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What Public Schools Can and Can’t Do

In her new book, Ilana M. Horwitz shows how public schools are both more formative and more limited than is often assumed. While they serve an important role in the academic and social formation of students, schools stand as just one institution among many in contributing to student outcomes. As we emerge from the significant educational disruptions occasioned by the COVID pandemic, Horwitz’s research suggests that we must work toward rebuilding schools and other institutions alike.

As the dust begins to settle on the nation’s schools after two years of COVID-related disruption, the stakes for understanding how best to support students’ success are high. In her new book God, Grades, and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success, Tulane University professor Ilana M. Horwitz examines the relationship between academic success and a variable that is often overlooked in the educational literature: religion. Trained as a sociologist, she offers a treasure trove of survey data and interviews to shed light on the surprising ways in which a religious upbringing shapes students’ academic lives in non-religious schools.

Horwitz’s research follows students from secondary school into college. In secular high schools, religious teenagers experience greater academic success than those of their non-religious peers. In fact, religion positively influences academic outcomes for students from all income levels, and its effects are most pronounced for students—especially boys—from lower- and middle-class backgrounds. Once religious students reach college, however, their academic outcomes take a turn as religion recalibrates their ambitions toward less career-centered ends.

By examining an under-researched facet of education, God, Grades, and Graduation offers a new perspective on how schools might best serve and equip children. Horwitz’s research suggests that while schools serve an important role in shaping the social and academic outcomes of students, their ability to effect broader social change is limited.

Schools as Values-Driven Institutions

Horwitz shows that public schools form students both socially and academically. Her research challenges the technocratic impulse to reduce schools’ impact to measurable outcomes. She illuminates how schools are values-driven institutions, laden with norms that are passed on to students either explicitly or implicitly. This echoes the work of Nobel Prize–winning economist George A. Akerlof and his colleague Rachel E. Kranton, who observed that “schools not only impart skills; they also impart an image of ideal students, their characteristics, and their behaviors.” In addition to proficiency in math, reading, and writing, schools impart values, beliefs, and habits. Far from just preparing students for the labor market, public education forms students into adults and citizens.

The socially formative dimension of public schools becomes evident when considering how religious students benefit from the “abider advantage.” Horwitz defines abiders as those who “orient their lives around God so deeply that [religion] alters how they see themselves and how they behave.” Her book primarily follows Christian abiders, for whom God “suffuses every aspect” of their lives. She identifies abiders primarily through a series of surveys and interviews.

 

What all abiders have in common is the expressed desire to organize their entire lives around their religion. To account for demographic variables, Horwitz interviews abiders across social, political, and racial lines. One such interviewee is Tyah, a fourteen-year-old African American girl growing up just outside Washington, D.C. and living in a single-parent home riddled with drug abuse. Tyah maintains a strong belief in God, saying, “I feel like God is everything. God is my every day. He created us. God controls everything, He controls my future, everything.” Alex, a white, Baptist middle-schooler from Greensboro, North Carolina, growing up in a home with a combined income of $55,000, holds similar convictions. He writes that his “yearning to please God” infuses his daily life, shaping his identity and everything he does.

The abider advantage affects more than just grades. Compared to nonabiders, abiders earn higher GPAs—but they are also more likely to attend college, and they complete more years of college.

Abiders outperform their peers in high school because they exhibit behaviors rewarded by teachers. Abiders are usually more cooperative and conscientious—as Horwitz puts it, they “listen, work relatively hard, and don’t complain.” Abiders also tend to have better relationships with their parents and with adults outside the home, which then transfers to better relationships with teachers. They do well not because they are more intelligent or capable, but “because they are better at following the rules.”

Why are better-behaved students rewarded with higher grades? Horwitz posits that “abiders are likely to have an academic advantage because religion and schools are complementary institutions.” Both churches and schools adhere to a set of social norms, which they seek to impart to their parishioners and students, respectively. Among other ends, religious institutions teach children to cooperate with and listen to peers and adults. In Horwitz’s view, this kind of amiable behavior is rewarded in most American public schools because they were founded on Protestant principles. Though now decoupled from an explicitly religious purpose, schools today still “want children to follow the rules, be self-disciplined, and respect authority.”

Horwitz’s research illuminates how schools cannot help but be formative institutions. As such, they should take up their role as values-driven institutions of character formation.

Schools as One Institution among Many

Horwitz’s research sheds light on two aspects of public education that might seem contradictory: they are simultaneously more formative and more limited than is often assumed. They cannot avoid being institutions of social and moral formation, in addition to places of academic preparation. Schools play a role in shaping who students become as people and as professionals alike. At the same time, schools are limited in their ability to bring about sweeping social change. Rather than a panacea for solving all social ills, public schools are just one institution among many contributing to students’ academic and social success.

The weight of expectations set on schools can be breathtaking, with schools increasingly expected to provide social and emotional learning, close achievement gaps, ensure equitable outcomes, and serve as engines for social mobility. Horwitz’s research helps illuminate the extent to which schools have an important role to play in each of these areas, while still falling far short of being the sole solution that is often imagined.

 

The limits of what schools can achieve are particularly apparent in Horwitz’s consideration of class and social capital. She finds that the abider advantage is especially influential for students from working- and middle-class homes. In her account, religious institutions provide social capital, which is strongly correlated with academic success. In general, students from working- and middle-class backgrounds have considerably less access to social capital outside of religious institutions. As such, religious institutions provide these students with the “web of support” that they might otherwise lack.

Social ties have disintegrated for the working- and middle-class over the past several decades, largely due to the shifting economic landscape. As Horwitz explains, the workplace used to be a “central social institution for working-class families,” but the emergence of the gig economy has made it “nearly impossible” for these families to feel a sense of economic or social stability today. The unraveling of social ties is especially acute among men, as evidenced by rising male unemployment rates and deaths of despair.

However, the story changes once religion enters the picture. Religious institutions provide working- and middle-class children access to social capital, as faith communities give increasingly unsupported children a place of belonging and support. Churches can become a more functional and formative institution in the lives of children who may not have as much social capital as their well-off peers. The social ties from religious communities “serve as buffers that keep abiders out of despair and on track for college. They help these kids academically in creating compliant and respectful individuals who succeed in school,” Horwitz writes. Students from the professional class, by contrast, tend to already have access to social institutions and therefore a smoother road to college.

Horwitz’s finding that the abider advantage is especially pronounced for working- and middle-class children suggests that there are limitations on a school’s ability to impact student outcomes. Students arrive in the classroom with certain behavioral habits and varying levels of social capital that are largely outside of the school’s control. As such, non-religious public schools cannot be the silver bullet for human flourishing that they are often expected to be. Schools can provide some social support, but not all; they can correct behavior, but not all behavior; and they can provide social capital, but only within their means. Schools, alongside many other institutions, contribute to student success, but can’t single-handedly create it.

Overall, Horwitz brings a fresh perspective to the conversation about the role of education in human flourishing. Her insight—that schools are at the same time more formative and more limited than is often assumed—is ultimately a hopeful one. It helps focus our minds on what schools can realistically do, while recognizing that we need to continue to work on political and social change beyond the education system. Schools have the heavy task of cultivating students’ academic and social formation, but they stand as just one factor among many contributing to improving student outcomes. As we emerge from the significant educational disruptions occasioned by the COVID pandemic, Horwitz’s research suggests that we must work toward rebuilding schools and other institutions alike.

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