School choice and certain vulnerability

Are Christian schools and public schools equally worthy? Why I teach in one but enrolled my children in the other.

October 31st, 2011

Finding the right educational opportunities for their children is not a task that most parents take lightly—nor should they. The formative hours spent under the guidance of teachers and their curriculum will change the way children think, act, and learn. How can a parent approach making such an important decision?

As a teacher who has spent multiple years teaching in a Reformed Christian school and even more teaching in several public schools, I'd like to share my story of choosing the education for my own kids. I hope to shed some light on some of the limitations and strengths of both systems, but not with exhaustive, objective analysis. My goal is simply to point out the differences as my family sees them, and let you ponder for yourself.

Refuge?

I went to a small Christian school for all of elementary school and most of high school. That Reformed school did an excellent job of preparing me academically, but I don't think it did a very good job preparing me to be a witness in a very secular world. It insulated me so much from the "outside world" that I became hesitant to interact with outsiders.

And so, when it came time to choose a school for our own children, my wife and I resisted the insular schooling I'd grown up with—much to the consternation of my family and the local Christian school.

To an extent, I can appreciate why most public school teachers and families have a distorted view of the private school system. Many see it as a place for rich families, where money can buy good grades and better experiences. And, yes, private schools have to advertise themselves as being bigger and better than their public counterparts—otherwise there would be no reason for their existence. Unfortunately, this leads, rightly or wrongly, to a perception by those on the outside looking in that private schools are elitist, a refuge for people who think they are too good for the public system.

In many communities, that elitist attitude—or, more gently, the refuge mentality—is intentionally cultivated. Even though I grew up Reformed, I struggle mightily with the fact that virtually every Reformed denomination continues to bind its elders to emphasize Christian education as an extension of baptismal vows. Although I think this emphasis has waned from generations past, I do not believe the private Christian school is a must for every Christian parent. I think it is narrow-minded to hold the view that if you do not send your children to the Christian day school, you have lost sight of your responsibility to teach your children that Christ is Lord of all. I believe Christ is Lord also of the public system. I have personally been touched by some very wonderful, committed, Christian families who have sent their kids to the public school and have made a difference in that community.

Thomas B. Hoeksema got it right in a recent denominational magazine article: Reformed identity can be expressed in a number of educational contexts.

I know this is difficult for most Christian school communities. Many are afflicted by a lack of support and need every family in order to stay afloat. Tuition costs have had to rise, which has become another issue for many families. I sympathize with the private Christian school, particularly here in Ontario, where resources are allocated in an unfair fight. But I feel deeply about the public school as well. Unlike the Christian school, we are not fortunate enough to have the glut of wholesome families, willing volunteers, and involved parents. This loss cannot be discounted—these contributions have a massive impact on the culture and effectiveness of a school.

It is clear that both school systems need us and want our support. Should we continue to support the Christian school as previous generations have? Or do we need more Christian families in the public school system? Can kids also learn to live out their faith in the "real world" of the public system—maybe even more effectively?

The "Spiritual Curriculum"

Christian schools take pride in their ability to teach kids that Christ is sovereign and the Bible has authority in all spheres of our life. God's call is always on our kids to serve him with their whole heart, in every subject and in every situation. This goes far beyond Bible class and memory work—it not only colours all their studies, but also their attitude and effort.

Public schools have no such high calling placed on their pupils. There, parents are less likely to take ownership of their child's education, seeing it instead as something that is best left to the school. Too often, the public school relationship between teacher and parent is adversarial. As a result, many public school boards have developed their own "spiritual curriculum," commonly called "character education," to nurture attributes that aid in cooperation and collaboration at school. Used in varying degrees in each school, it focuses on such attributes as respect, caring, optimism, and courage.

This is a good idea, but when I am spending time teaching these concepts in the public school, I feel a sense of insecurity, knowing that most private school kids already are ingrained with these attributes. There is no question in my mind that more Christian families in the public school would have a positive effect.

The Staff

Upon hearing that I teach in an Ontario public school, I have heard people remark, somewhat negatively, about the "unionized environment." This is understandable, given the sheer size of the public teachers' union and its attendant (usually negative) press coverage. Every few years a strike looms, and the perception of self-serving teachers gains even more momentum. Before I was part of the public system, I held some of the same notions.

However, I can now say without hesitation that I am proud to work with 95% of my colleagues. I would be happy to have them teach my own children. Contrary to media portrayal, most public school teachers are there because they care deeply about the kids they teach. They work far beyond the hours they are paid and are fully committed to reaching each child. This is also true of Christian school teachers, who work equally hard, often for less pay.

