A fascinating study just came out. Scholars Ying Chen, Christina Hinton, and Tyler VanderWeele (2021) published their work, “School types in adolescence and subsequent health and well-being in young adulthood: An outcome-wide analysis.” In it, they compared the backgrounds in adolescence and outcomes in adulthood of those who were homeschooled, private schooled, and public schooled. Overall, they found that homeschooling is related to positive outcomes in adulthood.
The various after-effects included “a wide range of subsequent psychological well-being, social engagement, character strengths, mental health, health behavior and physical health outcomes” (p. 1). Specific examples are becoming registered voters, risk of being overweight/obese, number of lifetime sexual partners, frequency of attending religious services, and risk of binge drinking.
First impressions matter. Scholarly articles, including those by this author, usually address a study’s limitations near the end of the report. And since “man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true” (goodreads.com, 2022) this time this author will address the boundaries of the research up front. This will help no one to go off trumpeting or blasting the conclusions of the scholars any more than they should.
The data came from children of female registered nurses and were collected via the Nurses’ Health Study II (NHSII) and the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS). In 1999, the nurses’ children were of mean age 14.56 years (with a range of 11 to 19) and in 2010 their mean age was 25.10 years.
The first limitation is that the study considered only the children of female nurses. There is no evidence that this represents Americans in general.
The researchers were using longitudinal data from one cohort of children. When teenagers, “Participants were asked to report the types of schools that they were attending in response to the question (GUTS 1999): ‘What type of school do you attend?’” (p. 3). Their responses were then grouped into the four categories of public schools, private independent schools, private religious schools, and homeschooled. The study did not know for how many years each participant had been enrolled in each type of schooling. Data also did not include how many years they were enrolled in each school sector after they responded in 1999.
The second limitation is, therefore, that it is not known for how many years the participants had been exposed to (treated by) a particular sector of education – whether public school or other school types – before the first data collection nor after that and before the second data collection. Therefore, if, for example a strong positive correlation was found between being in public school during adolescence and more lifetime sexual partners, there would be no way to know whether the latter was associated with being public schooled 10%, 27%, or 80% of the persons’ school years.
Many variables were considered. School type was the key “exposure” or independent variable. The various outcomes in young adulthood
… included indicators of psychological well-being (i.e., life satisfaction, positive affect, self-esteem, emotional regulation), social engagement (i.e., marital status, community engagement, religious service attendance, educational attainment), character strengths (i.e., volunteering, sense of mission, forgiveness, civic engagement), mental health (i.e., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]), health behaviors (i.e., current smoking, binge drinking, marijuana or other illicit drug use, prescription drug misuse, number of lifetime sexual partners, early sexual initiation, history of sexually transmitted infections [STIs], short sleep duration, preventive healthcare use), and physical health (i.e., overweight/obesity, a number of physical health problems). (p. 3-4)
The researchers controlled for several variables (i.e., treated them as covariates) in the assessment. These included demographic characteristics, items related to family socioeconomic status, family environment factors, and prior health status or health behaviors.
Family environment factors, including religious service attendance, were listed in the section under “covariate assessment,” so it is assumed that data for this variable, when the participant was an adolescent, were statistically controlled while evaluating correlations related to school type. That is, findings about school sector would be after controlling for variation in attendance at religious service.
There were basically no differences “… in subsequent outcomes between adolescents attending private independent schools versus public schools across various health and well-being outcomes …” (p. 5).
Compared to those who attended public schools, “… there was some evidence that students at religious schools subsequently had a higher likelihood of frequent religious service attendance and becoming registered voters, a lower risk of overweight/obesity and fewer lifetime sexual partners on average …” (p. 5). On the other hand, however, those who attended religious schools “… were more likely to subsequently be frequent binge drinkers … though such associations again did not reach a p < .05 threshold after accounting for multiple testing …” (p. 5).
Most differences from public school students were with the homeschooled. Compared to those who attended public schools, “… homeschooled students were subsequently 51% more likely to attend religious services frequently …, reported greater frequency of volunteering …, and had substantially higher levels of forgiveness on average …” (p. 5-6). Those who had been homeschooled during the year of the survey were 23% less likely to attain a college degree in young adulthood than those who were public schooled that year.
The researchers also reported the following: “There was also some evidence that homeschooled students [compared to the public schooled] subsequently reported a higher level of sense of mission in life, lower risks of marijuana use and fewer lifetime sexual partners, but possibly had a higher risk of PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder]; these latter associations, however, passed conventional, but not Bonferroni-corrected, p-value thresholds …” (p. 7).
