I have Learned More from My Pupils than from All of Them:
The Importance of Student-Centered Data

By Zev Eleff and Alex Jakubowski

In 1961, psychologist Joshua Fishman opined that “in most Jewish educational circles there is a strong disinclination for objective studies of ‘outcomes,’” He speculated that the apprehension was the result of “an unconscious recognition that the better the calculation, the less pleasant the truths revealed.” Paul Bernstein’s review of Prizmah’s impressive initiatives – particularly around social and emotional learning – is emblematic of the day school community’s transformed self-confidence since Fishman’s suppositions about Jewish education.

Prizmah’s wide reach into the day school sector is an important achievement, owing to the efforts of professionals and lay leaders. Its programs for curriculum sharing and coordination to form communities of practice indicates a commitment to educational development. Prizmah’s work in the areas of effective governance, financial management, and enrollment benchmarking help schools self-evaluate and improve their operations.

All these are “indicators,” however. They suggest a path for success but do not necessarily measure learning like educational outcomes. We agree that schools with more engaged lay leaders and sturdier lines of communication with parents should be able to offer more services to students, and with greater efficiency. It stands to reason that schools with higher enrollments and compensation for teachers will be in better position to educate our children. It is sensible that schools that promote professional development and facilitate intra-institutional curriculum collaboration will have more success than the alternative. Yet, none of these are directly connected to student outcomes and educational goals. Instead, they are circumstantial indicators of what we think should lead to stronger outcomes.

Operational data can also mislead. Tuition might be lower in certain locales because of factors like state vouchers, local donors and earlier-planned endowments. Mortgage rates, school scope (K-8, K-12, just high school, for instance), and Federation involvement also play a vital role. Salaries may differ because of indigenous cost-of-living standards. Enrollment might be predicated on the breadth of the school’s mission, nearby competition, and local economic concerns.

Educational outcomes are the equalizer. Assessment of changes in behavior, attitudes and subject fluency interrogate the goals of teaching and track the hopes of educators for their students. These are the missing link which accord to all other datasets more discernable meaning. To paraphrase Rabbi Hanina’s wisdom captured in Ta’anit 7a, we learn more from our pupils than from all other sources of information.

Schools and their leadership cannot always control financial factors, and comparisons cannot be drawn with analytical precision. Inputs like tuition and outputs such as number of yearly graduates are oftentimes idiosyncratic figures and can distract from the core questions of day school education. Analogically speaking, this information focuses on the yield of a harvest and the resources used turn the soil. These factors are critically important, but they won’t tell us all that much about the quality of the tomatoes.

Education-minded goals assess the impact on students. Groups of Jewish educators are thinking along these lines. In Chicago, for instance, the Jewish Early Childhood Collaborative, funded by JUF-Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The Collaborative has worked with early childhood centers of various types and affiliations to establish a framework for cooperation and insight around outcomes. Utilizing a shared parent survey and other unified tools to assess educational impact on youngsters, the Collaborative works with each institution to analyze data and produce actionable recommendations to improve performance. By coalescing professional development opportunities to structured outcome-based analysis, the Collaborative’s goal is to transform the landscape of Jewish early childhood education in Chicago. Similar initiatives have been piloted in other communities, as well.

Day schools – like all social initiatives – ought to be judged on how they impact people. Paul Bernstein’s announcement of Prizmah’s forthcoming study of Jewish day schools and yeshivas and how these institutions shape students, families, and communities is exciting. As we argued earlier, the challenge will be to establish a framework – broad-ranging and discrete – for our schools to better measure, understand, and act upon its yielded insights.

In the meantime, we look forward to continued discussion from a field committed to building a stronger Jewish future together.

Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College. Alex Jakubowski is the Executive Director of KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad. They served as the principal stewards of the Jewish Impact Genome Project.