Christian School Education in an “Ideological Marketplace”

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 3:11

We’ve reached the end of the first full quarter of school. Grades have been averaged, report cards have gone home and teachers are looking at curriculum objectives and their “scope and sequence,” developing lesson plans which, at this point in the school year, start reflecting objectives which are unique to the students’ current grade level. By the time this nine weeks is over, Thanksgiving and Christmas will have passed, it will be cold and snowy and we will have completed half the school year.

We were blessed to welcome 59 new students to MCA this fall. Many of our new students spend all last year in E-learning, so this is their first time in a classroom in over a year. Some have been in home school for a while. We’re glad their families chose MCA for their education and we believe they made a great decision when they did.

Yes, a Christian School is Different

If you visited our campus, it would not take you more than a few minutes to distinguish the difference between us and any nearby public school. Even on the surface, there are ways that we do things which reflect our identity as a Christian school. You would notice that at the beginning of the school day, students come to the office and use the public address system to lead the rest of the students in pledges to the United States and Christian flags and to lead in prayer. Once students settle in for class, you would notice a sense of order and peace in each classroom as the students begin to go about the task of learning. Something that I sometimes take for granted until I visit in a school setting that isn’t operated under Christian principles is that our students demonstrate a measure of respect for the order that surrounds them and for their teachers who are preparing them and watching over them in their learning experience.

Beyond the sense of respect and order that exists within the school community there are some fundamental differences which distinguish the Christian school from a public, secular educational institution.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself subject to no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. I Corinthians 2:14-16, ESV

A Christian school operates under the authority of scripture. At the core of our educational philosophy is a belief that the God who is revealed in the Bible is the all-powerful creator of the universe and that his plan for resolving all of the problems of humanity, which are caused by human sin, is the redemption and restoration that comes by grace through faith in Jesus as the Christ. As the Apostle John declares in his first epistle to the church, chapter 4, “Every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ is from God.” So education is the building of wisdom, the application of knowledge that is revealed to us by our creator, and the standard for measurement of truth is the Bible. This stands in contrast to the core value at the heart of public education, which is built on a philosophy that declares human intellect the highest power in the universe and claims that the educated intellect is powerful enough to resolve human problems on its own.

We teach our students to discern truth by measuring it with scripture. It’s amazing how well that works. In a Christian school, Christian discipleship is not separated from academic subjects, it is integrated into all subject areas because it has relevance, meaning and provides discernment and understanding. In some cases, it seems like the “missing piece” put into place that connects ideas that might not have made much sense before. In other cases, it leads to reasoning and conclusions that would have been different if approached without any consideration of spiritual discernment.

It’s encouraging to hear parents talk about the way their children see the world, even in early grades, because they know Biblical truth and that’s the way they see things. I frequently hear parents tell me that their children not only have a much higher level of Bible knowledge than they do, but that they rely on it when they are making decisions or drawing conclusions. It’s like it “comes naturally” to them, which, if they’ve disciplined themselves according to what they learned in school, that’s the way it should be.

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 ESV

What About the Academics?

There are some advantages, what I call “standard advantages” in academics when you send your children to a Christian School. We have smaller class sizes, which always contributes to a stronger academic performance for students. We have discovered that teaching basic skills and skill development, skill application and critical thinking skills leads to a much more robust academic performance. “Best practices,” among Christian schools, doesn’t always mean jumping on the bandwagon of the latest methodology or technology until, or if, it proves to be effective in student learning. Across the board, Christian schools in this country regularly outperform their peers in the public education system on standardized tests and assessments, particularly in language arts and mathematics.

MCA is no different. We take students from the same neighborhoods as the surrounding public schools. Of course, we have the advantage of attracting families from Christian homes who are interested and engaged in their child’s education, and not all public schools students have that blessing. We do not include instruction in socially oriented objectives which we believe are a parent responsibility. Our students spend seven hours a day at school, with over six hours of that focused on core subjects and electives. That means we spend 200 hours per year on academics than the typical public school does, and our focus on teaching reading with phonics, handwriting including cursive for brain development and on the full scope of mastering basic math facts. On average, over 90% of MCA students meet or exceed grade level benchmarks in math and language arts, compared to fewer than 45% of their Chicago Public School peers in surrounding elementary schools.

The Spiritual Gift of Teaching

Teaching students is a big responsibility. Teachers bear the weight of making sure their students learn the basic skills they will need in life, whether for responsible citizenship, career, or calling. When MCA looks for qualified teachers, we start with spiritual qualifications. The school is an extension of a church discipleship ministry, so teachers need to see themselves as being called and set apart for this special service. God gives each Christian a unique set of spiritual gifts, one of which is the ability to teach, for those he calls to service. There is an educational requirement, and while we recognize that state government has developed a set of qualifications to “certify” teachers, candidates to teach here must have engaged in Biblical studies and give evidence of a life lived as a follower of Christ.

Several years ago, while serving on an accreditation team at a Christian school in Washington, DC, I encountered a teacher who had been with the school since its founding, almost 35 years. She was, according to the principal, “the best teacher he’d ever seen.” She had been his first grade teacher, and had both of his children as well. She had no formal college education, only a high school diploma. She had been hired at the school when it opened, because they were desperate for teachers, paid very little and she had taught Sunday school in the sponsoring church for a decade or more. When I observed one of her lessons, the “technology” I observed consisted of a collection of games and activities, a flannel-graph board (I’m old enough to remember what those look like), and some hands-on mathematics “manipulatives” that she had put together herself.

The nineteen students went through a phonics and reading lesson that included verbal recitation of the sounds charts, a word game in which they collaboratively built sentences using their vocabulary and spelling words, a demonstration and explanation of the objective for the day, and a pencil and paper worksheet she used as an assessment. The students were fully engaged for 45 minutes, she called a few of them to give back their attention, corrected a couple of mis-behaviors and handled the class in an expert manner. It was noted that her students always tested out well above grade level and that there were parents who were willing to be on a waiting list to get into her class. A gap would have been left in that school and in those students’ learning experience had she not been there. That’s a perfect example of the “spiritual gift of teaching” in practice.

Competing in an Ideological Marketplace

Next to their own home, students spend more time during their developmental years in school than they do anywhere else. Their teachers are in a position to have more influence over the way students think than anyone else they meet.

Somewhere around 25% of students in this country are enrolled in a school that has an affiliation or is owned outright by a group with ideological foundations. About 8% of American students are enrolled in a school with a religious mission or purpose and 16% are enrolled in a school that is affiliated with a group or association that is primarily political in its mission and purpose. But even in public education, which is taxpayer supported, the curriculum and instruction is dominated by ideology that has worked its way into control because of the vacuum created by the use of the establishment clause to eliminate religious, and specifically Christian influence.

The humanist influence in public education is pervasive across the whole spectrum of education. It is humanist principles which dictate teacher certification requirements and control the certification curriculum in colleges and universities. Some Christian schools accept, or even require, state teacher certification for their instructional staff, in spite of the ideology and that, in our humble opinion, dilutes their effectiveness. It is a doorway through which the influence of humanism can enter.

Christian schools must remain distinctive, not only in their curriculum and philosophical foundations, but in practice. We are called to assist parents with the job of educating their children and we bear a responsibility to guard the minds of those who come through our doors. When that job depends on the Christian principles found in the Bible, it is much easier than when it is influenced by pop psychology and humanist influence.

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