January 31, 2015

Here’s Proof That Adventist Education Offers an Advantage

, Adventist educator for 27 years

After working as an educator for nearly three decades and completing a doctorate in Adventist education, I can declare with confidence that Adventist schools provide students with a distinctive advantage.

I have the research to back it up.

The CognitiveGenesis project, a four-year study of 50,000 children in Adventist schools across North America, demonstrates that Adventist education is effective in helping students academically.

The study also found that students who go through the Adventist school system score higher academically in all subject areas than the national average. In addition, it indicated that the longer students attend an Adventist school, the higher they can achieve academically.

These are significant findings that should be considered by anyone with a stake in Adventist education, especially now that the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s oldest boarding school, Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio, faces closure if it can’t raise $3 million by March. Mount Vernon Academy isn’t the only boarding academy facing problems, and General Conference treasurer Robert E. Lemon, writing in the Adventist Review on Jan. 16, called on Adventist leadership to embrace 21st-century realities by consolidating the schools.

Lemon’s proposal ignited a lively discussion on social media about the future of boarding academies and the viability of Adventist education in general. Several parents and former students offered harsh critiques of Adventist schools, calling teachers “mean” and the education “subpar.”

Adventist schools may not be perfect, and my research indicates that even the best Adventist schools could improve if they more closely followed a blueprint offered by Adventist Church co-founder Ellen G. White: to base education on four basic components: physical, mental, spiritual, and social factors.

But despite our shortcomings and unrealized potential, Adventist schools are producing young people who are heads and shoulders above their peers in North America.

Adventist education is close to my heart. Although I retired in December, I worked as an elementary and high school teacher, principal, and superintendent in California, Texas, and Hawaii for 27 years. I analyzed the groundbreaking CognitiveGenesis study at La Sierra University for my doctoral work there.

But Adventist education goes beyond me. My husband, the vice president of the Pacific Union Conference, taught for many years, and my son, a lawyer, serves as chair of an Adventist school board. My two grandchildren are getting an Adventist education.

So I have a significant interest in knowing how our schools perform in comparison with other schools.

Examining the Adventist Model

No consensus exists for what makes an effective school. Even well-recognized educational experts are constantly asking and debating what matters most and what works best.

But perhaps the Adventist educational system could provide answers to the rest of the world if we shared the simple holistic educational model that we have used since the first school was established nearly 150 years ago. The one-room schoolhouse, which opened in 1872 in Battle Creek, Michigan, has expanded into a global school system that is considered one of the largest centrally organized parochial systems in the world.

The holistic educational model is based on physical, mental, spiritual, and social factors, which Ellen White refers to as “powers.” White, in her well-known quote on the topic, wrote in the book Education, page 13, “True education … has to do with the whole being. It is the harmonious development of the physical, mental, and spiritual powers.” In other statements, White referred many times to the moral powers, which perhaps would be described as “social development” today.

It could be that this holistic model holds the key as to what should be valued and deemed important to educators whether or not it is deemed “Adventist.”

For years, Adventist educators assumed that this model could explain the academic success of many students. But now we have the research to support it—the CognitiveGenesis study.

Here’s how the study was carried out: For four years, beginning in fall 2006, all students in the Adventist educational system in the North American Division (United States, Canada, and Bermuda) were given a well-recognized national standardized achievement test (ITBS and ITED) that was coupled with a cognitive abilities test (CogAT). In addition, the total population of just over 50,000 students in grades 3 to 9 and 11 in about 800 Adventist schools was also given a survey with educationally related variables. Surveys were also provided to their administrators, teachers, and parents. The 134 questions on these surveys provided more than 7,000 variables that continue to be analyzed.

My Own Findings

For my doctoral dissertation, I examined the CognitiveGenesis data to determine if a link could be found between students’ academic success and the holistic model based on the physical, mental, spiritual, and social factors. I’ll skip a lengthy explanation of the procedure that I used in my research to say simply that a link exists. I managed to group CognitiveGenesis variables into one of the three components: mental, spiritual, and moral factors. The physical factor could not be measured adequately and did not emerge as one of the components.

Physical well-being, however, is important to Adventist education, and our schools certainly have health-related classes and activities. So its absence in the CognitiveGenesis study piqued my curiosity and stirred strong interest from fellow educators.

Looking for answers, I conducted a meta-analysis of the term “physical power” from primarily from the book, Education, with a few gleanings from a second White book, Fundamentals of Christian Education. I was surprised to find that we may have not fully comprehended the value of physical power. It may be much more than health classes, P.E., sports, and even campus industries.

Adventist researchers are now looking into conducting a PhysicalGenesis study on students at Adventist schools.

Meanwhile, my research also found a strong correlation between the mental factor and a variable that I designated in CognitiveGenesis as the “parental educational level.” While this finding needs more research, it appears to indicate that Adventist education creates adults who are more holistic in their approach to life and who transmit this value to their children. If true, we may need to work more deliberately with parents to help them understand the importance of harmoniously developing the physical, mental, spiritual, and social factors. Such a step could lead to even higher achievement levels for children in Adventist schools, and it might provide an opportunity to strengthen families, schools, and even churches.

I wonder whether we have only started to understand how to properly educate our children.

Today, some Adventist schools may have financial issues. We may be disappointed with a few teachers. But there is no dispute that the Adventist education system is built on a holistic model that is clearly being blessed by God as it graduates young people who academically outrank their peers.

Related story

"Threatened Closure of Adventist Academy Serves as a Wake-Up Call," by Robert E. Lemon

"John R. Loor Sr. Makes Case for Adventist Education"