Friday, February 15, 2008

Jewish Education, Inc.

It is not possible to stop the run-away process that I call Jewish Education, Inc., the ever-expanding roster of projects, research and grants that feeds heavily off our communal commitment to day schools and other educational initiatives. It is not even likely that our instinct for entrepreneurship can be slowed down because those who profit from this lucrative “non-profit” activity are adept at marketing their services and products and there are plenty of takers who believe that the optimum way to improve what happens in schools and classrooms is to turn to the expensive experts who have zero responsibility for what transpires in schools and classrooms.

If this trend seems odd, it is, although there are ready explanations, including our community being influenced by the larger and more potent trend in the same direction in the general society. More parochially, the outsiders we turn to are identified as experts, our schools need improvement, the experts have suggestions, and they are confident that they are pointing in the right direction. Those who provide the funding can take comfort in the illusion that rather than attempting to fix the shortcomings in individual schools, by turning to the educational entrepreneurs there is the prospect that an entire field may be impacted in a beneficial way.

This is, of course, a seductive proposition. Whether it is true is another matter, one that is scarcely explored because the employment of experts is usually regarded as self-fulfilling, as an achievement of a useful goal. The contrast between the critical examination of the educational experience as it transpires in schools and the absence of any meaningful evaluation of the efficacy of outside experts is remarkable. Indeed, if what the experts suggest or attempt meets with failure, the ready explanation is that this is further evidence of failure at the school level.

While those on the educational firing line, whether educators or lay officials, are routinely engaged in the assessment of the institutions for which they have responsibility, those who are adept at pinpointing the deficiencies of schools and educators exempt themselves from self-examination. We do not read in their documents acknowledgement of their failures, of goals not met and, more importantly, of the conditions that they purported to address being unchanged despite the grants that have been received. Rather, the failures of others are presented as proof that additional and generally larger grants need to be made.

The process accelerates, in part because competent educational leaders have an inducement to abandon the firing line and seek the greener pastures of Jewish Education, Inc. Is it not possible to assess what has been accomplished over the past decade as a consequence of the countless projects that promised educational improvement? If such an initiative were undertaken, my strong hunch is that the conclusion would be that the rain in Spain still falls mainly on the plain.

Perhaps the effort should be forward looking, using 2008 as the starting point for trying to figure out the impact of what is being supported in the name of educational improvement. My bet is that ten years hence the pickings will be slimmer than slim, that in 2018 despite the infusion of tens of millions of dollars into our educational entrepreneurial ventures, the situation will be scarcely improved and that, in some respects, it is likely to be worse.

I focus on the day school world because this is the world that I care most about. Similar points can be made throughout our communal infrastructure, whether they be supplementary schools which for a generation has been mined for self-benefit by a cadre of pseudo-experts who as yet have not produced anything of lasting benefit. Another field where similar tendencies abound is Jewish camping which quickly has proven to be a profit center for non-profits. We can add to the list the over-indulgence in the quantitative analysis of nearly everything Jewish, with reports being issued nearly nonstop, with nearly all of them being dead on arrival.

One modest proposal for improvement that aims for a higher standard of accountability by the grant-seekers is for those who pursue funding to indicate and briefly describe the grants that they and their institutions have received and the ones that they are applying for. Hopefully, this may bring a measure of discipline, although I am not overly confident.

In criticizing the imperialism and largely inadvertent cynicism of Jewish Education, Inc., I do not mean to dismiss all research or outside projects. I received the other day the draft of a terrific report on supplementary schools, a document that when published will add importantly to our knowledge of an activity that still continues to play a part in the lives of more than 200,000 children. I also admire the painstaking and admittedly expensive efforts to create curriculum modes, for both Judaic and secular studies, that are creative and can enhance the education of thousands of day schoolers.

What I do not admire is the lack of empathy for day schools by persons who are being enriched by these institutions whose struggle is a daily experience. I do not admire their refusal to look in the mirror, to even briefly reflect on whether they are improving our schools or, as in fact happens, making the road more difficult for institutions that already live a difficult existence.

Most of all, I do not admire the expansion of Jewish Education, Inc. at the expense of our most vital institutions. As I have advocated for far more years than I can recount, education occurs in schools and classrooms.