“Think outside the box and inside the Word” – Pastor Rod Bell Jr.
Two decades of teaching experience as home schoolers, public high school teachers, private high school teachers, and college professors have given my wife and I unique perspectives on the role of Christian education. In the end, we favored home schooling in spite of the high opportunity costs for a professional with a PhD who could be doing lots of other things if we could have outsourced the education of our children to others. There are a lot of great Christian schools out there, and without doubt, most private Christian schools exceed public school counterparts in the quality of education, safe atmosphere, imparting a Christian worldview, and discipling students for God.
As home schooling parents, we’ve certainly learned a lot from the Christian schools with which we’ve been associated. Recent discussions with a trusted Christian pastor, head of a Christian school, and president of a state Christian school association reveals that private Christian schools think of themselves as offering many benefits of home schooling. In many ways they do, but having spent many years on both side of that fence, we believe Christian schools can learn some things from home schoolers, and as iron sharpens iron, be transformed from patterns and structures and ways of thinking borrowed from secular education and grow even more powerful in their Christian ministry. Homeschooling parents are seldom under the illusion that we need to copy the rules and structures of secular institutions. Private Christian schools have more room for growth.
The biggest advantages we see from homeschooling are: 1) Parents and teachers are not undermining the authority needed by the other to accomplish the goals of their tasks in students’ lives. 2) Curricula can be individually tailored to student needs and learning styles and expectations can be individualized for student abilities. 3) Homeschooling is very cost effective and thus attainable by many families who are unlikely to be able to afford private Christian education.
Parents and Teachers Undermining Each Others’ Authority
Most Christian schools lay out expectations for parents and students regarding things like academic effort, behavioral standards, and homework in a parent/student handbook. Parents and students usually sign an agreement regarding compliance. Likewise, most Christian schools make explicit statements to the effect of parents remaining in their roles of primary disciplers and attempt to distinguish themselves from public schools by sticking to the educational sphere and not undermining the authority of the parents. The best Christian schools recognize their educational role as being delegated by the parents.
By the time fallen teens reach middle and high school, they’ve learned how to push their parents’ buttons in various areas and garner sympathy when they are failing to comply with either the behavioral or the academic expectations of the school. Many parents don’t read or take the student handbook any more seriously than their iPhone terms of service. So when a teen really needs to hear, “No, you can’t play video games until you have completed all your homework” or “This is the third time I’ve heard from the school about your disobedience regarding their dress code” the parent undermines the authority of the teachers either by saying nothing or by making explicitly disparaging remarks.
Having seen lots of students fail to reach college goals and otherwise encounter difficulty in transitioning to adult life, we’ve identified four key things that we regard as a much more important fruit of Christian education (private or home school) than mastery of academic subjects:
1. Reading the Bible regularly
2. Praying regularly in an established relationship with God the Father
3. Working Hard
4. Following instructions
These are timeless truths. They applied to youths transitioning to adulthood in the first century just as much as they do today. The principle is that those who are faithful in little will be faithful in much. The academic subjects (math, science, English, history, etc.) are only important to the degree that they have been assigned by governing authorities, parents, and teachers for the purpose of learning to work hard, following instructions, and being productive citizens in modern society. The student who has mastered math without having to work hard and who has not learned to follow instructions will have a much harder road than the student who may be “behind” in math but has worked hard and learned to carefully follow instructions along the way.
How are teachers in Christian schools undermining the authority of the parents? We’ve seen some ugly things. In spite of the strict language regarding academic and behavioral standards in the student handbook, a lot of bad things get an explicit pass. It’s as if the teachers and administrators are not bound to uphold the same handbook standards they expect of students and parents. One parent has reported becoming aware of a student cheating ring at the school. The parents did the right thing and had the student confess in writing to the school. The school let it go: no investigation, no questions about other involved students, no grades changed, no behavioral consequences. Another parent has reported student misuse of school computers extending beyond social media and into destructive sexual behaviors. The school even refused to limit the student’s electronic access to school computers or bring any consequence.
