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Matching students and schools by religion improves academic outcomes—Dr. Catherine Ruth Pakaluk explains why

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Today’s Hub Dialogue is Dr. Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, who is the director of social research and assistant professor at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. 

Professor Pakaluk is the co-author of a new paper entitled “A Good Fit: How Matching Students and Schools by Religion Improves Academic Outcomes”. The paper was published late last year by the Cardus Institute, a public policy think tank based in Ottawa and Hamilton, and is based on a work published in January 2021 in the academic journal Cosmos + Taxis: Studies in Emergent Order.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Research results

SEAN SPEER: Catherine, thank you for joining me to discuss your fascinating new paper. Let’s start big picture: why were you motivated to pursue the question of the relative educational performance of religious students who attend schools rooted in their particular faith perspective and how did you go about pursuing it? And, most importantly, what did you find?

CATHERINE PAKALUK: I’ve long been motivated by the seemingly conflicting results in the research about whether religious schools as a group perform any better than government-funded public schools. There were a lot of studies in the 1980s, in the U.S. looking at this question but, by and large, this early research relied on older methods and didn’t use causal methods that have since become standard for economists to use. When we started to apply newer methods to this older research, it generated conflicting evidence about religious schools. Some studies found no positive effect of religious schooling, and others found positive effects but only on certain outcomes, such as high school graduation, or college matriculation. Other studies found positive effects only for certain groups of students, such as some minorities.

This conflicting evidence caused me to wonder if there might be extra variables that we hadn’t considered that may explain some of these results. I wanted to go deeper and try to explain the different effects observed in students attending religious schools. That was my motivation. 

You asked, more specifically, how did I go about answering that question? I looked for a large sample publicly accessible database with enough students in the sample attending schools of different religions and religious traditions. I also needed that data set to have information on what kind of religious tradition the student was coming from, so I could determine if a Baptist student was attending a Baptist school and so on. This enabled me to determine if students were paired up with that school by religious faith. There weren’t too many datasets available to do this type of analysis. I ended up using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from the 1997 cohort, with which I was able to pull together a large enough group of students with sufficient variation among religious faiths, that I could begin to estimate an answer to this question. 

As for what I found, I found something that was surprisingly interesting. I found support for the hypothesis that positive effects of religious schooling, for which, as I said earlier, we have seen conflicting findings in a general population—it does look like there’s support for the idea that better academic outcomes seem to be for students who are a faith-match or religious-match for their school. 

The faith-matched group in my data exhibited standardized test scores in the range of five to eight percentage points better than the unmatched students, which is a sizable number in the education literature. We don’t see positive effects that large for very many factors. This finding requires more digging to discover whether effect sizes of that nature are robust and if we see them over and over. But it certainly points in an interesting direction that is worth continuing to study. 

Why religious kids thrive in religious schools

SEAN SPEER: Your research finds these positive outcomes for match students. Do you have a hypothesis on what would contribute to those outcomes for these students?

CATHERINE PAKALUK: That’s a great question. It’s almost in some ways, the most interesting part of this. I have a couple of hypotheses that are kind of working in the background, which I touched on just a bit at the end of the report. Of course, I can’t totally, definitively prove what’s going on. But the best way to sum it up is this: it’s easy to think about the school system as a system, and, at least, certainly in the States, where 95 percent of students do go through what we call the public school system, it’s easy to think of modern education as a big industrial complex. You may know that the schools in some large, U.S. districts, for instance, are even-numbered. They’re not even named. 

This kind of educational industrialization is consistent with certain pedagogical theories from the early 20th century. In this mental model of schooling, children are envisioned as kind of inputs into a factory production line. In fact, in much of the education research that economists do they just import language from the study of industry into the study of education. There’s such a thing in the research as the “educational production function.” So we think about children as these inputs into a factory and then they get spit out at the other end as some product, a formed widget with knowledge or skills or what have you. What happens when you think about a school as a factory, stuff comes in and stuff goes out; you could have different materials go in, but factories do the same thing to everybody. 

Yet when you stop and step out of the model of a system and industrial complex, and you think for a little bit about children, you can start to see a much different picture. I came to this research as an economist and a mom—I have eight children! — and I wondered “What are little kids really like?” 

When you pose these types of questions, you find that in the educational psychology literature there is a whole separate line of thinking, which economists aren’t good at, that’s behind this language of the kindergarten: the idea that children are like flowers or seeds that get planted in soil.  So we say “kinder-garten” which is a garden of children. In some sense, what’s important when we think about gardening and farming and organic growth is that there’s a natural process to be respected. I can’t just decide for myself what nutrients are good for the seeds that I have, there’s some process I have to respect. The whole problem here, such as in the context of farming and farmers, is that you want to have good seeds, but you really need to provide thought into the quality of the soil and make sure the soil is not depleted, and the nutrients in the soil are a good match for the type of seed that you have. These are very interesting questions with obvious application to the education of young people. 

So, taking that model, which you can see is almost diametrically opposed to the industrial complex model, you start to think, “What would go into the good soil?” If children are like seeds that have some kind of organic development already inherent in them that they are wishing to blossom, they are wishing to grow in certain directions, then we would start to wonder if different schools could be better for different children, on the basis of whether the soil of that school is good for that kid. I wondered about a lot of different types of good matches for students, and thinking through the types of matches I could get in the data, it occurred to me that religious faith matches could be a very strong one. 

So, to finally answer your question, my hypothesis is that we are picking up in this study a feature of childhood—that children thrive like seeds when they’re in a good soil, and elements of good soil for a child, we could say, in a very basic way would include familiarity, comfort, closeness to home—and religion may be a strong component of this for children who come from religious households. 

