ore than 6,000 Adventist elementary and secondary teachers will gather in Nashville, Tennessee, August 6-9 for training, discussion, and inspiration at the North American Division K-12 Teachers’ Convention. One of the major organizers of that event is Larry Blackmer, NAD associate director of education. Blackmer sat down recently with
Adventist Review associate editor Bill Knott to talk about new trends in Adventist education, how Adventist schools stack up to private and public ones, and why churches that support church schools flourish.—
What descriptive words would you offer to picture the direction of K-12 Adventist education in North America right now?
First, I’d say that Adventist elementary and secondary education is in a transitional mode. It’s moving from a traditional program that we’ve run for the last several decades toward what it’s going to look like 10 years from now. We’re also exploring new ways to deliver the best Adventist education possible through an integrated curriculum, through competency-based education, and through distance learning. And we’re securing the allegiance of Adventist families who want research-driven data about the quality of these programs. “Moving,” “exploring,” “securing”—yeah, those are the words I’d use.
Break down one of those terms you used. What’s integrated education?
When we launched the church’s distance AE21 (Adventist Education for the Twenty-first Century) education program back in the nineties, we learned quickly that we couldn’t teach math, history, science, English, and Bible to fifth and sixth graders all as separate classes. We had to find a way to integrate all the key essential subjects—Bible and social studies, math and science into one lesson. So we began to develop integrated units in which we made sure all the essential core learnings were in that unit, organized around a theme. When you teach about dinosaurs or oceans, you can also do your math or history in that unit. The concept of integrated units has now really permeated Adventist education in the traditional classroom. Single-grade classrooms and small schools can now build their instruction around themes that connect students’ sense of the relationships between the various subjects they’re studying.
What kind of results are you seeing from this approach? Are test scores holding up where you’ve implemented an integrated curriculum model?
They’re doing well. We’re still averaging between the seventieth and seventy-fifth percentiles nationwide on our ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) scores, so this approach is proving its value. And students like it better because they’re moving beyond the segmented coverage of their previous core curriculum.
Integrated education is working at the elementary level. What are you doing at the academy or high school level to sharpen your product?
We’re just beginning to move into some programs of competency-based education that we think may really enrich our 9-12 education. The basic pieces of competency-based education include identifying educational goals, constructing the program to meet those goals, and then testing to make certain they’ve been achieved. In a subject such as biology, for instance, students and teachers work together to fulfill the needed competencies by completing writing projects, doing Internet research, reading books, and actually going out in the field and doing hands-on research. Then students come back to the classroom to write up and present their projects to fulfill these individual competencies. Students can fulfill their competencies on one of three levels: knowledge, application, or the ability to teach the material. When a student has completed all of the competencies listed for a subject, he or she passes the class.
Tell me why it’s important for a student to be able to teach the material he or she has learned.
When you are required to teach something, you have to have a pretty good knowledge of it, because you’ve got to answer all the intricate questions that are coming from your learners. When you reach the step of being able to successfully help someone else learn what you’ve learned, you’ve demonstrated a conceptual grasp of the material.
Is competency-based education catching on outside the Adventist school system as well?
For sure. Some private and public schools and systems are moving in this direction. The educational system in North America knows that we can’t continue to “do school” on the agricultural calendar and with the methods that were appropriate 75 or 100 years ago. We need to live in the twenty-first century. There’s a lot of research going into new approaches right now, and Adventist K-12 education is doing the same thing. We’re giving this program the broad view—a pilot status—to find out how it works, to work the bugs out, because we’re committed to offering parents and students a superior product that makes sense for today’s world.
What reactions are you getting to initiatives like this one?
Parents are telling us, “This has really changed the way my kid understands school. All of a sudden, it’s his issues that matter; it’s his purpose to learn something. If he has to stay an extra year to achieve his competencies, then that’s what has to happen.” As teenagers develop and mature, their learning patterns change as well. In a second or third year, they can move rapidly to get competencies they may not have been ready for earlier.
Tell me why a small two-teacher church school would embrace ideas like this. Why wouldn’t they just do it the way it’s always been done? After all, it was good enough for Mom and Dad . . .
I hope teachers from all schools would embrace ideas like these. The problem is that tradition sometimes has an iron grip on the educational process. Until the last decade, teachers have been taught to teach in almost exactly the same way they did decades ago: for many, that’s all they know. We’re hoping to show them through integrated units, kinetic learning, and cooperative learning that students who work together on projects feed off each other educationally. Synergy happens. A good group is often smarter than any one person in that group. And so we’re hoping that ideas like those continue to catch on in Adventist schools.
How is this different from the kind of learning that was necessary in one- and two-room schoolhouses in rural school districts 75 or 100 years ago?
The strategies we’re following are solidly research-based. The teacher in that one-room schoolhouse with 20 kids in eight grades taught science to all eight grades at once just to survive. They didn’t have objectives and key learnings and essential elements that have to end in state and national standards. Our approaches are aligned to national standards. So when kids emerge from our system, we know that they are doing as well as or better than their peers nationwide.