Christian parents also report failures of Christian schools to respect parental boundaries in matters of faith and conscience. There’s nothing wrong with a school’s broad respect for various Christian traditions. But when parents ask for their children to be excused from singing a song in a Christmas program honoring the Virgin Mary with a song like, “Blessed are thou O Heavenly Queene” a school that purports to welcome various non-Catholic families is out of bounds to threaten the children with expulsion for non-participation. Likewise, a Christian school that attempts to compel student attendance at a “Festival of Saturnalia” that has replaced the traditional Christmas party is out of line when they fail to allow student excusals when parents cite objections of faith and conscience. Further, objections of faith and conscience to reading occult materials and participating in certain sex education also remains in the sphere of parental authority.
And what of homework? The homeschooling parent knows immediately if the student is not completing assigned work in a timely manner. In spite of handbook language, non-compliance with homework assignments may not be brought to a parent’s attention until report cards are issued.
It’s not the job of Christian schools to police all the behaviors of teens during the school day, but we’ve also known too many cases of schools learning of and hiding many and various destructive behaviors simply by not telling the parents when they learned of: drug abuse, pornography, drinking, smoking, bullying, sexting, and other criminal and destructive behaviors. What happened to the Golden Rule? If the Christian adults at the school would want other adult Christians informing them of their own children’s destructive behaviors, the Golden Rule requires communicating the same information to other parents, regardless of the expectations for effective action.
It has also been reported that Christian educators have expressed resentment when parents assign academic work in addition to what the teachers require. Silly. But it is absolutely a parent’s proper place to assign additional writing, reading, science, Bible and/or math if they see that a school is not sufficiently challenging their children or otherwise not quite meeting student needs. It’s as if there is no middle ground between the parent who is derelict in enforcing a school’s academic and behavioral standards and the helicopter parents who are actively engaged and may express even higher expectations than the school. Coaches seldom complain about the dad who works with a teen in an off-season training, conditioning, and practice regimen. But the dad who assigns a comparable amount of academic and/or Bible work is somehow overbearing.
In real life, the Christian school also has its authority fractured in ways that the home school rarely is. Administrators often undermine the authority of teachers in upholding various academic and/or behavioral standards. Do teachers really have complete freedom to assign grades that honestly reflect the academic accomplishments of the students relative to the course description and articulated learning objectives? Do athletes get special treatment? If a parent complains about a student grade, how often does the admin pressure the teacher to “work this out” which is really code for “figure out a way to bring this grade up” (whether or not it is deserved).
Likewise, teachers at Christian schools often undermine the administration’s authority either by failing to uphold the standards of the student handbook relating to student behavior or the standards they agreed to in the faculty handbook. Finally, when it comes to assessing the performance of new faculty, Christian schools tend to have students they trust and accept second hand reports from these students rather than getting the facts first hand. This places the trusted “good” students in a defacto position of authority over faculty, and faculty are emasculated with respect to speaking to academic or behavioral deficiencies of these students. Assessment of faculty performance should not be placed in the hands of students.
Homeschooling short circuits the many and various ways the parents and school tend to undermine each others’ authority. Sure, there remains the possibility of parents undermining each other, but the circle is much smaller, and it is much simpler to keep everyone singing from the same sheet of music. Private Christian schools can learn a lot and recommit to clear articulation of their sphere of authority as delegated from the parents. And once the boundaries are articulated clearly, there need to be improved efforts to keep them. And when issues arise, strict adherence to Matthew 18 should be the rule, and violations of Matthew 18 should be treated immediately and completely before turning attention to the details of the underlying squabble. (Most private Christian schools have procedures based on Matthew 18 in their handbooks, but our experience has been that compliance is low and violations of these procedures are widely tolerated.)
