Gas or Electric Cars? Grades or No Grades in Judaic Studies? Shifting Paradigms

By Rabbi Shmuel Feld

Culture change takes times, especially when accompanied by changes in practical systems and structures. People create dependencies on shared assumptions about systems that have worked well enough to be considered valid. To wit, our world could not instantaneously shift to electric cars despite the benefits. Among the many necessary transitions, first on people’s minds is: “How would all the current gasoline fueled cars on the road run?” So, too, for schools pursuing change.

When school consider grade-free reporting in Judaic Studies, the decision may seem to live in the professional domain alone. Movement toward new definitions of accomplishment, despite the overwhelming benefits, requires both buy-in and support from all segments of the Jewish Day School Ecosystem.

Previous writings document how perpetuating a system that ascribes judgment to students’ Jewish learning undermines their potential for internally motivated, lifelong interest in Jewish study. Grade calculations typically exclude effort, well-being, interest, passion, ethics, personal growth, and commitment. The exclusions make up the bulk of our Jewish inheritance. As the grading norm corrodes successful transmission of our ancient wisdom, stakeholders (educators, consumers, funders, and influencers) should find this norm unacceptable.

How can we create change in a system so entrenched in school culture? Ultimately, stakeholders must get in sync by exploring their underlying assumptions. This essential question will uncover others: “What is the ultimate goal of Judaic Studies?” Is it about tracking results generated from tools that produce a comparative, judgmental grade, or is it about developing Jews with strong, healthy Jewish identities, who are passionate about learning?

Most in the Ecosystem agree on this underlying assumption; the challenge lies in initiating change and identifying partners.

While the best group to take the lead depends on each school’s Ecosystem, success grows from building alliances with key people from different segments of the Ecosystem. To start, each segment has to unfreeze its current thinking about grading. Once the norm stands unacceptable, change begins by agitating like-minded allies to directed actions. All stakeholders grapple with similar questions as they unfreeze their thinking about grading. Wrestling with these existential questions is an essential phase of the change process.

Without grades…

  1. How would Judaic Studies have gravitas compared to General Studies?
  2. How would students be motivated to learn in Judaic Studies?
  3. How would schools, parents, or students evaluate progress?
  4. How would school be school?

The good news is that there are research-based answers to these questions that point to the benefits of moving forward in the change process.

Of greater complexity are the nuanced concerns of each Ecosystem segment. Consider these examples of practical and emotional concerns when working with allies to unfreeze conversations about grading.

~ Educators may think about control, unwanted scrutiny, and limited time.

  • Some are wary of losing the hierarchical nature of the classroom that relies on the extrinsic motivator of grades.
  • Some assume a no-grades initiative feeds into concerns about students not being resilient and not knowing how to handle real-world pressure.
  • While not all grading systems follow a bell curve, classes with grades skewing in one direction often draw unwanted attention from parents or administrators.
  • Based on the historic use of grades, teachers may be conditioned to think that everyone expects tiered results – administrators, parents, and even students.
  • Reformulating curricula, lesson plans, assessments, and evaluation standards is an immense amount of work that overwhelms teachers’ capacities and schedules.
  • With traditional grading, teachers report on results and not individuals. Change requires ample time to develop personalized reports, more time with students or smaller classes to ensure teachers get to know individuals, and new and different teacher training.

~ Funders and board members may think about perception and financial resources.

  • This group needs to feel proud about representing a school and confident that major decisions reflect the best interest of the students and school overall. They may not understand how the school will evaluate student learning or course rigor without grades.
  • The financial resources often needed for staff time or developing a paradigm shift weigh on their minds.

~ Consumers may think about leverage, pride, uncertainty about progress, and college.

  • Some parents may not know how to partner with the school to encourage student learning if they cannot leverage grades. This can create friction at home.
  • Parents feel pride when their children bring home good grades – regularly or occasionally (e.g. “My child is an honor student at…” bumper sticker.) Parents who thrive on their child being among the “top tier” of peers would lose gratification if grades were not a means of comparing students. The same is true for students whose positive self-esteem comes from good grades – regardless of how much they learned.
  • Some believe they won’t understand what success looks like because they primarily understand evaluation through their own experiences with traditional grading.
  • While most colleges and universities exclude Judaic Studies from GPAs for admission purposes, some consumers worry that no grades in Judaic Studies will impact their competitive edge.

~ Influencers may think about incongruencies with their work and role.

  • Those who sell products may not have the right material.
  • Those who give advice may not know how to counsel schools.

The struggle to resist change has guided Jews through difficult times to continue as a people. Struggle and questioning go side by side with eagerness and zeal. Questions deserve proper answers; however, resistance does not prove ideas as good or bad, just necessary for investigation.

In 1963, Volvo released the design for their highly criticized three-point harness to U.S. manufacturers looking to install seatbelts. While it meant a loss of revenue, Volvo’s managing director, Alan Dessell, explained the decision was “…visionary and in line with Volvo’s guiding principle of safety.” This change saved lives. The same is true of transforming evaluation of students in Judaic Studies. It also will be seen as visionary and in line with Judaism’s guiding principles.

Rabbi Shmuel Feld is the founding director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), a bold initiative to radically improve the quality of Jewish education in day schools across North America. JEIC’s vision is to reignite students’ passion for Jewish learning and improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation. You can reach him at