What Mastery Demands: Using Standardized Tests Effectively

Aim at nothing and you will always hit the target.” – Anonymous

Reality is more like rocket science than finger painting. Whether we want to admit it or not, reality is exacting. Reality is demanding and to meet its demands, accountability to standards is required. There is a widespread complaint about standardized testing. It is accused of taking over the curriculum, truncating creativity, stifling the imagination, and shortchanging individuality. But the complaint often reflects a view of education out of synch with reality. Let me explain.

What is the overriding task of education? Education, like all other social sciences, depends on one’s understanding of human nature. If the child is the center of the universe and the task of education is to unleash the child’s own native ability, then certain assumptions invariably follow. If, on the other hand, God is the center of the universe and the task of education is to orient the child’s affections, reason, and embodied habits to Him and the design of creation, then the task of education is quite different. The first assumes that the child is the measure of all things. The second is that God and creation place demands on the child. The first is progressive and the fruit of the Enlightenment. The second is traditional and the fruit of the Greek and Christian tradition. Modern education, and the teacher training that accompanies it, is largely under the sway of progressive premises. As such, it’s based on a false anthropology.

If the challenge of education is to equip children to conform to objective realities, then one’s attitude toward standardized testing is quite different. The only question then is which test is adequate to the task, not whether testing is necessary. There are basically four kinds of standardized tests. The first kind compares students against public schools in general categories such as numeracy and literacy – Stanford and Iowa as well as state mandated exams fit this kind of test. The second does the same against private schools – such as the ERB’s CPT-4. The third compares students against subject matter mastery – such as Advanced Placement exams, SAT II, and the International Bac- calaureate program. The fourth compares students against international norms – such as the International Mathematics and Science Study. In international comparisons, the U.S. has fallen from the top of the class to just average according to the tri- annual OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. Of 30 comparable countries, the United States ranks near the bottom. Take math – Finland is first, followed by South Korea, and the United States is number 25. Same story in science: Finland, number one again. The United States? Number 21. In results published last month, the United States came in 15th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math. If this were the NFL, coaches would be red.

All forms of testing are standardized to a given cohort. There are tests that measure ability against academically dysfunctional schools and those that measure students against academically aspiring schools. Obviously school boards and administrators can superficially make the school look better by comparing the school’s performance against lower standards. And yet, such schools are perpetuating a fraud against parents and students. They are giving them the feeling of mastery, when the reality of mastery has not been attained. This lie must be stopped. Most Christian schools charge tuition. Therefore it is inappropriate to make comparisons with the “free” public schools down the block. Parents investing serious dollars have a right to demand more value for their investment than the fall back position of public schools.

We need to demand subject ma er mastery of our students in an age and grade appropriate manner. We might carefully reconsider the habit of tracking students by ability. All students – regard- less of native ability – should be held to the same high standards. We might avoid biasing grades to short-term memory (by including daily homework grades in the term average) rather than long-term memory that reflects sustained learning.

What would happen to our schools, for example, if we demanded every student pass a comprehensive exam at the end of the year and pass with 80% or higher in order to matriculate to the next level? What would happen if teachers were terminated if less than 80% of their class failed to meet this standard? Invariably, such goals, seemingly draconian, would make an enormous difference in the classroom. It would align the classroom to the kind of expectations that are routinely found on the football field and basketball court. And there are schools that have done just this to great effect. Subject matter mastery places a high standard on classroom teachers and students. There is something honest about it that is quite refreshing.

It is true that many standardized tests are poor measures of learning. The issue is not standardized testing, but which tests best reflect the mission of the school. A school that calls itself “college prep” might measure its students against the performance expectations of Select (3-3-3) and/or Highly Select (4-4-4) colleges and universities. To measure oneself against colleges that will take students with a pulse and a check are no measure of one’s academic standards. There is only a few Christian colleges that fall into the Select category and none to my knowledge that fall into the Highly Select category, except perhaps The King’s College in New York City, which makes a point of its selectivity. If a high percentage of one’s graduates a end Christian colleges, then one’s college admissions success says li le about the quality of one’s academic performance.

