100 Years of Innovation: How We Can Support Teachers to Make Change Last

(Response to suite of posts by Woocher, Prager and Hyman)

by Miriam Heller Stern, Ph.D.

Who has the power to reinvent Jewish education? The last hundred years of American school reform have shown that leaders have called for progressive educational innovations decade after decade; these calls come and go, but the innovations that last are typically only the ones that teachers can actually implement.

Jonathan Woocher’s recent call to “reinvent” Jewish education, accompanied by reminders by Yossi Prager and James Hyman to reconsider what kind of reinventing American Judaism actually demands, are reminiscent of over a century of debate about progressive teaching and curriculum in American schools as well as in Jewish settings. Should we plan around the individual needs and interests of the learner, or should teachers guide their learners toward a set of ultimate truths? These debates are important because they help us articulate and better address the competing priorities and goals of the diverse learning communities which we serve.

Yes, history is pushing American Jews and Judaism in new directions, and Jewish education must reinvent itself, at least methodologically, to engage learners in changing times. We have been through this before though, and the lessons of the past are instructive. Let us build upon the previous conversation and move from the “why” to the “how.”

In every generation for at least the last century, American educational policy makers have pronounced that it is time to revolutionize education through new curricula, model schools, technologies, etc. Larry Cuban’s classic study (1993) How Teachers Taught compared over 100 years of policy recommendations to what actually happened in American classrooms. He concluded that calls for fundamental or wide-spread change often created a “hurricane” of rhetoric, but in reality, the changes were limited to what teachers actually chose to do. Most teachers who gravitated toward the proposed innovations usually created “hybrids” of the old and the new, within reach of their comfort zones, which only resulted in incremental change. In other words, we can speak inspiringly about new models, but the teachers are the ultimate gatekeepers between theory and practice. They hold the power, and yet, we disempower them by limiting their resources, support and professional status.

Jewish education will only meet the changing demands of history if we can successfully encourage, prepare and empower Jewish educators on the ground to be agents of change. If the vision is to move away from a consumer model of learning, then we also need to move away from the old consumer model of expecting teachers to be the retailers of prepackaged lessons. Teachers themselves must be the innovators, inventors, and most importantly, facilitators of creative Jewish expression.

If we want to reinvent Jewish education on a wide scale we must invest in:

  1. incentives to attract bright, creative people with a thirst for invention and Jewish learning to pursue training and careers as educators;
  2. ongoing support and professional development once new educators get out into the trenches so that they can succeed;
  3. mechanisms for educators to reflect upon, self-evaluate and share the results of their experiments so that their innovative work can move beyond the walls of their classrooms and be adapted and implemented in other settings.

Otherwise the reinventing will remain exactly where it has lived over the course of the last one hundred years of school reform: in the editorials and sound bites of policy makers and leaders; on the margins of practice in the handful of model institutions that have the vision and resources to attract and support the gifted educators; and in the isolated classrooms where determined, talented, and often unheralded teachers work their magic.

Cuban, L. (1993). How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dr. Miriam Heller Stern is Dean of the Graduate Center for Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, which houses Master of Arts in Education and Master of Arts in Teaching programs, both dedicated to preparing visionary Jewish educators for diverse educational settings.

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  1. says

    Let us also not forget one of the top reasons why most teachers wash out after an average of 4.5 years: “issues with parents.”

    Perhaps we might begin to craft a new “brit” between the community and schools about sharing the financial burden and a parallel brit between parents and teachers about responsibility for educating the next generation of Jews?

  2. says

    I love the possibilities suggested in this article. I was also struck by the line, “but in reality, the changes were limited to what teachers actually chose to do.” and the idea that the changes that are implemented are those that teachers can implement. While attracting highly skilled teachers, upgrading training, and mechanisms for self reflection can help make a huge leap, it’s also important to consider how we can focus on the knowledge, skills and mindsets that educators on the front lines can and will implement. What knowledge is critical for jumpstarting a Jewish classroom? What are key skills that can transform a learning environment with limited focused training? Which mindset shifts are educators willing to buy into and able to implement now?

