Israel Education: Where are We Going and How are We Getting There?

WAZEBy Yedida Bessemer

I love GPS, and especially my WAZE app. It keeps track of “milestones” and gives me the step-by-step directions I need to reach my destination. It also provides alternate routes if I wish to avoid the freeway or traffic. Similar to GPS, Standards and Benchmarks are educational tools that guide teaching and instruction by giving educators a “grid” containing final destinations. While they don’t offer the shortest or fastest routes to those destinations, they nonetheless provide a framework for assessing students’ knowledge and skills, helping teachers to “map out” their routes. However, when it comes to Israel education, we’re all driving around as if we’re in the 20th century: there are no standards to guide us.

As a Judaic Studies teacher at a Jewish day school, I completed the training for the “Bible Benchmarks” project, a set of standards developed in an attempt to construct a general framework for schools teaching Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. It benefited me greatly by providing me with a framework for creating academic units, for further collaboration with my colleagues, and for producing a closer alignment between the curricular goals and the assessments that I gave my students. Indeed, it was by virtue of these more faithful assessments that I have been better able to gauge actual student success. In addition to the overall alignment, this framework also made it easier for me to adjust the units and the assessment for different student learning levels. Beyond all this, the standards and benchmarks we selected were in line with my school’s overall mission and philosophy.

It was this positive experience in applying standards and benchmarks for Bible instruction that made me realize there’s a need for developing and applying a similar framework to the area of Israel education. Although there are currently a number of existing curricular programs for studying Israel, at present there is no agreement within American Jewish day schools – or even within any denomination (much less between them) – in regard to standards and benchmarks for Israel education; each school is free to devise and implement its own curriculum without any broader framework.

Some think that Standards and Benchmarks tend to limit both the freedom and flexibility of the teacher, as well as the creativity of the students, but such criticism misses the point. The purpose of the benchmarks is not to serve as strict, rigid paths that the pedagogical process must follow without divergence, but as broad guidelines within which the learning process is expected to take place. Like with GPS/WAZE, the destination is agreed upon at the outset but each driver is free to choose their own route. The lack of such shared guidelines Israel education results in teachers having to constantly “recalculate their route”: where are they going? How will they get there from their current location? And that translates into a great deal of wasted time, energy, and money.

Just like with Bible benchmarks, schools would be able to select the standards and benchmarks that suit their specific missions and philosophies so they can move forward collectively. The purpose of such a framework is not to serve as the school’s vision, but to provide a stable and easily grasped foundation upon which each school can build, in order to sharpen its focus and to build its own unique educational vision on a “common ground” of shared Jewish values.

Such a framework would go some ways toward creating a “common language” in educating Jewish day school students about Israel – one of the most divisive issues within American Jewry. Additionally, it would also assist in bridging the current gaps, not only between different streams of American Jewry, but also between Israeli and American educators on the topic of Israel. The simple fact that the standards and benchmarks would be based on cognitive as well as behavioral and affective goals would in itself create a field of activity broad enough to allow all schools, curriculums, and divergent educational streams to find the common ground for collaboration and joint endeavors, thereby reinforcing the value of “klal Israel.”

Yedida Bessemer is a middle school teacher at Sinai Akiba Academy, a Solomon Schechter Day School in Los Angeles. She is an alumna of the Teaching Israel Fellowship at American Jewish University.