In general, repeated studies have shown that Christian K-12 schools lag two-years behind their secular public and/or private school counterparts. This is outrageous. Organizations such as the Council for Educational Standards & Accountability (CESA) have been explicitly created to address this problem. CESA exists to motivate, support, and to hold accountable Christian schools that aspire to superlative academic standards, institutional best practices, and collaboration with like-minded schools.

Minimally, Christian schools can aspire to the highest standards of academic performance and accountability. They might well consider gravitating toward ERB achievement tests, not being satis ed with tests that only measure numeracy and literacy, and aspiring to meeting national norms in subject matter areas, whether those of the Core Knowledge movement or the Advanced Placement exams.

And it is becoming increasingly clear that national norms are inadequate to global competition. We might take into consideration the practices and curriculum of high achieving countries such
as Finland, Korea and Singapore. It’s time to give our students some straight talk, like that of Thomas Friedman, who did not hesitate to write in The World is Flat, “Do your homework or you will be working for the Chinese.” Quoting a Chinese government official, Friedman writes, “Your average kid in the U.S. is growing up in a wealthy country with many opportunities, and many are the kids of advantaged educated people that have a sense of entitlement.

Well, the hard reality for that kid is that ten years from now Wu is going to be his boss and Zhou is going to be the doctor in town. The competition is coming, and many of the kids are going to move into their twenties clueless about these rising forces.” At the very least, it is time for Christian educators to face up to this reality.

This is not to suggest that Christian teachers are anything less than highly motivated, altruistic, underpaid competent classroom teachers. They are and I have had the privilege to work with some of the best. And yet, it is high time that we get over our allergic reaction to standardized tests. Use only the best. Use them appropriately and embrace accountability. Without them we cannot achieve our best. Without them we will be bypassed by students from countries that do. Our children deserve more. Christ and his kingdom demand more. The best Christian educators must demand nothing less.

The Invisible Dynamic That Makes All the Difference

School Culture is like the air we breathe; it is all around us and rarely apparent. But the culture of the school will determine whether students look forward to going to school each morning. This workshop will examine corrosive school cultures and steps that can be taken to improve school culture.

John Seel

John Seel is the president of nCore Media, a visual super computing company. nCore provides supercomputing solutions to filmaking; saving companies money through speed. The company is based in Los Angles, California. Dr. Seel is a cultural renewal entrepreneur. He works with people and projects that foster human flourishing and the common good. Seel is a Senior Advisor to the Wedgewood Circle, an angel investment firm investing in art and entertainment. He also serves as a Senior Fellow for Cardus, a Canadian think tank, where he oversees research on education reform in partnership with the University of Notre Dame and Redeemer University College. He serves as a founding Board member of the Council for Educational Standards and Accountability. He is a co-publisher of Game Changer Books LLC., a digital publishing company that provides a boutique-publishing platform to address cultural gatekeepers with ideas that further cultural renewal. John serves on the Advisory Board of The Carpenter's Fund, an investment fund to alleviate global poverty. He is a consultant to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He grew up in South Korea, the son of medical missionaries. He earned his BA. from Austin College with majors in Philosophy, History and Business Administration. He has a M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland. Dr. Seel and his wife, Kathryn, have three grown children and live in Cohasset, Massachusetts where they attend St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

Thinking in Pictures – Junior High Students Know Good Teaching

Junior high students are often considered the most difficult age to teach. Conversely, junior high students are often the best judges of effective teaching. This workshop will explore new research on how students learn. The workshop will be co-taught with Mike Metzger, President of The Clapham Institute.

John Seel

John Seel is the president of nCore Media, a visual super computing company. nCore provides supercomputing solutions to filmaking; saving companies money through speed. The company is based in Los Angles, California. Dr. Seel is a cultural renewal entrepreneur. He works with people and projects that foster human flourishing and the common good. Seel is a Senior Advisor to the Wedgewood Circle, an angel investment firm investing in art and entertainment. He also serves as a Senior Fellow for Cardus, a Canadian think tank, where he oversees research on education reform in partnership with the University of Notre Dame and Redeemer University College. He serves as a founding Board member of the Council for Educational Standards and Accountability. He is a co-publisher of Game Changer Books LLC., a digital publishing company that provides a boutique-publishing platform to address cultural gatekeepers with ideas that further cultural renewal. John serves on the Advisory Board of The Carpenter's Fund, an investment fund to alleviate global poverty. He is a consultant to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He grew up in South Korea, the son of medical missionaries. He earned his BA. from Austin College with majors in Philosophy, History and Business Administration. He has a M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland. Dr. Seel and his wife, Kathryn, have three grown children and live in Cohasset, Massachusetts where they attend St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

