Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Orthodox Jewish Education

In the recent post on Hemorrhaging Orthodoxy on this site, and in the various posts others have written on other sites, one constant theme is that Orthodoxy has at least fared better than its Reform and Conservative counterparts, with an attrition rate of about 17% - far smaller than the others. Much of the credit for this is given to schools, and that the existence and attendance of Jewish schools makes students more likely to identify themselves as Jewish.

While this knowledge is helpful in terms of knowing that having Jewish day schools helps create and maintain a strong Jewish identity, what does it teach us about the quality of education? If a very large percentage of Orthodox Jewish children attend Jewish day schools, yet the attrition rate is 17%, what does that say about the quality of the schooling as it relates to the ideals we are trying to give over to them? What exactly is the goal of Jewish education, anyway?

Yair Daar at Adventures in Chinuch recently discussed this subject as part of a greater post wondering how his relatively new, small blog was one of the few that exist whatsoever on the subject of Orthodox Jewish education. He noted that as much interest as there seems to be in lowering tuition, there's almost no discussion whatsoever about the goals of the education teachers are supposed to be imparting:
My assumption (I would love to find out that I am wrong) is that most of our community members barely give thought the different goals that can be established by our schools. Now, such ignorance of school practices may seem well-rationalized; most people cannot claim to be experts or near-experts in educational practice. Therefore, the claim can be made that the layperson has no business discussing and influencing matters related to education. Fund-raising, sure. Budget, sure. Special events, mishloach manos, sure and sure. But not education.

The truth however, is the opposite. Parents and community leaders should be included in the discussion as to what the schools' goals should be. What do we want our kids knowing when graduate? What skills should they have? What lessons should they have learned? What direction are they being pointed in. These questions are all answerable by a seriously-thinking person. Educational methods, maybe not so much. But definitely the goals.
 Please read his whole post, it's extremely eye-opening.

However, even if that issue would somehow be solved in the immediate future - something which seems extremely unlikely - what would be next for Orthodoxy? Certainly the current format (usually referred to as legacy schools) seems to be a massive economic house of cards in most places - tuition is usually referred to as astronomical, and is wiping out many families, while schools often have trouble making payments and keeping their staff fully paid. Other suggestions, while interesting, have their own problems: Charter schools, hailed by some as a great alternative, are found by others to be extremely lacking in the actual educational aspect. For example, Orthonomics linked to and discussed briefly a guest post on the Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition blog by the Department of Day School & Educational Services of the Orthodox Union on the possibility of Jewish charter schools in New Jersey, which is also worth a read, particularly if your state allows charter schools. But just a few weeks ago (via Freakonomics) Joanne Barkan, in a good piece in Dissent Magazine, wrote that Stanford University's study of charter schools found that 83% of them perform worse or no better than traditional public schools. On the flip side, an educator I know who is working with charter-like schools in Florida has found they are doing quite well - far better than other alternatives. As a community, we don't want to rush into yet another poor approach to education, both from an economic and an educational point of view.

We also need to be honest about what we're trying to accomplish with our schools. In a study performed by Yeshiva University's Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education recently (thanks SIL), there are a few interesting notes. One of the most interesting points to me is how much of an emphasis is made on instructing schools to use common sense, cost accounting, and utilizing their staff more fully so there isn't so much overlap and expensive specialization. One might think these are obvious, but apparently they either were not or the study felt it important to reiterate them regardless. But what is particularly interesting is its findings that a group of schools in three communities had a student:teacher ratio of 6.5:1, as opposed to 9:1 in an independent school. In a 260-student school, that would amount to 11 more teachers, the cost of which is obviously expensive. While not discussed in the summary, an oft-cited complaint about the cost of education are the additional schools or classes that seem to exist for the purpose of job creation. Without speculating as to whether that is the case or not, it certainly behooves us as a community to make sure that students are being given an optimal ratio that also doesn't blow costs out of proportion with what is necessary. The study cites one school which realized a $1 million savings potential by changing its ratio from 7.2:1 to 9:1.

On a related note, the other statistic in the study that was a bit shocking was that on average, 80% of a school's costs are personnel related (15% are purchased services, 5% are purchased goods). [Ezzie: I'm not sure where land and building costs fall in, or if they were excluded for some reason. If excluded, this makes a bit more sense.] The study does not break down which of those are teachers, and which are other administration members and/or other staff, only noting with a * that "The significant majority of personnel costs is for personnel related to educational services." What's particularly striking about this is if the majority of the costs are personnel related to education, then it comes down to one of two primary issues: If they are overstaffed, it explains why they are running at a deficit. If they are not overstaffed, then a model where the tuition of the students in a classroom can't cover a teacher's pay is obviously doomed to failure.

In Yair's post, he states regarding education itself, and I would expand it to the economic side of education as well, that
...the current climate is one ready for change. The forthcoming generation of Orthodox Jewish parents, in which I include myself, are in many ways different from our parents. We have experienced Torah-learning in quantity and quality that is unprecedented. We do not have the same concerns of Jewish identity in America that previous generations struggled with. Many of us understand how to balance serious Torah-learning with a "normal" lifestyle. If we don't demand that schools meet our criteria for a meaningful Jewish life, and if we allow inertia to be the deciding force in our children's education, we will have failed miserably.
Amen.

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