Jewish high schools need fortifying, not overhauling

Jewish high schools need fortifying, not overhauling

It is easy to criticize teachers and schools, and I have done my fair share these last 15 years.

But are Jewish high schools failing? Even the most disgruntled of parents, I suspect, would be hard-pressed to offer such a dismal assessment in support of overhauling our existing Jewish high school program in favor of creating an entirely new school, as was suggested in last week’s Jewish Standard (“A new Jewish high school for 2015?”). Yet that is precisely the agenda of those most vigorously advocating enhanced cost-cutting measures as a cure to the funding crisis in Jewish education.

The Lookstein Center provides resources for educators. In June, in a Lookstein-hosted discussion group with educators, Gershon Distenfeld, the chairman of Yeshivat He’Atid elementary school, which employs a “rotational blended learning” financial model designed to reduce costs through more economically efficient staff usage, declared: “I have come to a grim conclusion – we are failing miserably in Jewish education.” Together with Jeff Kiderman, a He’Atid board member, who is also executive director of the Affordable Jewish Education Project, Mr. Distenfeld reasserted that gloomy accusation in an email he sent to parents of rising seventh graders. (I am one of those parents.) According to Mr. Distenfeld and Mr. Kiderman, the solution is “to start from scratch and completely re-imagine Jewish day school” by creating a new high school, because, they contend, “[w]e don’t just need to tweak the way we go about Jewish high school education – we need an overhaul.”

To substantiate the accusation that our schools are failing and therefore in need of an overhaul, Mr. Distenfeld and Mr. Kiderman rely on a study of Jewish high school students the AJE conducted. As Mr. Distenfeld announced in June: “I was just shown the results of a soon-to-be-released study of a broad range of Jewish high school students. It . . . sadly shows how we’ve been failing our students.” These results, which were linked to the email I received, are comprised entirely of a handful of insights or general conclusions based on tallied ratings of survey questions and selected quotes from student comments.

The email presented few details by which to assess the survey’s reliability, so I responded by asking AJE representatives, including Mr. Distenfeld and Mr. Kiderman, for more information several times. At this point I have not received a response, although Mr. Kiderman did tell the Jewish Standard that the “survey was conducted online and publicized by social media.” In fact, there is an open Facebook page captioned “Jewish High School Survey.” An online survey linked from that page is at The Facebook page appears to have been created and administered by a high school student, who invited other area high school students to join.

As a consequence, because the survey does not appear to be based on a random sample, it necessarily suffers from selection bias and its conclusions at this point amount almost entirely to subjective impressions by whomever chose to select quotes and formulate insights. Conversely, because the survey is billed as the basis for overhauling Jewish high school education, it behooves AJE to disclose more information about the survey’s creation, administration, and interpretation before anyone can consider it credible.

Irrespective of the value of a student survey – and there is certainly merit in hearing what students think about their schools – is it wise to determine curriculum standards or derive educational quality solely based on teenagers’ impressions? Indeed, the “general conclusions” offered by this survey are far from remarkable. For example, one rather unsurprising conclusion is that “students hate tests and think they are useless.”

More significantly, other survey conclusions, such as the supposed student preference for collaborative and project-based learning, conveniently support the financial model marketed by Yeshivat He’Atid and other AJE-affiliated schools. These schools embrace a theory promoted by business school professors and for-profit entrepreneurs (most notably the Christensen Institute) known as “disruptive innovation,” whereby the education market is transformed substantially through the use of enhanced technology, such as online educational tools. Specifically, these elementary schools have adopted a “rotational blended learning” model in which the classroom experience is redesigned so that students in the class are divided into smaller groups, spending only a portion of their time with a teacher and the remainder of their time in self-learning at a computer station or in collaborative group learning with other students. By decreasing the amount of student-teacher interface time, these schools contend that they are able to reduce the greatest expense in any school – teacher time – in ways that alleviate the funding crisis confronting Jewish schools.

Whether they are correct is largely speculative at this point. He’Atid has existed only for one year, serving children in pre-K through first grade. A reduced teacher-usage model may or may not be sustainable in older elementary schools grades, where the subject matter becomes more complex and student needs more diverse. Whether disruptive innovation works to reduce the cost of the more expansive high school educational program is even more difficult to predict.

The accusation that schools are failing is not about financial inefficiencies, anyway; it is rather a bolder claim that our schools supposedly are educationally deficient because, as Mr. Distenfeld and Mr. Kiderman maintain, “our children are not learning many of the skills they will need to be successful in the 21st century.”

This is not my experience as the father of high-school-age children. And as the spouse of a seasoned educator and curriculum director at one of the local Jewish high schools, I have seen much effort expended in addressing the changing needs of high school students in the 21st century. But if there is merit to these allegations, then the Avi Chai Foundation and the OU, which partner with AJE, may want to shift attention away from the AJE’s overhaul efforts at creating new schools in favor of improving the quality of education received by thousands of students attending existing high schools, such as Frisch, SAR, MTA, Ramaz, TABC, Bruriah, and Ma’ayanot.

The financing crisis certainly is a challenge for the Jewish educational system. Mr. Distenfeld, Mr. Kiderman, and particularly AJE’s founder, Meir Nordlicht – who should be held in the highest esteem for the time and generosity he devotes to communal activities and philanthropy – are to be commended for demanding communal vigilance toward making our schools more affordable.

But calling for the creation of yet another high school based on an untested financial model and making unfounded doomsday accusations about failing schools that must be overhauled, based simply on an unreliable survey of supposed student sentiments, may be neither the wisest idea nor the most prudent use of valuable community resources at this time.