Parris Island for the Soul: The Prophetic Schools That Christian Student Need

It seems that life is a drinking bout rather than a war. We clothe ourselves with boudoir trappings rather than armor. Ease and self-indulgence are everywhere preferred to the rigors of military preparedness. We practice on the peaceful harp rather than
on the weapons of warfare, unaware that this sort of peace is the most terrible of all wars.”
— Erasmus

“Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” — St. Paul

“Ever since boot camp, I have believed that life itself is much like combat. Life is a struggle to wrest success from the odds favoring failure and to achieve the satisfaction of overcoming the spiritual and physical challenges that confront the individual striving to be all that he can be, striving to make the world a better place for his loved ones of today and his descendents of tomorrow.” — Zell Miller

Low Expectations

Men are turned into Marines at two locations: Parris Island, South Carolina and San Diego, California. (Female Marine recruits go to Parris Island.) Each year approximately 38,000 Marines receive their basic training, which is far more intellectually and physically rigorous than comparable training in other branches of the military. Most Marines
acknowledge that these twelve weeks are the most difficult thing they ever have had to do in their entire lives. By training, tradition, and triumph, Marines are the elite fighting men and women of the United States Armed Forces. And yet wise drill sergeants warn new recruits that though basic training is hard, it’s not nearly as hard as being a Marine. The training, for all of its intensity, is only training. The real combat—the goal of all the hard work—is still ahead. By contrast, most Christian education does not prepare students for any kind of combat—mental, spiritual, or physical. Parental expectations for the academic discipleship their children need is low, presumably because they are naïve about the character of postmodern culture and the spiritual dangers of the college life their children will soon face. Michael Spencer, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, chides, “Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism.” Week by week, in church youth groups across the country, teens play games. The objective is fun, not disciplined preparation. Pastors, youth group leaders, parents and educators routinely celebrate adolescent immaturity. More often than not, we stunt our kids’ growth, then decry the results.

Acceptance of chronic immaturity is a biblical scandal when one remembers that a sixteen-year-old Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the traditional exemplar of mature discipleship: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38) Clearly, it is time to get serious about discipleship and to expect more from our children and students. Coddling and rescuing has become a form of worldliness. It’s time for them to grow up, to assume responsibility, and to prepare for battle. Playtime is over.

Dorothy Sayers reminded parents in the 1940s that this has not always been the case:

When we think about the remarkably early age at which the young men went up to university in, let us say, Tudor times [14-16 years old], and thereafter were held to assume responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, are we altogether comfortable about that artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and adolescence into the years of physical maturity which is so marked in our day? To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological complications, which, while they may interest the psychiatrist, are scarcely beneficial either to the individual or to society.

Of course, there is a time for children to be children, but there is nothing particularly noble about infancy or child-like behavior. For example, self-will and instant gratification are traits tolerated in babies, but intolerable in adults. Romanticism’s notions of the “noble savage” or “innocent child” are unbiblical. Jesus called his disciples to trust like children but to think and act like adults. God want us to have, writes C.S. Lewis, “a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at the job, and in first class fighting trim.”

Christians should be able to discern evil and persevere under peer pressure: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness and in deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:14) So the goal of childrearing is adult maturity, not a protracted, protected, and praised immaturity. The writer to first century Hebrew Christians laments prolonged spiritual immaturity:

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. [emphasis mine] (Hebrews 5:11-14)

Spiritual growth is expected of every believer. If immaturity persists, something is amiss.