When the authors conducted further analyses, they found one more tidbit that focused on the homeschooled. “Finally, the analyses comparing homeschooling to religious schools provided some suggestive evidence that the homeschooled adolescents may volunteer more frequently and have a lower risk of marijuana use in their young adulthood …” (p. 10).
Comments and Considerations
The researchers summarized their findings by reporting that for the children of female nurses who participated in this study, there was (a) “… little difference between attending private independent schools versus public schools in subsequent health and well-being outcomes in young adulthood,” (b) “… only modest evidence for differences in subsequent outcomes when comparing private religious schools to public schools,” but, on the other hand, (c) “… considerably greater evidence that homeschooling versus public schools was positively associated with several outcomes …” (p. 10). That is a fair synopsis.
Let us consider a few important things when considering the implications of this study. First, one should remember that it is only one study that now becomes part of a growing body of research comparing the adulthood outcomes of having been homeschooled versus attending various forms of institutional schooling. Second, it is important to consider the limitations noted above. That is, initially, this is a cross-sectional study of only children of female nurses; this is not a representative sample of all Americans.
It is also critical to keep in mind that the school type is known for only the year that the students were surveyed. The duration of the treatment or exposure to the four school types is not known. We do not know whether each student categorized as homeschooled was home educated for 1, 5, 7, or 13 years during his K-12 school years, nor do we know the same for the public schooled and private schooled. That is, we do not know the dosage of school type that the participants received. I have been strongly encouraging researchers for many years to get a complete school-type history of all participants when comparing the homeschooled to others so that we can better understand the effects of school sector on the lives of adults.
The way the report was written, the implication was that a lower formal educational attainment in young adulthood by those who were homeschooled is a negative thing. However, the authors pointed out some possible explanations. Further, one should keep in mind that it is conceivable the homeschool community of 20 years ago did not consider college attendance or degrees to be as of high a value as did the general population. It is also a possibility that the homeschooled have been less interested than others in going into debt for a college degree and that not having a college degree is not necessarily bad for a person’s life.
Although the authors found that the homeschooled “… possibly had a higher risk of PTSD …” (p. 7) than the public schooled, it was not a statistically robust finding and the wording in the report was that they “… may have a higher risk of probable PTSD in young adulthood” (p. 11); this is not convincing that there is a serious concern on this topic but it would be worth exploring in future studies.
One might now turn to ways that different publishing outlets present this study. A case in point is Christianity Today’s (2022) recent article. While the researchers Chen, Hinton, and VanderWeele found, overall, positive outcomes in adulthood to be related to homeschooling as compared to public schooling, the article makes light of this finding. This is true especially in the title that Christianity Today gave to the study. Rather than “Taking kids to church matters more than the ‘right’ school, study suggests,” the magazine editors could have more accurately and interestingly entitled it, “Homeschooling and taking kids to church matter more, study suggests.”
That is, the scholars found that homeschooling was positively associated with more beneficial outcomes in adulthood than were private independent schools and private religious schools when compared to public schooling. These robust positive outcomes for the homeschooled were being more likely to attend religious services frequently, having a greater frequency of volunteering, and having substantially higher levels of forgiveness on average, and there also was “… some evidence that homeschooled students subsequently reported a higher level of sense of mission in life, lower risks of marijuana use and fewer lifetime sexual partners, …” (p. 7).
Finally, it is important to note that the researchers did address the connection between religious service attendance in childhood and positive or negative outcomes in adulthood. The following observation, however, was in the context of attending religious schooling as compared to public schooling (and did not relate to homeschooling): “In any case, the present analysis suggests that it may be religious service attendance, however it is experienced, rather than other aspects of religious schooling that have the more substantial associations with outcomes later in life, at least for the outcomes examined here” (p. 11). The scholars did not write that religious service attendance in childhood matters more than whether the child attended public schools, private independent schools, private religious schools, or homeschooling.
This one study for this one slice of Americans considering their lives at one point during childhood and at one point during young adulthood suggests that having been homeschooled – as compared to having attended public schools, private independent schools, or private religious schools – is connected with more positive outcomes in adulthood, and religious service attendance in childhood also matters in a positive way.
Chen, Ying; Hinton, Christina; VanderWeele, Tyler J. (2021). School types in adolescence and subsequent health and well-being in young adulthood: An outcome-wide analysis. PLoS ONE 16(11): e0258723, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0258723
McDade, Stefani. (2022). Taking kids to church matters more than the ‘right’ school, study suggests: Even faith-based education has less impact than religious attendance, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/january-web-only/education-schooling-private-public-church-attendance-study.html
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