Is Reformed Education Enough?
The CARDUS Group has come out with a Canadian version of their Educational Survey. It's a wonderfully fascinating survey which measures the impact Christian schools have had on their former students, compared with the impact non-religious schools – both public and private – have had on the students which attend them. The reason for the survey stems from the stated conviction that "If Christian education is worth doing, it is worth measuring" (CARDUS Education Survey 2012). While many, including the undersigned, whole heartedly agree with this statement, it does have implications when applied to education in both the general and the Reformed Christian school. It implies that there are those who question whether sending their kids to a Christian school is worth their time and money. It implies that there are other alternatives out there which may be better. It implies that there are options for parents that will produce the desired "product" in an equal or even better way than is possible in a Christian school. This demonstrates a shift in how we see Christian education in general, and it is a shift that those who support Reformed Christian education should pay attention to.
Some people reading this column will remember distinctly what it was like to move to a new country. They wondered what school would provide their children with a good education and would be glorifying to God, though not in that order. After many prayers, arguments about financial feasibility, and meetings about how it was all going to work, some of those reading these words remember deciding that the school they would send their children to would need to be a school of their own making under the Lord's blessing.
Thus we have the tradition in the Canadian Reformed Churches of setting up what we call "covenantal" schools for children born to members of our churches and of those churches with which we have some form of ecclesiastical fellowship. For the last fifty years or so, these schools have been established; so far, according to most accounts, they have been very successful. Yet, some may ask, successful in what?
A Judgement on Priorities
We have been successful in maintaining a school system which promotes, at its core, the desire to help parents instruct covenant children in the fear of the Lord. Schools pride themselves in being able to show that instructing children in the fear of Lord is not just something that is relegated to Bible class or to religious studies, but is infused into every aspect of the curriculum. Keeping it "Reformed" has been the most sought-after aspect of everything that happens in our schools, even to the detriment of other important areas. How does one know this is true? Let's make a judgement on priorities.
Ghandi once said, "Action expresses priorities." While Ghandi might not be right all the time, he does unintentionally echo Proverbs 21:11 which states, "Even a child is know by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right." If we are allowed to make inferences about priorities based on people's actions, perhaps it would be interesting to think about what action you would take in the following scenario while holding on to what would be best for your child.
Here is the scenario: Your school is in need of a Grade 6 teacher by the end of the week to fill the vacancy of a teacher suffering from a stress related illness. You know that, in part, the stress the teacher felt comes from the (mis)behaviour of a group of covenant children found in your Grade 6 classroom who struggle more than some others to curb their sinful nature. You have only two candidates apply. One, we'll call him Marinus, comes to the table with his Bachelor's Degree in Education, having taken elective in the maths, sciences, and, for good measure, behavioural sciences. The other candidate, we'll dub him Wilhelm, has been attending university for three years, majoring in English, and is just one semester shy of his Bachelor of Arts degree. Which one do you hire? A no brainer, right?
One thing the Personnel Committee forgot to mention: Marinus belongs to the local Baptist Church and Wilhem is a member in good standing in the local Canadian Reformed church. Whom do you hire? Did your answer change?
The truth be told, for most schools in the Canadian Reformed system there is only one candidate they could hire. It would be a shock if any of the schools in our federation were to allow the hiring of teachers who did not belong to a Canadian Reformed or sister church. The hiring of such a person would mean that there has been a seismic shift in the foundation our schools have been built on and, in the opinion of this author, this would not be a good thing. The question remains though, whom do we want to teach our children as we move forward?
Marinus and Wilhelm
Think about the scenario above and ask yourself a different question. Don't ask whom you will hire — your school's constitution binds your hands in that regard. Ask yourself whom do you want to hire. You will find the decision more difficult. Marinus has the qualifications you need. He has teacher training, a full degree, some university wrought insight into the behaviour of man and, let's be honest, a Christian background. Wilhelm is smart and willing, but in the end he is just a warm body you will put in front of a difficult class because he has the right Reformed pedigree.
More than likely, the members of our schools who have fought and sacrificed to have Reformed education start in their church communities would hold out for Wilhelm, no questions asked. Others, perhaps younger, who have been taught by untrained, though Reformed teachers, who were not the best (because they are out there too) might think differently. It could be argued that parents of the up-and-coming generation of students value a different type of education than their parents did.
