I live in a good school district — at least, they have good test scores — so why should I bother researching and shopping around? “Issues Etc.” radio host and pastor Todd Wilken asks Dr. Thomas Korcok to open an episode in their recent series on classical education.
“One of the things Christians should be concerned about is training their children to think in a particular way, not to adopt a worldview that’s contrary to the Christian faith,” Korok replies.
Korcok has theological and academic degrees from American, Canadian, Scottish, and Dutch universities. He is an associate professor of theology and education at Concordia University in Chicago and director of the Center for the Advancement of Lutheran Liberal Arts.
Christian parents should use uniquely Christian criteria for choosing a school, Korcok says, because “All education is involved in forming the way a person thinks. It’s about forming a person, it’s about forming their worldview, and forming how they approach questions of Who am I? What is sin? Who is God? How do I know things?”
How Not to Evaluate a School
While there are lots of guidelines to help people judge big purchases like cars and houses, he notes, parents typically have not been equipped to judge schools. Therefore they often use external factors such as how nicely decorated the school is, what kind of degrees the faculty have, whether the schools spend lots of money on sports, technology, and branding.
Schools will often play up such programs to get parents to commit. While those can be nice bonuses atop a Christ- and knowledge-centered curricula, they’re not the real reason to select a school, because they don’t improve a child’s spiritual and mental formation.
“Is the reason I want to send kids to school so they can play sports? Playing sports is good and I like it, but my child can play sports outside of school as well,” Korcok notes. “I’m not sending them to school to become an athlete, I’m sending them to form their mind and form their soul, and that goes beyond such surface programs.”
Schools that claim to prepare children for their future careers can’t live up to that either, Korcok says, because nobody knows what the economy will look like in a decade or two. The modern job market moves fast: “Imagine you go to school to learn one particular job. You get done and then technology changes so that job no longer exists.”
That’s why schools should teach the classic liberal arts, which “really quips students to think broadly, to think carefully, to adapt, to learn new skills and new ways of thinking.”
How to Evaluate a School
The first criteria Korcok says he uses to judge a school quality is its worship service. First, are there regular services at the school at all? If there is no worship life in the school, that tells you the school thinks it is unimportant. What are the services like? Does the school service complement the life of the church? The answers to these questions “tells me more about how their school is oriented than anything else,” says Korcok.
“I use this as a shortcut because of two principles: First, the old Christian expression, The way you pray is the way you believe. There’s an educational equivalent: The way you pray is the way you teach. The way I teach children to pray and the way I teach children to worship also says a lot about the way I’m going to teach them in all the other areas,” Korcok said. “It’s going to say a lot about how I view truth, how I view wisdom, what’s worthy of my attention. Worship has a lot to do with using words properly, using them in a God-pleasing way, and education should be about teaching children to use the very best words in the very best way possible.”
One of the key functions of a school is to help young Christians develop habits of faith. Clearly, a school cannot do that if it neither incorporates worship or religious instruction, nor if it teaches children explicitly or implicitly that the Christian life is trivial, childish, or foolish. When their school takes the faith seriously, reverently, and joyfully, children learn to do the same.
How to Evaluate Your Child’s Teachers
“Often all parents have to evaluate teachers is ‘They’re so nice,'” Korcok says. Instead, “I ask, ‘What do they teach and believe?’ If the teacher doesn’t appreciate the Christian faith for what it is, then how are they going to convey that appreciation to the children committed to their care?”
Of course kindness is important in a teacher, but kindness is a low bar to ask a teacher to clear. Korcok says parents should also discern whether teachers are curious, and love to learn. To find this out, he suggests asking the teacher what books he or she has read and loved.
He suggests other ways to get clues about the quality of the school by looking at what kinds of things are displayed in classrooms and in hallways: “Is it just posters of moralism or something more substantive? Is there a striving for the three transcendental qualities that mark education (truth, goodness, beauty)? What kind of artwork are children emulating?”