religious advantage" is roughly the same or different in other parts of the world, especially Europe, as it is in the United States. There are compelling reasons to believe that the "religious advantage" is greater either in the United States or in other parts of the world. First, there are some reasons to suppose the edge that religious schools and people enjoy over their less-religious counterparts may be larger in the United States. Americans claim to be more religious than people living in Europe, where most of the international studies have been done.8 Second, American religious schools probably have greater liberty to practice according to their religious identity than their counterparts in Europe, because of a higher level of direct government involvement in all levels of private schooling in Europe and in other nations.9 This may cause the "religious academic edge" to be larger in American than European (or other) nations. Third, religious schools in the United States are definitely associated with higher levels of expectations and curriculum than one finds in the public schools. This distinction between religious and public schools varies by nation in Europe and in other locales.10
There are also reasons to think that the religious school and commitment advantage may be greater in Europe and in other nations than it is in the United States. First, research indicates that a lower percentage of Europeans than Americans have religious faith. Therefore, public school students in Europe are less likely to be believers than American public school students. To the extent that individual religious commitment impacts school outcomes in a positive way, the European religious school advantage might be greater than the one found in the United States, because the difference between the level of religious commitment in schools of faith and public schools may be greater in Europe than in the United States. Second, European governments are more likely than the American government to encourage the presence of religious schools and appreciate their educational contribution.11 To the extent that this is true, European religious schools may feel more of a sociological freedom to operate their schools in a way that maximizes the "religious advantage."12
The issue of whether the impact of religious schools and commitment is different in the United States versus other nations, principally Europe, is an important one. No published study has ever sought to make this comparison. Therefore, this study is especially important for two reasons. First, because is the first study of its kind and second, because a considerable number of studies have been done in various places focusing on the influence of religious schools and commitment, a meta-analysis on this topic would seem to be especially helpful. This meta-analysis examines 124 studies in order to address this question.
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