Monday, February 23, 2004

The Education Industry

We’ll know that steps are being taken to improve the lot of those who teach in our schools when American Jewry stops having conferences and other talkfests about the plight of our educators and spends the funds saved on helping teachers and schools. That’s not likely to happen because conferencing is an addiction and addictions are hard to break. There have been over the past generation hundreds of get-togethers at which those who are not in the classroom express ersatz concern for those who are. Our media gobble up the publicity handouts, without pausing to consider whether any of the previous activities resulted in any good, that is except for the travel industry.

We now have had what is boastfully and inaccurately called the first Jewish Education Leadership Summit, sponsored by the Jewish Education Service of North America. Heartfelt concern was expressed about our teacher shortage and our short-changing of those who teach. This took place at a resort, doubtlessly because the good food and the nice accoutrements helped the participants focus on the situation of those who teach our children.

We have created an education industry. It grows in good times and in bad times, feeding off the naiveté of those who sincerely care about Jewish education. Few in the media or communal life or philanthropy ask why the situation has worsened even as great sums have been given to the “nonprofits” and other mainstays of our education industry. We feed the already well-fed without considering whether it might be better to help Jewish schools that are struggling to survive.

Our education industry is just a tiny part of the highly profitable “not for profit” world of educational entrepreneurship. Still, I suspect that there is a greater tendency to channel resources in this direction in Jewish life, if only because of our nearly pathological instinct to create organizations and hold conferences, as well as to employ rhetoric as a surrogate for meaningful action. Those who believe – and they are many – that our mega-bureaucracy is a sign of strength should know that there is an inverse relationship between the increase in organizations and the decrease in our numbers and commitment.

Nonprofit entrepreneurship clusters around nearly all social concerns, with government usually footing the bill. A recent issue of The New Yorker included an article by Dr. Jerome Groopman, the outstanding doctor and medical humanist, on the grief industry that post-9/11 was endowed with tens of millions of dollars of public funds to treat trauma victims. As matters turned out, organizations were the primary beneficiaries.

As I have noted in articles about Jewish poverty, the contemporary approach to social problems is for government and private funders to favor the “nonprofits” over those who are directly on the firing line. These organizations are adept at public relations and the media buy into and peddle their self-serving claims, while those who are most in need and the presumed beneficiaries of the services to be provided are relegated to a backseat. In the name of improving Jewish education, there is an expanding tendency to utilize outsiders and to ignore educators and their schools.

Millions are spent each year to train those who might teach – and then usually only briefly – while those who are already in the classroom but might leave because they cannot make ends meet are neglected. There are exceptions to this pattern, they being useful philanthropic initiatives that assist schools and educators directly. Predominantly, though, the tendency is to bypass schools and support outsiders who claim that their activities will improve what transpires inside of schools.

Why do we favor outsiders and entrepreneurs over educators? For one thing, the “nonprofits” and outsiders are expert at attracting attention, marketing their product and fundraising. In a real sense, these are their main activities. Educators and those who have responsibility for schools devote themselves primarily to what transpires inside their institutions. Their time and energy are consumed by daily pressures and tasks that involve students, parents, staff, government agencies and many others.

This advantage of outsiders is enhanced by the belief that schools that need improvement do not have the capacity for self-improvement, even if funding is made available. In a word, education is regarded as too important to rely on educators. There is something to this cynical or perverse notion, but it is also unfair because scant attention is paid to the track record of the medicine men who advertise wondrous cures for the social and educational problems that they are handsomely awarded to redress.

Most Jewish schools have what to be proud of. They are relatively free of the social pathologies that have harmed too many youngsters and robbed them of the capacity to study and learn. With exceptions, they contribute significantly to Jewish commitment and continuity. Most importantly, they almost inherently have a positive learning environment that prepares students well for their subsequent academic careers and adulthood. Yet, from certain objective perspectives they are limited and weak. They operate in facilities that often leave much to be desired and their academic curriculum and extra-curricular activities can seem primitive when compared with good public schools and private schools.

Most also operate under severe financial pressure and this is translated into curtailed support staff and maintenance. There are warts everywhere, as I know from substantial experience, and one need not seek to find them. All of this is further complicated by the geographic dispersal of day schools across the continent and the geographic imbalance arising from two-thirds of enrollment being located in what is roughly the New York metropolitan area.

Outside agencies, blessed with glibness and not saddled with operational responsibilities, seem to be an attractive alternative to those who sincerely want to improve Jewish education. Attractive they are; effective they are not. After too many conferences, projects and other sterile activity that have resulted in no more than miniscule improvements in Jewish education, it is time to stop coddling the education industry. It is time to remember that education occurs in schools and classrooms and in the interactions between teachers and students. If we are to improve Jewish education, this is where we must put our resources.