A worthwhile benchmark for children’s development is a close examination of Jesus’ own example at twelve, notably the only description of Jesus that we have during his early childhood. Here on the cusp of adulthood (children were assumed to be adults as they entered into their teenage years) we see Jesus taking ownership of his beliefs, passionate about kingdom service, entering into prolonged conversations with adults about things that mattered, asserting growing independence even while maintaining a respect for the authority of his parents. (Luke 2:41-52) Why should we expect less from our sixth graders?

Wartime Footing

We must acknowledge that we are in a battle and that the priorities in our lives must be ordered on the basis of a wartime footing. A new recruit at Parris Island knows well that he will likely be facing hostile fire within weeks. The training moves his attention immediately from the casual to the crucial, with three effects on his attitude.

First, the recruit assumes responsibility for his own preparation. His life and the lives of his comrades will soon be on the line. His commitment to proficiency provides more than rank or a paycheck. Commitment forms core values like honor and duty. All Marines know that they will soon be assigned a task that they alone are able to fulfill and that it must be carried out to the best of their ability, because lives will be at stake.

Until we see Christian schooling in the same light as Marine training, it will not receive the parental support or student attention it rightfully demands. If we truly live on the basis of our beliefs, then those who shape beliefs shape our destiny. Schooling forms a student’s mind and heart. Dallas Willard emphasizes this point: When we bring people to believe differently, they really do become different. One of the greatest weaknesses in our teaching and leadership today is that we spend so much time trying to get people to do things good people are supposed to do, without changing what they really believe…. We frankly need to do much less of this managing of action, and especially with young people. We need to concentrate on changing the minds of those we would reach and serve.

And yet we regularly send unprepared students into spiritually dangerous environments, like sending Cub Scouts to fight forest fires. We routinely send spiritually and intellectually ill-prepared students into university classrooms and dorm brothels that take no prisoners. Our aim must not be isolation from the battle, but adequate preparation for it.

Second, the successful Marine accepts the rigor of the training because of the nature of the coming combat. The measure of the training is dictated by the expected nature of the challenge and the capabilities of one’s foe. Here is a description of our spiritual adversary: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) These adversaries make the terrorists and armies Marines face look like toy soldiers.

Yet Christian parents and educators play games with training because they really do not take what we are up against seriously. We flirt with sin. We taunt the Devil. We let our guard down. When in fact we should be spiritually armed (Ephesians 6:13-17), resistant (James 4:7), and alert (1 Peter 5:8). The fact that we are more than conquerors in Christ (Romans 8:37) must not lull us into complacency or delude us into thinking that we don’t need preparation. “Train yourself to be godly,” Paul charges Timothy. (1 Timothy 4:7) In the heat of battle, automatic responses save lives.

Third, the recruit understands the relevance of the training, because it is tailored to the hardest test he or she will face. Likewise, our students’ training must be spiritually sensitive, academically savvy, and socially relevant. We need to ready them for real engagement against the greatest intellectual challenges of postmodernism and against the greatest social challenges of hedonistic nihilism.

Parents and educators need to face the reality of adolescent life: watch Catherine Hardwicke’s movie “Thirteen,” Emily Abt’s movie “Toe to Toe,” read Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley’s Restless Virgins, Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, the transcript of the PBS documentary “The Lost Children of Rockdale Country.” Learn about the mostly fictitious world of “rainbow parties,” and log on to www.myspace.com. Journalist Caitlin Flanagan writes in The Atlantic, “I believe that we are raising children in a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape in which no forces beyond individual households—individual mothers and fathers—are protecting children from pornography and violent entertainment.”

What did we think we were up against? We need to get our head out of our super-spiritual clouds and honestly address what our children face. Yes, these movies and books are R-rated, but so is their world.

Some well-meaning Christians will immediately appeal to verses such as Philippians 4:8 to counter this recommendation: “Finally, brothers, what is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” This verse, however, is not a prohibition against engagement. These are the guidelines necessary for it. Denis Haack writes:

