By David Feddes
If your family has children in school, what kind of school is it? Is it a bad school? Is it okay? Or is it an outstanding school? How can you tell? What makes a school outstanding?
If school didn’t much matter, or if we simply had to stick with whatever we’re stuck with, there would be no use asking about the quality of a school. But school does matter, and we don’t always have to stick with whatever we’re stuck with. Many of us have a choice. Many people feel so strongly about schools that their choice of where to live and buy a home and raise a family is affected by what district has the best schools. Some families pay large tuition bills for private schools they like, rather than accepting a free public education they don’t like. In fact, about 25 percent of all schools in North America are private schools, and other countries also have many private schools. There may be a private school within striking distance of where you live, a school you could choose if you thought it was really outstanding. And if a good private school isn’t available, you still have a choice if you’re willing to consider home schooling. Home schooling can be an excellent option for some people. For now, though, let’s assume you’re looking for a school. What makes a school outstanding? I’d like to suggest seven standards to keep in mind, seven signs of outstanding schools.
1. Commitment is Clear
To be outstanding, a school must stand out. And how can a school stand out if it takes no stand? An outstanding school takes a strong stand. It has a strong commitment, and it makes that commitment very clear.
A Christian school near my home has as its motto, “Striving to be competent, Christlike servants.” The school clearly states this as its basic mission statement, with no effort to hide it. It’s posted in various places around the building and appears on almost all the printed material that comes from the school. Families checking into the school are told right up front about this strong commitment to Christ. If a family merely wants a nice private school with good academics but little religious commitment, they soon find out that this isn’t the school for them. On the other hand, families devoted to Christ prize the school’s clear commitment to developing servants of Christ.
Outstanding education is not religiously neutral. Schools that try to be neutral toward Jesus are really against him. Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). Neutrality is impossible. Is it neutral to ignore God? Is it neutral to study history and not say one world about the Lord of history? Is it neutral to study biology and geology and astronomy while ignoring the Creator? Is it neutral to study art and not speak of the divine source of all beauty? Is it neutral to teach kids about sex without mentioning what the Lord—the inventor of sex—says about it? The Bible says of the wicked, “In all his thoughts there is no room for God” (Psalm 10:4). A school with no room for thoughts of God isn’t neutral; it’s wicked.
If you belong to Jesus and love the Lord more than anything, then a school cannot be outstanding unless it stands for Jesus and is clearly committed to helping students become fully devoted followers of Jesus. Too many public schools try to avoid Jesus’ claim on all of life, and so do many private schools. Sadly, even some schools sponsored by religious groups have no clear commitment. They try to downplay what they stand for, sometimes in the name of academic freedom, often in the hope of increasing enrollment and income from those who aren’t committed to Christ. A distressing number of private day schools and colleges and universities that began with a vision for training disciples of Jesus ended up as aimless, uncommitted clones of secular schools.
The first thing to ask of any school is: What does it stand for? What are its commitments? What is it trying to produce: strong disciples for Jesus, or just capable workers for the economy? An outstanding school dares to be different, and it dares to be up front about being different. It stands for Jesus and says with the Bible, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:5). While bad schools have no room in their thoughts for God, outstanding schools try to take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ. They try to equip students to think for Jesus and live for Jesus. Their commitment is clear.
2. Bible is Basic
Outstanding schools aren’t just interested in opinions but in truth. And there’s only one book that contains absolute, divine truth from cover to cover: the Bible, the Word of God written. Any school worth its salt offers classes to study the Bible carefully. It teaches Christian doctrine and morals based on the Bible. It looks at the Bible’s impact in church history and in the lives of Christian missionaries and martyrs and heroes, an area of study which most schools neglect entirely. And that’s not all. In an outstanding school where the Bible is basic, the truth of the Bible shapes the teaching of every subject and guides the understanding of every aspect of life.
A school can’t possibly be outstanding if it neglects the greatest book ever written. The Bible speaks of people who are “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). That’s what happens when schools neglect the Bible and simply cram students with as much information possible. They are always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.
At that point they become like the ancient Athenians. The Greeks of ancient Athens are often considered great models of education and culture. But according to the Bible, the real truth about Athens was that “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). People in Athens had plenty of information and opinions but no solid truth. They had plenty to think about but nothing to believe in. And so these supposedly brilliant people ended up following superstitions and worshiped all sorts of false gods.
The same thing is happening today in schools where the Bible is not the basis. They offer students plenty of information and opinions but offer them no solid foundation on which to build their thinking and ground their lives. And so this generation of students, who were supposed to be the most scientific and sophisticated ever, are superstitious beyond belief. Many have no clue what God says in the Bible, but they believe whatever nonsense they get from or horoscopes or ouija boards or strange new religions.
Outstanding schools, on the other hand, make the Bible the basis for everything. They help students eliminate superstition, develop solid convictions, and have a clear idea what life is all about. They learn what the Bible says, they learn sound doctrine, they learn church history, and that’s not all. They learn to shine the light of the Bible into subjects areas such as history and language and literature and science and math and music. They say with the biblical writer, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). The Bible is basic.
