Past Time to Act: Assessing the Quality of Education and Measuring Learner Impact

Throughout the Jewish world we are wasting too much money and too much talent providing education that doesn’t work and not promoting education that does work.

by Bill Robinson and Alex Pomson

“Very little research on Jewish education is being carried out in North America. There is a paucity of data about the basic issues, and almost no evaluation has been made to assess the quality and impact of programs.”
A Time to Act (1990)

Our children learn to play the piano or do math, by using the skills they learned and then assessing their performance. Did they play the piece well? Did they solve the problems?

My doctor knows how well I am or in what ways I may be sick by assessing my symptoms. Eastern medicine does the same, though more holistically.

We want each of these experiences to be satisfying, and we want more than that. We want our children to improve, and we want to stay or become healthy.

Assessment is a part of our everyday life. We want to know how well we are progressing in order to get better. If we are a music teacher or a doctor, we want to know if our student or patient is progressing. We would not be content just by asking the student or patient if he or she had fun or how they would rate their satisfaction with the experience.

Then, why in Jewish education is the most common form of assessment simply asking the participant: Were you satisfied with the experience? Or, at the other extreme: Did these early educational experiences, produce adult Jews who in later life marry other Jews, practice Jewish rituals, and belong to Jewish organizations?

How do we expect to know if the Jewish education we are providing to our children is worthwhile, if we don’t assess how well we are reaching our more immediate goals? If we don’t assess the quality of the particular educational experience delivered by an educator, how can he or she improve? Without comparative assessment, how can stakeholders make decisions about which experiences to stick with and which to eliminate?

Jewish education is not totally devoid of educational assessment. For example, Birthright Israel has since its launch utilized the availability of a control group of non-participants to assess program outcomes. We know too of individual day schools that have invested time and money in developing tests of Jewish literacy and of students’ attitudes to Israel. But, these remain the exceptions. Recent research on experiential education, as reported here in eJewish Philanthropy, highlights promising practices of individual organizations and confirms the overall dearth of substantial evaluative practice in the field.

Recently, The Jewish Education Project and Rosov Consulting, along with the Experiment in Congregational Education, took on the challenge of assessing the quality of instruction in congregational education within synagogues that participated in a large-scale reform effort, called the Coalition of Innovating Congregations. Together, we created an assessment tool that enables educators to assess each other’s performance and for outside evaluators to do the same. Until now, it was left to master teachers to observe their colleagues and, based on an intuitive sense of best practice, offer an assessment of what worked well and what went wrong.

The instrument we developed was grounded in what Jon Woocher and others have conceived as design principles of 21st century learning in Jewish congregational settings:

  1. learning is anchored in caring purposeful relationships;
  2. learners seek to answer the questions, meet the challenges, and discover meanings rooted in their everyday experiences;
  3. learning enables individuals to construct their own meaning through inquiry, problem solving, and discovery; and
  4. learning is content-rich and accessible.

The Rosov Consulting team worked with the staff at The Jewish Education Project and with educators in the field to operationalize these principles within the minutiae of everyday educational practice. Finally, working with 14 congregations, we field-tested our capacity to observe these practices using a protocol simultaneously employed by pairs of observers.

The results of the field test (described in a final report) showed that the new models of education being developed by the Coalition of Innovating Congregations (guided and resourced by The Jewish Education Project and the Experiment in Congregational Education and supported by UJA-Federation of NY) offer better quality educational experiences along the range of criteria commonly recognized as best practices in education.

The instrument is in its infancy. Like many first generation technologies, it is still not as user-friendly as we’d like. But, for the first time we have a way of assessing the quality of educational experiences happening across our congregational programs. This is the first step: if the quality of educational experiences is not good, they will certainly not produce the desired learner outcomes.

Now, what if we took the next step of assessing the impact of Jewish education on the learner?! Our biggest challenge is the willingness of educators and other stakeholders across denominational and other divides to find common cause. The two most common complaints ring hollow to us: “Everyone aims for different outcomes.” “You can’t measure the stuff we are trying to achieve.”

Let’s look at two very different articulations of the goals of Jewish education.

Our goal should be to make it possible for every Jewish person, child or adult, to be exposed to the mystery and romance of Jewish history, to the enthralling insights and special sensitivities of Jewish thought, to the sanctity and symbolism of Jewish existence, and to the power and profundity of Jewish faith… Education, in its broadest sense, will enable young people to confront the secret of Jewish tenacity and existence, the quality of Torah teaching which fascinates and attracts irresistibly. They will then be able, even eager, to find their place in a creative and constructive Jewish community.
Rabbi Isadore Twersky (z”l)

The true goals of Jewish education are thus deep and broad. For individual Jews, education provides access to the rich resources of the Tradition. These resources can add meaning to their lives and help them answer life’s most challenging questions. Beyond the personal dimension, the goal of Jewish education is enculturation – connecting individuals to …the ongoing experience of the Jewish people, past, present and future. Finally, Jewish education must also be generative – inspiring Jews to create and support vibrant Jewish communities that sustain Jewish life, help repair a broken world, and insure the future of the Jewish people.
Rabbi David Ellenson

Of course these visions differ in their specifics, but look at what they have in common! As a single example: The Jewish tradition offers our children enthralling insights and special sensitivities that add meaning to their lives and help them answer life’s most challenging questions.

We imagine that to measure the success of any educational experience in achieving this vital and vibrant goal, we could ask the learners to identify specific insights from the Torah or other sacred texts to which they were exposed. We could then ask them to apply these texts to a particular life challenge they have encountered. For example, what insight would they take from the story of Jonah? How does it apply to dilemmas of personal or global responsibility today? This could be open-ended, or we could offer a list of possible Jewish insights alongside values from American culture and ask them to prioritize which they would find most helpful. Or, we could offer a scenario in which a child faces a particular life challenge, and ask them to apply one of four possible Jewish insights. There are many possibilities and in our current technological age numerous creative ways of administering and grading open-ended assessments.

It is not only do-able; it is past time to act! Throughout the Jewish world we are wasting too much money and too much talent providing education that doesn’t work and not promoting education that does work. We are committed to taking the next step. But we can’t do it alone. We need to act together as educators, change agents, evaluators, funders and lay leaders.

Bill Robinson is the Chief Strategy Officer at The Jewish Education Project. Alex Pomson is Director of Research and Evaluation at Rosov Consulting.