  3. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom All,

    With all due respect Dr Stern’s post is an example of the cart before the horse. Before one can make suggestions to support teachers (or any other strategic initiative for that matter) one must know with the utmost of clarity what the business of Jewish education is. This is another way of asking what is the mission statement of Jewish education? A Peter Drucker Z’L, mission statement (which answers the question what business one is in AND could fit on the back of a tee shirt) for Jewish education might be “helping families make and grow Jewish mentschen.”

    Strategy answers the “how” questions; i.e., how do we accomplish the mission? Strategy always will be a work in progress constantly integrating new innovation as to how one delivers on the mission.

    The larger overarching and fundamental problem is the lack of a clear, crisp, concise and compelling statement defining non-Orthodox Judaism beyond anti anti Semitism and political liberalism with a sprinkling of the Jewish Holidays. How can there be non Orthodox Jewish education without first knowing what non-Orthodox Judaism stands for? Why be Jewish? Why do Jewish? Why Judaism?…All of these basic questions need answers before any kind of strategic talk can have any value.


  4. drdan says


    Im kol hakavod, you need to do a little bit more reading about progressive Jewish schools before stating that the “fundamental problem” is a “lack of clear, crisp, concise and compelling” statements defining “non-Orthodox” Judaism.
    If you need a quick start, here are some links. See for yourself if there is a lack of concise “defining” statements about Judaism in these non-Orthodox institutions (unless, of course, in your opinion, non-Orthodox institutions can never achieve that goal…)


  5. says

    Miriam Heller Stern has rightly highlighted a key element in any strategy to reinvent Jewish education: engaging and empowering those on the front lines. She is right that no change will be successful if it is dictated from the top (if there is any such thing as a “top” in Jewish education). She is also right that there are numerous front-line educators who are themselves innovators, and their work needs to be recognized, rewarded, and shared more widely. Happily, the state of the art in professional training and development today emphasizes collaborative, real-world, reflective learning among educators, and this provides — where it is implemented — a fertile environment for developing and refining innovations that will “stick.”

    I would, however, add two elements to what Miriam offers: 1) We do need to be resolute in pushing not just for new methodologies, but for reconceptualizing the role of a 21st century Jewish educator — even if this challenges our comfort zones. At a deliberation held several yeas ago at a CAJE conference, convened by JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute, a group of educators began to define the knowledge, skills, and values that are needed today in order for Jewish educators to be and to feel successful. Siegal College in Cleveland is preparing to pick up on this theme. So, though it is true that educators will ultimately determine what innovations are incorporated in their work — and absolutely must be part of the conversation about what innovations are needed — we cannot pull back from the recognition that significant paradigm shifts are required. 2) One of those shifts is the diffusion of control over the educational process from educators to learners and families. We see signs of this shift everywhere. Embracing learners and families as co-producers of their learning experiences and Jewish journeys is, in my view, a sine qua non for effective Jewish education today. If teachers are not prepared to do this and to innovate in their ways of working with students and families, there are today alternatives to the classroom. So, educators may no longer hold the veto power over change that they once did. I cite this not as a threat, but as a reminder that the agenda that Miriam advocates for — involving educators authentically in the work of innovation — is an urgent one.

    I am truly delighted that a lively and nuanced discussion is under way about what it means to reinvent Jewish education today and what is required to do so successfully. I look forward to reading other contributions to that discussion.

  6. Adam Gaynor says

    While I appreciate Dr. Heller Stern’s support of teacher’s needs (I too am an educator), I think that her analysis misses the larger structural issues that drive both American public education and Jewish education. Educational policy is shaped by powerful financial interests that wield disproportionately (much) more power than teachers. Education is the number one line-item on most state budgets (only now superceded by health care in some cases). Education is big money and big business. Throw into the mix the increasing influence of mega-foundations pushing charter schools, as an example.

    In Jewish education, the doubling of the number of Jewish family foundations in the 1990s disproportionately shifted decision-making power into the hands of the few. If Jewish teachers across the board went on strike, then they could wield some power; otherwise, I am not so sure that those with dollars are willing to relinquish control to those who are actually in the classroom.

  7. says

    I absolutely agree with Jonathan’s recommendation. For me, one of the greatest gifts of being an educator is the opportunity to learn from and with my students when I teach. If educators see themselves as being in a teaching and learning partnership with their students, the possibilities for creative, intellectual and spiritual Jewish expression will grow.