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.