By David Farbman
In 2012, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, and five Boston-area day schools launched the B’Yadenu project with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Ruderman Family Foundation. B’Yadenu, which in Hebrew means “In Our Hands,” was designed to shift a whole school to cohesively and collaboratively work to better serve all learners. Essentially a strategic planning process for day schools, B’Yadenu encouraged school leaders and faculty to develop and execute a model for boosting the capacity of educators to strengthen instruction and support for all students. With the project coming to a close, this is a good time to reflect on the successes and challenges we have experienced over the last few years with this ambitious project to re-shape Jewish day schools in ways that better educate diverse learners.
The Significance of the B’Yadenu Model
To better understand B’Yadenu’s potential impact, we need first to consider how uncommon (read: countercultural) the initiative is in the world of education, generally, and Jewish day schools, specifically.
Most schools operate largely under the influence of two powerful forces: urgency and inertia. Taking each of these in turn, consider urgency. Too rarely do day schools address underlying causes or adopt more methodical or systematic approaches to ameliorate challenges. “Fix the problem as quickly as possible,” is the order of the day. The second force is somewhat oppositional to the first. Much of what takes place in schools – from specific lessons to curricular expectations to the daily schedule – results from inertia. Educators tend not to change practice from year to year because when a problem does not emerge (i.e., does not need to be addressed urgently), they see no compelling reason to do so.
At base, B’Yadenu is an effort to break the hold of both of these forces at once. In terms of urgency, B’Yadenu presses administrators and faculty to consider questions that are deliberately non-reactive in nature like “How can we address the root causes of this problem?” or “How can we institute practices that are most effective, even if they will take many months or years to implement fully?” At the other end of the spectrum, B’Yadenu aims to open the eyes of school staff to alternative possibilities that they had not considered simply because they were not pushed to do so. Through B’Yadenu, educators are prodded to ask themselves questions like: “What would our school look like if we did curriculum or scheduling or professional development differently?” and “Why do we have to teach this way?”
For school personnel to consider these questions is not only rare, the task is exceedingly difficult, and, of course, the difficulty stems in part from their rarity in being asked. For anyone – educators or not – to examine one’s own habits and assumptions takes candor and care and trust. That is, deep reflection into how to change current behavior in order to do betterrequires, first, that we are honest with ourselves and our peers. Second, such inquiry should not be addressed haphazardly, but rather done within the context of a methodical and consistent self-assessment. Finally, the entire exercise of self-reflection must be rooted in an environment of good will and mutual respect. B’Yadenu revolves around these three principles and seeks to guide school teams to abide by them.
What it Takes for B’Yadenu to Succeed
Engaging in B’Yadenu certainly provides a path toward overcoming norms that tend to be short-sighted. But progress is far from guaranteed. As such, below is a brief consideration of some factors that must be in place to make success more likely.
1. Controlling role of leaders in the process. Absent heads of school and/or principals within the school consistently and forthrightly insisting that faculty and all staff commit to serious, substantive, and often challenging change at many levels, such change will simply not happen. Only leaders have the power to say to teachers, “Don’t be concerned about addressing this problem right now. Only be concerned that you address it well.” Once teachers begin to undertake that process of self-reflection, they are far more likely to take on the burden of change and to do so with a deeper sense of the rationale behind their need to change.
2. Belief in the value of external expertise to help the school do things differently. It simply is not feasible to expect teachers and others in the school to implement new practices without first holding up what these new practices might look like. When outside professional consultants or coaches offer novel approaches or, perhaps equally important, validation for current methods that are sound, they effectively provide faculty with a road map or, at the least, some milestones along the way toward improved practice.
3. Shared willingness among all involved to allow for change to take place on a relatively gradual scale. If teachers are really going to be overhauling their pedagogy, they cannot be expected to do so at the snap of their fingers. They must navigate through an extended period of trial and error, so that they fully appreciate what works best to elevate their students’ learning. In schools that have been most successful, the transformation in educational practice has taken place over the course of years.
