Hit the books

What Jewish high schools get wrong about student happiness

In Short

The push to get students to be more engaged, have more fun in school is worsening — not improving — the mental health crisis facing teens

Jewish high schools, and high schools broadly, have a mental health problem. In my experience, that problem is often rooted in, among other factors, students failing to fully master what they are meant to learn in school. 

Instead of addressing the problem at its root and fixing the processes we have for adolescent learning, Jewish high schools have largely responded by attempting to remove learning as an important piece of the high school experience for most students in favor of other forms of engagement directed at student happiness. 

Yet the data implies we have not meaningfully impacted our students’ overall mental well-being. Instead, the problem keeps getting worse. I will argue here that our attempts to address student happiness in Jewish high schools have been misguided. In Judaic studies, we have systematically devalued formal learning and prioritized fun and engagement. In general studies, we have implicitly diverted attention from learning toward results. 

These changes have successfully created a more enjoyable experience in school while still leaving most students feeling unfulfilled as learners. School is more fun but many students are not fundamentally any happier in life because they find the process of learning, the goal school was ostensibly designed for, a deeply frustrating experience.

But this is not a reality we must accept. Several pedagogical models, which will be discussed below, offer ways of making school a place where all students can find success in their learning while gaining the skills for long-term, sustained happiness in life.

Over the last 20 years or so Jewish learning in high school has progressively shifted away from academics and focused instead on engagement and identity. Judaic studies teachers are increasingly valued for their ability to form meaningful connections with students and to inspire their commitment to Jewish traditions and practice above core skills and literacy. 

As part of this change, the process of measuring Judaic learning through assessments and marking became progressively less rigorous for most students. Aside from the most self-motivated students in “high-stream” classes, all the pressure has been to make Judaic studies as easy an A as possible so that Jewish learning will be a maximally positive experience for young people. In addition, schools expanded by hiring new administrators to develop more Judaic-centered extracurricular programming. 

The goal has been to create enjoyable and meaningful informal learning experiences focused largely on Jewish identity and living. What was previously the exclusive purview of camp and youth groups has become a significant part of the Jewish high school experience as well. Schools broadly adopted staples of camp life such as color war competitions, overnight retreats and Shabbatons

Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, a veteran of informal Jewish education and the host of the popular “18Forty” podcast, recently reflected positively on this change in a conversation with Rabbi Efrem Goldberg. “I think our Jewish Day School system that we have built… is doing better than ever and it’s because of a shift that frustrates many. But I think it was a healthy shift… I think that people who went to yeshiva high schools in the 1970s and 80s probably got a stronger basic Jewish education, they probably knew the details of [Hebrew] grammar better, they probably had even a stronger grasp on how to break apart a text. In the mass Jewish high schools that we have now, you have so many graduates who come out and their level of Jewish knowledge to the naked eye has never been weaker. However, I think we did a deliberate shift… I think that the products of our schools have never had a stickier, more culturally rich relationship with yiddishkeit (Jewish living).”

For its part, general studies has become progressively results-oriented, in part a natural response to pressures coming from an increasingly competitive university landscape. While schools could not give too many A’s without losing the confidence of university admissions departments, there is well-documented grade inflation occurring across all high schools. 

In my experience, conversations among administrators are often not about how we can improve struggling students’ learning but about how we can manage the expectations of students and parents regarding their university aspirations. We assume most students will not fully master their learning and there is nothing we can do about it. Our approach seems to combine an implicit effort to push results up as much as possible while managing expected outcomes. 

The structure for learning in high school has never been ideal. In the past there was certainly greater investment in the process of building core skills yet there was little understanding of diverse learning needs. And yet today, with an expanded knowledge of adolescent learning and many more resources meant to aid learning, most students still can not fully master their learning within the given timeframe. 

By the time the June deadline arrives, most students will receive marks that indicate they have not mastered their learning even as they will still “pass” and get promoted on to the next arbitrarily defined age level. A number of studies have shown that most of the learning gaps between students in school are knowledge gaps, or missing pieces of prior learning (Hirsch, 2016; Wexler 2019). Not surprisingly, a recent Gallup poll showed 47% of U.S. students report they are not engaged in school.

I believe that Jewish high schools have recognized that the traditional educational model leaves most students feeling unsuccessful in their learning and that their time in many classes is frustrating, superficial or boring. There is an understanding that this contributes in a real way to feelings of despair, a lack of clear purpose and agency among our young people. 

But instead of reconsidering the model and redesigning the fundamental learning experience, most schools opted for a patchwork approach that preserved the original structure and just progressively devalued what that structure was designed to do while adding in more elements of fun, focused on identity and engagement.

And yet I think Bashevkin is right. Students are having a better experience in school than ever before. School is a happier place to be than it ever was. Jewish connection is more inspirational than it has ever been. But our young people are more deeply unhappy in life than they’ve ever been. I believe, among other factors, schools have chosen to prioritize short-term happiness and inspiration over developing long-term learning skills and agency. Though they sit for hours a day in a classroom, our students understand too well that the system they exist in is not designed to support their learning journey through a process where work and failure lead to deep understanding and long-term satisfaction for all students. 

Many Jewish thinkers over the ages have written eloquently about the important role education plays in our tradition. On the one hand, we can say that today we live the greatest expression of that value. We boast the largest formal apparatus of Jewish educational institutions than, perhaps, at any point in Jewish history. But are our high schools exceptional institutions for learning, where all learners are given the opportunity to master their learning and gain self-aware insight into how they learn as a fundamental feature of who they are? Or do we have exceptional institutions of engagement where our primary markers of success are enrollment, sustainability and moving our students to the next level with minimal regard for learning? 

Further, must we accept Bashevkin’s tradeoff where meaningful engagement comes at the cost of quality learning? Is it not possible to have both exceptional engagement and exceptional learning on a broad scale? I would argue that not only is it possible, the models are already out there. 

The movements in Mastery Based Learning, Universal Design Learning and Student Centered Learning, to name a few, are relatively new structures already used by innovative schools across North America. There are certainly individual teachers who are already using some of these models, to varying degrees, in Jewish high school classes. But, by and large, Jewish high schools themselves require students to conform to age-based learning groups, a ten-month deadline to complete a fixed amount of required learning and scaled marking that allows students to proceed to the next age level without mastering their learning. This structure leaves most students feeling deeply ambivalent about the process of learning and their own abilities to effectively tackle learning challenges. Yet we know feeling confident as a learner is central to developing a sense of long-term happiness and fulfillment. 

My argument is that Jewish high school educators and leaders have the ability to broadly provide our young people the gift of being deep and self-aware learners who can feel satisfied from the hard work of successful learning. We can make meaningful progress toward an education that broadly develops committed Jewish citizens who are also successful lifelong learners. And this goal need not come at the cost of engagement and happiness. But it will require fundamentally rethinking the structure of learning in our high schools. If we can fix the process of learning in school, our schools won’t just be happy places but our students will be given the tools to direct and sustain long-term satisfaction in their lives. 

Hillel David Rapp is the principal of Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto.