Assessment-driven Growth in Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivas

By Paul Bernstein

The recent piece “What Do Day Schools Do” is a welcome call to action for data-based decision-making. Day schools, like most institutions in the social sector, are mission-driven organizations, and are actively engaged in assessment to inform and improve the way they achieve their mission. There is always ample opportunity to expand the ways schools are already using evaluation and assessment to drive continuous positive change and growth, and leaders are eager to lean on their peers as they experiment with new models based on proven research.

In the nearly twenty years since Jonathan Woocher (z”l) advocated for “assessment, distillation and application,” there has been meaningful progress. Parents, board members, funders, and other stakeholders have come to expect measurable success, supported by a myriad of educational experts, curriculum developers, and organizations that now provide schools with tools to quantify their achievements, both educationally and operationally. More recently, this includes crucial, non-academic benchmark areas such as social and emotional learning. Through accreditation processes, strategic planning, board self-assessments, pedagogical reviews and evaluations, and the standardized testing and assessment throughout all formal educational segments, day schools today know more about themselves, their students, and their peers than ever before.

As the network serving more than 300 Jewish day schools and yeshivas across North America, Prizmah has created systems and strategies for schools to share that knowledge in ways that enable learning and application throughout the field. Leaders from one school in a Prizmah Reshet Group – our virtual peer-to-peer professional development communities — can share leading practices with others in similar schools and roles. Through the Prizmah Knowledge Center, launched last March, what an individual school learns is accessible to the field, as are resources and research on topics like assessment of Jewish studies.

Our foundational Prizmah Network is enriched by our in-person and online gatherings, where school leaders share and learn evaluation and assessment strategies and tackle challenges together. In recent years, a number of curricular resources that stemmed from field-wide data emerged, including The Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute, Hebrew at the Center, and Hebrew literacy assessment MaDYK. Communities of practice among educators are flourishing at Prizmah, such as displayed at our Judaic Professionals Retreat, with Hadar serving as one of the core presenters discussing “Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice.” Like with most communities of practice gatherings, through an exploration of how one school has integrated those standards, participants can challenge themselves to apply the learning to their own institutions.

Prizmah is committed to the application of data and benchmarking to inform organizational leadership and decision-making. Our Prizmah Network pilot this year of Data and Analysis for School Leaders (DASL), in partnership with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), created a cohort of 81 Jewish day schools invested in the ability to benefit from analysis and benchmarking with peer schools in the field. Prizmah’s data tool allows schools to find actionable data related to all aspects of their school operations, including tuition, financial aid, admission, enrollment, salaries, and more.

Educational measurement includes classroom and student evaluation as well as measuring how a school’s leadership team is performing. While parents no doubt eagerly review report cards and analyze the conversations that take place in parent-teacher conferences, boards engage in self-assessment tools and grade themselves compared to best practice standards in nonprofit management. Prizmah has commissioned and published research on the state of professional leadership preparation, titled The Learning Leadership Landscape, as well as research on opportunities for improving board leadership which will be published by the spring. These field-wide studies challenge individual schools to refine their performance.

Making data-driven decisions is crucial for Jewish day schools, just as it is for all nonprofit organizations. Can we do more? Prizmah is launching a landmark study of Jewish day schools and yeshivas to deepen our understanding of how they shape individuals, families, communities and the larger North American Jewish landscape. This will enable us to work with the field of Jewish day schools to create metrics that will help measure the contributions of day school education as they relate to key benchmarking outcomes and provide meaningful data to communicate about the impact of Jewish day schools and yeshivas.

Across the Jewish community, with financial resources an ever-precious commodity, data has the ability to change reality: to motivate a school to pivot toward stability, to focus the student experience on specific, measurable outcomes, and to connect leadership with the information they need to make important decisions. At Prizmah, we are proud to serve a field that takes assessment seriously and we look forward to doing our share to continue to equip day schools and yeshivas with the tools they need to employ research-based findings in service of their sacred missions.

Paul Bernstein is CEO of Prizmah.