by Daniel Libenson and Ana Fuchs
The landscape of American Jewish education is changing. Jewish disengagement and a depressed economy pose substantial threats to the financial viability of day schools, as well as to the future of synagogues and the supplemental education programs they have traditionally offered.
Day schools can address these challenges and even bring about an educational renaissance if they are willing to “disrupt” the current status quo by becoming providers of Jewish supplemental education. Doing so would bring high-quality Jewish education to large numbers of Jewish children and stabilize the economics of day schools through diversification.
What Is Disruptive Innovation?
Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen developed the theory of disruptive innovation to explain why game-changing innovations usually come from new players in a market, rather than from more established companies. He calls these innovations “disruptive” because they upend and replace a market’s operative assumptions and processes.
Christensen’s research has found that game-changing innovations frequently start at the low end of a market. When a disruptive product first comes on the scene, it is typically not as good as the dominant product in certain respects, although it is much better in others (think about digital photography in its early days). As such, the new approach appeals to a very different set of customers from those buying the current product. Over time, disruptive products tend to get better and better, eventually becoming “good enough” to attract even the customers of the established product.
The company most famous for employing a disruptive strategy is Apple, which not only disrupts markets where other companies are dominant (music, for example), but also is willing to disrupt its own markets. When Apple released the $500 iPad tablet computer, it “self-disrupted” its own high-end laptop business. It did so because it recognized that the new market for tablets would dwarf the market for laptops and that Apple would more than make up in volume what it lost in profit margin.
The Current Jewish Educational Landscape
Let’s look at Jewish education through the lens of disruptive innovation theory. Many Jewish children – about a third according to one study – receive no formal Jewish education; their families are “non-consumers” in the current market. Of the children who are enrolled in Jewish educational programs, about half are enrolled in day schools and half in supplemental education programs, such as synagogue religious schools.
The number of Jewish children not enrolled in Jewish education programs of any kind is likely to grow in the years ahead, in part due to the very limited options available. For ideological and economic reasons, most Jewish families will not choose full-time day school education for their children. In many communities, the only other option is synagogue-based supplemental education; more and more Jewish families will not be willing or able to pay synagogue dues in order to gain access to such programs, due to the expense and often to their poor quality.
The growing number of non-consumers represents a tremendous “market opportunity” for a specialist provider of non-synagogue-based supplemental Jewish education. In several cities, small start-up organizations are beginning to serve this population in very creative and exciting ways that we believe represent the leading edge of a disruptive reinvention of American Jewish education, a process that could be accelerated if day schools get involved.
The independent start-ups recognize that parents who do not send their children to day schools or to synagogue-based schools are not necessarily uninterested in Jewish education. Rather, neither day schools nor synagogue-based programs are right for them.
The readers of this article are already familiar with some of the most common reasons families do not elect to send their children to day schools. Families who also do not send their children to a synagogue-based program report that it is because
- they don’t belong to a synagogue or feel connected to a particular religious denomination
- their children are exhausted after a long day of school and complain about having more school in the afternoon and on Sundays
- as working parents, they cannot transport their children from school to synagogue during the week.
At the same time, many parents want their children to have Jewish educations and to make Jewish friends. Also, working parents have child care needs that they must meet somehow; if a Jewish program could meet them, the program would be providing real value to them.
The successful independent providers, such as Atlanta’s Jewish Kids Groups and Chicago’s Jewish Enrichment Center of Hyde Park, with which we are involved, have built programs that meet these needs by creating nondenominational curricula that emphasize Jewish culture and Hebrew language, employ child-centered pedagogy and a camp-like approach to learning that feel fun at the end of a long school day, offer flexible schedules, and transport kids from their public and private schools. This year, Jewish Kids Groups even launched a five-day-a-week program to address families’ general need for childcare.
Walk into these Jewish afterschools, or into others in Berkeley, Boston and DC, and you will see children laughing, playing, learning, creating, studying and praying together in a community of Jewish peers. The growing number of start-ups and their rapid growth indicate that families are enthusiastic about this new model.
Day Schools as Supplemental Jewish Education Providers
Make no mistake: someone will step into the vacuum of unserved and underserved children created by the atrophy of synagogue-based supplemental education. Day schools have quite a few competitive advantages over independent start-ups. The independent afterschools, like many entrepreneurial ventures, are small and underfunded. These infant organizations struggle to tackle simultaneously the logistical, financial and personnel challenges that confront all new organizations and educational models.
Day schools, on the other hand, already have much of the physical and organizational infrastructure in place, as well as a wealth of professional talent. While we do not minimize the challenges involved in a day school’s taking on any large new endeavor, we believe that day schools are in a stronger position than independent start-ups to provide stellar supplementary Jewish education right away.
Day school buildings, largely unused on weekday afternoons and on Sundays, often include a gymnasium, kitchen, dining hall, music room, art facilities, playing fields, and many other resources that a start-up program could only dream of. Day schools already employ highly credentialed professional Jewish educators of a caliber that start-ups are hard-pressed to afford. And, critically, day schools have existing transportation systems and expertise, which puts them in a prime position to arrange pick-up from public and private schools at the end of the regular school day.
Running supplemental education programs would also provide great value to day schools beyond an additional income stream. For one thing, it would enable the creation of more full-time teaching positions, as well as more flexible schedules and part-time positions, so day schools could attract the very best teachers. For another, a vibrant and creative afterschool program that included enrichment options, such as sports, music lessons, and other activities might be of great value to parents of day school students as well; we know of quite a few day school children attending Jewish afterschool programs.
