The ‘Invisible Institution’ and a Disappearing Achievement Gap

Author(s): Brian D. Barrett

Source: Barrett, Brian D. 2009. “The ‘Invisible Institution’ and a Disappearing Achievement Gap.” Religion & Education 36(3): 22-38.


How do religious involvement and social capital influence educational outcomes at the high school level? Do these factors influence achievement similarly for all social and ethnic groups? One study examines this relationship using survey data from an urban city and finds that religious involvement may have a greater impact on educational outcomes for black students compared to white students.

About the Study
The author surveyed a representative sample of high school seniors in six public high schools in Buffalo, New York, examining a subset of the sample, black and white students, for this study. Regression analysis was used to consider the effect of social background, religious involvement, and social capital on educational outcomes. The author used church attendance as a measure of religious involvement. He created a scaled index variable to measure social capital from survey responses related to organizational life, engagement in public affairs, volunteerism, informal sociability, social trust, and parental educational involvement. Grade point average was used to measure educational outcomes.

The author found large and significant differences by race in family income, but not in frequency of church attendance. He also found a positive and significant relationship between church attendance and GPA for black students, but not for white students. Similarly, he found a stronger relationship between church attendance and social capital for black students than for white students.

Regression results further flesh out these group differences and suggest that religious involvement and social capital may have different effects on educational outcomes for blacks and whites. For white students, family income is the strongest predictor of educational outcomes. Social capital has a smaller significant effect, but religious involvement appears to have no effect. For black students, the process appears much different. Religious involvement has the strongest effect, social capital has a smaller positive effect, and income appears to have no effect.

These findings suggest that for white students, family socioeconomic status and social capital have a greater effect on student achievement than religious involvement. For black students, however, both religious involvement and social capital measures have strong and positive effects that diminish the effect of SES on educational outcomes. These findings suggest that religious involvement is highly influential for black students’ educational efforts, and supports research that churches, perhaps particularly African American churches, play important roles in low-income urban communities. The study is representative of only one urban center in the Northeast, however, which may limit its generalizability to similar urban centers with large mean differences in income between the two races. Further, the study is unable to distinguish between religious involvement in different groups, denominations, or churches, which likely have different effects on educational outcomes.

While these findings are for students in public schools, and the mechanism through which religious involvement impacts educational achievement is not fully explained, it seems to follow that attendance in religious schools would increase black students’ religious involvement and social capital through opportunities to deepen their participation in their church community or through exposure to an additional religious organization. Should this be the case, it may point toward potential educational benefits for black students of low socioeconomic status who are able to attend religious schools of their choosing through state-funded school choice programs. 

Keywords: social capital, church attendance, achievement, secondary, urban, African-American students

Sector: Public

Outcomes: Academic

Date Posted: 2015-02-20