Patterns of Spiritual and Moral Development in Religious and Public Schools in Chicago

Author(s): Mary Blain and Lynn Revell

Source: Blain, Mary and Lynn Revell. 2002. “Patterns of Spiritual and Moral Development in Religious and Public Schools in Chicago.” Journal of Beliefs and Values 23(2):179-189.


Teachers generally agree that moral education is an important aspect of their role as educators. However, there is dissent over whether or not private schools have an innate advantage over public schools in this aspect due to their inclusion of religious education in their curricula. To add to this debate, Blain and Revell use qualitative methods to study models of religious, moral, and spiritual education in twenty-one Chicago schools. 

Background and Research Questions
Educators in both the public and private sectors feel pressure to teach students values within a school setting, and public and private schools approach this issue in different ways. Public schools utilize a “character education” approach, which focuses on fostering character traits deemed valuable to society. Religious schools, on the other hand, teach morality in connection with religious education, aiming for a type of “spiritual and moral development” specific to the religious group with which the school is affiliated. The authors’ work in this article is mostly exploratory, with the goal of establishing how systems of spiritual and moral education vary by school sector.

Data and Analysis
Blain and Revell took a convenience sample of twenty-one elementary and high schools in the Chicago area. Descriptive statistics of the sample are not provided, but the authors report that they included Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Jewish religious schools as well as public schools. The authors selected schools “which might offer as broad an understanding as possible” of the research question, and the authors note that these findings are not meant to be representative (180). Blain and Revell used group interviews to collect data from nearly 1,000 students; spoke one-on-one with an unspecified number of teachers, administrators, and support assistants; and observed lessons “wherever possible.” The researchers used a battery of twenty core interview questions to generate discussion with their subjects. Interviews were then qualitatively analyzed for themes pertaining to “the spiritual,” “the moral,” “the religious,” and “the secular.” 

Public and private schools differ in terms of whether or not they incorporate “living religions” into the curriculum. No public school teachers reported teaching any sort world religion, even in a simply historical context. Public school teachers differentiated between moral and spiritual education (though the authors comment that most teachers and administrators were “puzzled” by the concept of spirituality outside of religion or morals), and focused on teaching morals with the goal of improving student behavior. Principals of public schools reported that they felt non-religious character education allowed them to teach key moral concepts without privileging one faith over another. These administrators and teachers expressed a great deal of sensitivity about this issue, stating that they felt unprepared to incorporate religious education into the curriculum due to their own lack of knowledge and wariness about their ability to incorporate all religious traditions in an equal and unbiased way. Beyond this, public school administrators felt the curriculum was already “overcrowded” with subjects which students would need to master for standardized tests, which made the inclusion of any sort of religious education even more difficult. 

All religious schools in the sample, on the other hand, included religion in the curriculum, occasionally even religions outside the faith tradition with which the school was affiliated. Religious school teachers felt that moral values and religion were inherently linked, and that this link made it easier for private schools to promote moral formation in students. Incorporating religion into the curriculum allowed teachers to speak with students “explicitly” about values. Teachers also made a distinction between religion and spirituality, associating “religion” with what is typically codified as religious practice and “spirituality” with what is typically codified as religious belief. Many religious school teachers felt that their religious identity was a key part of who they were, both personally and professionally. Many teachers expressed the opinion that religious education was a necessary task in helping a student prepare to face a diverse world after leaving school. 

Blain and Revell’s article provides a substantively interesting discussion of some meaningful differences in moral instruction between public and religious schools, but their failure to provide sufficient information about their sample (How many schools were private?  How many were elementary schools? How many in low SES areas?) and how results varied by these characteristics leaves readers without the ability to make inferences about the situations in which the authors’ findings might be expected to hold true.  Further, little attempt is made to discuss how the schools’ location might influence the delivery of moral education in schools.  It’s likely, for instance, that a similar study in the south or West would yield different results. In addition, their conclusions lack context given the authors’ silence about the article’s place within and contribution to the greater body of work on religious education as a whole. 

Finally, the authors specify their own subjective bias on the topic, and base conclusions on it rather than the conclusions from their study:  “some models of spiritual, moral and religious education observed in the public and religious schools in Chicago suggest that, unless educationalists are proactive in overcoming the obstacles, an open forum for teaching or discussing issues to do with religion to be lost. If children are denied critical access to religions, this may result in tensions developing due to a lack of subject knowledge and understanding and subsequently, negative social interaction, at worst resulting in confrontation, conflict and segregation” (188). This conclusion is unsupported in the paper, either by the authors own findings or other literature on religious education.  Although this article’s conclusions rest primarily on the authors’ personal conjectures, it does suggest a fruitful area for future study with regard to how public school teachers consider and approach their role as moral educators, the importance given to such lessons given the current standards and test-based curricula, and how moral education is tied to discussions of civic engagement, responsible adult behavior, etc.

Keywords: belief formation, moral formation, religious education

Sector: Catholic,  Jewish,  Other Protestant,  Public

Outcomes: Morality and Character Formation,  Religious and Spiritual

Date Posted: 2016-05-17