Church and School: Rural high school students who were significantly involved in church activities generally got better grades and were more popular than their less involved counterparts, say researchers who looked at 450 families in north-central Iowa.
The researchers also found that if students increased their involvement in church life over the high school years, their grades—although not their standing among their peers—tended to go up.
“The more religious you became, the better,” in terms of grades and self-perceived achievement, said Valarie E. King, a professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.
Ms. King did the study of church involvement for a larger research project on rural children undertaken in the mid-1990s by Glen H. Elder Jr. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Rand D. Conger at Iowa State University. The findings from the research were published in the 2000 book Children of the Land: Adversity and Success in Rural America.
Ms. King’s survey suggests that church activity builds academic and social competence. Church attendance and church-youth-group participation—the two measures of involvement used in the study—seem to work through “placing kids in a community with prosocial values, where other adults are looking out for the kids, and they are sharing with peers,” Ms. King said. In addition, the groups offer leadership opportunities.
The benefits of increased involvement over the high school years extended to young people from backgrounds often associated with greater risk of failure—such as living in poverty or having parents who suffered from depression. “Higher levels of religious participation also predicted [more positive] outcomes for these kids,” Ms. King said, though their involvement in church activities as of the 8th grade did not.
Craig B. Howley, the director of the Educational Resources Information Center Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, based in Charleston, W.Va., cautioned against drawing overly broad conclusions from the study, noting that it focused on an area in Iowa that has a larger share of farm families than most places in the United States.
He also cautioned against seeing grades as a measure of intellectual attainment. “They are a very good measure of compliance” with teacher expectations, as church involvement may be a good measure of compliance with community expectations, he argued.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week