Monday, November 10, 2003

Education is in Schools and Classrooms

A call from the daughter of a friend told a familiar story. She is on the board of the local day school attended by her children and the school is looking for a principal. The incumbent will be leaving, not because the board wants him to or to go to another school that is offering a better deal. He is headed to even greener pastures, to a new foundation that is committed to Jewish education. There is no better way for foundations and projects that are committed to Jewish education to demonstrate this commitment than by raiding schools, thereby adding to the already severe shortage in Jewish educational leadership. Many of our best educators are now ensconced in offices away from schools and the exodus is growing.

We cannot fault foundations or organizations for going after the best talent available and we must not fault those who seek advancement or an escape from the pressure cooker existence of day school life. But we also must recognize that the trend has consequences. Too many of our schools cannot find educational leaders of good quality. They are settling for candidates of limited ability, at times even hiring persons who aren’t Jewish. The situation has worsened during a period when foundations are funding programs to recruit and train principals for Jewish schools.

The deficit resulting from this loss of talent could theoretically be offset if the former principals would use their new positions to convince funders to be more generous to those who remain on the front line in schools and classrooms. That’s usually not the case. Instead, they become critics of the system they abandoned and they embrace a foundation culture that prefers expensive and distant projects over direct support for schools and educators.

With several notable exceptions, foundations have forgotten that education occurs in schools and classrooms and in the interaction between teachers and students and not in organizational offices or in training programs or in conferences or in the pseudo-expertise of those who do not have the responsibility of running a school or managing a classroom.

There is plenty of room for improvement in most Jewish schools. It could hardly be otherwise in view of the multiple tasks – including a dual curriculum – that they must perform and in view of their scarcity of resources, as well as the extraordinary challenges arising out of limited enrollment. What day school educators accomplish in view of these circumstances is remarkable.

When we give funding priority to those who talk about teaching over those who teach we are engaged in self-delusion. Admittedly, this attitude mirrors a trend that has dominated American public life for more than a generation as preference has been given to nonprofit organizations and projects that will allegedly help those whom society wants to help. In a real sense, we do not trust those who need help, whether they be the poor or educators.

This trend is wasteful and at best of limited efficacy, although those who are adept at grantsmanship manage to convince governmental and philanthropic funders that enriching them is the way to go. Is it any wonder that after spending tens of billions of dollars to address various social problems through the intervention of these intermediate nonprofits, the problems that they are designed to deal with have become worse.

We in the Jewish community go perhaps a step further in our obsession with projects, an obsession that is evident and pernicious in Jewish education. Even as philanthropic support has risen substantially, relatively little directly reaches schools, as we strongly prefer those who talk about education over those who teach. The attitude apparently is that education is too important a function to be left to educators, that the best way to help schools is to give grants to those who rarely go into a classroom. Intended or not, this attitude conveys a certain contempt for teachers.

As the cost of day school education has skyrocketed – faculty salaries play only a small part in this – the share of the school budget met by tuition and other mandatory parental payments has risen dramatically. In short, tuition has risen sharply because 1) the product costs more and 2) others are giving less. It is also true that as a percentage of school budgets, scholarship allocations have declined steadily. In practical terms this means both that day school education has become too expensive for a growing number of families that might be inclined toward meaningful religious education and also that fewer parents are receiving meaningful scholarship assistance.

Obsessions cling to people. In fact, they tend to grow, to become even more dominant in the minds of those who are attached to them. There is no reason to believe that we will kick the habit of favoring in the name of caring about Jewish education those who don’t teach over those who do. More than ever, we are giving priority to activities that occur outside of schools.

I have made this argument more times than I care to remember, apparently to no avail. I am as prone as those whom I criticize to an obsessiveness about Jewish education. This has been much of my life and my passion for fifty years and while I wish that I had more company, so be it. I will continue my advocacy, even if it falls on deaf ears. We must challenge the misguided view that extremely low salaries in Jewish education are acceptable and that scholarship opportunities should go only to those who have suffered catastrophe or the like. Most of all, we must challenge the attitude that the feeding of those who are not responsible for the education of our children is the preferred way of supporting Jewish education.

We need to learn at long last that education takes place in schools and classrooms.