Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Decline of the Christian School Movement

I was reminiscing with someone earlier this week. Fifteen years ago, as a young math teacher with just two years' experience, I was looking for a different Christian school at which to teach. Even though I had only listed my name with my alma mater's placement office—and had done very little active searching beyond that—the contacts from schools were frequent. For a season, it seemed like I heard from another new school every day or two. The maxim that "Math teachers are always in high demand" never seemed more true.

By 2010, as a much more experienced teacher with a far more impressive resume, the opportunities were few, and generally so low-paying as to not be options at all. Now I work at BJU Press (which, I hasten to say, I enjoy very much), possibly having left Christian school teaching behind for good.

In the 1980's and 1990's, Christian schools were often growing. Today, few are.* Why is this? I would like to offer several key reasons that I have seen from my own vantage points.

Parents: Sadly, fewer and fewer parents view the financial sacrifice of Christian education as worthwhile for their children. While the next two points below may have something to do with that, even those parents with good Christian school options in their area are often passing up the opportunity.

Many of my parents' generation decided that, no matter what, their children would not receive the humanistic worldview and education found in the typical public school classroom. They wanted a better education, one centered on the Bible and free of the politically correct and godless brainwashing so prevalent in public education. Today's parents are more convinced that they can somehow counter what their kids absorb in public education.

Parents also have a responsibility to instill a desire for excellence and a love of learning into their children, and to model such things in their own lives. This seems to be less common than it was when I was a kid.

Lowering of Standards, both academic and otherwise: This, quite frankly, is a terrible shame. A Christian education should—must—be both thoroughly Christian and academically excellent.

Some Christian schools have bought into the idea that if they stop teaching about certain potentially controversial Bible principles, or if they open up their admissions policies to accept students from families that do not have similar beliefs, or if they lower their dress and behavioral standards so that carnal fashions and behaviors aren't rebuked, they will retain students and/or grow. Decades of observations seem to tell us the opposite: You can't have much of a Christian school [as defined for this post] by doing so. Furthermore, you certainly can't expect God's blessing on it.

The lowering of academic standards is shameful. Just because we live in an age where parents will howl if their precious little one doesn't get the honor roll grades they feel they so richly deserve [when, in fact, they are not deserved] does not mean we need to make it possible for all kids to find their names on the honor roll. Christian schools should be trying to provide quality faculty with a desire to shape young minds both spiritually and academically—and then making sure that academic quality is a part of the picture. Christian schools may brag that their test scores are better than the public schools' scores, but this is a bogus comparison. They ought to be far and away better than the public schools, first because they are not accepting every kid in the district, but primarily because the quality of the education is high.

What parent is going to sacrifice for a Christian education if the "Christian" is diluted and the "education" isn't strong?

Mismanagement: The majority of Christian schools have not been run well. In many cases, they are (a) led by pastors with somewhat autocratic authority, who have no training or experience in running a school and usually don't supervise its day-to-day operations anyway; (b) run by school boards comprised either of parents [who, in most cases, cater to the whims of the students, wanting to "keep them happy"] or of a generally uninvolved group of church leaders; or (c) led by administrators who are not trained in school administration. The number of Christian school administrators/principals who got the job simply because they were a relative or friend of the pastor or another church leader is an absolute outrage.

Furthermore, it seems that too much administrative effort has been put into placating parents and pleasing students, and too little put into improving the academic and spiritual climate of the school.

Christian schools would do well to figure out who they are, and then strive to do what they do better. Their leaders should ask, "Is this what we believe the Bible teaches? Is this the kind of education we want to provide?" Once those sorts of questions are answered, then stick with it, and quit trying to pleasing everyone.

Homeschooling Movement: I have no problem with those who, out of conviction, choose to homeschool their children, thinking it to be the best way to educate their children, and doing so with all the skill they can muster. I have no respect for those who make it into a glorified form of truancy.

On the one hand, there are those who have taken their children out of good, solid Christian schools to homeschool them anyway. (I am not at all convinced that the majority of them have righteous motives for doing so. I'm thinking of writing a series of posts on problems with homeschooling, too.) Some feel that they can do a better job, but if the Christian school is providing the kind of quality education it should, that's a pretty tall order that most parents, toiling alone, cannot do.

On the other hand, there are those who have seen mismanagement and lowered standards and decided that they can indeed do a better job. Perhaps they can.

Whether or not the homeschool crowd is doing a good job is not the point in this post. The point is that students are being taken out of Christian schools to be homeschooled...and that's hurting Christian schools of various types and qualities.

*The definition of Christian schools, for the purposes of this post, is somewhat limited to those that openly and literally believe the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, that hire only teachers with similar doctrinal beliefs, and that seek only students from families and churches with similar doctrinal beliefs. "Christian schools" of a more ecumenical nature, which hold other doctrines, or have more "open" admission policies are not in this discussion.


Brenda said...

Ooooo....this is good. I relished reading every bit of this! I have noticed the "decline of the Christian School Movement" myself, and have come to a couple of conclusions. Won't you indulge me?
Back in the fall of 1976, the "Christian School Movement" was a relatively "new" form of educating your child. I remember. I was entering the 1st grade. I had spent my kindergarten year in the public school riding the public school bus. My parents, as God-fearing Bible-believing Christians, wanted something different for myself and later, my younger sister. My mother had earned an elementary education degree in college and was all-too familiar with the influences and humanistic philosophies that were seeping into the public education system. Hence, the beginning of the "Christian School Movement." And it took off!! Parents were excited for their children to attend a school where the Bible was taught through-out, and the teachers were Christian. It was new, different, unique. The newest fad in education.
For the rest of my schooling I continued in a Christian School. I went on and earned a degree at Bob Jones University.
Fast forward to the quickly approaching first year of school for my oldest child. My husband was working in full-time ministry at our local church, and we were looking at the Christian schools in our area (Texas) for our daughter. Here were the two biggest problems that we had:
1.) We simply, flat-out, could not afford the tuition. My husband's meager ministerial salary would never cover the monthly cost of tuition for our kindergartener. Even if I went to work to "sacrifice" so she could go to school, it wouldn't cover the cost of daycare for the baby.

