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Opinion

For real education reform, take a cue from the Adventists

Amid all the buzz on education reform, the Seventh Day Adventist school system might seem an unexpected place to look for models in improving student achievement. But by educating mind, body, and spirit, Adventist schools outperform the national average across all demographics.

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Our research shows the demographics of Adventist schools are closer to those of public schools, with high economic and socioeconomic diversity. Enrollment is open, meaning students are admitted without the kind of screening for ability that many other private schools employ. In North America, the Adventist Church runs almost 1,000 schools, many of which are small and rural. We found no relationship between the size of the school that students attended and achievement.

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Significantly, in this time of decreasing budgets for public schools, we found no link between per-pupil spending and student achievement. Research by Dave Lawrence, a graduate student at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., indicates that students at Adventist schools that spend as little as $2,000 to $4,000 per pupil are roughly at the same achievement level as students in schools that spend as much as $12,000 per student. Mr. Lawrence found no significant correlation between a school's budget and student achievement.

The advantages of a holistic approach

So how do we account for the Adventist advantage? We believe it lies in the holistic approach these schools take – a commitment to educating mind, body, and spirit. Unlike public schools, Adventist schools across the country have a standard curriculum. It includes the traditional "three R's" along with emphasis on spiritual and physical development. There's a coherence and a connectedness between Adventist schools that doesn't often exist in other systems.

Some of the biggest predictors for student achievement, according to statistical models we developed, include whether students have a positive spiritual outlook, have a healthy relationship with their parents, and take care of their own health. These are all attitudes that can be cultivated, and they point to the importance of a holistic approach to education.

In recent years, the Adventist Church has been the subject of much public fascination because of its focus on health, longevity, and wholeness. (PBS ran a documentary earlier this year, "The Adventists," and the book "The Blue Zones" came out in 2008.) But our research shows that Adventist education can also be a learning lab, showing how K-12 students nationwide can excel beyond expectations.

True reform of the public school system will take hard work and innovation, but the Adventists provide a model that can help reformers hit the "reset" button. Eliminating artificial barriers between subjects and helping students see the link between how they live and how they learn are first, but crucial, steps in laying the foundation for true reform.

Elissa Kido is a professor of education at La Sierra University, a Seventh-Day Adventist college, where she directs the CognitiveGenesis Research project.

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