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How Schooling Types Affect Human Flourishing

Comparing public, private, religious, and home schooling.

Key points

  • In a sample of children of nurses, we found few differences in young adult outcomes between graduates of public vs. private schools.
  • Homeschoolers were less likely to attend college than public schoolers, but were more forgiving and purposeful, and more likely to volunteer.
  • Flourishing is multi-dimensional and different types of schools have different advantages and disadvantages.
  • Education ought to promote human flourishing, and different schools have different opportunities for improvement.

A newborn horse can run alongside its mother an hour after its birth. We humans, by contrast, require what Plato described as “a long and arduous development, involving a good deal of trouble and education” (Theaetetus). The formation of young people over years and decades decisively shapes the future of human society, which is perhaps why our most enduring institutions—the family, the religious community, and the state—have all taken a keen interest in it. Those enduring interests are evident today in the range of school types available to students, from public schools to private schools, to religious schools, and, in the United States at least, a growing proportion of home-schooling.

Much of the prior research on school types has, quite understandably, focused on the crucial outcomes of educational attainment and subsequent employment opportunities. However, schools and education also shape many other aspects of a child's life. There has thus been an increasing emphasis on education for flourishing. While the acquisition of skills and knowledge is central to the manner in which education enhances flourishing, it makes sense also to examine how different types of schooling affect a whole range of subsequent health and well-being outcomes.

Juuucy/Adobe Spark
Home Schooling
Source: Juuucy/Adobe Spark

Study of School Types

Our study used data on 12,288 participants from the Growing Up Today Study, which is a study of children of nurses from the Nurses’ Health Study at Harvard. In interpreting the results of our study, it will be important to bear in mind the characteristics of this study population since, on the whole, the mothers of these children are a well-educated cohort. Our study used longitudinal data on school type (public, private, religious, home-school) in 1999, controlled for a host of social, demographic, economic, and health-related variables, and examined a wide range of well-being outcomes in 2007-2013 when the participants were young adults. The results were somewhat surprising.

What We Found

Contrary to what we might have expected, we found almost no difference in well-being outcomes between those students who attended public schools versus private schools in this sample. This was the comparison with the largest sample size, for which we had the most power to detect effects, and yet we found almost nothing. In some ways, however, it is reassuring that our outcome-wide approaches, with rigorous design and good confounding control, can deliver such results, when relevant, even across a host of outcomes.

Also striking was that we found relatively few differences between public schooling and religious schooling. There was some evidence that those who attended religious schools were very slightly more likely to subsequently register to vote, very slightly less likely to be obese, had slightly fewer lifetime sexual partners, but had a slightly greater likelihood of engaging in binge drinking. This is surprising, in part because our prior research had indicated that a religious upbringing contributes substantially to subsequent health and wellbeing. What the present study does seem to suggest is that it is religious service attendance itself that appears to be the more dominant influence, at least for the outcomes examined.

Contrary to our expectations, we found relatively few differences in subsequent young adult outcomes when comparing public, private, and religious schooling. The one comparison for which the differences in subsequent outcomes were more substantial was for home-schooling compared to public schooling. For this, the differences in subsequent outcomes were much larger but were in different directions for different outcomes.

Our study indicated that those who were home-schooled were subsequently more likely to volunteer, to have a sense of purpose, to be forgiving, to attend religious services in young adulthood, to have fewer lifetime sexual partners, and to have notably less marijuana use. However, the study also indicated that those who were home-schooled were subsequently about 23 percent less likely to go on to attain a college degree. One might imagine both sides of the home-schooling debate claim from these results, “See… I was right!”

Understanding the Context

In interpreting the results of our study, it is important to consider the context of these analyses. First, as noted above, the participants in the study were all children of nurses, a relatively well-off group by national standards. It is entirely possible that the mothers and fathers of these children were especially invested in their children’s education and that if a particular school context—public, private, religious, home—was not working well for that child, the parents would be motivated to find a different setting. If this were so, it might explain some of the similar results across school types.

Second, while we examined a range of different outcomes, some of the motivations given for religious schooling or home-schooling often concern formation of character or knowledge of religious teachings and, for the most part, our ability to examine such outcomes was limited. However, as noted above, the character outcomes we did have (e.g. volunteering, forgiveness) were, when comparing home-schooling and public schooling, among the few outcomes for which there were differences.

Finally, the study concerned schooling experiences about 20 years ago and a lot has changed since that time. The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected the schooling experience, creating new challenges and difficulties across various contexts. Moreover, many parents have felt forced into home-schooling, rather than having chosen it themselves. Culture has also changed with policies and questions around gender identity playing an increasingly prominent role in public school contexts. Education and schools are undoubtedly part of, and are shaped by, the broader culture of which they are a part and so any examination of the effects of schooling will be bound by the culture, the time, and the population under study.

Wokandapix/Adobe Spark
School Choice
Source: Wokandapix/Adobe Spark

Flourishing and School Choice

The results on home-schooling are perhaps especially relevant given the dramatic increase in home-schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Surveys indicate that the proportion of homeschooling has increased from about 3.3 percent of students pre-pandemic to 11.1 percent this school year. Many of those new homeschoolers will doubtless return to public or private schools as the pandemic recedes, but it may be that, for some, the COVID-19 homeschooling experience results in their continuing homeschooling indefinitely.

Our results comparing public school and home-schooling might also be viewed as providing a challenge to both public school contexts and home-schooling contexts alike. For public schools, the results might be seen as a call to strengthen character education, perhaps using one of the growing number of curriculum-based character programs discussed in one of our previous postings. For home-schooling parents, the results may indicate a need to strengthen college preparedness. It may not be the case that academic achievement is principally responsible for the differences in college outcomes. We did not have access to achievement test scores in our current data and so were not able to examine this, and prior work comparing home-schooling and public schooling on academic ability has been mixed in its findings. Academic achievement may indeed be relevant, but other aspects of the culture of homeschooling, or of admissions policies, may also be at play. Nevertheless, the lower likelihood of going on to obtain a college degree was clear. This result should provide food for thought for homeschooling parents regarding academic learning and additional motivation to invest in college preparedness.

As we’ve argued before, flourishing is multi-dimensional and multi-faceted. It cannot be reduced to a single number. Different aspects of life may affect flourishing in different ways and different aspects of flourishing may be weighed differently by different people. Our study suggests that, for relatively well-educated parents at least, reasonably consistent life outcomes can be achieved irrespective of public, private, or religious schooling. There do seem to be some real trade-offs, in the present cultural context (or at least those which prevailed 20 years ago), between home-schooling and public schooling. This is arguably an invitation for each school type to aim for yet further improvement.

This research also creates an opportunity to reflect on the goals and ends of education and schooling. Different systems may have different advantages. Home-schooling perhaps allows for greater opportunity and flexibility concerning character formation. Public schools may have greater resources for ensuring college preparedness. Because the ends of education are diverse, and the extent to which these ends are valued vary, there is arguable value in allowing school choice. Parenting and education are complex and challenging tasks; they require both an embeddedness within communities and a freedom in the numerous decisions that have to be made. Rather than insisting on a single school type, we should work together to ensure that all educational settings promote human flourishing to fullest extent possible.

References

Chen, Y., Hinton, C., and VanderWeele, T.J. (2021). School types in adolescence and subsequent health and well-being in young adulthood: An outcome-wide analysis. PLOS ONE, 16(11): e0258723. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0258723

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