You've overheard the comments: "It would really strap us to send our kids to church school, and they'll get a better education in public school, anyway. They'll get their religious training at home and at church."

Or perhaps this sentiment: "The teachers at our little church school are doing the best they can—bless their hearts, but my girls need a quality education to be competitive with those applying to good universities. That's why we're sending them to the private school in town."

They represent many Adventist parents within North America who have serious questions about the academic competency of Adventist schools.1

Challenged by Rising Costs

Does the money we pour into Adventist education offer K–12 students an advantage or disadvantage? Is the high cost worth it, even during economically tough times?

My parents thought so. I remember my father working overtime during the week, and putting in long hours of yard work on Sundays, to pay the school bills. And, I have a pretty vivid recollection of my own sweat equity going that direction as well. Many families had more, but no one had it better.

Decades ago, Adventist parents considered church schools a priority, almost an automatic decision. Sacrifice? Yes. Worth it? Yes!

Adventist education, which many describe as the largest Protestant school system in the world, has never been better organized; more effectively marketed; had more comprehensive curriculum, than today.

But in spite of all the hype, today's Adventist parents are less likely than ever to choose an Adventist school.

During the past three decades, while Adventist membership throughout North America grew by nearly 80 percent, enrollment in Adventist elementary and secondary schools decreased by more than 30 percent. George Knight observes the ratio of students in Adventist schools to church members shrunk from 25 per 100 in 1945 to only 9 per 100 in the year 2000.2

During a recent 13-year period in a large NAD union conference, church membership rose by 17 percent, while school enrollment dropped 18 percent.3

Lower enrollments mean lower income to counter rising costs, maintenance projects put on hold, and staff reductions. Never before has the future of Adventist education been so dependent on the decisions of Adventist parents.

Teaching Spiritual Values

Research studies over the past two decades have measured many of the spiritual goals of Adventist education. Two ValueGenesis studies revealed students grow in faith as a result of three things: 1) attending Adventist schools, 2) being raised in an Adventist home, and 3) being fostered in an Adventist church. In addition, a number of research studies have demonstrated students who attend denominational schools are much more likely as adults to remain members of the Adventist Church.4

Adventist parents have increasingly responded to these important confirmations with "Yes, but..."

And the often unspoken question has been academics. They have never before received a definitive answer...until now.

Superior Academic Achievement

The CognitiveGenesis study-results being released paint a definitive picture of academic superiority within the Adventist school system—based not on anecdotal stories, but on solid empirical research.

Researchers found, compared to public school norms, average achievement for students in Adventist schools was well above average—in fact, students in grades 9 and 11 scored at the 71st percentile.

The goals of CognitiveGenesis, as first discussed in the October/November 2006 issue of The Journal of Adventist Education, were to provide answers to three vital questions: 1) What is the academic achievement of students in NAD K–12 Adventist schools? 2) How do students in NAD schools compare to national norms? and 3) What student, home and school factors are associated with achievement?

Since the fall of 2006, CognitiveGenesis, sponsored by the North American Division and La Sierra University, has collected data from more than 30,000 students in Adventist schools throughout North America in grades 3–8, 9 and 11. Under the leadership of Robert Cruise and Elissa Kido from La Sierra University, and Jerome Thayer of Andrews University, researchers have collated results from standardized tests such as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Cognitive Ability Test. Standard Canadian test data was used for schools in Canadian provinces.

In addition, CognitiveGenesis surveyed students, teachers, administrators and parents to discover relational connections to learning.

The statistical results (see graphics throughout this feature) are in most cases encouraging, with student achievement well above what is expected in the public school environment. Adventist students exhibited less stellar results in two areas—math computation and social studies. An NAD ad hoc committee is already seeking ways to bolster these areas.

Relational Connections

Several relational factors are indelibly connected to superior academic achievement. Preliminary findings are no surprise. Students: The more time a student spends watching television, the lower he or she scores on composite achievement relative to their ability scores. Teachers: The more help teachers give in mathematics, the higher students score on math computation relative to their ability scores. Parents: The more families are involved in school activities, the higher children score on composite achievement relative to their ability scores. Pastors: Student scores in reading are directly proportional to the support of their pastor for the local school and its activities.5

Adventist Parents Decide

Granted, it's not an easy or automatic equation. Many dedicated, passionately active Adventists have gained their education through public schools. And scattered throughout the Northwest in formidable numbers are some who participated all the way through the Adventist school system but no longer consider themselves even Christian.

There is no indictment here of parents, who choose public or alternative education over organized Adventist options.

Yet, as we near another school year, CognitiveGenesis confirms Adventist schools and institutions of higher learning are positioned to give measurably superior results in spiritual values and academic achievement. And many schools are creating positive partnerships with hundreds of Adventist home-schooling families.

The Adventist mission emphasizes educating the "whole person," the mental, physical and spiritual balance so critical to success, not only in this world, but in God's eternal kingdom.

The statistics seem to say we're on the right track.

Adventist parents must now decide if it's all worth the cost.


1. Elissa E. Kido, Robert J. Cruise, Jerome Thayer, "A Mid-Point Update on CognitiveGenesis," Journal of Adventist Education, December 2008/January 2009: 5-10.

2. Shane Anderson, How to Kill Adventist Education, (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assoc., 2009).

3. Kido, JAE, Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

July 01, 2009 / Feature