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Religion | April 9, 2012

Teaching the Bible, closing the education gap

Education

Researcher highlights link between strong faith and academic achievement among minorities

©iStockphoto.com/digitalskillet

Secular activists and public school administrators say that purging the Bible from curriculums and classrooms prevents students of other faiths from feeling marginalized. But according to a new study, their non-alienation crusade might actually cripple Latinos and African Americans - two of the nation's largest minority groups.

After combing through more than 1,000 studies on the achievement gap, researcher William Jeynes discovered two common denominators for academic success among minority students-an active personal faith and a strong family unit. Because of the importance faith plays in minority communities, taking the Bible out of the classroom actually makes it harder for minority students to succeed.

"African American and Latino children are the most disadvantaged by the absence of the Bible in public schools," said Jeynes, Witherspoon Institute Fellow, California State University professor, Harvard graduate, and author of a recently released study on methods of bridging the achievement gap-a disparity in grades, test scores, and high school and college graduation rates between minority and white students.

Jeynes analyzed more than 1 million student subjects in his seminal research, which combined every study available on the topic in a meta-analysis or encapsulation of data. Jeynes took three years to sift and cull through more than 1,000 studies to find research of sufficient quality and scope on the achievement gap. He also analyzed a group of students in the Chicago area.

His research revealed that while other methods had predominantly failed, the presence of an active personal faith and a strong family unit erased the education gap completely. He was floored.

"The meta-analysis yielded some amazing results," Jeynes wrote in a February article on South Dakota Rep. Steve Hickey's blog. "Not only did it indicate a powerful relationship between high levels of Bible literacy and strong scholastic results, but also of all the studies that have been undertaken on this topic not even one of them indicated a negative or neutral relationship. Every single study indicated that there existed a positive relationship. Such an overwhelming association is almost unheard of in the research world."

In the study, Jeynes defined students' religious faith internally and externally. Church or youth group attendance defined the external component, while a student's defining religion as personally important made up the internal aspect. Jeynes found that when Latino and African-American children of faith are raised in a two-parent home, the education gap disappears.

The effect is due in part to the strength the children draw from religion and in part to parental involvement, he said. When Jeynes isolated each component, he found that the presence of only one would drastically decrease the gap in achievement levels, as did enrollment in a faith-based school.

Rachel Sheffield, a research assistant with The Heritage Foundation, which advocates for education reform, said students do better in a variety of areas when they come from an intact family and have a religious grounding.

"It's important to encourage kids," Sheffield said. "Education should ideally deal with the fundamental questions of life. Religion plays a part in that and it's tough to separate them that from their lives. Parents should be able to choose a school that meets their children's fundamental needs."

Responses from both federal and state legislators to Jeynes' research show some lawmakers are warming to the idea of allowing public school students to study the Bible as literature. Jeynes has presented his findings to both the Bush and Obama administrations, and recently testified before the Arizona House on a bill allowing public high schools to offer an elective class on the history of the Old and New Testaments. The bill passed 42-15 in the House and awaits a vote in the Senate. If the law passes, Arizona will become the eighth state, including Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, and Tennessee, where the Bible is taught as literature in public schools statewide. South Dakota recently passed a non-binding resolution on the issue, joining 36 other states where the Bible is taught as literature in some districts.

Even avowed atheist Charles McGrath former editor of The New Yorker and culture writer for the New York Times, believes the Bible's influence is nearly fathomless. "The influence of the King James Bible is so great that the list of idioms from it that have slipped into everyday speech, taking such deep root that we use them all the time without any awareness of their biblical origin, is practically endless: sour grapes; fatted calf; salt of the earth; drop in a bucket; skin of one's teeth; apple of one's eye; girded loins; feet of clay; whited sepulchers; filthy lucre; pearls before swine; fly in the ointment; fight the good fight; eat, drink and be merry," McGrath wrote in a 2011 NYT article.

Because of the Bible's influence, American students must understand the its historical, political, and literary legacy in order to succeed educationally and on a geopolitical scale, Jeynes said. To those who challenge the constitutionality of studying the Bible in public schools, Jeynes cites the 1963 Supreme Court case of Abington v. Schempp, in which the justices ruled that the Bible could be taught in public schools as long as it is presented in an "objective" way as part of a secular curriculum.

Only by allowing the Bible to be taught as literature and recognizing and encouraging students who draw strength from it can the nation eliminate the education gap, Jeynes said: "African Americans and Latinos are the two groups that are most likely to declare that their faith is important to them. If we dismiss their faith as irrelevant, we are not only displaying intolerance, but we are probably exacerbating the achievement gap, because we are discouraging them from drawing from a source of strength in their lives."