Teacher licensing on JES agenda
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Teacher licensing on JES agenda

Beauticians, embalmers, accountants, and dentists have to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise to earn a license to work in their fields. Jewish educators in New Jersey — and in many other places — do not.

According to Jewish Educational Services of North America, nearly half of day-school educators and two-thirds of supplementary-school teachers who responded to a survey it issued last month do not have valid teaching credentials even though the vast majority hold a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.

"This means the field does not have national or state-mandated requirements or a standard measure against which it can evaluate the basic competence of educators in Jewish schools," the report concluded.

None of this comes as a surprise to Wally Greene, director of Jewish Educational Services at the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. The issue of teacher licensing has been at the forefront of his agenda for years, to little avail.

"Every profession requires practitioners to be certified either by the state, by voluntary accrediting agencies — AMA, Bar Association, etc. — or by both," said Greene, a former Jewish day school principal himself.

"Jewish education is the only profession in which untrained, uncertified, and often unskilled individuals can become teachers. General studies teachers must be licensed. Why aren’t the same demands made for those who teach Jewish studies?"

Greene is president of the National Board of License for Teachers and Principals of Jewish Schools in North America, which has been offering certification for Judaic studies teachers and principals since 1941. Thus far, however, only a handful of American Jewish schools require such licensure for employment.

"We [UJA-NNJ] give a million [dollars] to the schools each year, just because they exist, with no accountability," said Greene. "I’m not objecting to that. But if we took that same amount and said, ‘We will give this to you per capita licensed teacher,’ I don’t think they would blow away the money." This type of arrangement is already in place in St. Louis, according to Greene.

Howard Charish, UJA-NNJ executive vice president, told The Jewish Standard that the federation is not in favor of tying allocations to licensure at this time. He said it is committed to encouraging it on a voluntary basis, through JES, starting with the day schools.

"We believe there is a premium in teacher training and licensing," said Charish. "Just because someone has knowledge in a subject area, he or she does not necessarily have pedagogical expertise."

While others in the field of Jewish education endorse the idea in theory, some question Greene’s contention that "standards-based training and licensure lead to more effective teaching and improved student learning." "We treat licensure in the same open-minded way we treat other promising ideas," said JESNA President Donald Sylvan. "If we believed there was clear evidence that licensure improved Jewish education, we’d be championing it. We have not seen that evidence."

Indeed, the JESNA survey, "Educators in Jewish Schools Study," identifies its first step in addressing the challenge of recruiting fully qualified teachers as "Understanding the relationship between ‘qualified’ educators and excellence in the classroom."

Such studies have been done in general education, but not in Jewish education. Greene said it would be difficult to do so because curriculums vary widely from place to place.

"I’ve proposed to Wally that we should take a community that requires licensing [for Jewish studies teachers] and another similar community that does not, so we can have a real empirical test to determine its impact," said Sylvan. Those communities include Toronto, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Miami, St. Louis, Seattle, and Cleveland. "If he can give me that information, I would work with the National Board of License to find funders."

Meanwhile, Greene concedes, "many directors of Jewish educational agencies have verified that NBL certification is simply not within the realm of possibility for most of those teaching in congregational schools. Day schools experience similar frustrations. Principals are happy to hire anyone because it’s so hard to get teachers."

Rabbi Stuart Saposh, headmaster of Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, said he is comfortable with the qualifications of his Judaic studies staff. "All our teachers, licensing aside, have completed a university program in America or in Israel that establishes their credentials as a teacher," he said. "That satisfies us. Perhaps there could be another tier of training or qualification, but I’d have to do more research to comment on it."

While NBL has a relationship with master’s degree programs at graduate education programs associated with, among others, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, Yeshiva University, and Gratz University — and many teachers and principals do pursue licensing — Greene contends that unless it is required or encouraged, there is little incentive for educators to make the effort.

If teacher contracts had rewards built in for participation, that would provide the necessary motivation, said Jeffrey Lasday, executive director of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

"CAJE is working with NBL to provide teachers with a [pre-license] scaffold to direct them to skills and knowledge they should have as Jewish educators to succeed in the classroom," Lasday said.

Perhaps as early as this summer, teachers could complete certifications in different content areas at CAJE’s annual conference, "then patch them together over the years for a license," said Lasday. "NBL licenses begin with criteria that are out of reach for a congregational educator. We want to build a system that would get them in the door." NBL offers five levels of teacher certification earned through academic study, professional experience, and "life experience" in general Judaica and Hebrew literacy. Some credits are awarded upon completion of recognized professional-development and continuing-education programs, including CAJE conferences.

Diana Yacobi, educational director of the religious school at Temple Emanu-El of Closter, said she’d welcome focused licensing for particular areas of study, such as Bible, prayer, Hebrew language, and Jewish history. "If it can be customized to the region or structured by discipline, that would help us tap into academic training that’s out there and would be attractive to teachers," Yacobi said. "Otherwise, it’s not realistic. And if institutions don’t attribute value to it, it won’t happen. At my board of education, it hasn’t come up."

Yacobi added that finding teachers "is always a challenge," but that in six years on the job she has developed teams of teachers who specialize in certain areas. She prefers that they have teaching experience, "but they don’t always, and then it becomes my job to work with them to turn them into teachers. What’s critical is that they want to work with children and are team players and demonstrate some creativity."

Recently, a tripartite alliance was forged between the 63-member Association of Directors of Central Agencies (Greene’s colleagues at federations across the continent), JESNA, and the NBL.

"This confederation representing lay leaders, agency heads, and educators is united in the desire to ameliorate the current status of professional development opportunities available to Jewish educators," said Greene.

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