The following article is abridged from an original paper delivered over 10 years ago on November 23-25, 1997, at the Mission Hills Resort, Rancho Mirage, California by Karen Holger, at that time president of the Parents’ National Network.
While the back-to-basics movement has been directed mostly at returning our public schools to researched-based teaching methodologies, there are now, unfortunately, signs that the Outcome Based Education (OBE) movement, also known as “progressive education,” is spreading within private school networks. Parents National Network (PNN), along with other education reform groups nationwide, are receiving an increasing number of calls and letters from concerned parents who have children enrolled in private schools.
One would suspect that, of the private schools, it would be secular institutions that would be most susceptible to such dumbing-down fads as whole language, “cooperative learning,” “constuctivist” math, school-to-work, “inventive spelling,” death education, and other OBE techniques. Unfortunately, however, many of the complaints are now emanating from private Christian schools attached to Bible-based conservative Christian denominations. And parents from these schools now find themselves asking: “Where do we go when the last bastion of defense is succumbing to secular, progressive ideologies that have nothing to do with core academics? Why do we now find ourselves fighting the same fight in our Christian schools?”
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) school system is a case in point. LCMS, a conservative denomination (as opposed to the more liberal mainstream Lutheran church) has a history of establishing good, solid schools which use tried and true teaching methods based on strong empirical research. However, as this report will show, it now appears LCMS has unknowingly, in recent years, turned its teacher training programs over to progressives whose graduates are busily turning LCMS schools into pale imitations of public schools — at least when it comes to education methodology and philosophy. This trend is especially disheartening to this writer because for years she and her family were LCMS members and her own daughter attended a LCMS school.
With test scores on the decline at some LCMS schools, the effects of “progressive reform” are just beginning to show. With the evidence beginning to build, it is highly likely that within five years the entire LCMS school system will be in the same disarray as public education. Will the same calls for internal investigations to determine the reason for declining performance follow? Will LCMS parents soon threaten educational malpractice as have some public school children’s parents? It is hoped this report will serve as an early warning for LCMS leaders before it is too late.
For a variety of reasons, this transformation of LCMS schools may have occurred easier than one would think. Due to the uniformity found in hierarchical denominations, like LCMS, it takes only a dedicated core within the University leadership to set the direction its education departments will eventually follow when it comes to teaching philosophy.
LCMS has its own self-contained teacher preparation system; indeed it has teacher training programs at all ten Concordia Universities in the United States. At the Baccalaureate level, all ten offer degrees in Elementary Education and nine of the ten offer degrees in Secondary Education. At the graduate level, degrees are offered in teacher education at Concordia University at Irvine (CA), Mequon (WI), River Forest (IL), St. Paul (MN), and Seward (NE).
A quick review of education courses offered by the Concordia University system(CUS) clearly indicates a move away from traditional education approaches. Course descriptions incorporate all the latest buzz words used by the liberal public school establishment. For example, the term “Multi-cultural” is repeatedly used in course descriptions. (In public education, this term includes defining homosexuality as a minority group deserving of special rights.)
Furthermore, based on the seminar content promoted at Palm Desert’s Conference, it is clear that teacher preparation programs within CUS have embraced progressive education and thus, thousands of teachers trained in progressive education philosophy are now teaching in LCMS primary and secondary schools across the United States.
Confirming this view, Lutheran Educators Conference organizers distributed a packet of CUS material entitled “Resources: Models of Teaching,” which “contain brief descriptions of several teaching models treated in the Teacher Education Program at Concordia University. The descriptions are intended to serve as a reference resource for student teachers, and for master teachers . . .”
The material discusses many different teaching models, but nearly all of them espouse the progressive school of thought. Even though the Federal Government conducted a massive $1 billion dollar study, “Project Follow Through,” which compared student performance data for all major teaching models, the CUS document includes absolutely no discussion of performance data.
In fact, the CUS document makes no reference to the government study, and mentions only in a token way the most effective model – “Direct Instruction” (DI). DI emphasizes phonics, constant feedback to assess a child, homework, discipline, the teacher as teacher, i.e., the “expert”, (not as a “facilitator” as progressives promote) and other traditional techniques. CUS fails to describe how to properly teach direct instruction and never mentions its successful track record.
