Read the series so far.
Many outstanding Christian leaders received the most rigorous, comprehensive training available to them. Today's Christian schools must be equally motivated to cultivate outstanding Christian thinkers and leaders, whatever their future paths.
To ensure the requisite academic depth, an assessment tool such as Bloom's Taxonomy is useful. Developed as part of a landmark research study led by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, this tool ranks six learning objectives according to their relative sophistication. In ascending order, they are (2001 revision): Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating. Pondering this spectrum, one can readily categorize individual academic courses, schools, and even particular styles of Christian schooling.
From the outset, it should be evident that styles of Christian schooling markedly differ in their abilities to span this spectrum. The dividing line is often the type of curriculum used. Less effective are those which seek predetermined, pat answers. More effective are those which encourage independent thinking and originality. This does not mean ceasing to teach absolute Truth. It does mean allowing students to examine ideas pro and con, to ask difficult questions, to challenge tenuous conclusions, and even to sometimes respectfully disagree. This would be a departure from the instructional paradigm found at some Christian schools.
Altogether, the need for academic rigor at Christian schools has never been greater. How vital is it? Dr. Dan Olinger of Bob Jones University, writing in How Christians Think, a BJU Press White Paper, offers this blunt assessment: "There are academically sound Christian schools and there are those that are not sound. There are undoubtedly some that are a waste of everyone's time and money and should be closed."
A fourth element of a Christian school that influences enrollment is its value, a word abounding with implications. As intended here, it simply asks whether families believe a school is worth its cost. Examining this question may help explain why some schools flourish while others fail.
Think back to the case study from earlier in this series. A choice exists between three Christian schools in a certain Midwestern city. In actuality, the most costly of the three has by far the highest enrollment. What helps make this possible? In one encompassing word: results.
The novelty period of Christian schooling is past. Original good intentions have given way to measurable objectives. How successful are Christian schools (collectively or individually) at achieving these objectives? Families now have a track record to evaluate.
Proffering his appraisal of this question, Dr. Kevin Bauder of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN) provoked a minor kerfuffle a couple of years ago by avowing that Christian schooling has demonstrable weaknesses in its results. In his essay "The Christian School," he asserted that Christian schools "have not typically produced a better academic product than public education," and that "they do not generally produce a better quality of Christian." Various Christian educators were not amused.
Although both of Bauder's evaluations are generalizations (a status he grants), they pose a quandary. If they are generally true, why even bother with Christian schooling? The answer might lie in exceptions to the norms.
Virtually every experienced Christian school teacher can regale listeners with stories of once-indifferent students--academically or spiritually--who became enthusiastic learners or whose faith bloomed under the distinctive tutelage of a Christian school. At some noteworthy Christian schools such transformations are commonplace. Additionally, there are many students whose innate academic ability or existing faith is nurtured and sustained through attending a Christian school, versus other alternatives.
Yet one cannot help wonder if Christian educators sometimes miss the broader picture. Is producing "a better academic product than public education" (Bauder ties this criterion to "average test scores") a primary objective of Christian schooling, or is it an anticipated derivative of a grander objective? Christian schools certainly should achieve high test scores, and their scores very frequently do top those of their nearby public schools; but as already discussed, academics in Christian schools should be motivated by nobler purposes. Furthermore, how did it become an objective of Christian schools to "produce a better quality of Christian"? Are the home and the church, the institutions established by God, inadequate for the task? Particularly when students come from a Christian home and attend a doctrinally-orthodox church, it would seem presumptuous to cast spiritual growth as an expected result of Christian schooling. The Christian school's role is to support, not to supplant.
If some well-intentioned objectives of Christian schools are slight misapplications or redundancies, what are true representations of value? These are the features that will distinguish traditional Christian schools from other types of schooling, and moreover will distinguish some traditional Christian schools from their peers.
A prime example of such a feature is Advanced Placement (AP) courses. These are introductory college-level courses taught by authorized high school faculty members, each culminating in a challenging national exam. Colleges widely view success in these courses as an indication of academic prowess. Christian schools increasingly offer them. But so do public and secular private schools. What makes them unique at a Christian school? Christian schools can teach these courses from a different perspective--a biblical worldview--than other types of schools.
