Protestant Schools Focus on Faith; Catholic Schools Focus on Intellect

A new study of K-12 Christian schools shows that Protestant Christian schools do a better job of developing their students' spiritual formation while Catholic Christian schools do a better job developing their students' intellect.

These are among the findings of a two-year study of Christian schools in the United States conducted by Cardus, a Christian think tank.

Catholic school students have better academic outcomes, are more likely to attend prestigious colleges, more likely to achieve an advanced degree and have higher income levels as a result. This is consistent with the goals of Catholic schools. Catholic school administrators place much emphasis on academic achievement and Catholic schools have more rigorous course requirements than Protestant schools.

Catholic school graduates do not embrace Catholic social teaching at high rates, however. They are just as likely to divorce as public school graduates. Also, they are not more likely to attend religious services, and they are less likely to become leaders in their church than those who did not attend a Catholic school.

Protestant school graduates, on the other hand, lagged in academic development compared to Catholic school graduates, but were more likely to live out the social teaching of their schools. They show more commitment to their families, church and communities than those who graduated from Catholic, non-religious private, and public schools.

“Catholic schools are providing high quality intellectual development but at the expense of developing faith and commitment to religious practices in their graduates, while Protestant Christian schools are seemingly providing a place where students become distinct in their commitment to their faith, but are not developing academically at any better rate than their public school peers,” the Cardus Education Survey concludes.

The survey also acknowledges that its findings contradict popular images of Protestant schools.

“In contrast to the popular stereotype of Protestant Christian schools producing socially fragmented, anti-intellectual, politically radical, and militantly right-wing graduates, our data reveal a very different picture of the Protestant Christian school graduate. Compared to their public school, Catholic school, and non-religious private school peers, Protestant Christian school graduates have been found to be uniquely compliant, generous individuals who stabilize their communities by their uncommon and distinctive commitment to their families, their churches, and their communities, and by their unique hope and optimism about their lives and the future,” the Cardus Education Survey says.

The survey also contains a “discussion” section where the authors explore the significance of the findings for Christian school administrators. “As encouraging as those findings are, we wonder if Christian schools might yet be able to impact culture more directly without losing the effect of stable families,” the authors ask, and they pose 13 questions for Christian school administrators to consider in light of the findings.

They ask, for instance, “What if Christian school leaders were more audacious in their goals, expecting students to be unwaveringly committed both to their families and to being a part of culture through politics, the arts, and the world of ideas?” and “What if Christian schools would inspire students to develop a 'whole gospel' mindset – reverence for creation, acknowledgment of the fall, worship of the Redeemer, and a taste for restoration – rather than a more narrowly-focused understanding of Biblical roles as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers?”

The Cardus Education Survey represents phase one of a two phase project. In phase two, Cardus will facilitate discussion and events to help schools utilize the data from phase one.

The survey used both quantitative and qualitative research methods. The surveys were Knowledge Networks internet surveys conducted over two years by the University of Notre Dame and included approximately 1,000 Christian school graduates, and 500 non-Christian school graduates in the U.S. and Canada. Three separate qualitative studies were conducted using both interviews and focus groups.

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