Invest in Teachers

Joel Lurie Grishaver

Joel Lurie GrishaverAnd the Lord spoke unto Moses after the latest food riot and God said unto him, “Speak unto the leading complainers in Israel and say unto them, ‘Form focus groups and write mission statements to set priorities. Use process to determine the rules that the Lord your God has taught you. You should follow the Torah of consensus and worship at the altar of committee.’”

Exxon CommercialI watch the news almost every afternoon. I have been seeing a set of commercials for Exxon Mobil for a long time without really noticing them. The commercial series is all about Exxon Mobil’s commitment to support teachers; the series of ads use the phrase “Invest in Teachers” and focus on math and science teachers. When I noticed the ads, I Googled the phrase and learned a lot.

Public School Teacher/Hebrew School Teacher

Public School teachers have a very different task (job) than do Jewish Studies and Hebrew School teachers. Public School (and private school teachers) live in a world of metrics and evaluation. As my friends who teach in the public school systems remind me, “It is all about the test. No Child Left Behind was all about tests.” It has been reformed as Race to The Top. It is still all about evaluation of teachers via their students’ progress.

The job of the Jewish teacher is first and foremost affect. Our job (like it or not) is to lead our students into a Jewish future. It is (in old language) to “build Jewish identity;” in today’s mission statement language it is written as to “build Jewish engagement.”

The other end-goal of most Jewish Education has no metric either. What is called “Hebrew Decoding,” the act of turning Hebrew graphemes into fluent and correct phonemes is hard to measure objectively. When you get 87 out of 100 math questions right, I can say you are doing 6th grade math and are at the 92 percentile of 5th grade students taking this test. I have objective information on students and teachers.

With Hebrew out-loud reading there is no objective measure. We may be able to agree on “good” and “bad” but I have no way to measure progress. This makes the evaluation of Jewish schools, educational leaders, and teachers, subjective not objective.

Teaching to the numbers may not be good for secular education, and there may be better ways of evaluating both students and teachers (and that is another story). The lack of a “Jewish metric” makes it really hard to succeed. The evaluation of Jewish education either needs a 30-year window (until the time when our students are the parents of students) or it is completely subjective. When there is no way to prove that you are successful—accusations of failure are frequent.

It is easier to imagine learning multiplication from a computer program than it is to imagine participation in Jewish life learned on line. Even so, a lot of educational research suggests that it is the teacher who makes the difference.

Invest in Teachers

The pitch made by Exxon Mobil is that the one thing that most enhances learning is teacher knowledge. That is a lesson that Jewish education has not learned well. More than understanding the latest model popularized by Educational Leadership, we should be developing teachers with deep Jewish knowledge. Look at these reports:

Educational Leadership:“All around the world, nations seeking to improve their education systems are investing in teacher learning as a major engine for academic success. The highest-achieving countries on international measures such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) have been particularly intent on developing teachers’ expertise both before they enter the profession and throughout their careers”

Bill Gates (Washington Post): “Compared with other countries, America has spent more and achieved less. If there’s any good news in that, it’s that we’ve had a chance to see what works and what doesn’t. That sets the stage for a big change that everyone knows we need: building exceptional teacher personnel systems that identify great teaching, reward it and help every teacher get better. It’s the thing we’ve been missing, and it can turn our schools around.”

Standford Center for Educational Policy: “In these high achieving nations, teachers’ professional learning is a high priority and teachers are treated as professionals. Many of the countries that have established strong infrastructures for high-quality teaching have built them over the last two decades. This suggests that such conditions could be developed in the United States as well, with purposeful effort and clarity about what matters and what works to support professional learning and practice.”

Asia Society: “The best school systems in the world boast good salaries and prestige in the teaching profession. In Japan and China, teachers have equal or higher salaries compared to other government workers. Liu Limin, the Chinese vice minister for education, deadpanned that, “as a civil servant, I can say the salaries aren’t high. But in reality, they are high enough to draw some of the best candidates into the profession.”