3. Curriculum is Christ-Centered
We’ve already touched on this a bit in discussing the first two signs, but it deserves its own consideration as you evaluate a school. Is the whole curriculum Christ-centered? It’s possible for a school meet our first two standards—declaring a clear commitment to Christ and saying that the Bible is basic—but then not do a good job of relating the various areas of the curriculum to Christ. A school may have prayer and Bible classes and chapel services—all good things—and yet fail to show how Jesus is Lord over all of life.
How might this happen? Well, the school may have begun not so much with a vision of Christ’s lordship over everything but simply as a reaction to the prayerlessness and godlessness of the local public school. Parents got together and decided to offer their kids something better. They started a new school, and they were quick to put prayer and Bible class and various religious activities into each school day. So far, so good. But many of the parents and teachers were themselves educated in public schools and secular universities. There they unconsciously absorbed the notion that religion fits in its own compartment, unrelated to other matters of study and public discussion. Such parents and teachers never learned a broader Christian worldview and never learned to see how the lordship of Jesus applies in each subject. The school they started may be better than the alternatives, and it may be improving in its ability to make the entire curriculum Christ-centered, but the school is not as good as it should be until the whole curriculum is Christ-centered.
The Bible says “all things were created by [Christ] and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” In him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 1:16-17, 2:3). Jesus is a personal Savior and friend, but he’s also more than that. He’s the master of every aspect of life and the unifying center of all knowledge. This has profound meaning for education. As Dordt College professor John Van Dyk put it,
A Christian curriculum considers the Lord’s plan and program for the world. For example, the physical sciences investigate the structure of the physical universe as fashioned by God’s word of power. The life sciences study the wonderful diversity, construction, and function of God’s creatures and their interaction with each other. The social sciences and language arts examine the ways in which the Lord intends human beings to relate to one another. Historical studies explore the ways in which cultures and civilizations have observed or disregarded God’s will. The arts provide opportunities to respond to the beauty and design built into creation by the Creator himself… God’s revelation in Scripture awakens and deepens our sensitivity to God’s revelation in creation…
We cannot teach in Bible class that the universe is governed by God’s will and in science class that it is controlled only by natural law. Nor can we meaningfully sing “Beautiful Savior, King of Creation” in chapel if in the laboratory we see no connection between chemistry and our Christian faith. If Christian education is not unified in its entire program, it may produce persons who follow the Lord in one part of their lives but serve other gods in other parts.
So when you’re evaluating a school, find out if it has an all-embracing worldview that sees all subjects and facts in the context of a larger, unified vision of reality focused in Christ. Look that the textbooks and other educational materials. Do they provide a Christian perspective? What about the teachers? Do they show in each subject how things hold together in Christ? Is the curriculum Christ-centered?
4. Excellence is Expected
Outstanding schools try to provide first-rate education and train first-rate minds. They don’t settle for sloppiness. They don’t muddle in mediocrity. Not all students have the same abilities, but an outstanding school tries to make the most of the abilities each person has. And most students have much more ability than the average school gives them credit for. Education has too often been dumbed down in order to make students feel better about themselves, even though they haven’t done nearly as well as they could and haven’t become nearly as skilled as they ought to be. Outstanding schools refuse to dumb things down. They have high expectations of their teachers, they have high expectations of their students, and they help students make the most of their God-given gifts.
The Bible says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). In outstanding schools, teachers give their best, and they expect students to give their best and work hard, as working for the Lord. Jesus tells us to love God with all our mind (Matthew 22:37), and good teachers expect themselves and their students to do that: show love for God and grow in love for God by developing and expanding their minds, studying as hard as they can, thinking as clearly as they can, until their minds that are stronger than ever, and they are able to love God more intelligently than ever.
When you evaluate a school, check whether excellence is expected. Sometimes you can learn quite a bit just by looking at the place. Are classrooms and playgrounds clean and orderly and well kept? They don’t have to be extravagant; excellence isn’t always expensive; modest facilities can house outstanding schools. But if the paint is peeling, the buildings are poorly maintained, and the classrooms are chaotic, it likely means that this is a school where excellence isn’t expected.
Of course, if buildings and grounds do happen to be well kept or impressive, it doesn’t guarantee excellence in education. It may simply mean a school is well-funded, with a good maintenance staff. So look carefully at the textbooks and other teaching materials. Are they well written, accurate, and interesting? Are the teachers knowledgeable and skilled? Do they use proven, solid methods of instruction or merely follow the latest fads? Find out what kind of graduates is the school producing. Do they have a record of high achievement? These are very important questions.
Don’t think it’s okay for a school to have run down facilities and dumbed down curriculum, as long as it claims devotion to Jesus. There’s nothing saintly about being shabby or shoddy. Love for Christ is an inspiration to excellence, not an excuse for mediocrity. Excellence is expected.