The apostle is not giving us a checklist by which to measure our involvement with the non-Christian world. Neither is he giving us a justification for withdrawing from the people and culture of Babylon. He is rather commending—and commanding—the development of a fully Christian mind and heart and imagination. When he tells us to “think about such things,” he is using a word, which means to meditate and reflect on, to contemplate, with the result that what is meditated upon becomes so much a part of us that it molds our thinking, our doing, and our feeling. In other words, he is teaching us what is necessary to prepare us to engage the culture and people of Babylon with the gospel, without compromising, and without being seduced by Babylonian ideas and values. Too many Christian schools attempt the impossible task of isolating students from secular culture rather than the fully accomplishable goal of preparing them for secularism’s challenges. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstor suggests that if educators want to get students to follow a particular course of moral action, disciplining behavior based on rules or providing positive role models is not enough. Rather, compelling reasons must be demonstrated to them in the light of the alternative. He writes, “The best defense against attacks on the consensus (truisms) of one’s community is inoculation—presenting and then refuting arguments against the elements of that consensus. Inoculation is far more effective than no defense at all, or reassuring defenses which never so much as mention objections.” Christian schools should equip students for every challenge they may face in the classroom or in the dorm room—from a professor espousing “incredulity to metanaratives” to being “sexiled” by one’s roommate. We must inculcate a confidence in the gospel’s ability to face all comers, rather than a defensiveness that hides behind a compartmentalized piety. We must teach them to follow the clarion call of J. Gresham Machen when he wrote, The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought. The Christian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavor. It things,” he is using a word, which means to meditate and reflect on, to contemplate, with the result that what is meditated upon becomes so much a part of us that it molds our thinking, our doing, and our feeling. In other words, he is teaching us what is necessary to prepare us to engage the culture and people of Babylon with the gospel, without compromising, and without being seduced by Babylonian ideas and values. Too many Christian schools attempt the impossible task of isolating students from secular culture rather than the fully accomplishable goal of preparing them for secularism’s challenges. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstor suggests that if educators want to get students to follow a particular course of moral action, disciplining behavior based on rules or providing positive role models is not enough. Rather, compelling reasons must be demonstrated to them in the light of the alternative. He writes, “The best defense against a acks on the consensus (truisms) of one’s community is inoculation—presenting and then refuting arguments against the elements of that consensus. Inoculation is far more effective than no defense at all, or reassuring defenses which never so much as mention objections.” Christian schools should equip students for every challenge they may face in the classroom or in the dorm room—from a professor espousing “incredulity to metanaratives” to being “sexiled” by one’s roommate. We must inculcate a confidence in the gospel’s ability to face all comers, rather than a defensiveness that hides behind a compartmentalized piety. We must teach them to follow the clarion call of J. Gresham Machen when he wrote, The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought. The Christian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavor. It Know I Learned in the Marines, former Georgia Governor Zell Miller suggests that all Americans need to go back to basic training to relearn the values of neatness, punctuality, brotherhood, persistence, respect, shame, responsibility, achievement, courage, discipline, pride, and loyalty. A free society, he argues, demands broader “characteristics, which constitute the difference between a responsible and contributing human being and an unconscionable savage bent upon taking or destroying whatever they want that they are unable or unwilling to earn for themselves.”

Educators speak of outcome-based education, so what are the routine outcomes we expect to see demonstrated in the lives and capabilities of our classical Christian school graduates? I’ll argue for these six, framed in the language of “prophetic” schools.

1. A prophetic school graduate will think and live out of a Christian worldview rooted in historic, biblical orthodoxy.
2. A prophetic school graduate will demonstrate apprenticeship to Jesus by having a detailed understanding of and plan for spiritual formation.

3. A prophetic school graduate will have a cultivated mind that maximizes his or her intellectual potential in service of truth.

4. A prophetic school graduate will have a captivated imagination in service of meaning and empathy.
5. A prophetic school graduate will have an understanding of the doctrine of calling and a personal sense of how his or her identity and gifts can be used in kingdom service.

6. Finally, a prophetic school graduate will have a global perspective that sees the gospel mandate and the world’s need in its broadest creational context.

Thriving Not Surviving

I believe that this is more than idealistic pap. Throughout my career as a teacher and administrator, students have embodied all of these characteristics. I know their names and can see their faces.

They are my inspiration. It can be done, though too often such students are the exception not the rule. My fear is that it doesn’t happen more often because we don’t expect it to happen. But, if the Marines in twelve weeks can turn a 19-year-old teenager into a combat-ready adult, I do not see why Christian schools, empowered as they are with the resources of the kingdom of heaven, cannot in twelve years turn boys and girls into “Special Forces” in kingdom service.