The Concordia University teacher preparation material focuses almost exclusively on process, not learning or performance, a classic sign of progressive education thought. Most of the models included in the document promote “Cooperative Learning,” “Group Learning,” “Group Investigations,” and “Group Projects.” The material says students should be taught in groups, assigned projects in groups and tested in groups, even though research shows group learning to be a total failure (see more about this later in this report).
Most of the models in CUS promote the idea that children need to be in charge of their own learning, or as the document states, “directing their own work.” This is just another failed method—sometimes called the “open classroom,” or, as some of the conference speakers called it, the “child-centered classroom.” Indeed, the CUS material suggests that teachers pose these questions to their students:
"What would you like school to do for you?”
“What, specifically, do you want to learn?”
“Do you think it is important to learn any skills? If so, which ones?"
Moreover, the CUS report states that in the course of group learning, “each team member is responsible for knowing that his or her teammates understand the assignment.” So now, not only are students mapping out their own lesson plans, but they are supposed to be responsible for their classmates as well! Who needs teachers? This also raises the questions: How do children know what they need to learn? Do LCMS schools now teach only what students think they want to learn? Is this really what LCMS parents want for their children? Is this what LCMS leadership wants for their students?
Another teaching model discussed states, “The focus of the strategies is not to pour facts into the student’s head, not to bring about some specific behavior outcome-rather, it is to draw out the student’s own creativity."
A teaching model titled, “Exploration of Feelings,” is likewise devoid of learning, but the central strategy here is, as stated, to have “Students explore others’ feelings or actions.” This strategy urges the use of dramatic stories to evoke sadness, anger, joy, etc. and then assign students to question each other on the feelings being experienced. This exercise may be great when used by a trained, licensed psychologist; but used in classrooms by teachers not trained in psychology could have devastating results! In California, practicing psychology without a license, or credential, in psychology is illegal!
Another reason for the leftward drift of LCMS schools is the recent effort by some to obtain accreditation status from liberal, highly secular accreditation agencies such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). A number of reports have surfaced that WASC has threatened to withhold accreditation from Christian schools unless they agree to make certain changes in their curriculum, methodology, and even management practices that are more in line with “progressive” education practices.
WASC makes no secret of their desire to alter a school’s mission. Page 228 of WASC’s accreditation guidelines book, published two years ago, states:
“Change--We cannot expect to change our long-held traditions to reorganized our army and to create cities without internal opposition. Among you chieftains and Huns will be those whose spirits cling to our past ways. We will show patience with you unenlightened ones. — Attila the Hun”
Ironically, there is no need for LCMS elementary, middle, or high schools to obtain WASC accreditation. There are no colleges or universities who reject students based on the accreditation status of elementary or secondary schools. College admission officers look at grade transcripts and SAT scores, not the accreditation status of the school.
Yet, the myth persists. The fact that so many LCMS schools are now seeking WASC accreditation status gives the impression that progressives within the LCMS education hierarchy are using the accreditation hammer to force its “backward” schools to “modernize”. Not surprisingly, WASC material was evident throughout the Conference.
Conference Overview The Lutheran Educators Conference was a gathering of LCMS educators from all over the western half of the United States and was officially sponsored by the LCMS church. Most attendees were K-12 teachers or administrators. Most were members of the denomination and deeply committed Christians. The purpose of the conference was to teach LCMS educators the “latest” teaching strategies and techniques.
With the exception of a few isolated workshops on promoting Christian values within the classroom, the material covered differed little from the education conferences hosted by various public school professional associations. Sadly, the workshops attended were dominated by the progressive view of education. In some seminars it was subtle; in others it was so blatant a few of the older and wiser educators left the seminar with looks of disgust on their faces.
In three days of conference, it did not appear that many, if any, workshops focused on empirical research-based techniques. Every failed education fad was covered, and covered well. It is amazing that time could be spent on how to show films such as “Buckwheat Dies” from Saturday Night Live, yet not even touch on the latest reading research from the National Institute of Child Development verifying that systematic phonics is the only effective way to teach reading.
Psychological Counseling Workshops: Another tenet of progressive education philosophy is the idea that teachers should engage in psychological analysis and treatment within the confines of the classroom. The CUS actually has entire courses dedicated to this endeavor, but Lutheran teachers, or any teacher for that matter, do not receive the necessary training to engage in this practice.
