Come Together to Support Jewish Educators

July 31, 2018

Young children lean down to look at a Torah spread across a table

CASJE - The Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education – recently launched a new project supported by the William Davidson Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation for comprehensive research on the pipeline and “career arc”of educators working in Jewish education. This is a welcome development for all who care about supporting Jewish educators and advancing the field in which they work.

From a research and funder perspective, it is worth exploring how and why a project of this substance and level of depth was developed. Have no doubt, laying the groundwork for research of this scope takes time and resources.

We started earlier this year in New York City, in the midst of a snowstorm that would bring 8” of snow by the end of the day. CASJE convened a small group of leaders in the field of Jewish educator preparation. They came together, supported by the William Davidson Foundation, to discuss challenges that the field faces and potential research topics that could address these challenges.

This conversation was facilitated using CASJE’s signature process for a “Problem Formulation Convening (PFC).” It was the first conversation of several that would guide a proposed research agenda for the field to consider. We want to identify best practices and apply research results to make the practice of Jewish education more effective.

One of the most impressive aspects of the day was that participants raised the level of discourse to concentrate on the field as a whole. Not a single person offered opinions solely from the individual and self-serving vantage point of their own organization or program – a sign of true leadership.

Several challenges for the Jewish educator field were highlighted and appreciated. For example:

  • educators across the board are not adequately valued in terms of status and recognition, compensation, and development;
  • hence, it is difficult to attract and recruit potential quality educators to choose a career as a Jewish educator;
  • the field’s high-quality educators are not being retained and adequately developed into education leaders; and
  • the field lacks a central system or structure for policy making.

The first three challenges are known and discussed by many in the field and by field leaders. And while the last example may be obvious – yes, there is no governmental or other umbrella agency that holds itself accountable to provide a Jewish education for every Jewish child as is the case for public education – it is a challenge that largely has flown under the radar by those most likely to understand the context and be equipped to propose remedies. It is worth contemplating why this is so. One view is that it is not surprising that Jewish education is diffused, decentralized, and perhaps even chaotic, given that those adjectives apply even more powerfully to the world of general education in the U.S.

Historians and analysts of contemporary American education reform know well that policy setting and implementation are largely activities left to the states and local school districts; and that for all kinds of complicated and fascinating reasons the founders of the American republic eschewed national control of schooling, a stance that has been both a virtue and an impediment.

A second point noted by those at the PFC is that, in the context of Jewish education, private philanthropists essentially are the de-facto policy makers and influencers for the field. A parallel again can be drawn to secular education, a field where philanthropists such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have invested significant resources to reform the public education system in the U.S. – and also have received substantial positive and negative criticism from this involvement.

This all raises a larger and important set of questions to consider:

  • Are Jewish education foundations up to the task of setting policy for the field?
  • Is there enough consensus across the relatively small group of funders to provide a meaningful and cohesive set of policy recommendations and investments?
  • Are there commonly viewed challenges, solutions, outcomes and measures?

Undoubtedly, the answer to the last question is “no.” Those common structures, understandings, and resources simply do not exist. But even with the current lack of alignment in funders’ vision for Jewish education, one promising effort to promote and support is the application of research to practice.

The field of Jewish education can be similar to the U.S. public education system’s vision for accountability and continual improvement in that much of education research is funded by the government and by philanthropists and is conducted across universities and research firms big and small. This is the critically important role Jewish education philanthropy can play to have a real and positive influence on the field and on the future. Let’s do more of that together.

Stacie Cherner is a Senior Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation. Menachem “Manny” Menchel is the Program Officer for Jewish Education at the William Davidson Foundation.

originally posted in eJewishPhilanthropy