Institute of Education, University of London: “Children in classes taught by the best teachers learn four times faster than those in classes taught by the poorest ones, according to a leading educationalist.” (Professor Dylan Wiliam)

While we know that the jobs are different, there is something that Jewish education can learn from investing in teachers—particularly in the content knowledge base rather than the techniques and tricks we share. Look particularly at these articles:

We’ve known about the importance of teacher education for a long time, we’ve just moved away from it.

Beware of Texas

Public schools are likely to get a lot worse. Texas is on the way of banning higher level thinking skills from their state curriculum. The Republican Party of Texas has a platform plank against teachings HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills). As goes the Republican party so goes the Republican controlled State Legislature. As goes the State of Texas so goes all American Educational Publishing companies because they are that big a share of the market. As goes the Educational Publishing Companies so go most public school systems, because there, fulltime degreed teacher aren’t willing to work without books. (That my father bought for two zuzim…)

At the moment, Jewish Education seems to be moving in a number of directions. First, camp-like Experiential education is on the rise. Second, not-so-happy Hebrew time is being reduced or handled on-line. Basically, while public schools are going to information and basic skills in order to pass their tests. Jewish education is going in the other direction, looking to create schools that feel good. This is an observation, not a judgment.

The problem for Jewish Education is two-fold.

First, basic information is being lost. Second, we are no longer raising Jews who have the knowledge and skills to run their own Jewish life. We are no longer raising Jews who have the critical thinking skills to survey the tradition and decide what they believe. Technology can be a useful tool, but in the end, learning communities (that deal with the abstract) are the solution.

The Solution

There are goals, needs, and distractions. Our goal is to raise the next generation of Jews who will take responsibility for both raising another generation of Jews and do their part in tikkun olam. We haven’t been that good at meeting these goals, but they remain the real goals of a Jewish education, not just knowing the four “kinds” that are used on Sukkot or performing rehearsed Hebrew well on a single day.

Our goal is to build a connection between each of our students and the Jewish tradition. To help each student to find a way for Judaism to be useful in his/her life and then (a la Jack Kennedy) to find a way that they can be useful to the Jewish tradition’s future. While these goals are really different from doing well on a standardized test, they fall right in line with older educational goals, ones that focused on HOTS and strive to make students in mathematicians rather than teaching them mathematics, making then biologists rather than teaching them about biology.

Our real goal is to create Jews, not to teach our students about limited aspects of Judaism. And to do that, no matter the medium or the technology, learned teachers are needed. We need to adopt something like the goals the DOE has:

  • Elevating the profession and focusing on recruiting, preparing, developing, and rewarding effective teachers and leaders.
  • Focusing on teacher and leader effectiveness in improving student outcomes.
  • Strengthening pathways into teaching and school leadership positions in high need schools
from A Blueprint for Reform: The Re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Our students (and their families) have real needs that require our understanding. We hear them on their e-mails that fill our mailboxes and our voice mail boxes. We know that they are unhappy—and like the consumers they’ve been trained to be—they know exactly what we should be doing for their children. No matter what we want to achieve, their satisfaction has to be taken into consideration and real responses (actions) have to be taken to assure their participation.

Here is where it gets tricky. Misread, their demands seem to ask for less. If they get us to shrink the scope of our goals, they are a distraction. In truth they are demanding authenticity. In the short run they are asking to go to soccer. In the long run they are demanding schools that are good enough to challenge soccer. To achieve that, we need great, knowledgeable, teachers to be there in relationship with their students. Try to imagine a viable camp without viable counselors.

It is taught that Hillel the Elder said in a baraita. “At the time of gathering, if the educational leaders of the community see that Torah is known and loved by all, leave it to others to determine the educational process. But, if they see a community for whom Torah is not beloved or well known, don’t allow the Torah to be disgraced.” – Brakhot 63a