Tailored Curricula and Individualized Expectations
Most home schoolers are closer to the traditional “one room schoolhouse” of the 19th century than the sardine approach of segregating students by age and ability and spoon-feeding them. The approach of spoon-feeding from the lectern and white board developed in public schools in the 20th century. Just like the teacher with students across grade levels cannot possibly spoon-feed lessons for all grades and subject levels, a home schooling parent with children of different ages, subjects, and needs will rarely even try this approach. Instead, learning is student-centered with assigned readings, video viewings, worksheets, interactive lessons, etc.
Most private Christian schools have one or two textbooks and approaches for each subject in each grade. The homeschooling parent has limitless curricular options, because the parent is not shackled to the picture of the 20th century school teacher, but realizes they are a facilitator of learning. If a given math, science, or English curriculum is a poor match for student needs and learning styles, they can quickly adapt and switch to another one. At the same time, parents are more likely to be empowered when they recognize or suspect that a student is expressing rebellion under the guise of struggling with a subject.
Private Christian schools have a couple obstacles to overcome to achieve this level of flexibility. First of all, the home school approach is a break from the public school pattern. It requires a teacher to be knowledgeable in an array of curricular options for a single grade and subject and to be willing to admit when one approach is not working before changing gears. Some of these resources may be more expensive than buying a single set of books and sticking with it until they wear out. There may also be resistance at the level of accreditation which often requires specification of a specific textbook and course outline.
The promise of Scripture is that “all hard work brings a profit.” As home schoolers, we picked curricula most carefully designed to keep students working hard in an age appropriate way, because their learning and accomplishment is the sum total of their effort over time. An hour a day for 180 days in a school year can accomplish a lot in each subject if students can be kept engaged and working with an appropriate level of expectation. Private schools tend to do better than public schools in this area, but the actual use of time tends to be less efficient than home schools, and the levels of adjustments in expectations tend to be too coarse for the potential productivity.
Approaching Home School Cost Effectiveness in Private Christian Education
Since our family is blessed with engineering incomes, we were able to spend more than any other homeschooling family we know to meet the needs of our children. Yet, we averaged about ½ of the least expensive local Christian schools in spending an average of $2500 a year per student. Yes, we could probably have achieved 80% of the benefit for 20% of the cost, but since all our teens were college bound, we viewed it as an investment in our children reaching the goals of full tuition scholarships at selective institutions. So, the return on our investment of $2500 per student per year in high school is paying off at about $20,000 per student per year in college. I would challenge private Christian high schools to see how close they can get to these numbers both in terms of parent costs AND the return on parental investments in downstream student success.
A number of factors drive up the costs of private Christian education, but personnel probably is the biggest factor. And teachers at Christian schools tend to be underpaid and overworked. I think the biggest problem is copying the public schools’ secular employment model and patterns rather than the pattern of Christian missions work. Workers in Christian schools are properly viewed as missionaries fulfilling the great commission to “make disciples of all nations.” The main difference is that they are (usually) called to their home countries for their work rather than overseas. The secular teacher employment model brings lots of expensive baggage: OSHA compliance, Obamacare, Certification requirements, and the notion of salary competitiveness with other local schools (public and private).
Overseas missionaries are funded with a variety of mechanisms that look much different than the secular employment model. Some missionaries are sent and supported directly from a specific church. Some missionaries are sent and supported by para-church missions organizations. These often need to raise some of their own support. Some missionaries serve as “tent makers” like the Apostle Paul who rather than depending on the church for support, earned his living making tents. Some missionary couples have one spouse who earns a living working in an area other than missions to meet family needs and enable the other spouse to work full time in missions. As a pastor used to say, “God’s work done in God’s way will not want for God’s supply.” But the missions model both gives considerably more freedom in funding mechanisms for the Christian teacher and likely can be less subject to bureaucratic requirements that drive up costs. We’ve also noticed more of a “hired hand” mentality among traditionally employed teachers in contrast to true shepherd hearts among homeschooling parents and missionaries.