Our graduates face a society in which Christianity is seldom more than an afterthought—been there done that, so “last year.” They face a world in which objective truth is cast aside as mere social convention or personal opinion. They face a world in which casual sex is de rigour and tolerance for gender confusion a virtue. They face a world in which personal peace and affluence has debased the American dream into a non-stop shopping spree.

Since 2001, the only religious group that grew in every U.S. state was people who say they have “no religion,” about 15% of Americans. But of those between the ages of 16-29, the number jumps to 40% who no longer self-identify as Christians.

And, still, too often the average Christian high school graduate wanders into college life mirroring these cultural values, ill-prepared to make a kingdom difference. Parents and teachers pray that they will survive, when our goal should be that they thrive. Until we believe it is possible, until we believe that the gospel demands nothing less, until we create prophetic schools, the cultural status quo will prevail and the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel will remain irrelevant and ineffective.

Christian schools are sitting on the front lines of what amounts to a civilizational crisis. What we do for our students matters in more ways than we can imagine.

Learning to Live in Reality

An answer to this question needs to first address underlying assumptions: What is the purpose of Christian education? What is the nature of truth? What is the gospel? What is required of discipleship?

The purpose of Christian education is to equip students with a Christian mind – a true understanding of reality and how to successfully live within it. This means more than just knowing a biblical worldview. It also means being given a compelling vision of the good life and how to appropriate right here and now the resources of heaven. Spiritual formation is not optional— something to be added or subtracted from the curriculum. It is the culmination of all the factors that go into shaping what a person loves, what they trust or rely on, and who they follow. Both Pope Benedict and the Al-Quaeda operative are being spiritually formed. The only difference is to what. So the first thing to acknowledge is that every school, including the notorious government schools, is involved in spiritual formation.

The truth we teach is more than cognitive. It includes reason and imagination, being and doing. We must shun all forms of dualism that pits the academic knowledge against spiritual depth, smarts against piety, excellence against devotion.

Many parents, administrators, and teachers struggle with this question because of two factors. First, they have naively assumed the Enlightenment dualism of fact vs. value: science is about objective facts; religion is about subjective values. This is a lie from the pit of hell—and one that is celebrated and assumed by all public school education. Since many of our teachers have been trained by these institutions as have most of our parents, this assumption, though false, is common. When the Bible says that the way up is down, it carries the same epistemic force as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The good, true and beautiful are all based on objective norms whether couched in the language of the liturgy or the lab.

Second, they have naively assumed a truncated gospel that only addresses the sin problem but leaves out much of life. By reducing the gospel message to fall and redemption, we have adopted a message that gets people into heaven and fails to get heaven into people. Many Christian parents want the Christian school to simply provide a long altar call in a safe place. If at the same time the school can keep their child from publicly shaming them with an embarrassing pregnancy or drug and alcohol arrest, so much the better. Most Christian schools gladly oblige to focusing more on overt behavior than the heart condition. With enough administrative coercion, students’ heart realities can be faked until they leave for college.

If the gospel, however, includes creation and restoration (in addition to fall and redemption), then a fully orbed discipleship is in view. And true discipleship connects Sunday to Monday, the head to the heart, and the sacred to the secular. The mission of the Christian school emerges as understanding God’s good creation and the ways sin has distorted it, so that, in Christ’s power, we may bring healing to both people and the created order. And, as God’s image-bearers, we are able to exercise responsible authority in our task of cultivating the creation to the end that all people and things joyfully acknowledge and serve their Creator and true King.

All living things depend for their existence on a reality larger than themselves. This is a fact of life. It is not enough to teach our students the nature of reality without teaching them how to live successfully within it. Our goal for our students is that they become apprentices of Jesus, thereby becoming the kind of person whose lives are dependent on the resources of heaven. Our aim is not merely to create believers, but followers.

Central in our Christian schools must be a curriculum in Christ-likeness and a school culture that encourages reflection on Jesus’ priorities and character. The crisis of the church today is mirrored in Christian schools. It does not lack evangelism; it lacks an understanding of and commitment to discipleship. Competencies in spiritual formation are just as important as competencies in language and math.

