To many, it seems like common sense: the best way for Christian schools to preserve and strengthen the faith of its students is to use distinctly Christian curricula. But some Christian schools are questioning whether this is true for scientific studies. Dr. Joshua Reichard is the Assistant Superintendent for Valley Christian Schools in Youngstown, OH, and his schools recently underwent a fairly significant transformation. They stopped using specifically Christian science textbooks and instead began using all secular science curricula. What effect did this have on students’ faith? Dr. Reichard began a study to find out.
I recently connected with Reichard to learn more about what his research showed, why they made the switch to secular curricula, and the broader implications for Christian education moving forward, including the handling of evolution.
Chris Stump: You recently published the results of your research on use of secular science texts in Christian schools. How prevalent is the use of secular science materials by Christian schools, and what do you think motivates the use of those materials rather than curricula from Christian publishers?
Joshua Reichard: I think the prevalence of secular science textbooks in Christian schools is predicated on several factors. First, the ideology of the school. Some Christian schools still see science as the discipline in most conflict with the Christian faith and thus, they seek to “protect” the students through textbook censorship. In fact, in my own school, before I led curricular reform, the school used secular textbooks for all core subjects except science. The second factor relates to funding. In our state, secular textbooks can be purchased using state funds. The cost of Christian-published textbooks is often excessive and state funds cannot be used to purchase them. Lastly, I think that many schools, such as ours, are realizing that censored textbooks from Christian publishers limit students’ future options for college, career, and beyond. Several years ago, the Association of Christian Schools International lost a lawsuit against the University of California system because they refused to recognize high school science courses on a student transcript from a school that used Christian-published science textbooks. The ghettoization of Christian thinking, which dominates the Christian textbook market, is, I believe, unsustainable. That’s not to say that all Christian thinking about science is ghettoized; it most certainly is not, and I think that BioLogos is perhaps the best witness to both vibrant faith and honesty in science. Ultimately, it is that approach that I think will prevail.
Could you explain more about what motivated your research and how your study was conducted?
The primary motivation of my study was to try to collect empirical data on the effect on students’ faith as a result of using secular science textbooks in a Christian school setting. While it was challenging to isolate variables and demonstrate any causal linkage, I wanted to at least demonstrate that textbooks do not harm. So many of the culture wars around the issue of evolution versus creationism in public schools center around textbooks as well. Because I was leading curricular reform in my school, I wanted to couple it with meaningful research. So, when we made a unilateral shift away from Christian-published science textbooks to secular science textbooks, I collected longitudinal data on students’ religiosity over a three year period of implementation to see if any effect could be realistically discerned.
What did your research conclude? Were there any surprises?
Yes! As you can imagine, I had a bit of bias at work, hoping that the result would show no harm to students’ faith during the implementation of the curriculum. But to my surprise, there was not only no statistically significant negative effect on students’ faith, but I was actually able to detect a statistically significant increase in students’ faith over that period of time. Now, there are obviously a myriad of factors at work that could have influenced this shift, but I think it demonstrates, at the very least, that the use of secular science textbooks in the Christian school setting does not sabotage students’ faith. In fact, my study demonstrates that may even have a positive effect. Contrary to assumptions by young-earth creationists that teaching evolution is a “slippery slope that erodes all other Christian beliefs”, I’ve demonstrated, at least preliminarily, that really allowing students to engage with science can strengthen and deepen their faith. I know that’s a value that BioLogos shares as well. Of course, that’s why my research article is entitled—tongue-in-cheek—“No Slippery Slope?”.
When Valley Christian Schools use secular science materials, do they incorporate discussion about Christian faith intersecting with the science in classes or is that mainly left in Bible classes? If included in science class, were faculty given any supplemental training or materials to help with these kinds of discussions?
Yes, we paired the implementation of secular science textbooks with intense teacher training in faith-learning integration. But, we are also bound to performance on state achievement tests, which may make our situation a bit unique among Christian schools. Again, it’s more difficult for a school like ours to hide in the Christian ghetto. Our students have to attain proficiency on state achievement science tests because the vast majority of them are publically funded. I don’t want to give the impression, however, that we are complicit with prevailing scientific assumptions about reality or even bound to the prevailing materialist metaphysic. On the contrary, we also teach our students both in Bible and in science classes to challenge these presumptions. But we’ve found it to be far more effective to not reject the scientific consensus on evolution as an apologetic means of doing so. Too many of our alumni from the distant past have returned dissatisfied, having felt indoctrinated and maliciously censored in their science classes. When they got to college, they expressed that they were not prepared to take an apologetic stand; instead, their faith was eroded because they felt undereducated. Through curricular reform, teacher training, and organizational transformation, I’ve vowed to try to prevent that from happening to future alumni of our school. Instead, we’re striving for a more holistic, relevant, and vigorous conversation around the real issues in science and in our faith. In my experience, students are leaving our school more prepared for college, living a healthy Christian life, and serving as a vibrant witness of God’s love to the world. I know that BioLogos is striving toward this end as well.