The Cardus Survey’s challenge for Christian education

I recall a conversation with a parent considering a suburban Chicago Protestant Christian school for his children. He jumped right to what would make the difference for him. “I get the Christian piece. It’s clear this school does that well. But tell me about the education piece. How good are you at that?” If the Cardus Education Survey, released last month, had been available at the time, I wonder if I would have shared it with him.

Cardus is a Canadian think tank “dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture.” Through its research, events and publications, it seeks to “enrich and challenge public debate.” Their education survey is a helpful and provocative example of both enrichment and challenge.

The critical questions about Christian schooling have always centered on what is meant by “Christian” and the relative rigor of the educational process. The Cardus report argues that Christian schooling can and must strike a balance in emphasizing spiritual formation, cultural engagement and academic achievement. Most Christian schools use the language of transforming culture to define their purpose. The report finds that most Christian schools fall short on the cultural engagement piece and should be more academically demanding.

The report issues a clear call for Protestant Christian education to strengthen its curricular offerings. While the survey reveals that students in such schools are “uniquely compliant, generous, outwardly-focused individuals who stabilize their communities by their uncommon commitment to their families, their churches, and larger society,” it also shows that, compared with Catholic school graduates, they are less inclined to matriculate to more demanding colleges and universities, and less likely to end up in the influential, culture-shaping worlds of the arts, politics and public discourse. As the report states, “...academic rigor need not be sacrificed on account of either faith development or commitment to cultural engagement.” The report asks school leaders to be more daring in their goals and more visionary in promoting bold outcomes.

Christian school graduates shaped by the vision posed by Cardus would require a broadened curricular understanding of Christian discipleship. Cardus suggests this to Protestant Christian Schools: “Refine the theology; establish the pedagogy; then teach students how to understand and lead culture. This, we believe, is how Christian schools can multiply the effectiveness of their graduates in circles as small as marriages, as large as countries.”

Some may ask, "Wouldn't such a direction make Christian schools less Christian?" Perhaps the better question is, “How can Christian schools be more fully Christian?" It’s a question every Christian school administrator and board member should be asking if we really mean to make a difference in culture, if we intend to shape a curriculum that shows the deep reach of Christ’s redemption and the deep need for the restoration of God’s creation. Reading the survey and discussing its implications would be a good place to start. Thankfully, as another school year begins, the Cardus Education Survey is also hopeful.

And the parent with the question? He enrolled his children. They’re now graduates.

(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)

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The problem here is how Christian schools can produce leaders of culture while simultaneously isolating their students from certain aspects of it. Learning about other worldviews in a classroom is not the same as living with, and learning from, those whose worldviews differ from your own.

One of the most important things that Christian schools could do is to quit discriminating against the poor and disabled. Low-income kids have almost no hope of receiving a Christian education because money trumps education in that realm, and disabled kids are usually turned away because they’re too “inconvenient” for the teachers to deal with (even though public school teachers have been dealing with them just fine for a long time now). I have an incredibly bright, gifted son who has mobility and continence issues related to spina bifida. When he was four and we were seeking a preschool program for him, all twelve of the Christian schools we contacted either refused outright to take him or wanted to put him in with the two-year-olds because his disability affected his potty training. Never mind that he would have been one of the smartest, best-performing and best-behaved kids in the school. It was just a blanket “No”. One church school was downright rude about it; their director just said, “We don’t have to take him and we won’t” and hung up on us. Ironically, the only private school that was willing to take him was run by the local synagogue.

It would also help if Christian schools held their teachers to the same standards of education as public schools. Public teachers have to have at least five years of college instruction before they can begin teaching, while many Christian schools practically pull people in off the streets. There are certainly many Christian schools who have well-qualified teachers that know how to educate properly, but too many of them skimp on that very important matter. That lack of preparation eventually shows in their students’ inability to spell, do math or think abstractly.

While I echo the call for Protestant schools to be academically excellent, I would suggest that elite academic status is not a primary goal of the average Protestant school. Rather, developing well-rounded citizens of God’s Kingdom should be. That means spiritual formation AND academic formation with the GOAL of sending students into their communities to glorify God in all areas of life.  Should we challenge our brightest to be a Christian presence in the Ivy League and board rooms? Sure, but not at the expense of Christian accountants and plumbers.

And this same Cardus report seems to suggest that is indeed happening. Though they may not perform academically much better than comparable pubilc schools, Protestant graduates “stabilize their communities by their uncommon and distinctive commitment to their families, their churches, and their communities, and by their unique hope and optimism about their lives and the future…In many ways, the average Protestant Christian school graduate is a foundational member of society.”  That sounds like transforming society to me.

In contrast, Catholic schools are more Ivy League, but less spiritually faithful:

“This research finds Catholic schools are providing high quality intellectual development but at the expense of developing faith and commitment to religious practices in their graduates, while Protestant Christian schools are seemingly providing a place where students become distinct in their commitment to their faith, but are not developing academically at any better rate than their public school peers.“Should we challenge our brightest? Absolutely. Have we arrived, or kept our schools from becoming hiding places rather than beacons? Certainly not. But I would take the Protestant results over the Catholic (or Public) any day.

Should we challenge our brightest? Absolutely. Have we arrived, or kept our schools from becoming hiding places rather than beacons? Certainly not. But I would take the Protestant results over the Catholic (or Public) any day.

Your experience of Christian education is indeed deeply disappointing. I can only say that the schools with which I’m familiar in urban Chicago intentionally serve communities of poverty, and whenever they are able and it serves the best interests of the student do all they can with and for students with disabilities and a variety of learning needs and styles. Christian schools with the standards you seek are out there; I’m troubled that there were none to serve you and your son.

Steven, I read the report as endorsing what Protestant Christian schools do already accomplish, among them the record you cite. At the same time it asks if more could be done to mirror their own hopes and claims expressed in most school mission statements. Cardus thinks it possible and desirable, without sacrificing their significant contributions to society and culture.

My denomination is fanatical about Christian schools. The large majority of my local congregation went to a Christian elementary school and and many to a Christian high school.

Many of the mothers work outside the home to pay the school bill.

Far as I can tell the outcome is no different than if they all had gone to public schools. As in public schools, the education of the children mirrors the education of the parents and the retention of adult children in the denomination doesn’t seem any different than denominations that don’t push Christian schools.

I also agree with Cardus report that Christian schools must strike a balance in emphasizing spiritual formation, cultural engagement and academic achievement. I am also headmaster of a <a > teens Christian camp</a> and I will recommend all parents to admit their child in to Christian academy as these academies follow the rules of Bible.

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