Evidence of this practice can be seen with the emphasis on self-esteem and “death education,” (an attempt to counsel children about life and death issues) in our public schools. Such activities have led to numerous lawsuits, primarily brought by parents who feel that schools have no right to engage in practices of a non-academic nature — especially psychological counseling that might undermine religious beliefs or parental rights.
Indeed, death or “grief” education, as LCMS educators call it, is believed to be a contributing factor in at least a half-dozen student suicides as a result of exposing already depressed children to incessant lectures about death, dying and suicide. The psycho-babble currently being practiced in schools throughout the nation has caused extreme concern among many psychologists. Indeed, the California Association of School Psychologists were so alarmed by this practice, they actively joined with other psychologists, parents and teachers, in support of legislation carried by California Assemblyman George House. Assemblyman House’s bill prohibits California teachers from engaging in psychological practices without a license. His bill overwhelmingly passed the State Legislature and was signed into law last year by California Governor Pete Wilson. (Maybe LCMS should recommend that all their teachers read and become aware of California law, especially Ed. Code 49422.)
The Lutheran Educators Conference had three workshops dealing with psychological issues; “Meeting The Grieving Child At The Classroom Door,” taught by Carol Ebeling, “Counseling Tips For Teachers Who Weren’t Trained As Counselors,” also by Ebeling, and “Helping Students Manage Family Stress and Trauma At School,” by Christine Honeyman.
While both women are licensed counselors, they apparently did not have qualms about imparting their techniques to educators without counseling experience or licenses. In fact, during one of Ms. Ebeling’s sessions, one teacher asked, “Since we aren’t psychologists, how far can we go with these techniques?” Ms. Ebeling responded, “Not far.” What does that mean?
From the session on death education, Ms. Ebeling gave attendees information about how to exact feelings by having students answer such questions as:
“When will I die?”
“Who will take care of me”
“How did I cause the death of ____________?”
Ebeling also advocated asking students to, “Give detailed expressions that affirm painful feelings,” and to , “Go beyond ‘God has a plan.’” She further stated,
“In order to help your students to grieve, and to get rid of the bad feelings, it depends on you! Begin by encouraging the child to smack a Styrofoam cup, or poke holes in it, tear it, or throw it. Some teachers bring in a pillow and let the child scream into it, punch it, or have a pillow fight.”
Ms. Ebeling offered several “menu options” to be used as “manipulatives” to “assist in helping kids get their feelings out” and advocated the daily use of “Journaling” for children to deal with their “feelings.” She suggested that grieving students should write sentences that express their feelings.
One shocking view expressed by Ms. Ebeling was that she felt it was critical for children who have suffered a death in their family to “view the dead.” When asked, “What if the body is mutilated?,” Ebeling replied, “No mutilation can exceed a child’s worst nightmare.” Is Ebeling aware that she advocates the flagrant violation of three California laws, (1) assessing self esteem, (2) practicing psychology without a license, and, (3) pupil/parent protection rights?
The bottom line is that the use of psychology in the classroom blatantly undermines the prerogatives of parents, and one would presume, violates the Biblical beliefs of the LCMS. Indeed, Ebeling’s workshop specifically encouraged educators to handle grieving children by getting “a school family together where the children can share,” and if the child didn't actually witness the tragedy, “have the child draw what he didn’t get to see,” for “the family.” Ms. Ebeling apparently believes the progressive rationale that the “school family” takes precedence over “the real Biblical family”. This sounds a lot like the “It Takes a Village” concept and has no place in a Christian school.
This obsession with feelings is not only a dangerous approach and undermines parental rights, but the LCMS should be very wary of lawsuits if a death of a child is traced to such depressing curricula.
The National Institute of Mental Health actually says, “Most school-based, information-only, prevention programs focused solely on suicide have not been evaluated to see if they work; new research suggests that such programs may actually increase distress in the young people who are most vulnerable.” Other psychologists have said that by discussing these issues in the classroom a child’s “safe zone” is violated; when that happens it can create crisis. These psychologists say that troubled or grieving children should be counseled by a professional; non-troubled children have no reason to be subjected to discussions on death, dying or suicide.
In a second workshop taught by Ebeling, she instructed the teachers to have a “softball toss” with the children. In this exercise students and teacher stand in a circle while the teacher tosses the ball to each child with the instruction to finish a specific sentence, i.e., “When I let my feelings out I_________________.” Ebeling stated, “Children don’t always know how to express feelings in words so we need to teach them,” and recommended a text used by Concordia University called “Getting Along,” which apparently gives more ideas about how to entice children to talk about their feelings.