2.) The number of choices of Christian Schools in our area were less than we had hoped and none of them were places we would have felt comfortable placing our children (either due to academic standard, or some of the reasons you mentioned in your post)

My ONLY option was homeschooling (as we have never considered public education as a viable option for our family). That was 8 years ago.
We have moved from homeschooling because we "had" to, to homeschooling because we "choose" to.
It has been asked of me if we had the option would we put our children (we now have 6) in a Christian School. Honestly, I'm not sure I would. I have found that the Lord has directed our steps to what is best for our children before we even knew what they needed. Since that first year of homeschooling, I've had one child diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, and two others with ADHD. All of those present tremendous challenges in an institutionalized education system. The Lord knew this. He knew that we could customize our own curriculum that would bring out the potential of each of our children. He knew that we could better monitor the Diabetes without being miles away.
I do agree that many people homeschool recklessly and for personal convenience. I do agree that homeschooling presents every family with challenges and problems not found in families who send their children to others for education.
But I do believe that the longer most people homeschool out of conviction and with the best interest of their child in mind, they find it enormously fulfilling and satisfying, and find that their children thrive under the tutelage of parents who love to learn and are eager to take their children along on that journey.
I don't remember so much of that from my Christian School.

Brenda said...

This is part 2 of my response from the above comment. Believe me, as I see it all here I'm embarrassed at how long-winded I was!!!

Today, there are no Christian Schools in our area. There are "charter schools" and "private, parochial schools", and the public school. But I understand. How can parents afford it in this day and age? Americans are over their heads in debt and that problem is interwoven in many churches today. How can churches afford to pay teachers, and how can the primary provider in a home live on the income of a "Christian School salary?"
I think the main reason that we see this decline is because parents are seeing that they do indeed have a choice as to whether or not they have the primary influence over their child's education, and that when finances just prohibit this, homeschooling is a sound, logical choice. Especially when there has been an explosion of materials, and resources, and support groups, and education available to parents to make this choice.
So yes, there has been a decline, and I imagine that very soon we may see the end all together.
Homeschooling isn't perfect either, especially since it students and teachers are flawed, imperfect people, but it certainly offers much to those with limited options!!

Neil Pierson said...

Covenant Christian School Sydney Australia is growing. Part of the reason is they are maintaining the vision of integrating a vibrant Christianity into the education - rather than putting it on the sideline.

The school recently funded a project to help Christian schools with their marketing. The Why Christian Schools website, DVD and booklet is designed to help Christian parents discuss the "Why" behind Christian schools.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across this post only a bit over a decade since it was written, nonetheless I will chime in. I came across it while looking for information about the requirements of a Christian school teacher/administrator back when I was in school. I attended a Lutheran school from the late 70s to early 80s, and then went to a Christian high school for one year. I of course cannot speak for other schools at the time, but the state of mine makes me question how many of them were equally bad at their job. Back then, there was an assumption that paying the high costs of a private education meant you would be getting a good one, or at least that was the assumption my parents made. The truth, at least in my case, was I didn't truly start learning until my first year at a public high school. My Lutheran school did a good job when it came to the Lutheran part of teaching the kids, and a terrible job at everything else. When I attended public school, I was surprised by the focus on learning (and testing of what had been learned) the my teachers seemed to have. My guess is that it is because those teachers had been required to be educated and certified as teachers, where my Lutheran school had required that people who were dedicated to the church... show up to teach kids. It has taken me years to truly appreciate the disservice this school inflicted upon its students. If Christian schools wish to remain valid institutions outside of simply flogging kids to remain attached to the church, they need to be places of education first, with faith as a modifier, rather than the reverse. Families and Churches should be the ones taking up the Christian side of the students lives, and schools should focus first on the core educations that students will need to thrive as adults. When I started public high school I would guess that I was at LEAST two years behind my new classmates, and it mattered not one bit how well I knew what a wretched sinner I was, and that I needed to spend my life pleading for forgiveness. What would have been handy were some math, English, and science skills. If you are sending kids to a Christian school because you think it is the only way to keep them strong in the faith, you are missing the point of school, and you might also be driving them away from your faith, at least if the numbers of young people leaving the church and not returning are to be believed. Education is vital to a child's success in life, and however important faith is to you, it has to go ALONGSIDE a decent education. I will also add that you will be better off teaching a child about faith in a manner that shows the positive sides of family and community NOT try to drill it into them. I met a few students at my public school that I later discovered were very active with their churches, and had nothing but positives to say about their family time and church time. Public school did NOT drive them away from the church, and the fact they could look forward to church and family oriented religious studies almost blew my mind. Sorry to have prattled on like an old man writing a letter to the editor about 'those kids and their vidya games!'. Going to a school that was heavy on religion and light on education turned me into an adult who had a LOT of catching up to do in terms of education, and if I am being honest, I couldn't get away from the church fast enough. While I know it is irrational, I can't help but hold a resentment against the Lutheran church that is painfully deep. Faith CAN be a positive thing for a child and a family, I have seen it happen, but if you try to forcefully cram it in front of education you will do a double disservice to a child. Also, if you are so unsure of your faith that you think and educated child will see through it and abandon it entirely, then there might be something wrong with your faith. Religion and education have to flow together if you want a well rounded religious child. But hey, who am I to tell people how to raise their kids, I'm just some apostate rando with a terrible education...