What Do Day Schools Do?

By Zev Eleff and Alex Jakubowski

In December 2002, in a Forward article, the late Jonathan Woocher admonished the Jewish day school community. He declared that “great Jewish education doesn’t happen serendipitously.” Woocher demanded that schools “experiment,” “assess,” and then draw data-driven conclusions to improve. This is standard in a variety of fields but, Woocher lamented, “Jewish education doesn’t operate this way.” He surmised that “rigorous assessment, distillation and application of what is learned, a second wave of implementation to test revisions – rarely happen.”

Woocher’s call to action should resonate better than it did almost two decades ago. Day schools are more sensitive to differentiated instruction and are more sanguine about curriculum development. No doubt, day schools do a lot of good. Yet, they remain unable to turn the corner on assessment-toward-improvement, to, as Woocher put it, “operate this way.”

The State of the Field

What stands in the way? First, in contrast to other fields of Jewish education and engagement, most stakeholders do not demand rigorous evaluation.

Since the 1990s, many funders have been convinced that prioritizing Jewish education is the solution to Jewish intermarriage. They were persuaded by researchers who probed the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. These papers compared the “identities” and “behaviors” of day school graduates and a “control group,” Jews who had not received intensive Jewish education. Philanthropists were moved by statistics that crosstabbed day school graduates with figures related to kindling Shabbat candles, attending a Passover seder, and fasting on Yom Kippur.

Researchers attributed higher rates of signature mitzvah performance to the impact of Jewish education. They ignored the probability that day school families were by the final decades of the century a self-selecting group of affiliated and behaviorally-driven Jews. This was confirmed by Alvin Schiff and Mareleyn Schneider who, recognizing the relatively small sampling of day school graduates polled in the 1990 NJPS, deployed their own survey and found that most day school alumni in the early-1990s hailed from religiously committed homes. Today, children enter Jewish day school predisposed to religious attitudes – imbued in their homes, most particularly – which stand in stark contrast to non-day school peer families.

Several scholars were therefore unconvinced. “In all of the research studies reviewed,” wrote Arnold Dashefsky and Cory Lebson, “there was no firm evidence of a direct causal relationship between formal Jewish schooling and the various measures of dimensions of adult Jewish identity.” Recent day school impact studies have not overcome these and other challenges. Partly for this reason, perhaps, Jewish education scholarship has moved farther away from quant-based social science, toward anthropology-based fieldwork.

The Extra-Educational Aspects of Day Schools

The primary consumers of day schools are unprepared to demand assessment-toward-improvement. In many instances, families are more focused on the ideological aspects of day schools than their educational offerings. For this parent group, the decision to enroll their children in one day school over another is based on religious symbols. Variables like Israel education, coeducation, range of extracurriculars, pluralism and the intensiveness of Talmud study are useful coordinates to plot and approximate their own Jewishness, as well as their families’.

Another group of parents pay day school tuition as a communal obligation, like a tax. They accept the financial burden as the worthwhile cost of entrance into a certain, self-selecting and self-stratifying segment of Jewish communal life. They observe the predicaments of parents – ranging from social to even nuptial – who choose educational alternatives and have therefore “opted out” of this essential fee to enter certain regions of Jewish communal life. In all these cases, the extra-educational aspects of Jewish schooling obscure the need for greater discussions about outcomes, assessment and institutional-improvement.

The Path Forward

In October 2019, we convened a group of Jewish history teachers in Chicago. Still in its early stages, educators based in diverse school settings met to discuss goals and curricula. To some degree, this culture exists among Hebrew language educators but is not present among most other Jewish-related subjects. Short term educational goals scaffold the effectiveness research of the online-based ABCmouse learning program. It is the foundation of several impressive PJ Library studies. Loyola University of Chicago’s National Standards and Benchmarks Project advocates this model for Catholic parochial schools.

It can work for Jewish day schools, as well. Animated to start a community of practice, each participant in the cohort shared her or his intended classroom outcomes and the materials and strategies they use to realize self-defined “success.” In short order, educators observed that their teaching had much in common with other group members.

They also recognized that their goals sometimes differed. Some aspired for student-centered outcomes revolving around Jewish literacy. Others viewed their role to introduce greater nuance of Jewish heritage for their students. Some teachers were curious whether their pupils intuited these same outcomes, since no one had articulated them to students at the outset in their classrooms.

These experiences serve as a reminder that the most essential stakeholders in assessment-toward-improvement are teachers and students. They’re the ones to take the lead on the most ascertainable questions. Does Tanach learning among elementary-age pupils increase their sense of heritage and belonging? Do lessons in Halakhah among middle schoolers move the needle on personal observance? Does high school Talmud translate into independent learning immediately after graduation? Does it compel recent alumni to remain active in Jewish organizational life? Do several years of Israel education strengthen commitment to Israel? Does one curriculum lead toward advocacy? Does another promote nuance and voting trends?

By forming assessment-oriented communities of practice at the classroom level, Jewish day schools can achieve Jonathan Woocher’s yet-to-be-realized goal. The day school community ought to focus on subject-oriented short-term outcomes instead of measuring impact by drawing imaginary straight lines from day school to Shabbat candles, as if no other factors are in play. To accomplish this, teachers must pave the way toward assessment-toward-improvement. Once set into motion, other stakeholders will join the effort, excited about the possibilities ahead.

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.