Apparently, most parents have no idea such activity is occurring. When one educator spoke in the workshop about using techniques from “Getting Along” in his classroom, he was asked afterwards if parents had granted him consent. He said, “No,” but added it was mentioned in the school newsletter. When asked if the newsletter was specific as to what types of activities were taking place, he again said, “No.”
Ebeling passed out a handout that showed a drawing of a child with suggested conversation topics written on his body. These included: “One of the bad things about my school,” and “What makes me cry.” On another handout, Ebeling listed behavior characteristics of “Children Who Hate” and “Children Who Hurt.” Some characteristics appeared to be highly subjective and could lead to teachers placing psychological labels on students. For example, children with “behavior problems” and those who are “older than peers” are listed on the “Children Who Hate” list! That may be half of the kids in a classroom!
The confusion about what to look for in children who “might” be troubled was apparent when one educator asked, “So many of these characteristics can be present in children, how are we to know what constitutes a real problem and what doesn’t?” Ebeling responded by saying that teachers need to be careful not to misjudge students! But wasn’t that the point of her workshop? On one hand she was asking teachers to practice psychology; on the other hand she was telling them not to go too far or engage in uneducated guessing!
Christine Honeyman’s workshop, “Help Students Manage Family Stress and Trauma at School,” was more of the same, and was focused on psychological techniques for use on children “who have anger.” In order to deal with student anger, Honeyman suggested exercises such as, “have kids write three things they didn’t like over the weekend and one thing they did.” This was suggested for Monday mornings because, as Honeyman told the attendees, when the kids come back to school after being home all weekend, “they have to get that anger out of their systems.”
Once again, as in the previous workshops, the assumption was that home is a traumatic place and psychological counseling is needed to counter the bad influence of the parents. The danger here, of course, is that such an exercise plants the notion in children’s minds that home is indeed a bad place, even if they are from a perfect home. It is doubtful parents are told of this exercise. Is this really why Christian parents send their children to Christian schools?
Honeyman continually remarked that she wished she had more time to really go “into these things.” She made it clear she wasn’t able to explain in depth how to deal with sensitive issues. Again, isn’t that the whole point? Why was this conference so focused on psychological practices with teachers who are not trained in psychology? The potential for harm is incalculable! Why is LCMS condoning this practice?
Portfolios/Peer Review Workshop: This workshop, entitled “Writing Portfolios: A School-Wide Endeavor,” was taught by Stephanie Van Blarcom and Lisa Ellwein. Portfolios are the latest fad in the area of grading students. Instead of report cards, the teachers have students prepare portfolios, i.e., create a collection of a student’s work. What alarms many parents, however, is the non-academic nature of the portfolio. The content of the portfolio is usually chosen by the student. Some of the material will be “self-graded.” Other material will be “peer graded.” And naturally, the student’s worst work will not be included. But, the portfolio looks good to the student, to his teacher, and to his parents, even though he may be totally behind in learning basic skills.
Teachers like portfolios because they do not have to engage in the difficult work of giving grades to students based upon actual performance and mastery of various topics. Ms. Van Blarcom even admitted as much: “Portfolios have changed my life . . . because I don’t do that [grading] anymore.” Ms. Van Blarcom emphasized this point again with a hand-out that listed the benefits of portfolios:
“Grading everyday ruins my social life.”
“I’m tired of taking responsibility for my student’s work; I'm throwing the ball in
“Portfolio is a buzz word, and I don't want to feel like I'm teaching the way my teachers taught me.” [as if that is automatically bad]
This amazing woman even stated that she tells parents at the beginning of the year that their child’s work will not be sent home: “If they want to see their child’s work, the portfolios are available in the classroom!” California students are only last in the country in Reading and third from last in Mathematics, so who needs homework anyhow?
Instead of grading and evaluating student work as most parents assume teachers are paid to do, this workshop encourages Lutheran educators to utilize “Peer review.” Peer review is another progressive teaching technique which, again, has no research to back up its effectiveness. It is a technique whereby students critique each other’s work. The problem with peer review is that the students will only be able to grade their peers at their own proficiency level. Even if you match smarter kids with slower kids, the effect is to slow down the faster learners so they spend their time trying to critique others instead of moving ahead themselves. Moreover, students will go easy on one another since they know the student they are critiquing may soon be critiquing them. Again, this technique epitomizes the progressive tenet of leveling the abilities of all students.