Two Christian Schools
Do you want to test the shift in your local area? Ask your parent community to make a hypothetical choice. Let's say that they had the choice of schools where most things were equal. Both schools had the same facilities, the same amount of students, were equally distant and possessed an equally dedicated, qualified staff. One of the schools, let's call it A Christian School, was known for its academic excellence, providing many rich and varied opportunities for learning, including a strong music and art program. However, the dedication in A Christian School for promoting a Reformed Christian outlook on the world is lack-lustre. A Christian perspective is present but more in the sense of a general Christian School. R Christian School, just down the street in the opposite direction, was known for its rich and vibrant Reformed outlook on education. The students are steeped in the Reformed tradition and they look at everything they learn in a clear, historical-redemptive fashion. However, R Christian School is only able to provide the basics in terms of academic programs. There is no special music or art program. The students are able to read, write, and work arithmetic, but the graduates will not have had the same academic leg up on their public school counterparts that the graduates of A Christian School would have. Where do you want to send you children?
Fifty years ago the answer was obvious. R Christian School won the day. How can we tell? The majority of Canadian Reformed communities evaluated the local Christian schools and found them lacking – not in academic rigour, but in Reformed worldview. There were arguments to be sure, but in the end, having a school with what the founders believed to be a rich and vibrant Reformed tradition was more important than having a school with a strong academic program. We know this is true because we judge the priorities of the founding members by their actions. They scrimped, they saved, they hired mostly qualified people, but if they were not to be had, almost qualified was good enough – as long as they were members in good standing. The schools were up and running sometimes before they had enough books for the students to use. This is the general history of how the first schools in our federation were founded. Many of these schools are now reaching their fiftieth year of operation and with the Lord's blessing coupled with the hard work and dedication of the parents, teachers (both with and without official papers), and students, these schools have worked exceptionally well.
Would today's parent community accept the same limitations for their children for the sake of Reformed education? Some would, but not as many as in years past. A parent once told me that the school should be viewed primarily as an academic institution. If children were not getting a better academic education in a Reformed Christian school than in the general Christian school down the street, she was prepared to jump ship. In her view she could and would teach her children about the Reformed tradition at home, but only the best school could provide her children with the academic advantage they needed to compete in the academic world.
This same sentiment is also alive in other areas. Both our elementary and secondary schools are under pressure to increase programming to keep up with the perceived advances made by public, private, and Catholic schools. Think about the pressure for adding JK and/or five day Kindergarten some of our schools are experiencing. Think about the increasingly complex competition our high school graduates are facing as they prepare for post secondary education. Isn't the bar being set higher all the time?
Parents want the best for their children. They are willing to go to great lengths to get it, and never before have so many been in a position to pay for it (meaning, even private secular institutions are becoming appealing to some.) That means that there is an increasing urgency for those running our schools – meaning the parents of the children attending – to make sure that they have the best of both worlds.
Striving for Excellence
There is no reason why parents should have to choose between A Christian School and R Christian School. In fact, when they prepare to send their children to school, their only option should be A Reformed Christian School, which is a school that values excellence in the use of all of our talents in the service to the Lord through a strong Reformed tradition. As educational leaders, (meaning parents, Board and Education Committee members, as well as educators) we need to strive to provide just that. The Lord has blessed our communities with the means to make it happen and we have the expertise to back it up. We are beyond the days when we can assume parents will always automatically keep sending their children to a Canadian Reformed school simply because it is there. People more and more feel they have options. We are also beyond the days when our schools need to settle for second best with the excuse, "At least it is Reformed." We need to use data like that provided by the CARDUS group to have an honest look at where we excel and where we fall short. Then we need to work as a community to hold fast to our Reformed identity even while we kick against ever settling for second best because of it.
We are well on our way to getting there. We have an excellent Reformed teachers college in Ontario, and elementary schools which provide a solid background for secondary education. High schools across the country have produced graduates who are sought after by universities, and other graduates who enter the trades with a skill set and a work ethic second to none. We must maintain what we have, and we should promote what we have. Parents need to make sure that our schools are the best option for their children because they hold to the Reformed tradition and set high standards for academics and for the trades. We cannot settle for one or the other. This is not an easy task; neither was beginning a school fifty years ago. With vision, imagination, faith, and constant prayer a model where the best of both worlds is possible will emerge. The question is, do we have the will to pursue it?