Some may wonder, "But can certain AP material be taught from a Christian perspective?" This question has merit. Of course, Christian schools are entirely free to choose which AP classes (if any) they wish to offer. Yet if one accepts the Augustinian credo that, "All truth is God's truth," and that AP courses do convey much factual information, and that it is worthwhile to be able to recognize and comprehend opposing worldviews when encountered, then the answer can be a qualified "Yes." In the same manner that many Christian colleges broach volatile subject matter, Christian schools can also.
The impetus for choosing to offer AP courses is not obscure. They are in high demand. Like air conditioning among car buyers in Phoenix, there is now a large segment of Christian schooling families who consider AP courses greatly beneficial or even essential, and who will almost exclusively consider only schools that offer them.
A fine illustration of this phenomenon is within the metropolitan area of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. In these Twin Cities and their environs, the six largest Christian schools collectively enroll nearly 4,000 students--more than half of the overall local total--and each offers an array of AP courses. This correlation is a practical demonstration of supply meeting demand. The area's smaller schools, which together offer few AP courses, are to a great extent effectively precluded from serving this robust segment of Christian schooling families.
While the specific features will vary by locality, an underlying principle endures. Christian schools need to develop and emphasize particular strengths. Whatever they can provide uniquely, differently, or in certain instances better than other types of schools, including other styles of Christian schooling, is what will foster a perception of a school's value in the minds of prospective families.
In the special case of appraising a Christian school's value in comparison to Christian homeschooling, some groundwork is in order. Many people assume that a primary reason (if not the primary reason) for homeschooling's growth is that it is a thrifty alternative to Christian schooling. That is not necessarily true. Evaluating the comparison using the microeconomic concept of "opportunity cost," homeschooling may actually be the costlier overall of the two, once factors such as lost net wages (when applicable), homeschooling expenses, Christian schooling tuition and expenses, possible tax deductions or credits, and other variables are carefully measured and compared.
Indeed, a vital realization in the scope of this conversation is that cost (whether it is ultimately lesser or greater) is not the primary motivator for many homeschooling families. Neither is it convenience, since homeschooling typically places stringent demands on the instructing parent(s). The primary motivator in many instances is that homeschoolers are unconvinced of Christian schooling's results, for a range of reasons. They have concluded that Christian schooling (at least as represented by the schools in their immediate vicinity) is not worth its cost, regardless of the amount. They fail to see sufficient value.
Confronting those sorts of presumptive enrollment losses must be a perpetual focus for leaders of Christian schools. When Ford loses customers to General Motors, it does not write them off as forever lost. Instead, it diligently attempts to earn their business once again. Very often this starts with simply being willing to adapt to an ever-changing marketplace.
The Ford Motor Company broke with 73 years of tradition in 2011 when it ceased production of its Mercury brand of automobiles. With the U.S. economy in the throes of a severe recession, Ford, like other domestic automakers, was desperate to cut costs. Mercury was deemed expendable. Much to the general dismay of its employees, its dealers, and its loyal customers, a famed nameplate was thus relegated to history. From various accounts, it was an agonizing decision to reach. Such can be the mantle of effective leadership.
What leadership qualities are perhaps most urgently needed today to reinvigorate traditional Christian schools? Many come to mind; three stand out.
Humility: humble leaders are receptive to the concerns of others and to new ideas. They can acknowledge a need for change, and will prudently consider wise counsel.
Vision: visionary leaders see things not only as they are, but also as they could be. They accept change as an integral part of accomplishing many worthy objectives.
Patience: patient leaders are not easily distracted or apt to quit. They understand that change can require both time and effort.
These qualities are now more essential than ever, for many traditional Christian schools today face a harsh reality. The status quo is simply not sustainable for schools that are foundering. Their survival demands action.
Remember the pastor whose school had just closed? As quoted in the news story, he spoke of its decline as if it had been inevitable. In proximity to that school's darkened classrooms, within a radius of only a few miles, several other Christian schools prosper, some with expansion projects currently underway to accommodate rising enrollments.
Larry Nelson is a graduate of "an exemplary Christian school," holds a BA in history from the University of Minnesota and has been employed in banking for over twenty-two years. He is a member of a Baptist church in the Minneapolis St. Paul area.