New Study Shows Positive Family Outcomes for Private School Students

Sep 28, 2020 · 4 min read

By Mike McShane

As is rarely said at a Sinn Fein meeting, I’d like to say something nice about Protestants.

In a new report from the American Enterprise Institute, Albert Cheng, Patrick Wolf, Wendy Wang, and Brad Wilcox look at the family life outcomes of students who attended different types of schools.

The report uses nationally representative data from the Understanding America Study (UAS) and the National Longitudinal Survey 1997 (NLSY97) to explore the links between adults’ prior schooling and their odds of marrying, divorcing, and having a child outside of marriage.

The researchers compared students who attended public schools, Catholic schools, Protestant schools, and secular private schools. They also compared student reports of their peer environment, looking at rates of sex, drug use, church attendance, and college plans.

On almost every positive indicator, Protestant schools led the way. Students who attended Protestant schools were more likely to have an intact marriage, were tied for the lowest divorce rate and rate of out-of-wedlock childbirth. In every case, private schools of all stripes performed better than traditional public schools, often by wide margins.

So why do we see these results? It should be noted that these results are correlational, not causal, but interestingly, the researchers found similar patterns in the peer environments of the various school types.

For example, it shouldn’t surprise us that Protestant schools see low rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth when 75 percent of students said that “almost no kids ever had sex” amongst their classmates. What was the rate in public schools? Sixteen percent. Contra Billy Joel, Catholic schools students were the second most likely to report their peers having sex. This pattern held for drug use as well, though not as dramatically. Catholic school students, though, were the most likely to report that almost all of their peers were planning to go to college.

Perhaps most striking were the reports of church attendance. Only 5 percent of public school students reported that their peers went to church regularly. Only 4 percent of students attending secular private schools did as well. Catholic school students saw substantially more, with 21 percent reporting that their peers attended church, but the Protestant school students far surpassed them. Sixty-one percent of Protestant school students reported their peers attending church.

There are more results worth exploring. The authors looked at family structure and family financial stability and found that both Protestant and Catholic schools showed positive results for students who came from less financially stable households. The entire report merits reading.

Now, it is worth taking a moment to say that talking about things like marriage, out-of-wedlock birth, church attendance, and the like can take on a moral dimension that makes examining their impacts fraught. But facts are facts. Careful research by Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and a co-author of this report, has consistently demonstrated that marriage, intact families, and the like have lots of positive outcomes for adults and children alike.

People get married, divorced, and have kids for lots of reasons, but just because these decisions have a moral dimension to them does not mean that we cannot observe what happens to people after such decisions are made. And remember, just because things are true on average, doesn’t mean that they are true in every single circumstance. An out-of-wedlock birth does not automatically harm a child, nor does divorce or never attending church.

With all of that having been said, I’d like to offer three thoughts:

First, it is important to ask whether or not it is fair to compare these student populations. If, for example, students who attend Protestant schools are wealthier, and wealth is correlated with intact marriages and child-rearing after marriage, then we might actually be seeing the effect of income, rather than anything that the school does. The topline data that the authors report is unadjusted for demographics, but they do include regressions that included race, ethnicity, parental education, age, and gender. The results remain the same. It is fair to say, though, that there might be some unobserved characteristics at work here.

Second, this is a great example of looking at outcomes outside of simple test scores and graduation rates. Those things are important but are only short-term snapshots of how students are progressing. What we ultimately want from our education system is adults who are thriving. Looking to longer term measures that are basically impossible for schools to game can help us understand the real-world effects of different educational philosophies and approaches.

Third and potentially disappointingly, it will be interesting to see if or how the folks who generally oppose using standardized test results to judge schools react to these findings. Unfortunately, many of the people who don’t like standardized tests also don’t like private schools. These are the exact type of data that they ask for: long-term, meaningful, and difficult to game. If anything should convince them that private schooling is worth support, it would be data like this. Will they ignore them because the findings disagree with their preconceptions? I guess we’ll have to see.

McShane is the director of national research at EdChoice.