Think Globally, Act Locally

by Amy L. Sales, Ph.D.

“Think globally, act locally.” The mantra of the early environmental movement continues to hold great wisdom. The phrase instructs us to think: to gather, analyze, and interpret information in order to gain perspective. It tells us that our thinking is to be global, to extend beyond our current horizons and take into account the potential impact of our actions on the systems and society of which we are a part. It also tells us that our action is to be local – targeted to the immediate setting in which we operate. The expression suggests that, if our view is large enough, our actions (as local as they may be) will change the world.

I am reminded of this saying when I speak with Jewish day school administrators about working with PEJE and JData on our joint data-collection project. Often the administrator asks, “Why should I put my school’s numbers into JData? I already know them.” The answer is that until your numbers are aggregated with those of other day schools, you cannot get perspective on the field in which you are operating, nor can you comprehend your school’s place in the larger system.

In many regards, JData is like the U.S. Census. Citizens complete their census form because it is required by law. But like the day school administrator, they might ask, “Why should I fill out the form? I already know how many people live in my household.” The answer is that our democracy relies on the U.S. Census and critical decisions are based on it. These range from how many representatives each state has in the U.S. Congress to how $400 billion in funding is allocated to communities each year. The data are also used by state and local governments to decide the location of new housing and to plan transportation, health, and education systems. Businesses use the data to forecast future demand or to determine locations for expansion, to name just two more applications. Any one of us might feel that not filling out the form will make no difference. But if many people embrace this attitude then, as a nation, we would lack sufficient information to make critical decisions.

JData’s mission is to collect statistics on the field of Jewish education – namely, the people who deliver and receive this education, and what the education costs. The statistics available from JData are used by national agencies and foundations as well as local federations and central agencies for Jewish education. As with the census, the data from any one school is most valuable when it is aggregated with those from other schools. Only then can we get an accurate picture of the size and shape of the field; track enrollment and cost over time; compare population figures to school enrollments; identify communities for day school expansion; and see the total cost of Jewish day schools – a number that underscores the enormity of the enterprise and makes the best case for outside funding.

Unlike the U.S. Census, JData is building tools that help day school professionals use the data. The new longitudinal report, for example, displays the school’s data year-by- year, giving school leadership a top-line view of change over time. With this view it is possible to identify positive trends that can help make the case for the school or more problematic trends that might suggest action to be taken. The newly redesigned comparison report juxtaposes the school’s own data with that of similar schools. This report can inform discussions about next year’s tuition, the success of recruitment efforts, or any other topic related to the various metrics in the JData profile. Easy access to these reports has obvious benefits for the school’s communications, fundraising, staff transitions, board training, planning, and the like.

Daniel Elazar, political scientist of the Jewish world, wrote of locals and cosmopolitans. Locals understand the Jewish world through the lens of their own school, synagogue, or community. Cosmopolitans, in contrast, are interested in the big picture. They appreciate historical and contemporary trends; they participate in Jewish public discourse; and they see their place in the larger Jewish world. The problem is that locals do not see the need for common information systems that enable the rest of us to get the big picture – the data we need to support the system overall and to make change.

Kania and Kramer, in the Winter 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, describe the success of collective impact initiatives in solving the intractable problems of public school education. Their research shows that a condition of success is the existence of a shared measurement system. If you have a technical problem, you can solve it from a local perspective. For example, if you need to improve parent involvement in the school or raise parent satisfaction, your school can do so on its own. But if the problem is an adaptive one, then collective action may be the only way to solve it. Adaptive problems are complex, the solution is not known, and no single entity has the resources or authority to make the necessary change. The long-term sustainable funding of Jewish day schools is proving to be just such a problem. The same may be true of the need to convince those outside of the Orthodox world of the importance of an intensive Jewish education. No school will solve these problems on its own.

Putting your information into JData means that you understand that you are part of a field of practice. It suggests that you appreciate the efforts by national foundations and organizations like PEJE to build the capacity of the field, to articulate its value and purpose to the public, and to set a vision for creating and maintaining high quality Jewish day schools for each and every Jewish child. Keeping your data to yourself might help you understand your own school. But putting your data into JData can serve your needs while also helping to draw the national picture and providing basic information needed to strengthen the entire Jewish day school field.

Yes, act locally. But think globally. When it comes to collective impact, we all depend on each other.

Amy L. Sales, Ph.D., is senior researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University.

Cross-posted with PEJE blog.