But What Will We Do About It? A Rejoinder to Susan Kardos and Ellen Goldring

rejoinderBy Deborah Court
and Stuart Zweiter

We read with interest and considerable frustration the report by Kardos and Goldring on the first phase results of the CASJE study into effective educational leadership in Jewish day schools. This is an incredibly important area that requires, at this point, less research and more action.

While the context and culture of Jewish day schools are somewhat different than public schools and various kinds of private schools, much of the vast research literature on effective school leadership certainly does apply to Jewish day schools. There is no need to reinvent those wheels through further research.

Notwithstanding this, philanthropic foundation funded research into Jewish school leadership has been quite prolific. For instance, Michal Berger’s report in the Spring 2012 Ravsak journal Hayidion of an AVI CHAI funded study aimed at formulating a theory of Jewish day school leadership listed nine areas that need leadership attention in a Jewish day school: setting visions and priorities; a Jewish lens; understanding context; data driven assessment and accountability; building staff capacities; collaboration; communication; learning and self-reflection; self-management capabilities. The overlap with Kardos’ and Goldring’s categories is clear.

Mark Schnieider, the principle researcher in the CASJE study, is quoted in the CASJE newsletter of Sept. 29, 2016, as saying “This research will help school leaders improve their schools by pointing to specific areas in which they can invest their time and resources that lead to higher levels of student success.”

The question is, how? How will the knowledge derived from this study and a number of other studies of Jewish educational leadership, as well as hundreds of studies of educational leadership in general, reach these school leaders? Where will they go to find it? And why would most of them even look? They’re pretty busy already.

With all respect for research knowledge – it is extremely important; we have no argument there – we need to do more with this knowledge, now, to get it to school leaders and potential school leaders, in an organized fashion. We already have a lot of research knowledge, including almost all the findings in the CASJE study. The time has come to find effective ways to disseminate this knowledge and translate it into improved practice. We have heard foundations claim that nothing they have tried has been meaningfully effective in addressing the leadership challenge. However they have never really supported anything beyond part time, year-long programs and one on one mentoring. These are both important and potentially effective models but they are local, have limited impact and are essentially band aid responses to an ongoing challenge that demands a much more comprehensive, systemic and holistic approach.

The Lookstein Center has argued for several years already that so much of the foundation money that goes into research could be better spent, right now, after all that we have learned, on building an organizational structure that could house, promote and disseminate to school leaders via a range of program initiatives, what research has told us. We have discussed this idea with some of the most seasoned and outstanding day school leaders in North America and they are in agreement that such a center is the way to develop, help, advance and attract day school leaders.

The center would be a repository of research knowledge, with in-house resources as well as links to practical training and professional development options, to mentoring, and to seasoned, sympathetic ears that hear day school leaders’ challenges and can direct them to concrete, practical help and ongoing professional development. Most importantly it would provide opportunities for ongoing learning and professional growth. The organization, coordination and professionalization of currently diverse, dispersed, parochial and uneven programs and services, as well as the development of new, high quality programs and services for Jewish educational leaders, would be a tremendous contribution to improving day schools and day school leadership. To borrow from Freud, after fifty years of research, we still may not know what educational leaders want. But that does not mean spending another fifty years trying to figure it out. The question is, how can we help them? How can we help the 41% of new leaders to build trust among their faculty? How can we reach the 80% of school leaders who do not see the need for JS related professional development? How can we help leaders articulate and actualize vision in order to build a creative, collaborative, dynamic, trusting, inspiring school program and culture? Not by doing more research. At what point does continuing to conduct overplayed research become navel gazing?

We can do these things by putting more of that research money into help on the ground. This means, in our view, building a day school leadership infrastructure, something that has never been undertaken. Jewish education is in crisis in many places in North America, there is a shrinking pool of excellent educational leaders from which schools can choose, and there is a desperate need for a leadership center, a professional organizing body which would draw on many sources of wisdom and expertise while remaining independent of any particular stream of Judaism or academic institution. Friends, this is an idea whose time has come. Let’s start talking about that.

Deborah Court is a Professor of Education at Bar Ilan University and prior to making Aliya served as a Jewish Day School Principal in North America.

Stuart Zweiter is the Director of The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education and prior to making Aliya served as a Jewish Day School Principal in North America.