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Does the Faith Ingredient Improve Educational Outcomes?

The floors are being polished, the books are stacking up and school bells are being dusted off! The young scholars are coming back for more wisdom!

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Operation Exodus After-school Kids with Teacher


The floors are being polished, the books are stacking up and school bells are being dusted off! The young scholars are coming back for more wisdom! In the public sector in NYC one million kids will advance through another year with 80,000 teachers. The private schools will teach another 300,000 students. Homeschoolers in NYC  total about 3000.

Churches and ministries who are active during the summer with Vacation Bible School, park outreaches, summer tutoring and the like, hope to see the fruits of their labor blossom as a faith component in the schools.  After-school programs like Operation Exodus Inner City in Washington Heights are preparing their lesson plans.

The faith component is the great missing ingredient in most schools and, in fact, in most church strategizing also. Educators have hardly done any serious thinking about the role of faith in education. Very importantly, what is the role of the faith factor in the education of at-risk youth? Few have thought deeply about this question.


Faith can be a powerful motivator for learning, but you may be surprised how many of your students never considered the relationship between their faiths and education.

Faith can be a powerful motivator for learning, but you may be surprised how many of your students never considered the relationship between their faiths and education. Are we doing a good job in connecting the dots? Adapted from Daniel Pink's Drive.


The faith component is also largely missing from research on adolescents. In their 2005 book Soul Searching. The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers (Oxford University Press), Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton noted, “Very few efforts to better understand American adolescents take seriously their religious faith and spiritual practices.”  In the 1960s and 1970s there were some studies. But since then, when the religion of adolescents is covered, it has usually been given the most cursory examination. The study of religion among at-risk youth is even less studied.

In 2004 “Religion and sex education among High Risk Youth” was published, becoming the first detailed study of religion among at-risk teenagers done in recent times. In the large CUNY second generation immigrant study here in NYC so far there has been little published about the religion of the second generation. In their Inheriting the City. The Children of Immigrants Come of Age, which was published in 2009, the researchers devote ten pages out of 420 pages on five summarizing the religions of the adolescents of the five immigrant groups which they studied. The religion of children from at-risk families is even less studied.

The researchers associated with the National Study of Youth and Religion, which Smith is directing, and the CUNY second generation immigrant project will hopefully follow-up their research by looking at the religion of adolescent at-risk youth. Philip Schwadel recently published “Poor Teenagers’ Religion.” James L. Heft has collected together some analysis in Passing on the Faith. Transforming Traditions for the Next Generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Mark Regenerus has also recently published Forbidden Fruit. Sex and religion in the lives of American Teenagers, though it doesn't cover very much lower class teen religion and sexuality. There is a scattering of other survey and ethnographic research.


Why study the relation of religion and education?

This question was sparked by two remarks. Going down the elevator one time with Herman Badillo, the first Puerto Rican congressman and on CUNY’s board for many years, one of our researchers asked about the congressman’s move from Baptist to Episcopal religion.  His answer was: “Why do the Baptists and Pentecostals not like education?” Much later, one of our researchers was listening to executives, mainly associated with Wall Street, talk about the kids in Hispanic neighborhoods. One remarked that “the Hispanics are not very religious” based on his impression that they were poor, crime-ridden, drug-infested and school dropouts.

Badillo’s answer was a shrewd indirect way of pointing in the direction of his inner feelings while the Wall Street executive was an insulting way of asking the same question: what does religion and education have to do with each other?

The question is more important in NYC than at any time within the last fifty years. The city has undergone something of a religious transformation.

Hispanic immigrants are quite religious and have transformed the NYC Roman Catholic Archdiocese into a majority Hispanic one.  Russian Jews have been a fast growing group in the city. The majority are not religious but around 40% are religious to varying degrees. They and the growing number of Orthodox Jews have reorganized the priorities of Jewish agencies. We have previously documented Russian Jewish beliefs in presentations given here at the seminar and published in various places. The Protestants have had very fast growth.  The growth is fed by immigration, migration from other parts of the U.S. and conversions. Their appearance has profoundly changed the religious map of the New York City metropolitan area. There has hardly been anything like this in NYC since the 19th Century.

The Wall Street executives are dead wrong about the place of religion in at-risk neighborhoods.

However, if Badillo and the Wall Street executive are right that the Pentecostals and evangelicals don’t value education, we should expect an educational disaster. The effort to better the public schools will meet resistance and indifference.

In fact we see an increasing concern with education among the evangelicals. They are asking how their faith links into their concern with education. Jeremy Del Rio, for example, left his job as a Wall Street lawyer to work with at-risk youth and now is promoting a ministry to partner local churches with every public school in the city. These efforts would benefit from a deeper understanding of the role of the faith factor in learning. Although the public school bureaucracy is somewhat aware of the religious changes, insiders tell me that they have done no thinking about the role of the new religious situation in education.

We will periodically explore some of the facts about the amount of educational efforts done by ministries and churches, based on the NYC Religious Census. We will also look at the spiritual inclinations of the parents and kids and what they think the role of religion should play in learning, based on extensive surveys of public and private school kids and their parents.

We also would like your thoughts!


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  • Great article!

  • Connecting up to a larger picture can also grow consequential thinking, a recognition or belief that what we do now will have consequences in the future. The larger picture can also help a teen to see the future as something valuable and worth the sacrifice. I always recall Ron Suskinds' A Hope in the Unseen about a young African American from a very poor and disrupted family being sustained by his and his mother's religious faith that what they could not see (Harvard) was within his grasp because even Harvard is in God's hands. He indeed ended up going to Harvard.

  • Anecdotal evidence from the classroom: older teens and young adults who self-identify as having faith (not necessarily as religious) do have different work habits--doing reading, h.w., completing assignments on time. They are also more likely to see a connection between the particular course they're taking and its completion to the larger picture. Interesting social psychological dynamics emerging I suppose. Hhhmm... Come to think of it, they're more likely to have an idea of a larger picture, even for their own individual lives compared to those who identify as either (practicing) religious or not religious. So the key is faith in these kids' lives? This is a really interesting article, I look forward to reading more on this.

  • Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

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