by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
Many Orthodox Jews assume that socially isolating schoolchildren is an absolute cultural necessity, and some further believe the same about intellectual isolation. The cost of setting up and running a school that meets governmental standards, and that enables graduates to earn a decent living, is therefore a given. Day schools only have to justify expenses above and beyond that minimum, and they are competing only with each other.
Many Modern Orthodox and just about all non-Orthodox Jews, however, have additional (or conflicting) educational values and priorities for their children. Some require a school to meet minimal standards such as having enough AP classes to enable competitive application to elite universities, or a genuine team sports program. Others go further and will choose a school for their children based primarily on whether it will enable their children to thrive emotionally, socially, or academically, with Jewish content and influence just one among a constellation of competing values.
For these families, Jewish day schools are competing with public and private schools. We seem to be winning the competition less often than in the past. This is a crisis both because we need the students generally, and because we particularly need the parents who can afford other private schools.
How can we win the competition more often? Dr. Harry Bloom recently argued that we need to showcase the objective secular academic achievements of students, such as SAT scores. I think that is very likely true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should put a greater percentage of our resources into such education.
Premise 1: Jewish day schools have no innate economic advantages over either private or public schools. The only special workplace benefit we offer is adaptation to the Jewish calendar and – perhaps owing to the cost of day school tuition – there is no deep pool of highly talented Jewishly observant science or literature teachers who might take less money in exchange for this benefit. Furthermore, because we appeal to a wealthy community, we tend to compete with well-funded public schools.
Premise 2: Jewish day schools have an innate academic disadvantage with regard to public or private schools, namely that we need to spend time on Jewish stuff. Time matters – all other things being equal, students will learn more math etc. in a school that spends more time on math, and there will be more time for office hours, professional development, and the like in a school with fewer classtime needs.
Premise 3: There is no reason to believe that Jews, or members of the Jewish community, are better at running schools than other people with similar educational backgrounds and experience.
Conclusion: Therefore, it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect day schools to be better academically on average than their secular peer schools, public or private. Every school should strive for excellence, but in the end, we do not live in Lake Wobegon. If the claim of academic superiority is our only hope for sustainability, we have no hope, unless the Jewish education we provide makes the overall academic product superior.
Here is the same argument in a historical key.
Once upon a time, Jewish day schools were academically superior to non-Jewish competitors because
- they drew students from a community that was on average more academically motivated and intellectually developed than its economic peer communities.
This is no longer true, not because Jews are less motivated than we were, but because we have become much wealthier, and so are now competing with more motivated peers.
- Jewish studies, owing to the amount of time spent on them with high academic expectations, gave many students – especially very talented students – a more challenging and rigorous academic experience than they could receive at the same grade level in other subjects. Thus the standard claim that studying Talmud improved math SAT scores, and in general fostered logical clarity and evidence-based argumentation.
It was true, however, that successful Talmudic rigor did not consistently translate into Jewish inspiration or identification, and worse, that mediocrity or failure in Jewish studies sometimes led to serious alienation from religion or broad self-image issues. The result of this was that Jewish Studies curricula and pedagogy became less focused on the immediately cognitive, and much more focused on broad life-relevance than on Jewish cultural density. The result of this is that students and parents now look for ways that students’ Jewish Studies performance can be improved by other disciplines, rather than vice versa. We now learn Tanakh and Talmud (sometimes) “just like literature”, and Talmud (sometimes) just like geometry.
I am agnostic for the purposes of this post as to whether these changes overall improve the affectiveness of Jewish Studies. I do want to suggest, however, that they have significantly diminished our only sustainable competitive academic advantage. Restoring that advantage may therefore be an economic and sociological necessity even if in a perfect world, i.e one in which Jewish day schools had no external competitors, we might not put cognitive achievement quite so high on our list of goals.