The difference is in the other 5% who are there for the wrong reasons. It's my experience that they can be weeded out by Christian schools, but there is little that can be done when a bad apple takes root in a public school. This difference is not to be discounted, since it is the staff who set the tone for the entire school.

The Special Education Process

There is no hotter topic in education today than the treatment of children with special needs. Autism, developmental delays, behavioural identifications, and intellectual disorders all seem to be on the rise. On paper there is an unquestionable difference between the two systems: public school boards have a massive array of consultants who specialize in the various forms of need, plus large budgets for purchasing equipment like laptop computers, wheelchairs, and assistive audio devices, while private schools have to tightly squeeze each dollar as it is and have little left to purchase equipment or pay for specialists.

But in terms of the overall effect on kids, this is not as big a discrepancy as you might think. Special education can be a bureaucratic nightmare in the public school, to the point where kids who need special equipment have to wait upwards of a year to even see the specialist they need for a diagnosis, or get in their hands the equipment they need for learning. But because Christian schools' chains of command are much shorter, they often operate more efficiently and effectively in responding to student needs.

Behavioural and Academic Expectations

You do not need to spend a lot of time in either school system to see a clear divide here. I can say without hesitation that as a teacher I accomplished much more in the Christian school, where parents worked alongside me to push their children down paths of academic excellence. When I say that I accomplished more, I mean that the children showed greater development socially, academically, and spiritually. But academics and even character development are less of a priority in the public school because we do not have the support of parents. Some students are able to slip through the cracks because teachers are more likely to be drained by behavioural issues or students with other needs.

I think Christian schools are less prone to these problems because of the people they attract and the culture of hard work and high expectations that they engender. The public school does not expect as much from its kids because they are faced with much more diversity in academic ability and learning skills. Their goal is to include everyone and accommodate every learning style. The Christian school will also include all ability levels, but the consequences can be more dire for kids who fall behind. Christian schools will make kids repeat a grade if the parents and teacher agree it is in the best interest of the child, but in the public school, the pressure is more likely to rest with the teacher to accommodate the learning needs of the student and lower the expectation in a way that will allow the child to feel success.

I think the best way for me to illustrate the difference in the conduct and attitude of kids in public and private schools is to look at the six levels of moral development, as detailed by Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist who specialized in research in moral education. His theory holds that moral reasoning, which is the basis for good behaviour, has six identifiable stages:

  1. I don't want to get in trouble
  2. I want a reward.
  3. I want to please someone.
  4. I always follow the rules.
  5. I am considerate of other people.
  6. I have a personal code of behaviour.

The ultimate goal of parents is to have their kids operating at level 6. And this has to come from parents; it is not something that teachers can permanently imprint on a child. This is also the most effective, efficient, and consistent way to respond to any moral dilemma.

As a general rule, public school teachers spend much of their time using level 1 and 2, and perhaps 3, to maintain order in the classroom. When I was a private school teacher, there was a much larger majority of kids who were at level 4, 5, or even 6. This reinforces what I said earlier about the quality of families that congregate in the private schools. It sounds cliché, but when the home, the church, and the school are all working together in the moral upbringing of the child, it is more effective.

Vulnerability

In a perfect world, every school would be fully funded and would have to compete for students. I think this is the best scenario: the market would dictate which schools survive and thrive. Some Christian schools would also become less insulated from the outside world. Perhaps a hybrid of our current extremes could exist.

Until then, I offer you no guarantees or absolutes on what the best choice is for your children. Each child is unique and each family has its own priorities.

My wife and I did decide to send our children to our local, private Christian school. There is a certain vulnerability that comes upon you when you become a parent. We decided that our priority was for our children to experience and understand God's grace as we had. At the end of the day, I wanted to make sure we had done everything in our power to make that happen.

Consider your priorities when you choose a school for your child. Then, pray like heck that you made the right decision.

 

Scott Vedder is a Kindergarten-Grade 6 math and computer teacher in Grimsby, Ontario. Growing up in the Ottawa Valley of northeast Ontario, he always dreamed of being in front of a classroom, inspiring kids. His wife, Janine, is also a teacher and CEO of the household. Scott is blessed to be part of a wonderful and busy family, and when not chasing his three kids, he enjoys building projects, the outdoors, and reading. He dreams of roaming abroad, living off the land and power grid, and building his own home.

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