4. An abiding willingness to change. Perhaps it is obvious to say so, but absent a deep commitment from teachers, learning support staff, administrators and, of course, school leaders that they want to engage in the process, transformation is simply impossible. To undertake the complex process of self-reflection, to learn from external experts, and to persist through the experimentation and honing process is a test of endurance and will. Sustaining that desire to change through the inevitable wrong turns or competing agendas is challenging, but without this uniform and consistent ambition to generate real change, nothing sustainable will occur.
These latter two characteristics together form a healthy tension within successful schools. Striking the balance between these two ends of the spectrum – a demonstrated patience and methodical approach on one side; an incessant drive for improvement on the other – is what ultimately generates enduring and real change.
What Does “Success” Look Like?
What does it actually mean to “transform teaching and learning”? As the question itself implies, there is no single construct that defines transformation. Rather, the change exhibits certain characteristics that, in some combination, can be said to have met the ultimate objective: the evolution of a school toward an institution that meets all learners’ needs and where all learners can thrive. We consider four characteristics of schools that successfully educate diverse learners:
1. Primacy of adult learning. If a school is to live up to its goal of nurturing in children a lifelong love of learning and continual development toward a better version of the self, teachers must harbor this love, as well and continually practiced in systematic ways. A sound B’Yadenu school is one that features regular times for teachers to collaborate and learn from one another, as well as some form of formal and actionable feedback that structures their learning about their own teaching.
2. Widespread belief that all students can and should succeed academically and socially. This should not mean that a day school should be expected to educate absolutely any child that seeks to be a student there. Rather, the notion means that for all students that are currently at the school – and for others who are seeking to attend – the presumption should be that the school can successfully educate them. Teachers must continually search for ways to tailor the educational experience to the specific needs of each child and focus on what each child is learning, not what the teacher is teaching.
3. Steeped in data about student learning and behavior, such that faculty and administrators have concrete evidence about what those “better contexts” are for each student. So, for example, if a teacher wants to know if a student learns more effectively with a certain reading program or another, she will have data to back up when that student is making more progress. Then, armed with that data, the teacher can structure that child’s learning environment that will promote the greatest amount of learning.
4. School leaders insist that all staff align to the values of high–quality schools, namely the previous three elements: committing to professional growth, nurturing the potential success of all learners, and appreciating how data is essential to identify student needs. This commitment to fill the building with adults who harbor these inclinations is the surest way to build sustainability. With the right people on board, the right practices are sure to follow for the foreseeable future.
One final aspect worth noting. Though each successful B’Yadenu effort exhibited these four components, the schools differed from each other meaningfully in both the particular challenges they were trying to address and the ways in which they addressed them. What matters less, then, is the what of the B’yadenu process, but rather the how by which each school brought about sought after change.
The Future of B’Yadenu
Taking into account what we have learned over the last eight years, what can we say about how the day school universe overall might take on B’Yadenu and what Gateways can do to encourage more schools to become schools that embody the four characteristics of schools that successfully educate diverse learners outlined above?
The approach to seeding more B’Yadenu schools must focus on how to draw out the potential readiness of schools and cultivate that potential into genuine platforms for transformation. If we can locate those schools that acknowledge that their current educational program is unable to consistently address the needs of all students, then these educators are on the cusp of developing one of the foundational aspects of readiness: willingness to change.
In our experience, schools can be effectively steered toward being ready to take on the challenges of whole-school change through an honest analysis of current teaching and learning practices and how they serve as impediments to all students succeeding. In so doing, school leaders and faculty can be enlightened to three of the four conditions needed for whole-school transformation (desire for change, insight into its evolutionary nature, and the value for external expertise). With these cultural qualities taking root, the school community is then far more prepared to tackle the complicated, but rewarding, work imagined by the B’Yadenu process.
As for the fourth characteristic of strong leadership – which actually stands first in terms of its importance – the very act of organizing a candid assessment is a sign of the school leader’s commitment and vision.
Understanding what characteristics should be prominent in any given school community in order to take on the hard work of B’Yadenu and, in turn, what values we should be aiming to embed to ensure lasting change, we believe the field is better poised to bring about more widespread success in B’Yadenu projects (or any large-scale school improvement initiative). At Gateways, we will use these lessons to continue to guide and model and plan and strategize and prod more Jewish day schools to become places where all learners, regardless of their abilities or needs, can receive the education they so richly deserve.
David Farbman is Senior Director of Education at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.