One of Reformed Christianity’s strengths lies in its persisting effort to fathom what the faith implies for the various dimensions of life.
–James D. Bratt
This post is a continuation of the previous post: Celebrate and Imagine #5: Seeking a New Paradigm of Educating, 1990-2010 (Part 1)
Despite calls for change via the Chicago Conference and through the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, much of Calvinist/Reformed Christian education continued in traditional fashion, operating in many ways similar to their public education neighbors.
To be fair, there were outliers that were seeking alternative ways to educate in transformative ways. These school systems were generally more educationally progressive, ethnically diverse, and focused on justice/outreach to their local/global community. Dawn Treader, an urban school founded in 1977 in Paterson, New Jersey, inspired the opening of Mustard Seed in 1979 in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1981, The Potter’s House in Grandville, Michigan began meeting in a church basement with 12 students and 2 volunteer teachers and now is a thriving school of 620.
Daystar Academy, founded in the late 90s in downtown Chicago, is now thriving as an International Baccalaureate World School that offers “faith-based, culturally-engaged, and globally-minded education.” These schools found affinity with and/or direction/support from the Calvinist/Reformed philosophy and served as new models of “responsive discipleship.” In Canada, educational leaders like Ren Siebenga pioneered project-based learning at two Christian schools in Ontario and advocated for deeper levels of student engagement and service in their learning experiences.
For better or worse, Calvinist/Reformed schools originate from, and are supported by, a conservative coalition of parents who are sometimes suspicious of educational reform efforts. An example of this resistance happened in 1993 when outcome-based education championed by William Spady became a cultural hot button with some conservative Christian parents questioning if this movement was a slippery slope into cultural relativism. Other Christian leaders such as recent Engage conference speaker Ron Polinder (view his recent keynote) saw this methodology as an opportunity to lean into what it means to be a Calvinist/Reformed educator, leading his staff at Rehoboth Christian School to develop 40 beautiful outcome statements that typify excellent Calvinist/Reformed thinking.
With some of the larger CSI schools experiencing declining enrollment, Bruce Hekman’s 2005 article “Deep Change or Slow Death” struck a nerve with Christian school leaders. It served as a wake-up call. His chart below gives a quick understanding of the cultural shifts and a clear picture of what was happening in Christian education.
In the mid 2000s it became clear that the long feared death of the “three-legged stool” (the educational partnership between home, Christian school, and the church) was very much becoming a reality. The 2005 CRC Report on Christian Education painted a realistic, yet discouraging picture for Christian school leaders. While affirming Christian education’s value, the CRC itself was shrinking, and schools were now depending on parents to pay over 90% of their operating revenue as opposed to 65% thirty years before. While it had been the case that a clear majority of CRC parents sent their children to Christian schools, there were now many other less expensive options, even among private schools. Public funding initiatives for private schools had gone down in flaming defeats in Michigan and Ontario, although Alberta and BC provided funding options.
Parents were asking themselves if the Christian school investment was worth it. Was there evidence that Christian education made a difference? It was more than past time to seek some research answers to this critical question. The Cardus Education Survey (funded by a CRC donor) was the first to examine the effects of Christian education. The 2009 California Table II gathering set the stage for individuals from various organizations around Canada and the US in Christian education to discuss the results of the Survey. The results of the Survey were reported here and here.
Reflecting on the events occurring between 1990-2010, we might wonder: Is Christian education making progress toward its ideal vision? In a 1985 article “Christian Education: Necessary or Nice?” my friend, mentor, and former boss Holland Christian Schools Superintendent Stan Koster wrote these words of challenge and encouragement:
Our Christian school ought to be about the task of joyful learning. If we believe culture and creation are the Lord’s, that he made and is Lord over them, then we ought to teach our children to enjoy them. Christian education in the reformed tradition has always had an emphasis on affirming culture in creation, rather than denying it, or fleeing from it. We can only do that if we recognize that joy comes in reconciliation. We along with all humanity and creation must be reconciled to God. So while we teach them about our culture (and others) and about creation, we need to go beyond that to teach them the joy that comes from doing the reconciling work of God in the world as his agents. With current global issues hanging over the heads of many of our young people it is sometimes difficult for them to be joyful about their immediate surroundings, and even to be cynical at times about these things. . . . Enjoyment in service, reconciling a broken world to the Lord, is a major goal for Christian education.
I believe we are making progress toward this vision of joyful learning! Our future posts will reflect on current progress and hopeful shifts in Calvinist/Reformed day schools.