Let Students Evaluate Their Jewish Education
Tue, 04/24/2012
Peter Kash
Peter Kash

Ever since Hebrew schools were formed, there have not been formalized, nationally-instituted feedback mechanisms by which students of yeshivot, day schools or supplemental schools could express themselves. As a result, students have not had any way to comment — positively or negatively — on their classroom experience.

Alvin Schiff, a leader in supplemental Jewish education, has stated, “If Jewish education loses its vitality, the very survival of the American Jewish community will be endangered.”

Day school and Hebrew school students are “consumers” no different than students who are consumers of iPads or iPhones. If they are not satisfied, they share their negative experience and probably won’t purchase that product or service again. Just as it is for a for-profit business, it is less expensive and more profitable for a Hebrew school to retain a customer than to lose him or her and find another.

How do we know how well an educational curriculum is helping future Jewish identity without formalized feedback or Student Evaluation Forms (SEF)?

During the 1920s, the first college student evaluation forms were created. In the 1940s, the first major high school evaluation using student feedback was conducted among 7,000 students in 57 Illinois high schools. Since then hundreds of thousands of students from elementary to high school have participated in formalized evaluations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned a study that observed 2,519 classrooms and collected more than 13,000 hours of digital recordings asking students their perceptions. Jewish educational institutions should learn from and adapt similar feedback evaluations.

Many educators contend that students can’t give fair and balanced feedback. But Wilbert McKeachie, an expert in education development, has said that “the student evaluators are the single most valid source on teaching effectiveness.”

If Mattel toy manufacturers and Universal Studios ask children for their feedback, why shouldn’t nonprofit schools? In fact studies have shown that students are often less biased than other evaluators and can distinguish between just-nice teachers and effective ones.

With new technology and social media outlets available to students, they aren’t waiting for formalized evaluations. Since 2002, students from more than 80 day schools and yeshivas have posted opinions of their teachers on RateMyTeacher.com; 17 million students from public schools have also posted opinions on this site.

A recent study by sociologist Steven M. Cohen showed high levels of Jewish engagement for children who attend a Jewish overnight camp. The problem is that only 10 percent of Jewish children have the opportunity to have such an experience. (It was my Camp Ramah experience in 1978 that helped me to realize my Jewish identity, reinforced by a USY trip to Israel in 1979.) We need to hear from these campers about the impact of the camping experience.

With the American Jewish population expected to continue to decline in the coming decades, we as a people will constitute less than the current 2 percent and be closer to 1 percent of the population. At that point — without good data —  it will be that much harder to maintain our cultural and Jewish identity.

What, then, should we do? First, let’s encourage feedback from our consumers, no matter what the age. Second, have meritocratic pay increases for Jewish educators. In addition to expanding the Milken Jewish Educator Awards and the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education, we need to offer higher pay for these teachers so we don’t lose them to administration jobs or other professions.

Instead of investing in “bricks and mortar,” invest in technology. If students have access to Smart Boards and satellite dishes in their schools, we can teach in real time by using technology to connect them with Israeli students on an archeological dig or with Russian students on a field trip to Babi Yar. Elementary students can do a cooking class in Hebrew with fellow students in Jerusalem.

There is no reason why, after five years of basic Conservative and or Reform Hebrew school education, our students shouldn’t have at least a 1,000-word Hebrew vocabulary. There needs to be a nationwide or statewide Hebrew word-of-the-day program for children and their parents.

The Dali Lama recognized one thing that keeps the Jewish people together in exile — a common bond through the Hebrew language.

Finally, we need not fear what we learn from feedback, but embrace it, and make education thrilling and stimulating for the 400,000 students in the Jewish education system — for the next generation and beyond.

Peter Kash is a graduate of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education at Yeshiva University and has taught marketing and entrepreneurship at several universities here and abroad.

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