Now or Never: The Research Basis for Innovation in Christian Schools

In Schools at Risk: An Analysis of Factors Endangering the Evangelical Christian School Movement in America (Nichols 2016), I investigated the nature, causes, and contributing factors to Christian school closures in the U.S. since 2006. A goal of the study was to identify implications for practice that these factors held for the future, as well as develop a set of recommendations to address this issue of school closure.

Ongoing Threats

The findings revealed that a confluence of significant factors combined, converged, and intersected to contribute to the closure of Christian schools, with a number of these indicators appearing two full years prior to the recession of 2008. These ongoing threats to our schools include:

  • financial stresses;
  • changing parental expectations;
  • cultural shifts;
  • failure of schools to detect and effectively deal with danger signs;
  • repetitive inaction or failure to act in a timely manner in the face of threats (or what I termed “repetitive inaction disorder”);
  • resistance to change at the school site level (e.g., lack of innovation, reinvention, and retooling for 21st -century educational challenges);
  • changing patterns of evangelical church attendance;
  • failure of leadership at the school site level (especially school boards and unsupportive pastors); and
  • failure of schools to effectively market themselves.

These are exacerbated by additional factors related to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession such as: the continuing rise of charter schools, homeschooling, and online K–12 schools; challenges to sustaining school mission; loss of homogeneity of vision and culture at the school site level; and competition from other Christian schools.

Getting to the Root Cause of School Failure

A major overarching finding across the research was that nearly all factors identified by participants invariably intersected with and were related to either: (1) leadership failure at the school site level; (2) cultural changes; or both.

Key to both leadership failure and cultural change was the seeming inability—or unwillingness—of Christian schools to adapt and change to the shifting social and educational landscape in the U.S. In fact, the study’s respondents saw this as a greater problem for schools now than it was a decade earlier, underscoring the degree to which many of our Christian schools have dug in their institutional heels and refused to change. But why?

Marsh (2007) and Wilson (1989) pointed out that when the conditions of an educational environment change, schools are faced with a dilemma. They can retrench themselves in longstanding and familiar ways of behaving, or they can soberly examine their own organizational behaviors and make the changes necessary for institutional success. Failure to do either can have negative effects throughout a school system.

This failure was evident in the research as a contributing cause to the closures of Christian schools. Ritzema (2013) stated in prophetic-sounding terms that unless Christian schools—meaning Christian school leaders—take note of the changing cultural, educational, and technological landscape of the 21st century and take action by innovating, retooling, and reinventing themselves, he predicted more schools would continue to close. He further asserted that it cannot continue to be educational business as usual; Christian schools can no longer simply open their doors and expect people to flock to them in huge numbers as happened three and four decades ago. For good or for naught, a new day has come. New methods are required.

Underscoring this reality, Frost (2015) found that one of the problems endangering Christian schools is the stubborn determination to perpetuate the status quo, rather than using inspiration to build the future by being creative and innovative while staying true to core Christian beliefs. He asserted that resisting educational innovation by hiding behind the misguided notion that remaining the same will preserve a school’s values only hastens decline. Failure to embrace new educational practices that can stimulate progress will prevent growth that is essential (Frost 2015, 2014).

Change, Innovate, Think Entrepreneurially—Now

The findings of the study led to several crucial implications for practice. Not surprisingly, one of those implications was directly tied to leadership’s ability to innovate: Christian schools must be willing to change, innovate, and think entrepreneurially, and then follow through with effective, timely action. This includes embracing technology, innovation, and instructional techniques to develop 21st-century skills in both students and staff members.

But it also means re-envisioning, reinventing, and retooling everything we do as Christian schools, eliminating silos and collaborating as we lean into the Holy Spirit and press into the future together. It means being willing to try new things, being willing to fail and then re-attempt. It means being “all in.” It means having a growth mindset as schools and as an entire movement, re-creating an educational culture that desires to be at the leading edge of not simply 21st-century learning, but rather biblically permeated 21st-century learning—with an unquestioned and unsurpassed commitment to excellence for the glory of Christ and the good of our kids.

Learning From One School’s Experience 

At Alta Loma Christian School, that has meant the following:

  • inhaling new God-honoring research (e.g., the 2017 ACSI-Barna Group study: Multiple Choice: How Parents Sort Education Options in a Changing Market; the joint Impact 360 Institute-Barna Group study: Who is Gen Z);
  • embracing new instructional approaches and embodying a new pedagogy;
  • modifying our vision statement and our Expected Learning Outcomes;
  • changing how we conduct an open house, redesigning our website and all of our promotional materials, and rewriting our advertising copy to retarget both millennial parents and Generation Z students; and
  • broadening our collaborative network of like-minded educators and sharing what we’re discovering in dialogue with the movement at large.