We recognize that stepping into this work will not be easy for most day schools. Some objections will be principled and some will be practical. Below are four likely objections.
1. We will lose families from our day school.
Objection: “People who really care about Jewish education will stretch financially to send their kids to day school if the only other option is low-quality supplemental education. If we offered a lower-cost high-quality after-school program, some of our day school families would take their kids out of the day school, and we would be worse-off financially.”
Response: The fear of self-disruption is understandable and explains in part why even mighty for-profit companies die. Apple understands that a high-quality product positioned at the low-end of the market might cause some cannibalization, but that is outweighed by the positives: a higher volume of sales and protection from the inevitable disruption from someone else. We hope that day schools will be disrupters like Apple and not dinosaurs like Kodak.
Many day schools families have already fallen away due the challenging economic environment of recent years. An afterschool program could be a way of getting them back. Furthermore, some families might be so pleased by the afterschool that they move their children into the day school, just as the iPod or iPhone serve as “gateway drugs” to the entire range of Apple products. We anticipate that great supplemental programs would lead more families to “upgrade” to the day school program than to “downgrade.”
Supplementary programs would also bring hundreds of new families into day school buildings, exposing parents to the schools’ educational approaches and teaching teams. It is hard to believe that the revenue stream created by new tuition-paying afterschool families and the donor opportunities the program creates (think anxious and relieved grandparents) will not outweigh any lost day school tuition.
We also believe that there is a first-mover advantage for day schools willing to take the risk: we suspect that funders and foundations would offer financial support for early experiments.
2. Synagogues won’t be happy.
Objection: “The synagogues in our community would view our offering supplemental education as direct competition. Doing this would harm important relationships in the community and wouldn’t be mentschy.”
Response: Synagogue schools are very expensive to run and require heavy subsidies from general synagogue funds. Some might actually see it as a relief to have a legitimate way out of providing a synagogue school. Progressive synagogues around the country are exploring alternative options, including subsidizing members’ participation in local afterschools.
The synagogue model of requiring membership and enrollment in the synagogue school in order have a bar/bat mitzvah is collapsing. But it would be tragic if this collapse resulted in a further decline in the number of Jewish children receiving any form of Jewish education. While we think it is important to work with, not against, synagogues, and we urge day schools to manage these relationships thoughtfully and creatively, we do not think that the objections of synagogues (whose educational programs will soon close their doors anyway) should prevent the emergence of an innovation that is good for the Jewish community.
3. We don’t have the bandwidth.
Objection: “We are so busy running the day school. We can’t even imagine opening an entirely new program!”
Response: The main reason that dominant players fail to bring game-changing innovations to market is that they are so busy serving their current customers that they don’t devote the time, energy, resources, and focus to R&D that might be the long-term salvation of the company. Christensen’s research offers a roadmap for companies—and nonprofits—struggling with this “innovator’s dilemma.” Apple is not the only company that has successfully navigated these waters. The Dayton-Hudson Corporation was a successful department store company that understood the impending threat from discount retailing and started a little side project called “Target.” A few years ago, Dayton-Hudson changed its corporate name to Target and sold off the department store business.
Starting a new afterschool program would not be easy and would require the investment of time and money. Aside from providing new revenue streams as explained above, such programs would also protect day schools from being disrupted themselves. If day schools do not get into supplementary education, independent providers will. This represents a long-term threat to day schools, according to disruption theory, because over time the afterschool programs will get good enough to attract many day school families.
4. Supplemental Jewish education is in conflict with our commitment to day school Jewish education.
Objection: “We believe that all-day immersive Jewish education is the only way to develop the kinds of Jews that we want our students to become. We do not believe that we could do it any other way.”
Response: We respect this principled point of view because it is based on a fundamental belief that Judaism is serious and important and that we should insist on high quality. However, it represents a view about Jewish education stuck in the binary options available today: all-day immersive high-quality day school education delivered by professional educators versus one- or two-day-a-week under-resourced synagogue-based education delivered mostly by college students and other non-professionals. A day-school-based Jewish afterschool would offer high quality in a different format; we think it would be good enough and would get better over time. And we think it would offer high-quality education to a much larger number of Jewish children, would engage their families, and would contribute to a renaissance of Jewish life.
What is the mission of a Jewish day school? Is it to provide all-day immersive Jewish education to those that want it and can afford it? Or is it to provide high-quality Jewish education to a respectable percentage of Jewish children? We believe that the latter represents an exciting and inspiring new framework that preserves the all-day immersive model of Jewish education and also pioneers a new approach that meets the educational needs of today’s Jewish children and the practical needs of their wage-earning parents. While most people measure the success of for-profit businesses only by the financial bottom line, nonprofits have a double bottom line: they must aspire for both economic success and mission maximization.
Day schools can ensure their long-term financial health and can maximize their contribution to the Jewish future by becoming disruptors of Jewish supplemental education. Moreover, we believe that doing so will defend them from being disrupted by independent Jewish afterschool programs. For Jewish day schools, getting into the afterschool business would be bold indeed. Some might say it would be risky, but staying the course is riskier still.
Daniel Libenson is the president of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, an idea and education center dedicated to accelerating bold innovation in Jewish life. Ana Fuchs is the executive director of Jewish Kids Groups, Atlanta’s Independent Hebrew School and Afterschool Community. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in HaYidion, RAVSAK’s journal of Jewish education. Reprinted with permission.