One fourth grade teacher raised his hand and said he had tried “peer review.” “It just didn’t work,” he said. He went on to tell the attendees that his students didn’t understand what they were supposed to do; didn’t understand how to grade someone else’s work, etc. This didn’t daunt the presenters—their advice was to just keep doing it. “Model for them” until they get it. When questioned about the lack of immediate corrective feedback from an “expert teacher” , the presenters both hemmed and hawed and then said they used other forms of grading too. They didn’t quite explain what the “other forms” were or how they helped the student!
Ms. Ellwein, claimed the “benefits” of portfolio grading for students included, “They determine and set own goals” and “Self-evaluation – Students identify their own strengths and weaknesses.” Isn’t that what teachers are paid to do?! Ms. Ellwein, who served on the WASC accreditation committee at her school, said that portfolio grading was one of the top items looked at by WASC. She explained that it was extremely important for attendees of the workshop to go back to their schools and lobby the principal to support the portfolio technique so that it became a “school-wide,” not just classroom, change. By soliciting support from the principal, she said, the teacher in the next classroom who might not want to change his old ways, could be “forced” into adopting portfolio assessments.
As for grading the portfolios, this is not done as one may think. Ellwein advised the attendees to “Assess growth from beginning of year to end of year.” The inference here was not to compare the students with others on their ability to grasp content but rather on their general growth. In other words, a child might receive an “A” — not because he is doing “A” work on a traditional grading scale — but because he improved considerably over his previous work. Nonetheless, this means the child could receive an “A” even though his performance might be at what would traditionally be considered “D” level work. Of course, the parents will be happy — until the SAT scores come out.
Both workshop presenters admitted that no scientific evidence exists that portfolio assessment works but “we see both process and product.” Here are quotes from the workshop handout:
“The teacher can encourage critical thinking by having students decide which of their works to include in the portfolio...”
Under “Student Roles” : Student “ participates in self and peer assessment ...collaborates with peers about strengths and weaknesses.”
Under “assessing portfolios” : “ No criticism – only provide suggestions for change...”
Conclusion: The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod has always been identified has a conservative church, so what occurred at the conference came as a shock. How does such a church reconcile its conservative theological beliefs with the most radical, progressive education theories being promoted at its own education conference?
LCMS now stands at a crossroads. It can choose to clean house or accept the creeping liberalism that is rotting away its education and Christian mission. Like most highly organized denominations, the LCMS world is a somewhat closed world, and therefore immune to outside criticism, a situation which has allowed the progressives to completely revamp teacher preparation programs without much notice or criticism. Without delving into the theological history of the LCMS, any criticism outside the education reform movement will likely have little effect. LCMS has a history of protecting its own and as such it will take the intervention of national LCMS leaders to intervene to change things at this point.
As with most denominational leaders, LCMS leaders probably do not understand that the “progressive” philosophy of human nature embodied by the OBE approach to education is based upon secular humanist notions that run contrary to the Christian worldview. For example, promoting group learning over individual learning and accountability has theological repercussions – the elimination of competition is totally against Biblical principles. Surely, using psychological games to replace family values is not consistent with LCMS views on the family – especially when those psychological practices violate state laws!
Indeed, the acknowledged father of progressive education was Jean Jacques Rousseau, the humanist philosopher who believed the purpose of education was not to educate, but rather to find happiness and allow children to be creative. He also believed that classrooms were to be used to condition students to accept a socialized world view. This philosophy rationalized Rousseau’s own lifestyle, characterized by numerous illegitimate children, stealing, lying, and the inability to hold a job.
Rousseau’s philosophical heirs, Horace Mann and John Dewey, were responsible for the growth of progressive education in America. They attacked memorization, drills, phonics, and mathematical formulas by claiming such practices restrict a child’s creativity! Historically, private Christian schools have resisted the tenets of progressive education and instead, did as the Bible instructs; educate children, both spiritually and academically, so that they may honor God and become productive citizens. This is a detailed and complex argument that would have to be made to key LCMS leaders before one could expect any action to be taken. Unfortunately, it may be too late.