We must take care in our schools not to produce modern day Pharisees, those who know Scripture but lack its transforming power. To be truly educated is to know the truth about reality and how to live life on the basis of it. And in the end, reality is relational. To teach that knowledge can somehow be segregated into compartments is to deny the lordship of Christ over all of life—a lordship which demands more than getting all the facts straight, and which demands a daily reliance on a spiritual power that is beyond us.

Dallas Willard observes, “Spiritual persons are not those who engage in certain ‘spiritual practices,’ but those who draw their life from
a conversational relationship with God. Thus they do not live their lives merely in terms of the human order in the visible world. They have ‘a life beyond.’” If flowers wither without a life beyond, so will our students. We are dishonest about the nature of reality if we exclude such information from our instruction.

What Typical Christian Parents Want in Christian Schools

The fashionable fallacy is that by education we can give people something that we have not got… [U]nless you can save the fathers, you cannot save the children; that at present we cannot save others, for we cannot save ourselves.”

— G.K. Chesterton

Parents have their dreams for their children. Schools largely tailor their priorities to these dreams as a pragmatic necessity for financial survival. Where, in this matrix of supply and demand, is the prophetic voice? Where is the prophetic school asking what God wants and what the child needs? Education that makes a difference must face these questions.

Brad Green, of Augustine School in Jackson, Tennessee [see Brad’s contribution to this issue’s conversation on spiritual formation at p. 6], wisely challenges prospective parents to identify whether the school’s goals for their child are compatible with their own parenting goals:

When I am visiting with prospective families, I say to virtually every one of them some version of the following: “You should look every head- master or admissions director straight in the eye and ask simply, ‘What is your goal for my child as an 18-year-old graduate of your institution?’” I then proceed, with all seriousness, to say, “If that person cannot answer that question, you should politely dismiss yourself and head to the next school. But if they can and do answer that question, you need to ask yourself an important question. ‘Is that my goal for my child’ or, at least, ‘Is that goal compatible with what we want for our child?’”

It is important to ask these questions because they reflect the hidden assumptions parents have in their understanding of the relationship of education to parenting and discipleship. Often, little distinguishes Christian parenting aspirations from those of unbelievers. In general, their aspirations boil down to a variation of “just like me.” Parents want for their child the same approximate experiences that they had when they were their age. Rarely does a parent have aspirations either higher or lower than those their own parents had for them a generation earlier.

One presumes that their children’s spiritual maturity is just as important a priority for Christian parents as academic success. Yet few parents think to ask what God wants and expects in their child’s education. Their decisions about education are the arena where these priorities become explicit.

The most difficult idols to recognize are those that are socially acceptable and religiously justified. Christian parents have difficulty realizing that their attachment to their child can become a source of idolatry. Children are the glue in many marriages, the center of household activities, and the voice on the family answering machine. Little trumps the importance of the child.

By contrast, Jesus lived in what we today call a “tribal” society. The extended family had enormous influence over the person. No nuclear family thought of itself as autonomous from extended family relationships. Jesus’ culture was family-centered not individual-centered, and “honoring father and mother” was a commandment backed by strong penalties. One only has to read Deuteronomy 21:18- 21 to sense the seriousness of the matter:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.

Disobedience to parents is placed in the long list of sins characteristic of the last days in 2 Timothy 3:2. It is central in the list of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity outlined in Romans 1:28-32, with the caveat that those who are disobedient deserve death.

In this context Jesus’ stern warning to put God before all family relationships is striking: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37-38) Self-denial, taking up one’s cross, is placed squarely in a family context. God first, not family.

We do not own our children. They are a temporary stewardship. They are not an extension of our identities—little people through whom we can have our relational needs met and personal aspirations realized. Yet for many child-centered families, psychological enmeshment has obtained spiritual legitimacy.

How else can one understand the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel? Barren in a society that prized sons, she wept to the Lord and made this vow: “If you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life.” Moreover, when her prayer is granted, this special child, loved as only a mother can love a child a er overcoming infertility, is then given back to the Lord. “After he was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was…and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh…. [T]hey brought the boy to Eli, and she said to him, ‘As surely as you live, my Lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you and prayed for this child, and the Lord granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.’”