However, it is notable that many Christian missions organizations will not accept recent college graduates until their college loans are paid off. Higher education has morphed into something of a loan sharking arrangement where students often accrue $20,000-$100,000 in debt before graduating. The need for missions agencies and Christian schools to provide enough support for their people to pay down those debts at any sensible rate is a significant burden to carrying out the Great Commission both at home and abroad. The borrower is servant to the lender, and the servitude imposed by college loans often impairs the service of good Christians for 10-15 years after graduation. How can we lower costs by addressing this?
Simple. Just as a college degree is not required of home schooling parents and many missionaries, we need to stop requiring college degrees of teachers at Christian schools. The gradual erosion of academic standards at most universities has rendered the actual subject matter expertise of many “certified” teachers in the 21st century below that of most aspiring college bound STEM majors in the 1980s and certainly below that of many present day home school graduates. Even though they may not possess a college degree, a decade or more homeschooling experience has created a tremendous untapped skilled labor pool of parents when all their children graduate. These potential missionaries have given Biblical proof of their potential in the success of their own children, and have lifestyles commensurate with the reduced earnings of missionaries from giving themselves to educate their own children.
The Biblical principle is, “A student is not above his teacher. But the student who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” The immediate application is spiritual, but the truth applies to natural teachers also. An Algebra 2 teacher needs full and complete mastery of Algebra 2, but not all the extra years of training represented by a college degree.
Challenges with accreditation and certification are expected, but the benefits of working through these challenges should be well worth it. Alternate approaches to validating subject matter expertise and teaching ability will depend on the needs and requirements of each situation. But the folly of subjecting church ministries and missionaries to worldly secular standards is immediately obvious in just about every other field of Christian work, why do we accept this yoke when making disciples in the Christian schoolroom?
Certification and accreditation will vary by state, institution, and accrediting agency, but following the pattern of the use of teaching assistants in accredited college coursework may be useful. College accrediting agencies require the teacher of record in each course to have an advanced degree (Master’s or PhD) in the subject with a certain number of credit hours on their transcripts. But often the person meeting the degree requirements merely oversees the course while a graduate teaching assistant (much less expensive and not meeting degree requirements) handles the day to day classroom teaching and management of the course. The teacher of record with the advanced degree can oversee many more college courses with the help of teaching assistants than they could ever teach in person. In situations where accreditation requirements prevent servants without Bachelor’s degrees from serving as the teacher of record, perhaps they can serve as teaching assistants handling the day to day teaching and class management duties under the oversight of another teacher with the requisite degree.
In addition to the benefit of reduced debt burdens and expenses, removing the requirement of Bachelor’s degrees will also reduce exposure to secular, godless, and liberal thinking and indoctrination that are closely integrated into most of the more affordable education programs. A biology teacher may not really need to learn about the details of cellular respiration, the electron transport chain, or protein synthesis en route to their degree, but stumbling blocks are likely unless they learn to parrot the secular consensus on issues like evolution and global warming. Lots of math teacher graduates would be hard pressed to break 30 on the ACT or complete 90% of the ALEKS pie in precalculus, but they are well schooled in the importance of big government in student lives. A history teacher may not be able to articulate essential issues or important debates relating to the Federal and Anti-Federalist papers, but you can bet most of them don’t believe the 2nd Amendment means what it says.
We have also observed the propensity for Christian schools to attempt to keep up with local public schools in the more popular extracurriculars. I don’t know exactly how expensive these efforts are, but I do know that most of our average $2500 per teen annual home schooling expense was directed at extracurriculars rather than academics. Sports, music, and after school academic clubs are expensive and labor intensive in their personnel, transportation, facilities, and insurance costs. Private schools need to prayerfully evaluate the cost-benefit of each of these programs, consider more cost-effective options, and consider which extracurriculars they might leave up to the parents. As homeschoolers, we found more than ample opportunities for our teens in community extracurricular opportunities in sports, music, academic clubs, and other groups. There is nothing wrong with programs being part of the school experience, but wisdom suggest a more honest accounting of the associated costs relative to the true discipleship benefits.
