Friday, June 5, 2009

Challenges Faced by Schools That Work

The following excerpts are taken verbatim from pages 5 and 6 of Schools That Work: What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Supplementary Schools, written by Jack Wertheimer and published in March 2009 by The Avi Chai Foundation. See earlier postings on 5/31/09, 6/2/09 and 6/3/09 for discussions of "enabling factors" and characteristics of successful schools, as described by Wertheimer and his team of researchers.

A number of intractable challenges are endemic to the field [of supplementary Jewish education], and even better schools are not immune to their impact.
  • There is a scarcity of teachers well-versed in Hebrew and Judaica who have the skill to transmit their knowledge to students.
  • [T]he real challenge lies in implementing them [curricular materials] properly in the classroom. Some schools are forced to rely upon teachers who lack content knowledge and/or pedagogical skills.
  • Directing a school is a demanding job, which can lead to burn-out....Most schools have a shallow bench so that pinch hitters do not come to the aid of directors.
  • With the large majority of students attending school for a handful of hours each week, whether once or twice a week, schools are severly constrained. Remaining mindful of the time constraints under which they operate, they do not promise more than they can deliver. The question is whether this hard-headed approach to time, results in too low a set of expectations.
  • [S]upplementary programs find themselves in a heightened time-bind, creating a dilemma about what to emphasize and what to omit. Schools must make trade-offs between subject matter...and also between content knowledge and community building or other affective activities.
  • A particularly difficult curricular choice relates to Hebrew language instruction. Many schools are unclear about what to teach and toward what end...
  • There is little doubt that many parents and chuldren regard the end goal of supplementary school to be the bar/bat mitzvah....Effective schools...explicitly downplay their role in preparing children, and most try to retain students well beyond 7th grade.
  • With a range of other activities beckoning to children, supplementary schools must compete for the attention of families. Jewish education, then, is merely one of many supplementary programs. Compared to the recent past, Jewish education now must compete with far more options -- and often loses out.
These circumstances encumber all supplementary schools. They are built into the current structure.


Depressing to think about, isn't it? But it's a fairly realistic picture of the challenges facing supplementary schools -- the good schools as well as the mediocre ones and the poor ones. Oftentimes, we spend so much time focusing on the challenges facing us that it's easy to get lost along the way.

When I was growing up, my father kept a reminder on the wall in his office, which he could see when he sat at his desk. It read: "When you're up to your @*# in alligators, it's hard to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp." It was significant for two reasons: 1) We simply didn't use language like that in polite company when I was growing up; and 2) My Dad explained how difficult it was to avoid getting caught in a reactive mode, in which all one did was respond to the crisis du jour.

More reactions/reflections when this series is done.

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