In the old system, students lingered longer on one subject or raced through another subject because the teacher was or wasn’t interested in it. If the teacher hated botany but loved zoology, the class spent three quarters of the year on zoology. If the teacher loved Civil War history, even a world history class could take a big detour right there.
Can you assure Adventist parents that choosing an Adventist K-8 or K-12 education will keep their kids in touch with good research-based education? The parents I know aren’t much interested in putting their kids’ futures at risk for experimental purposes.
Glad you asked. Our North American church educational system right now is in the middle of what we’re calling the “CognitiveGenesis” program. This is a rigorously objective survey of the quality of Adventist academics. We’re confident that when this study is completed, we can statistically show what we’ve known anecdotally for decades: Seventh-day Adventist educational quality is as strong or stronger than the other schools around us. We’ll be able to show that we’re meeting national standards, and that you can predict good and strong academic outcomes for Adventist kids who stay in the church’s education system. We will also address any needs highlighted in the research.
Tell me what you say to Adventist parents who think that their child could be getting a better education in both academics and character at the local Christian academy, or even at a strong public school, than at their Adventist school.
Adventists are part of the consumer society just like everyone else. Parents want to compare their local Adventist school to the Baptist school, or the Catholic school, or the public school, and see how it measures up. Too many parents are no longer willing to say that the values base we have as a church is the most important reason to send our children to Adventist education. They have concluded that general character development is enough, and that they don’t really need an Adventist values-based education. The ValueGenesis study conducted in the 1990s showed us that our children today are more grace-oriented than they were 10 years ago, but that they’re less committed to the Adventist Church as an entity than they were 10 years ago. I think many Adventist parents have much the same profile. They’re more worried about finding a school with a sports program big enough to make sure that their child can play on the team. They want to make certain that the chemistry teacher has a Ph.D. so their kid can get into MIT. Those are increasingly the criteria parents are using. Not enough parents are saying, “My ultimate goal is to make sure my son or daughter stands beside me in the kingdom and knows Jesus as a friend. I want to make certain my child will still be an Adventist Christian in 10 years.”
You’ve undoubtedly heard from parents who tell you that the differences between an Adventist school and a Christian academy really aren’t that significant. What do you say to them?
I try to challenge them to think seriously about why Adventist beliefs and lifestyle still matter. Many of those same parents have lost or are losing their sense of the uniqueness of this movement. One contributing factor could be that many conferences are now employing so many pastors who grew up in some other faith or no faith and have not come up through this system. As committed as they really are, they don’t have a background in the mission orientation of the Adventist Church. And their experience in Adventism isn’t likely to supply that lack: to my knowledge, there are no classes taught in the seminary about Adventist education. Yet most pastors who graduate from seminary are assigned to small churches in which 60 percent or 70 percent of their combined budget goes to a church school. Funds available for local evangelism are reduced, and pastors who don’t have a background in Adventist education chafe. Members in the pew—and that’s where we started—sometimes don’t hear much about Adventist education. They hear about grace orientation and what we have in common with other Christians, but they often don’t hear much from the pulpit about the fundamental values of Adventist education. In that situation, what difference does it make whether you’re a Baptist or an Adventist, except what day you go to church? Many parents don’t believe that their child needs to be specifically Adventist so long as he or she is grace-oriented and is a good kid. And yes, they can get those things from several other places—such as the Baptist academy.
You’re making the case that Adventist education has a distinct content and a unique value system that sets it apart?
Absolutely. I still believe, and the Adventist educational system still believes, that the Sabbath is God’s holy day and special, that the sanctuary service has something to do with your daily walk with Christ, that what you do with your body can have eternal consequences, and that obedience is a positive thing and not a negative thing. Those who think that it doesn’t really matter where or when you go to church, that as long as you love Christ and are kind to your fellow human beings, you’ll be fine in the end—they probably won’t accept my reasoning.
Tell me about trying to recruit people to teach in Adventist elementary schools. Is that harder than it used to be? Are you finding the quality you’re looking for?
Right now, there seem to be more education majors coming out of our colleges than there were five or 10 years ago. As I talk to young people across this division, I see college students wanting to serve more—to give back to their world—more than I saw 10 years ago. As far as quality goes, I think our colleges are doing a wonderful job preparing our professionals to teach in our classrooms. They’re teaching cooperative learning; they’re teaching about an integrated curriculum; they’re focusing on national standards, and helping students to come out with a technology base so they can survive in a world that is changing. And let me hasten to say that we have fine quality teachers who are highly qualified and love the Lord. They are the heroes of Adventist education. The real difficulty we have is finding educational leadership. You can’t believe how hard it is to find quality people who for no extra monetary or status considerations will take on the additional stress and responsibilities. Across North America this spring, we had 18 or 19 academy principalships open, and trying to fill those is getting more and more difficult. We spend a lot of time trying to recruit quality individuals to serve as principals and administrators.
What are the perils for a person in leadership just now in Adventist education?