Return on Investment
Debt is a cycle. FAFSA is a loan sharking scheme that it is little more than an entitlement program for mostly secular and godless institutions. There is a promise of some grants, but the bulk of the available financial aid is loans, and paths to debt free college degrees relying on FAFSA are rare. Debt is bondage. In addition to not requiring bachelor’s degrees for all teaching jobs, Christian schools can both improve parents’ return on investment AND improve the pool of debt-free, college educated teaching talent by increasing the percentage of their graduates who can earn and retain merit-based college scholarships which cover all or most tuition and fees.
Many states now have well-funded merit based scholarship programs that pay nearly all tuition and fees if the student meets certain requirements. These include TOPS in Louisiana, Palmetto and Life scholarships in South Carolina, the Hope scholarship program in Tennessee, and the Hope and Zell Miller scholarship programs in Georgia. Wisdom seems to indicate that Christian schools would better serve their college bound students by providing their parents greater return on high school expenses by improving their student success rates in meeting the requirements for these scholarship programs. $5000 to $10000 a year for high school makes a lot more sense if students earn merit-based scholarships that will save $10000 to $20000 a year in college expenses.
Each of these programs have specific requirements that Christian schools in their respective states would do well to understand and appreciate. I expect that schools might even gain more cooperation from parents regarding the hard work of their teens if tangible goals were articulated with a reasonable expectation of meeting requirements for these scholarships with four years of intentional hard work and consistent parental support. Some of these scholarship programs have very specific ACT requirements which might raise concerns about “teaching to the test” but hard work in 4 years of high school math is better preparation than 1000 practice ACT Math exams, and the same is true in each of the other subjects as well. There may be some minor tweaks in the curriculum, but I think the bigger selling point is the tangible possibility and increasing probability of an excellent return on investment contingent more on hard work than a perfect curriculum.
Another huge key to reducing college debt is reducing expenses relating to four years of living away from home. Private schools often have a culture of expectation where “going off to college” tends to be portrayed as somehow superior to simply “going to college.” This combines with common teen desires to experience expanded boundaries after high school graduation to create discontentment in the hearts of graduating seniors with the idea of commuting to a nearby college from home. Given that living away from home usually adds $10000 to $12000 a year to college expenses, the difference between “going off to college” and “going to college” usually adds tremendous debt to the overall costs of a degree.
Counselors, teachers, and advisers at Christian schools need to emphasize that “godliness with contentment is great gain” when speaking to high school students about college opportunities. Admissions alone should not be portrayed as “God opening a door” any more than a car dealer willing to sell you an expensive car with a huge loan attached. “God opening a door” descriptions should usually be reserved for opportunities that include financial provision without needing to borrow money. Students need to be content with the idea of living at home and attending more humble institutions if this is the debt-free option that God provides. Private schools need to be content with less impressive lists of colleges and universities attended by recent graduates.
Many states are now offering dual enrollment programs which heavily subsidize tuition for high school students attending college courses so that the out of pocket expenses are far below what it costs to earn the same college credit after high school graduation. Providing Christian school students with these opportunities is a clear path to lowering overall college expenses for those who are college bound. But private schools often face greater challenges relating to scheduling, transportation, administration, and accountability than home school parents.
But there is even a greater opportunity for some private Christian schools here. When I worked at a public community college in the mid-west, the college often treated nearby high schools as satellite campuses and used qualified teachers to teach their dual enrollment accredited college courses at the high schools at times integrated into the existing schedule. There is tremendous potential here for private Christian high schools to serve as satellite locations for Christian colleges and universities to provide dual enrollment opportunities for their students. In most states, expenses are paid through a well-funded government program. If high schools and nearby Christian colleges can work out revenue sharing arrangements and other administrative details, it is likely possible that these satellite locations can also serve home school students and provide additional income streams for the private schools.