Aimee Leukert, education professor at La Sierra University, explains her research about the relationship between parents who choose Adventist education and Adventist culture ahead of her talk at the Adventist Forum Conference February 21-23 in Orlando, Florida.
Question: Your research on what kinds of Adventist parents send their kids to Adventist schools was the focus of your doctoral dissertation for Claremont Graduate University. So, who is investing in Adventist education for their kids and who isn’t?
Answer: In order to answer this question, I need to provide you with the context of my study. My research focused on Adventist culture — not doctrine or how many times you attend church — but the stuff of our denomination that is made up of Rook and banquets and ingathering. I wanted to see if there was a relationship between parents’ identity with the Adventist church — their culture — and where they chose to put their children in school.
After collecting over 1,000 responses from Adventist parents across America, I was able to stratify Adventist culture into roughly three divisions: high culture, medium culture, and low culture. Respondents who fell into the “high culture” category would have generally answered strongly in the survey questions dealing with Adventist culture. Examples of those questions included rating how they felt about statements such as:
"I make it a priority to keep the Sabbath day holy, both in activity and in worship."
"I live healthfully, which includes not eating or drinking harmful things."
My findings demonstrated that there is indeed a correlation between culture and school choice. Respondents who score low in Adventist culture tend to put their children in a non-Adventist school. Adventists who are “in the middle of the road” tend to put their children in Adventist school and those who have high Adventist culture scores tend to homeschool their children.
Declining enrollment figures at Adventist schools of all levels is not news. But I did not know the impact of homeschooling was so significant. Give me an idea of the numbers of Adventist parents electing to homeschool their children. And how does that compare to 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago?
Ugh — I wish I had an answer for this, but I don’t. I do know that, based on my findings, the Adventist community has a much higher percentage of homeschoolers than America in general. I think the percentage of homeschoolers in America is about 3-4% of school-aged children, while in my study, there were some unions that had over 20% of their respondents attest to homeschooling their children.
What reasons do Adventist parents give for electing to homeschool?
I have lots of anecdotal evidence — but nothing empirical. I’ve heard that our Adventist schools have become too watered down and that they’re “not Adventist enough.” I’ve heard that they’re too expensive or lacking in quality academics and teaching. I’ve heard that homeschooling provides more flexibility — both in time as well as curriculum.
Do Adventist parents who don’t send their kids to Adventist schools tend to choose other private schools, or public schools?
That’s a great question! That’s something I could tease out of my data, but I don’t have that information offhand. When we did the analysis, we lumped “other private school” in with “public schools.”
What reasons do those parents give for their choices?
I conducted another smaller study in which I did ask parents why they chose the school that they did for their child. Reasons they cited included school safety, proximity of school to home, teacher quality, curriculum, and technology.
Do you believe the quality of Adventist education has fallen?
Absolutely not. In fact, I wholeheartedly believe the converse is true. There has been so much research done in education over the decades — there is so much knowledge now about issues such as neuroscience and brain-based learning, learning styles, grit and resilience, pedagogical techniques. All educators — Adventist or otherwise — are exposed to more data and information about teaching than ever before. School leaders have a better understanding of learning now than we ever used to — and as a result of this, we have stronger curriculum, more effective approaches to classroom management and motivation, and a wealth of resources to use in the classroom.
But the benefit that our teachers have — our trump card, so to speak — is that our Adventist education system gets to use all that knowledge, all that research, and integrate it with our holistic approach to education. We have always believed in educating the whole person and when you combine that with our growing body of knowledge, it really is an unbeatable package. The quality of Adventist education has not fallen — it continues to rise.
How many people did you survey for your study? How were the respondents chosen?
I distributed the survey instrument through a variety of ways: social media, church bulletins, NAD briefs to pastors, union communiqués, etc. There were two main criteria: respondents had to identify as a member of an Adventist church and they had to be parents of K-12 school-aged children.
I ended up with over 1,000 respondents: 1,113, I think.
How did you decide what questions to ask, and how to categorize respondents?
The survey instrument covered three different domains: general religiosity, doctrinal commitment, and Adventist culture. The questions that pertained to the first two categories were drawn from previously published, validated instruments. In other words, I “cut and pasted” for those. The culture questions were developed through the extensive research I did in the first stage of my study. I followed a methodology called “cultural consensus analysis” to determine first that there is a cohesive culture in Adventism (in America) and second, the items that are indicative of that culture.
What recommendations do you have for Adventist administrators and educators when they look to the future?
Boy, this is such a loaded question! A couple of things come to mind:
1. Stay the course. We do what we do well. Our system is full of brilliant, compassionate, committed educators who teach because it is a calling and a gift. We need to continue our legacy of offering high-quality education in a Christ-centered environment. We need to own and be proud of our commitment to education as a ministry and believe that there is no greater, more honorable job than the one we haven sharing Jesus to children.
2. Be open. One word that surfaced in my research on Adventist culture is that we are insular. Insular. I think in some ways, that is what makes our community so strong and closely networked. We have all experienced walking into an Adventist church in another city or state or even country and recognizing someone from our elementary or academy days! There’s something so heartening about all things familiar in our culture. However, “insular” certainly has negative connotations as well — and I think our schools should be encouraged to continue being the hands and feet of Jesus by reaching out into the community at large and opening their doors to all children.
What advice would you give to parents who are choosing where to send their child to school?
All I can speak from is my own experience and decision-making process and that is… I want my kids to be in an environment that mirrors what my husband and I teach and value at home. I want my kids to fall in love with Jesus and I feel it’s my responsibility to provide them with every opportunity possible to be introduced to Him. I want them to see adults who have real, genuine relationships with Christ and to have that modeled every single. day. I want my kids to have teachers — these committed, loving individuals they see for sometimes more than I see them every day — who love them, who pray for them, who share examples about how Jesus has worked in their lives. And for me — that’s Adventist education. That’s why I have chosen Adventist schools for my kids.
Parents need to decide what they ultimately want for their kids. What do they want from a place that is home to their children for at least 35 hours a week? At the end of the day, what do you want your children to walk away with? Define that clearly for yourself… and then choose accordingly.
Tell us more about your connection with Adventist education.
My parents were introduced to the Seventh-day Adventist church in their mid-20s and so when my brothers and I came along, they were committed to putting us through Adventist education. We all attended Adventist schools from kindergarten through college. My brothers graduated from Pacific Union College and I did both my undergraduate and master’s at La Sierra University. I was blessed with amazing teachers every step of the way. I still keep in touch, in fact, with many of them.
You will be speaking at the Adventist Forum Conference in Orlando in February. What will you talk about?
Whatever Bonnie [Dwyer] wants me to talk about! But seriously, we are still working out the details. I’ll be able to share my research on Adventist culture and facilitate a panel that includes young adults — which I think could be a fascinating conversation.
You are an associate professor in the education department at La Sierra University. What are you teaching future teachers?
The classes that I teach range from undergraduate students to doctoral candidates. Depending on the class, we look at curricular alternatives, lesson plan design, research methods, and service learning opportunities.
Read more about Aimee Leukert’s research in this previously published article.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo courtesy of Aimee Leukert.
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