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Stanford Study: The Most Religious Kids Do Best In School


Adolescents who practice religion regularly perform better in school than those adolescents who do not, finds a recent study performed by Dr. Ilana M. Horwitz at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Horwitz’s paper explores differences among the grade point averages (GPAs) of public school students based on their levels of religiosity.

Horwitz bucketed the students into five different levels of religious adherence, from most religious to least religious: Abiders, Adapters, Assenters, Avoiders, and Atheists. She found the most religious kids had the highest GPAs. Horwitz defines that group, the “Abiders,” as those who “display high levels across all measured dimensions of religiosity and ‘abide’ by religion in a classic, institutional sense,” while Avoiders, true to their nomenclature, “avoid religious involvement and broader issues of the relevance of religion for their life.” Unlike the Atheist group, they believe in G-d, but participate far less in religious ceremonies and prayer.

Horwitz’s paper focuses exclusively on the “Abider-Avoider” achievement gap, noting that Abiders outperform all the other religious groups, with the exception of Atheists, who performed comparable with Abiders, although the Atheist group size was very small, which affects its reliability. Atheists comprised 3 percent of Horwitz’s sample, and Horwitz makes no conjectures regarding their achievement metrics, saying they are a unique subset of students who most likely differ greatly from their other non-religious counterparts, given the “strong social stigma” attached to claiming G-d does not exist. Therefore, Horwitz directs her research primarily on the remaining four categories, exploring the relationship between varying levels of religious commitment and its impact on academic performance. [This paragraph has been added since publication.]

Horwitz discovered that “Abiders report the highest GPAs while Avoiders report the lowest GPAs, even after controlling for a host of background factors and behaviors.” Based on her own religious research, Horwitz believes religion nurtures two qualities rewarded heavily in school curriculums: “conscientiousness” and “cooperation.” Conservative Protestants comprised the largest religious type within the high-achieving Abiders group, which “run[s] counter to the hypothesis that Conservative Protestants fare worse in terms of academic achievement,” Horwitz wrote.

Faith Keeps Kids Focused on Positive Behavior

Horwitz found that, within each income bracket, Abiders consistently received better grades than Adapters, Assenters, and Avoiders did, while the GPA gap between Abiders and Avoiders was most pronounced. Even after controlling for a host of factors, including “Gender, race/ethnicity, family socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, and region of the country,” Abiders had an average GPA of 3.21, while Avoiders had just a 2.92 GPA. Even more interestingly, Horwitz found that, after instating the same controls, this effect of religiosity on student grades was most profound for middle-income families and least impactful for high-income families.

In conducting her research, Horwitz used survey data collected between 2002 and 2003 by the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), “a longitudinal and nationally representative study.” The survey consisted of 3,290 adolescents (and their families) from public middle schools and public high schools. Horwitz also performed thorough interviews with 30 students for whom religion either played a primary or non-existent role in life in order to understand the qualitative relationship between religiosity and academic achievement.

The qualitative interviews were insightful. Horwitz reports, “I noticed that virtually all Abiders were conscientious and cooperative—two habits linked with academic success.” Horwitz details some of her particularly interesting interviews, noting that the Abiders frequently shared stories of assiduousness and avoidance of rebellion (often related to a sense of guilt), while Avoiders did not.

Horwitz’s description of Avoiders captured this point bluntly: “Avoiders either didn’t tell any stories of conscientiousness and cooperation, or they shared stories of rebelliousness, such as stealing clothes from the mall or making fun of their teachers even though they knew it was wrong.”

It’s Not Just Correlation, It’s Causation

Horwitz discusses the possibility that perhaps conscientious and cooperative adolescents are more drawn to religion, explaining the correlation between academic achievement and strength of religious belief. However, she determines such an explanation is highly unlikely since religion tends to be non-voluntary for most of an adolescent’s life.

How can this study provide insight on improving education outcomes? In education research, much effort has been devoted to the achievement gap between families of higher and lower incomes. Horwitz acknowledges that her paper is unique in its capacity to identify another mechanism that may drive student performance—the habits procured from increased religiosity at home. Given other research showing that kids are more likely to retain their faith when attending religious schools that inculcate a strong and coherent worldview, this suggests religion-centered education as such also can boost student achievement.

The implication of Horwitz’s research is that some achievement gaps are not due to a lack of government funding or economic redistribution, but rather, a lack of proper habits and socially positive beliefs being instilled at home and reinforced in school. While religion is certainly a sufficient vehicle for transmitting certain values, Horwitz does not suggest it is necessary. Her paper does not, however, point to an alternative.

If we are to treat religiosity as just one facet of an adolescent’s home life, Horwitz’s paper speaks to the profound effects that family culture and upbringing may have on a student’s academic performance. In an era when religious commitment is often equated with ignorance, Horwitz’s paper introduces a new perspective to the debate surrounding the importance of religiosity and its ability to increase and maintain social capital.

When we consider what helps children grow and prosper, government interference is not the first mechanism that comes to mind. And indeed, it shouldn’t be. Horwitz’s research reinforces the notion that state intervention is not the primary driver of student performance. Instead, a good deal of education reform starts at home, and in church.