30 October 2017

Small Fundamentalist Church Schools: Truths & Falsehoods, Part 1

This fall marks the 20th anniversary of my high school's founding. (An extremely loose definition of the term high school should be understood here.) I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm amazed, and a bit impressed, that the whole business has managed to stay afloat for so long -- two-thirds of my lifetime. On the other hand, part of me feels that twenty years for it to have gone on is, frankly, twenty years too long.

The small, fundamentalist church school movement (hereafter referred to as SFCS) has certainly gained a lot of traction among certain segments of Christianity, but its supporters are not always well informed as to what exactly it is they're supporting, both financially and in their unquestioned acceptance of the school's educational philosophies.

I need to differentiate these schools from Christian schools in general, because they are a very different sort of animal. The type of school I'm referring to here has several distinguishing characteristics, as follows:

1. They're small: the total student body is less than 50 students, or does not necessarily have students at each grade level from kindergarten through twelfth, or there are fewer than five students per grade level. All the students are together in one room, rather than being separated by grade (or there may be separate areas for elementary/high school students, but each grade level doesn't have its own classroom).
2. They're fundamentalist: By "fundamentalist" I don't mean simply that they adhere to the basics of Christianity; I mean they are legalistic in matters of faith, and tend to regard with suspicion "modern" pedagogical theory and practice.
3. They're an offshoot of, and overseen by, a local church.
4. They more closely resemble a homeschooling co-op than a proper "school" as such. Their curriculum is largely self-taught rather than teacher-taught.

What follows is a few of the most common -- but largely unsupported -- assertions made by the parents and supporters of the SFCS I attended. Inasmuch as this limited platform allows me to do so, I'd like to shed a little light on some of these claims and the consequences of holding unexamined beliefs about SFCSs and their practices. My credentials on this topic are nine years as a student at a SFCS, one-and-a-half years as a board member, and a bachelor's degree in education, for whatever those may be worth to you.

Let's begin, shall we? First up:

1. "My child will get a better education at a SFCS than in the public school." This may be true, or it may not be, depending on a multiplicity of factors. These include: the school's educational philosophy, the type and variety of curricula in use, and the quality of public schools in your district -- not to mention your child him/herself and how s/he responds to the SFCS atmosphere. All these factors are highly variable and unique to each situation and individual. Additionally, SFCSs and public schools are not the only two options open to you. There are private schools, both faith-based and secular, there are charter schools, Montessori schools, and homeschooling, to name just a few, and each one should be evaluated on its own merits. The bottom line is, the superiority of SFCSs to all other available alternatives is not something that can simply be taken for granted.

2. "Self-taught curriculum is better than teacher-taught." This is less often the case than you'd expect. Many children do excel in a self-paced curriculum (and many do not); however, it's a very, very rare student that cannot benefit at all from having a teacher, particularly for subjects in which they struggle. Even in areas where they aren't having difficulty, the insight and skills of a teacher or tutor can challenge students to look at things in new ways and not "get stuck" on only one way of absorbing knowledge. In short, learner autonomy is a fabulous thing, but a good teacher will facilitate, not hinder, that process.

3. "My child loves self-taught curriculum and speeds through it lightning fast -- this proves it's a better fit for them!" This makes the same amount of sense as saying that because your child eats candy faster and more willingly than they eat vegetables, candy is therefore better for them than vegetables. Parents, I sincerely hope that I -- a non-parent -- am not the first one to break this bad news to you, but the mere fact that your kid likes something isn't proof that it's the best thing for them.

Instead, take a look at the big picture. Does your child retain what they've learned over the long term? Can they apply their knowledge outside of and beyond the curriculum's limited format? How do they perform on standardized tests? These are all pertinent factors you can (and should) consider when evaluating a curriculum for your child's needs and abilities.

4. "A SFCS can reform my child's behavior/attitude problems." At the SFCS I attended, there were parents who all but admitted this was their primary reason for enrolling their child. They had come to the end of their rope with discipline problems at home, and were passing the buck onto the school in hopes that the staff there could work some magic they themselves hadn't been able to. This scenario repeated itself over and over in the course of my years in school. Wanna guess how many times it was successful? If you said "zero", yes! You are correct. Gold star for you.

Not only was it impossible in every case for the school to "fix" the problems of the delinquent student, but the distraction and disruptiveness of it all caused other students' learning to suffer, as well. It also strained the limited resources of the staff, who found themselves in over their heads with problems that would have been better served by a counselor, special education teacher, or -- in the vast majority of cases -- a good old-fashioned spanking. (In that last instance, I place the blame squarely on the school for even accepting those students in the first place, once the parents had made their intentions known. They really should have known better.)

5. "A SFCS can save us money -- we don't need all those extracurricular activities!" Ah, money -- the great motivator. Some parents are simply seeing the opportunity for their child to get a dirt-cheap private school education, so they're grabbing it. Why not? It makes sense. But in this case, frugality (ironically) comes with a high price tag: Some SFCSs believe that academics can -- and should -- take a backseat to "Christian character training." Their lack of regard for activities deemed "secular" and "extraneous" reflects this philosophy. Exactly what activities fall under this umbrella, you might ask? Well, that varies, but in my school's case, the answer was pretty much everything that wasn't Scripture memorization or that wasn't mandated by the state as a minimum requirement for graduation.

We did have a few "extra" activities during my time there, led by undoubtedly well-meaning church members who volunteered to come to the school every so often in order to share with everyone a demonstration in some subject area they were interested in. I recall having sessions now and then that we called "art class", "cooking class", "gym class", "language class", and so forth, but these happened only sporadically, were very disorganized when they did happen, were not taught by qualified educators, and (so far as I know) didn't count for any sort of credit. They seemed to be mostly for amusement value.

Here are my two cents on this matter: Don't rely on an institution that has neither the means nor the motivation to maximize your child's full intellectual, athletic, and/or artistic potential. The ramifications of them missing out on opportunities during their formative years will continue long after those years have passed. It's worth keeping in mind that, with education, as with most everything else in life, you get what you pay for. Or, at least, you won't get what you don't pay for.

Continued tomorrow...

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