This passage is important for contemporary Christian parents, for we too must give our children over to the Lord. Our children are not ours to keep. They are a temporary gift, a means to further our growth in grace even as we seek to equip them to serve Christ and his kingdom with their lives.

When typical Christian parents come to a Christian school, they have clear goals already in mind. They want the school to mirror their values, which too often are a child-centered version of the American dream. They want the school to legitimize their lives. They want their children to be in effect a chip off the old block, and, in most cases, Christian consumer-driven schools provide exactly what parents want.

As in many churches, coming to Christ and becoming like Christ are disconnected in Christian schools. Eager to get students into heaven, Christian schools give little thought or planning to getting heaven into the student. Dallas Willard refers to this as the gospel of sin management: “You can have a faith in Christ that brings forgiveness, while in every other respect your life is no different from that of others who have no faith at all.” Every statistical comparison of Christian teenage behavior bears out this fact. Being a Christian teen or going to a Christian school makes no behavioral difference in terms as compared with nonbelievers. We get what we expect and what our parenting models, youth groups, and schools are designed to produce. Few demand more. Conversion is the expectation; discipleship is not. Becoming an active apprentice of Jesus is reserved for the religious freak, not the normal kid.

Still, parents and schools are too frequently concerned solely with behavior. We have no expectation that the gospel will fundamentally transform a life and reform one’s character. The gospel is not simply having one’s sins forgiven, but having them forgiven so that one can become a new person infused with the life of Christ. “In Him was life, and that life is the light of men,” John writes in his Gospel. (John 1:4) “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus declares. (John 10:10) “There- fore, if any one is in Christ,” Paul concludes, “he is a new creation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The point of Christ’s work on the cross is not just forgiveness, but life.

But we confuse the means with the end. We are forgiven so that we can live in a right relationship with Christ in the here and now. This life, however, is not fire insurance for heaven—a kind of policy we purchase and then put in a desk drawer for some undisclosed time in the future. It is daily spiritual sustenance—“living water” and the “bread of life”—without which we spiritually starve. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

My concern is that parents’ expectations of Christian schools are generally consistent with what is taught in most pulpits—a gospel that forgives sins but does not transform lives, a legalism that coerces behavior but does not change hearts, and a dual- ism that longs for heaven but has little concern for creation or culture. It is Christianity “lite,” or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace”—the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. We do not expect anything more of our children or of our schools because nothing different is taught from our pulpits. Bonhoeffer, having witnessed the impotence of the German church when faced with Hitler, lamented a “grace” that is no gospel.

So schools provide what parents want—mental assent and behavioral conformity, “Get my child saved” and “Keep my child away from worldliness.”

Parents’ attitudes toward education parallel this spiritual pragmatism. Rather than being concerned for the hard work of embodiment—of cultivating a Christian mind and captivating a Christian imagination—parents are focused instead on college placement and career selection. For many parents, education is not an end, but a means to secure a job that will allow their child to live life just as they do. It is merely a step in achieving personal peace and a uence. Henry Edmondson traces this pragmatic orientation to John Dewey and warns, “In making utility the chief goal of education, we sacrifice much of its usefulness.”

Christian schools may promote piety and patriotism, but they do not routinely graduate students committed to the demands of radical discipleship: students who are equipped to take captive every thought to Christ and who expect to serve Christ through their individual callings.

In the end, the fruit does not fall far from the tree. Christian schools serve Christian parents whose values are little different from other parents in their same socioeconomic class and surrounding neighborhood. “This, in fact, is one of the great tragedies of our time,” writes theologian David Wells, “that evangelicals have lost their spiritual status as outsiders to the culture, those who march to a different drummer, and who have the capacity to think about their world in ways that are completely different from what is taken as normative in their world.”

Also, for this reason, as many as 80% of Christian parents don’t even bother with Christian education. Government schools are just as efficient in accomplishing their goals for their child and a whole lot cheaper. We get what we want, but it’s not what we need. Nor is it what God and the gospel demand.