by Melissa Werbow and Yael Silk
Do your kids love Jewish learning? How do you know? What does it look like? Imagine a world in which religious schools don’t just work toward goals like inspiring a love of Jewish learning, but also assess their classrooms to determine if they are achieving their goals.
In Pittsburgh, PA, a group of brave educators are exploring uncharted territory and designing authentic assessments for the Temple David Weiger Religious School in Monroeville, PA. Led by a team of consultants from the Agency for Jewish Learning in Pittsburgh, educators and volunteers at Temple David spent the last two years working to improve their religious school. Their conversation has now turned to this series of questions: How will we know our changes are working? What does “work” mean in this context? What are the criteria for success?
The first task the group tackled was defining success. Rabbi Barbara Symons, the Rabbi and Director of Education at Temple David Weiger Religious School and Dr. George Szymanski, Organizational Development Consultant, worked with a committee of parents, students, teachers and outside congregants, to define four program objectives for their school:
- All students will have the knowledge and skills to proudly practice their Jewish faith.
- Every child will behave in a manner that exemplifies Jewish values.
- Every child will display a love of learning about Judaism.
- Every child will explore his/her relationship with God.
The four objectives describe the committee’s hopes for what students will know, feel, and do as a result of participating in the program. Identifying these objectives was a critical step to build consensus about the program and paint a clear picture of what the program will achieve. However, naming objectives, simply saying that the program will help children, is not enough. The committee must now define what success will look like in the classroom, sanctuary, and home. They need to explore how educators, family members, and students alike will know success when they see it. And they are committed to figuring out how to meaningfully measure that success.
Over the summer, Rabbi Symons formed an Assessment Team, consisting of educators and nonprofit professionals within the congregation who are familiar with measuring program objectives and learning outcomes. This group, which seeks input from the faculty as well as the initial committee, is currently engaged in creating a range of assessments to measure the school’s progress on each of these objectives.
Since the Assessment Team does not shy away from hard work, they are first tackling what may be the most challenging objective to measure, “Every child will display a love of learning about Judaism.” While there is much literature in the secular education world about measuring student performance of state standards and other cognitive outcomes, there has been relatively little written about measuring the affective goals so common in Jewish education. The group decided to proceed with a plan to design a classroom observation protocol using parent volunteers to capture data on love of learning. The protocol includes the creation of an observation rubric; training on using the rubric and how to observe classrooms; and a set of supplemental information provided by the classroom teacher to capture what any single observation will likely miss.
Good rubrics begin with good criteria, so Rabbi Symons began with a textual analysis of Pirkei Avot to elucidate criteria for what a love of Jewish learning might look like. She found the text pointed her at several behavioral markers of this love and sifted those proof-texts into four categories: Being a Mensch – readiness to learn, Seeking Wisdom and Knowledge, Active Peer Learning, and Learning and Doing. For each of these criteria, Assessment Consultant Yael Silk drafted descriptive language for what student behavior might look like across four levels. After reviewing the draft rubric language, the Assessment Team identified a fifth criterion, Spark/Ruach. The following is an example of a more developed criterion in the rubric – Seeking Wisdom and Knowledge:
|Seeking Wisdom and Knowledge||Students are passive during the lesson and do not seek information from any source.||Some students occasionally ask basic questions of their teacher or peers (e.g. clarifying questions, questions about collecting foundational facts about a topic, etc.)||Most students regularly ask a mix of questions during class (i.e. half basic, half open-ended). Most students seek out information that goes beyond what the teacher is currently providing (e.g. from their teacher, a more knowledgeable student, a book, an online resource).||Nearly all students regularly ask compelling, open-ended questions during class. Nearly all students are seeking out information driven by individual inquiries (e.g. from their teacher, a more knowledgeable student, a book, an online resource). Students take responsibility for their learning and/or give constructive feedback on the current/future lesson design.|
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Ultimately, the level of description in this rubric will empower the Director of Education, a trained lay leader or the teacher to accurately evaluate where a given class is along the love of learning continuum based on focused observations. Next steps include piloting the rubric in 2-3 classrooms to determine how reliable the rubric is; in other words can two raters observe the same lesson and come up with the same rubric scores independently? If the team can achieve this level of rater reliability then the rubric classroom observation protocol will be finalized and implemented in all grade levels.
While the Assessment Team is completing the love of learning rubric, they are also developing foundational work that will inform methods for measuring Jewish values and supporting teachers in their design of grade level authentic assessments of content. Ultimately, once there are unique assessments in place to measure each of the program objectives, the Director of Education and her school committee will be able to use this information to build on their strengths and make improvements where necessary school-wide. When they share this information with parents, vividly describing what success looks like, parents are then empowered to evaluate the success of their child’s Jewish education for themselves.
The Temple David team is carefully documenting their work, both the development process and the assessment tools. Additionally, the professional team at the Agency for Jewish Learning is reflecting on the Temple David work and considering how to adapt this process and bring it to other schools. At the end of the day, we all want our children to love the learning they do in religious school. And now, there may be a way to measure and cultivate that love schoolwide.
Melissa Werbow is an Educational Consultant at Pittsburgh’s Agency for Jewish Learning. Her work is part of Shinui: Igniting Change in Jewish Education: a consortium of the Jewish Education communities of Cleveland, Houston, NY, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Funded by a Signature Grant from the Covenant Foundation. She can be reached at email@example.com
Yael Z. Silk is an Educational Consultant at Pittsburgh’s Agency for Jewish Learning. She is the founder of Silk Strategic Arts, an independent consultancy focusing on program evaluation, student assessment and strategic planning in the education and arts fields. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org