Education reform has taken center stage lately as Americans struggle to close the oft-condemned achievement gap. But quietly in our midst, the second largest Christian school system in the world has been steadily outperforming the national average – across all demographics.
The Seventh-Day Adventists' holistic curriculum serves as a model for how to overcome that gap – the disparity in academic performance between low-income and minority students and their peers in higher-income communities. But even more, it shows how to narrow the gap between mind, body, and spirit, truly educating students for success.
Now, I'm not advocating for religious instruction to be included in school curricula. Rather, what my research indicates is that holistic learning – an education that doesn't erect artificial barriers among disciplines and between mind, body, and spirit – does indeed result in greater student achievement.
Adventist schools outperform their peers
Since 2006, as part of the CognitiveGenesis study, two colleagues and I have gathered data on more than 50,000 students enrolled in Seventh-Day Adventist schools. (Unbeknownst to many, the Adventist Church runs a Christian school system second only in size to the Roman Catholic parochial schools.) While we have long believed in the effectiveness of the holistic approach Adventist schools take, we wanted to quantify, empirically, how well students in Adventist schools perform.
Even we were surprised by the results. Our four-year, independently financed study showed that students at Adventist schools outperformed their peers at the national average in every subject area.
Between 2006 and 2010, my colleagues and I analyzed test scores of 51,706 students, based on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for Grades 3-8, the Iowa Test of Educational Development for Grades 9 and 11, and the Cognitive Abilities Test for all grades, as well as surveys completed by students, parents, teachers, and school administrators.
In each subject category, students attending Adventist schools scored higher than the national average. They also scored higher than their expected achievement based on assessment of individual ability – a factor few other schools measure.
One of our most dramatic findings is that students who transferred to Adventist schools saw a marked improvement in academic achievement. The more years a student attended an Adventist school, the more his or her performance improved.
Socioeconomic status and funding aren't factors
A skeptic might argue that private schools such as those run by the Adventists are made up primarily of wealthy, white, upper-middle-class students, hence the reason for higher achievement. Not so.
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.
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.