A lot of religious schools do have that familiarity and comfort. It’s often these are schools are even attached to places where children go to worship with their families. In my own case at home, we go to church on Sunday at a church that’s across the street from the school. Children see the same people in the two communities. They see their classmates from school worshiping on Sunday. There’s in some sense a tri-part community involving the church, the school, and the family, which creates for the child the opportunity of feeling at school as if he or she is in an extended domestic life where the school is an extension of the home and the worshipping community. 

All of that can be said before raising the question about what religious faith adds to that equation. We just talked about comfort and domesticity—my kids certainly would prefer to be in their sweatpants in my living room; you have to wrangle them into some regular clothes and take them out of their comfort zone at seven in the morning—to the extent that you land them in a place that’s less of a shock, it’s more like home and the church, a more comfortable space, a place where they understand the combination of love and discipline. To that extent, we could expect to see some of these things bearing fruit. 

I think if you want to push me and say, “Well, what about the extra effects of religion?”, we might have to look deeper. There has been a line of research about the fit between worldview and deeply held beliefs that in a formative relationship, when the deeply held beliefs are aligned, it seems that persons receiving formative care seemed to make more progress—such as in a therapeutic relationship. I think there may be some element of that as well. I think that’s a fair summary of the hypotheses I have in the background. Perhaps someday I can collaborate with psychologists to test some of these hypotheses because they are outside of standard economic frameworks. It would be fun to pursue that research.

But I’ll finish by saying that the thought about the soil being right for a child can be extended quite generally to many aspects of schools and I’m excited to see if we can see those kinds of effects in other areas as well.

Further research

SEAN SPEER: A good fit, as defined in your paper, is a reflection of immediate educational outcomes. There are also ostensibly non-academic, longer-term benefits for individuals who attend independent or religious schools. Do you want to situate your research in the broader body of scholarship on the independent and religious schools and their effects on students and alumni?

CATHERINE PAKALUK: Yes, of course! Academic research, especially on these niche topics, tends to go through these moments of trendiness. Certain questions get pushed to an endpoint in a certain sense. I would say that the question of the performance of religious schools, in general, was a trending topic to make progress on for economists between about 1995 and about 2010. Then there weren’t really any new questions, and it became less trendy or perhaps just less fruitful. One thing I’m hoping to do here is help bust open a new set of topics. There’s a really huge number of new questions that get opened if you say that school quality is not fixed, but dependent on the interaction between student and school. 

Think about a common personal experience like buying a car. When you go and buy a car, it has a certain quality and the industry actually has all these different ways to measure the quality of the car. So there is an objective “quality” of that vehicle that plays into demand, cost of production, and pricing. Yet there’s also a subjective sense of its quality, which is that people want to use vehicles for different purposes. A truck may have more utility for some people than a sedan or sports car. 

Schools are different but similar. While there may be some aspects of schooling that lend themselves to such a fixed quality analysis, there’s another big part of schools where there’s the quality or the magic that happens in the relationship. As soon as you recognize that, I think that gives us so many interesting places to go. To answer your question, then, about the contributions of religious schools, this research agenda really asks the field to open up to this new way of thinking about schools as a relationship between two parties, each of which brings something to the table. Religious and independent schools challenge the narrative that a massive industrial system of schooling can somehow serve everybody’s needs well.

SEAN SPEER: That’s terrific. In fact, in a way, it anticipates my final question. I know that the paper signals that these findings necessitate further research and inquiry. But, at this stage, what would you say the policy implications may be from the findings outlined in the paper?

CATHERINE PAKALUK: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve been suggestive in the sense of not necessarily picking out particular policy proposals on the table. 

As a disclaimer: I’m much more familiar with the policy conversation in the United States than I am with potential policy ideas for Canada. But at the very least, if we agree with the idea that governments, states, and nations should devote some significant portion of their budgets to the support of schools—if we take that seriously, if we agree with that, which may or may not be true for everyone—we will need to consider whether or not those dollars are being wisely used including if a one-size-fits-all model is optimal for educational and also non-academic outcomes.

In the United States, that certainly would mean that there could be serious and substantive reasons to open up school policies and reforms that involve public support for greater options with diversity of providers of schools. It would mean in effect the school reforms that favour a greater set of options for students among those schools that are funded publicly—a popular policy slogan today in the U.S. says “Let the dollars follow the kid, not the system.” Or “fund students, not schools.”

Now, I think from a Public Choice perspective, someone might say, “I’m not really that interested in public funding of schooling at all, because it ends up leading to the government dictating or having undue influence over curricula.” In response, I would say that’s a reasonable concern. This research still supports the idea that the efforts of small, non-governmental schools that are underfunded and trying to do better in local communities, well these schools can have confidence that they can be successful and do great things because they have the possibility of a good-soil advantage where they can do more with less. 

So, whether we’re thinking about policies to channel more money to families, or to channel less money to schooling, whatever we’re thinking about, I think the research supports a more creative view of what counts as a resource for a school. People have had a materialistic view of “resources”—money, books, buildings. But if a resource can be people of faith, that’s a whole new world of possibility in front of us.

SEAN SPEER: As you say, at least at this stage, your research findings affirm a framework that tilts in favor of educational pluralism. We look forward to the future work, and we’re grateful to have had the chance to speak with you today. 

The paper of course is “A Good Fit: How Matching Students and Schools by Religion Improves Academic Outcomes”. It was published in mid-December by Catherine and her colleague by Cardus. Thank you so much for speaking with us today and sharing your insights.

CATHERINE PAKALUK: You’re welcome. It was a great pleasure to talk to you.