A piece of the problem has to do with our board structure. Our research shows that the relationship between leaders and their boards is now one of the most pressing problems we have. Because of the way we’re organized, we have school boards on which laypersons are a majority. At the head of the school, whether it’s small or large, you have a professional who’s been taught to grow and develop a school in a specific direction, but yet the lay board members with little or no administrative or educational experience are the ones who really control the direction and operation of the school. Many of those members are sincere, earnest people who feel called by God to deal with education. But the truth is, many have little training in how a board should operate in a school setting. Different personalities and personal agendas sometimes hinder the growth that could take place. We’ve got to evolve a system of mutual respect in which laypersons recognize the boundaries of their competence and principals and teachers do their best to explain the reasons for their requests and approaches.
Explain to me why a fairly new Adventist congregation—say, 10 years old—with a growing membership and a strong tithe base needs to be supporting a church school.
Quite frankly, I don’t think that they need to support a church school—unless their church is mission-driven. A church school has to be mission-driven by the local church. No amount of coaching or cajoling from the conference or other entities is going to do any good unless those members understand that they are operating a church school that has all to do with the salvation of their own kids. Unless they can articulate and live by that mission, they’re always going to see the school as just a drain on their resources and a burden on their energy.
What do you say to the members of a congregation whose kids have mostly graduated and gone on? Why should they stay in the constituency and support someone else’s kids?
Every church needs to be spiritually committed to children. Bill, your boys are my boys, and my daughter is your daughter in the Adventist Church. I believe that strongly. We have to get away from this differentiation between “my kids” and “your kids.” These are Adventist kids, and together we can do things that we can’t do individually. Every church in every conference should be a constituent of some school. Even if all a congregation can do is pay for one student’s tuition a year, that’s an important symbol of commitment. When their own children are educated and grown, they should still be supportive of the kids that are still in Adventist education. They should still care whether the children in the church down the road are hearing the values, learning Adventist values, because the future and the present-day viability of the Adventist Church rest on its youth.
Some church administrators are beginning to talk openly about shifting more of our total resources out of education and into evangelism and church planting to give us a much-needed “shot in the arm.”
If you look at the research produced by the Barna Group, you’ll discover that there are distinct “windows” in which there is a higher probability that a person will accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. There’s something like a 36 percent probability between age 5 and age 12; it drops to about four percent between 13 and 18, and then beyond age 18, it’s six percent. Tell me, administrator, where are you going to put your finances? Are you going to put your finances in the seven percent probability rate, into public evangelism, or are you going to put your money into making sure your children accept Christ and then stay in the church?
You’re saying that efficiency alone would keep us strongly funding education?
Yes, with increased enrollments. Again, we come back to parents’ choices in education. Why are parents choosing other options? If we look at the 2004 ValueGenesis II report regarding what students in grades 6 through 12 think, we find that 73 percent like their Adventist school; 81 percent feel that the teaching is good; 80 percent believe that their teachers care about them; 74 percent feel that their Adventist school helped them develop their religious faith; and 74 percent see themselves as an Adventist in 40 years. This tells me that students appreciate Adventist education when they are allowed to attend. They are learning not only quality academics but spiritual values that they see as lasting a lifetime. The question is, how do we get parents to give Adventist education a chance?
You’re making a persuasive case that a conference that wants to grow both its membership and its resources ought to invest even more in education. Can you actually show that churches that operate an Adventist school do better than those that don’t?
When I was in the Michigan Conference as one of the superintendents, I did tuition and financial analyses of all the schools every year. And some of the questions I asked pastors and church treasurers to answer each year were: “What was the tithe income for your church?” “Is your church a member of a constituency?” and “What is your church’s membership?” I found out over a five-year period that in every single case—every single year—the average tithe and membership of the churches that were not in constituencies went down every year. And churches that were supporting a church school, their tithe and membership, on average, went up every year.
You’re willing to tell church leaders that their investment in helping a congregation plant a church school will bring faster and steadier growth to that church than other methods?
That’s right! Young Adventist families will move to be near a mission-driven Adventist school, and they make up the tithe base of a typical congregation. No matter how loyal its senior citizens are in their giving, they aren’t likely to help a church’s tithe base grow significantly. When parents discover that their commitment to an Adventist church and an Adventist school has the highest probability of keeping their kids committed to the faith, they’re willing to return their tithe and invest their discretionary income as well. The only reason Adventist schools exist is to inculcate the values of Seventh-day Adventism into our young people. The public school does a nice job of teaching biology, and they do a nice job of teaching math, and the local Christian academy may even have a course in character education. But our niche—the only reason we exist—is to inculcate values, unique Seventh-day Adventist values, into children. If we lose that, then we shouldn’t exist. My first question to parents always is: “What’s the most important thing you want for your kids?” And if it’s a quality education, if that’s the most important thing, then another Christian school, another fine public school, may be appropriate. But if the most important thing is for your children to know Jesus Christ, to understand the value system that you hold as a Seventh-day Adventist, to inculcate those values deep within them so that when they move out of your home they still have those values, then I submit that even though it’s a smaller number of kids and the social opportunities are not as great, I believe that those parents, if at all possible, ought to have their children in Adventist schools. Our educational system makes the grade. We may not have the tax support or the resources to teach every advanced class possible or some of the more exotic classes, but we do offer great, solid education, a distinctly Adventist education.