5. Parents are Primary
Outstanding schools are family-friendly. They know from Scripture that parents are appointed by God as the primary educators of their children. They know that schools have authority to educate children only to the degree that parents have delegated that authority to them. Such schools don’t see themselves as replacements for parents but as partners of the parents. They see themselves not as experts who are better than parents but as extensions of the parent’s role, working on behalf of parents and working closely with parents.
If a school has the atmosphere of a corporate factory rather than a covenant family, if it seems more like a government bureaucracy than a personal partner, beware! When you have a question about your child’s education, you shouldn’t have to fill out umpteen forms for a multitude of committees and officials. You should be able to talk directly to the teacher about it.
Outstanding schools welcome parents’ input and encourage their involvement. They don’t try to hide things or go behind the parent’s back. They welcome parents to visit classes. They invite them to come along on certain field trips and get involved in various extra-curricular activities. Teachers and school officials are happy to answer questions and provide dads and moms with information about what their children are learning. They depend on parents to work with their children and make sure they do their homework. Outstanding schools know that parents are primary, and they act accordingly.
6. Companions Help Character
Outstanding schools know that education isn’t just about buildings and books and blackboards. It’s about relationships and the power of companionship. People shape people. Good company builds character; bad company ruins character. The Bible says, “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20).
An outstanding school takes those words to heart by seeking teachers and staff who are not only talented professionals but wise, godly people. Their example and influence will shape students for the better. I know a Christian geography teacher who helped a depressed student cope with her suicidal thoughts and find new hope in Christ. I know Christian school coaches, janitors, and secretaries who have had a powerful, positive impact on students. A school is only as good as the people in it. Outstanding schools have outstanding people.
Students become wise in the company of wise people. This means the school must pay attention also to how students affect each other. After all, students aren’t just influenced by staff; student influence each other. In an outstanding school, drug peddlers, gang members, and other troublemakers are not tolerated. They’re suspended, and if they don’t change their ways, they are expelled permanently. The school won’t allow them to ruin other students. Meanwhile, the school tries to offer settings for positive interaction among students in sports, drama, and various clubs, accompanied by adult supervision and wise direction.
When you’re choosing a school, never forget the power of companionship. Find a school where the staff and the students are the kind of people you want your own children to be like. Avoid schools that are filled with immoral or ungodly people.
Now, don’t misunderstand me here. The ultimate aim of a Christian school isn’t to keep students hidden away from the world for the rest of their lives but to train people who can change the world. The school is training an army, not just maintaining a hideout. But remember, the recruits are still in training; they’re not yet ready to fight. Vulnerable young people aren’t ready to change the world just yet. For a while they should be protected from the evils of the world they will one day seek to change.
Dumping children into a godless school with a group of godless companions is like putting fresh army recruits into an enemy camp. They’ll either be terribly hurt by the enemy, or worse yet, they’ll join the enemy and fight on the wrong side! The Bible says bluntly, “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
When you’re looking at a school, check out what kind of people the staff and students are. Nobody’s perfect, of course, but are they wise and godly for the most part? Is there a healthy social environment? Check that out before you send your children there. And once your children are involved in the school, keep track of the company they’re keeping. Even in a generally good school, it’s possible for a child to get tangled up with a bad group of kids and start doing bad things. If so, you need to get him or her away from the negative influence, even if it means educating your child somewhere else. An outstanding school for your child is a place where company helps character.
7. Reality Matches Rhetoric
Outstanding schools do more than offer slogans and lofty ideals. A school can make all the right sounds and tell Christian parents everything they want to hear, and yet the school’s practice may fall so far short of its principles that it’s not a good place for your children to be.
Believing in Christian schooling as an institution isn’t enough. Make sure the actual institution you’re dealing with practices what it preaches. Don’t be paranoid and suspicious, but do be alert. Schools that were once outstanding can go downhill. They may have a great history and reputation, but don’t go by what a school once was or by what claims to be in its promotional materials. Go by what it is. Does the reality match the rhetoric?
Please take these seven items seriously. When you’re looking into a school for the first time, know what you’re looking for. And even when you’ve been involved with a school for a while, stay on your toes. Keep evaluating whether it still measures up. Do all you can to help the school stay strong and become even better. Pray for the school, and encourage those who work there. And if at some point you conclude that the school isn’t a place where your children can flourish as followers of Jesus, find a school that’s better, or look into home schooling.
Evaluating a school isn’t always easy, of course. No school is absolute perfect at every point. A school may be strong in most things but weak in a few, and there’s no formula to say how much you can sacrifice in one area to gain in another. Also, your choice of schooling is affected by your work, your finances, your family situation, and other factors, so it’s not always a simple matter. You need to pray for wisdom from God and use good sense and careful judgment. Still, the fact remains that there are many outstanding Christian schools available, and these seven items can provide a basic framework to help you recognize them. One last time, here’s the checklist:
- Commitment is clear.
- The Bible is basic.
- Curriculum is Christ-centered.
- Excellence is expected.
- Parents are primary.
- Companions help character.
- Reality matches rhetoric.
Those are seven signs of outstanding schools. Is your family involved with a school like that?
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.