Most Christian schools I know have similar elements in their mission statements. Usually there is a part about spiritual development – its Christian after all. There is also some acknowledgement about academics given that we’re talking about school. And then there is life or culture component, a nod to the impact of the school beyond graduation. These statements also contribute to the overuse of words like excellence or Biblical worldview, but that’s for another time.
Over the years I have been part of conferences, meetings, discussions, and coffee klatches that have sought and shed some light on mission impact. We’ve wondered and speculated, contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes and assumptions, and on occasion questioned our own sanity. The good news is that someone is taking this question on in a very robust and research based manner. The Cardus Education Survey “has just this purpose – to determine the alignment between the motivations and outcomes of the Christian education, setting a benchmark for further study of Christian schooling”. Specifically the research focused on measuring three outcomes of Christian education: spiritual formation, cultural engagement and academic development.
If you haven’t read the research, you need to so (along with Almost Christian by Kendra Creasy Dean – also for another time). By way of review if you have, or as a tease if you haven’t, here are some broad brush conclusions:
- It’s easier to hit what you aim at – Catholic schools tend to emphasis academics over spiritual development and as a result tend to be stronger academically. The converse is true for Protestant schools.
- The results de-bunks the popular image of Protestant schools being a breeding group of right-wing isolationist cultural warriors.
- The typical Christian school faces a pressing challenge to focus on being school as opposed to a tuition-funded youth group. For example, Catholic schools tend to enjoy a reputation of academic rigor while Protestant schools are perceived as anti-intellectual.
- The study poses some serious questions that deserve our best thinking in that they offer a call for a broader vision, particularly demonstrating the power of “and” – academic rigor and serious spiritual formation.
- There are a number of positive accomplishments of Protestant schools that are consistent with mission.
While the research offers a number of issues to consider, perhaps the reality of changing market forces warrants our best thinking. If faith formation has been the most important factor in the selection of Christian schools, that is quickly changing as more and more school leaders report that parents are now seeking academic development nearly as much. Although some express fear that schools could lose their way – the distinctive emphasis on faith formation – if they pursue academic rigor, the data suggests that properly conceived, schools can do both. As a result, here is the gold nugget from the study – “Our data show that appropriately planned and delivered programs enhance students’ intellectual and spiritual acumen, and do so in a way that develops not only individual piety, but a sophisticated public theology that impacts communities more substancially than the average Christian school has been shown to do.”
Here is the rub, and what we as Christian school leaders must be intentionally about – the key to those schools are leaders who recognize that faith development is central to intellectual development. Those leaders steadfastly hold that one cannot be done without the other. The research indicates that which we target, we emphasize, and we ultimately accomplish. Thus, we must dig in and see that is a both/and proposition. What would it look like if our schools were perceived as the best places for students to develop and form their faith as well as their intellect? There is no reason for this not to be the case.