By engaging in these efforts, we’ve essentially transformed our entire school culture. We have been working the fields, and now God is bringing the rain: as we opened a new school year in August, we have experienced an 11.7 percent increase in enrollment compared to last year. In a marketplace with 44 private schools within nine miles of our campus, we consider that miraculous. But it also underscores to our school how truly non-negotiable change and innovation are right now.

To be clear, the urgent necessity to innovate and embrace change is not about the integration of educational technology or developing flashy new programs; it is about a return to institutional creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, empowered by God, that once marked the Christian school movement decades ago when it experienced remarkable, unmatched, meteoric growth. Now in a culture and global community marked by rapid change and post-Christian drift, we must rekindle and reignite our passion as Christian schools for change and innovation, especially in light of our divine mandate to be transformational change agents in the world.

Editor’s Notes:

  • This post is co-published by the ACSI blog and the CACE blog, in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.
  • Interested in learning about innovation in Christian schools with colleagues from all over the world? Consider attending the 2019 Global Christian School Leadership Summit (GCSLS) in San Antonio, January 30–February 1, 2019.

REFERENCES:

Frost, G. 2015. Does your school have a future? Christian School Educator 18(3): 6.

Frost, G. 2014. Learning from the best, volume two: Growing greatness that endures in the Christian school. Colorado Springs, CO: ACSI.

Marsh, J. A. 2007. Democratic dilemmas: Joint work, educational politics, and community. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Nichols, V. E. 2016. Schools at risk: An analysis of factors endangering the evangelical Christian school movement in America. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (UMI No. 10160167).

Ritzema, R. 2013, October. Regional director’s report. Presentation delivered in Temecula, CA, to the Southern California District 4 meeting of the California/Hawaii region of the Association of Christian Schools International.

Wilson, J. Q. 1989. Bureaucracy: What government agencies do and why they do it. New York: Basic Books. In J. A. Marsh Democratic dilemmas: Joint work, educational politics, and community, 101. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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4 comments

  1. Dr. Nichols,
    You’ve presented a really interesting piece, one that all school leaders should read and consider. A line that perplexes me is, “Underscoring this reality, Frost (2015) found that one of the problems endangering Christian schools is the stubborn determination to perpetuate the status quo, rather than using inspiration to build the future by being creative and innovative while staying true to core Christian beliefs.” I wonder if schools (i.e. educators) find staying true to core Christian beliefs to be in conflict with progressive pedagogical/technological approaches? Could it be a misplaced resistance? In other words, do you think Christian educators working in failing schools tend to hide behind the notion of “staying true to Christian beliefs” rather than embracing teaching and learning that is more student-centered, project-based, and less teacher-driven?

    • Hi, Justin. Great comment. Yes, based on the comments of many respondents, there could certainly be misplaced resistance at work. Also at work in many schools is Repetitive Inaction Disorder (RID), where leadership (particularly at the board level) has refused to make necessary changes for so long, that inaction has become ingrained in the organization, effectively infecting it to death. Thus, inaction—rather than creativity, innovation, and wise action based on sound research—becomes its DNA. You also allude to a very important truth: A school can stay true to its Christian beliefs while simultaneously embracing learning that is more student-centered, project-based, and collaborative. A Christ-centric worldview can be fully compatible with new pedagogical and ed tech approaches, particularly when we biblically integrate (permeate) our instruction with a high level of intentionality. After all, the most radical change agent in history was Jesus Christ; that included His approach to education. In sum, many schools would rather use almost any excuse to keep things the way they are, rather than summon the courage to do the things that are genuinely in the best interests of our kids and bring Christ greater glory. Otherwise, we are just burying our talent in the sand. And we know how that ended.

  2. For those of you who can make it, I will be speaking at two ACSI PD Forums this year, in October and November, respectively, and would consider it a privilege to meet and continue our conversations face-to-face. First, I will be co-presenting a two-day track on October 11-12, 2018 in Winston-Salem, NC with Brooke Hempell, Vice President of Research for Barna Group. Our track is called “From Surviving to Thriving: Developing Strategic School Actions to Grow and Thrive in the Midst of Cultural Change.” We combine recent research to engage participants in forming plans for changes that they can take back to their schools. Then on November 19-20, 2018, I will be leading a three-session track titled “Re-envisioning, Reinventing, and Retooling: Creating a School Culture for the Common Good” at the ACSI PD Forum in Anaheim, CA. Participants will be led to look at the research, consider the irreplaceable role of school culture, and work collaboratively to plan how to create a school culture for the common good in and for our schools and communities, thus setting the stage for further, ongoing, substantive, and necessary change. It would be great to see any of you there (at either venue) to dive even deeper into the God-honoring changes we need to make as Christian schools in the 21st century. Please, keep the conversation going!

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