For at least a decade K-12 educators have recognized that schools must change in order to prepare our students for the challenges of a rapidly changing world. The word “innovation” has become a catch-all for those changes. Unfortunately, for many schools, innovation remains a phrase or vague commitment, and substantive change that builds value for the school in a time of expanding choice and dynamic markets remains elusive.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
"Excellence" is a goal to which many, if not all, day schools subscribe. This issue provides perspectives on this elusive term, offering diverse notions of what day school excellence means and looks like, and suggesting pathways and structures for schools to achieve excellence. Each school must define what excellence means for its community and how excellence relates to the other values in the school's mission.
Click here to download the PDF and printer friendly version of this issue of HaYidion
Excellent schools are high on inquiry, exhibiting the same curiosity that they try to inculcate in their students. Unfortunately, many schools lack a culture of inquiry and fail to see the value of regularly surveying members of their school community. In part, this failure may be attributed to a misunderstanding of what such research is and what it can accomplish for the school.
The Argument for School Research
The most watched TED Talk ever, with over 32,000,000 views, is Sir Ken Robinson’s “How Schools Kill Creativity.” Robinson demonstrates how schools often stifle people’s natural inclinations to be creative and focus on traditionally academic learning. He argues that traditional schooling’s hierarchy has math/science at the top, humanities on the level below, the arts underneath the humanities, with music and art at the top of the arts ladder, and dance and drama under them. Sir Ken asks, “Why?
Cultivating excellence in the next generation of Jewish leaders can be compared to the work of a casting director in Hollywood. Through the course of her day the casting director sees countless talented actors many of whom, given the right break, could emerge as stars. But the job of the casting director is not to find the next star but to place the actor in the right situation that will create the perfect ensemble for a hit movie.
“We Strive for Excellence.” This wonderful motto would seem to inspire teachers, students and families to do their utmost, try their best, and aim for superlative performance. Clearly, there is much to be gained by creating a motivational tone in our schools, and setting high standards. Are there, also, however, some critical components of education we stand to lose? Before we adopt this seemingly motivating paradigm, perhaps we should explore the beliefs behind it.
Jewish day schools have a reputation for academic excellence. They attract top teachers who enjoy working in an environment where all students come from homes that value books and academics. Class size is generally small, and teachers can provide students with the type of close personal attention that addresses students’ individual learning needs. As a result, the typical Jewish day high school has earned an admirable track record for university acceptances.
When I began my work at my school, I was charged with assuring academic excellence. My first reaction was, “Sure, that’s what I’m all about.” My next thought was, “What exactly is academic excellence? Is it about ‘best practices,’ or is it code for grades and test scores?” Is my definition the same as that of the teachers, the staff and the families who make up my school? The term “academic excellence” is ubiquitous, yet it is used in so many different ways that it can be meaningless. It can also be dangerous if used to evaluate a school or an educator when the meaning is confused.
In my school, as I am sure is the case in many (all?) others, a small number of teachers stand out from the group as a whole. They are not only outstanding in the classroom, but they are committed totally to the well-being of their students and to the mission of the school. They put in more time, energy and effort than the others; they are truly excellent staff members. But rarely do they receive the recognition they deserve. How can they be acknowledged in a tangible way for their excellence without compromising staff cohesion or morale?
RAVSAK is an organization driven by a commitment to excellence. That commitment begins and ends with service to Jewish day schools: we dedicate ourselves to providing the guidance, support and programs needed to help our schools find their own paths toward excellence. We firmly believe that Jewish day schools embody the best in the Jewish community: the best education, the best values, the best embodiment of klal Yisrael, talmud Torah, and tikkun olam. RAVSAK takes its obligation not only to support the field, but also to offer leadership, quite seriously.
What does excellence have to do with pornography? Only that, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, we know it when we see it.
Teacher professional development is one of the most consistent and reliable tools available for improving schools. Because teachers are increasingly recognized as the single most important factor in making change within a school, professional development programs can lead to increased student learning by providing teachers an opportunity to reflect on their practices and develop new pedagogical skills. However, providing quality teacher professional development remains a significant challenge for all educational organizations.
Cultivating pedagogic excellence in teachers clearly impacts students, schools and the field of Jewish day school education. While no two Jewish day schools share the exact same goals and approaches for educational content outcomes, all schools do share the same goals of reaching and teaching all of their students. Helping teachers grow from good to great to excellent can be achieved when a number of conditions are in place to support teacher growth.
What does it take to achieve excellence in Hebrew education? A willingness on behalf of the leaders and community to engage in a critical examination of an already successful program. At the Epstein School in Atlanta, we had developed a reputation as a school with a highly successful Hebrew immersion program. And yet, internally, we knew we could do better; there were gaps in achievement that we struggled to address, and we needed the perspective of an outside expert to help give us a bigger picture on the program’s goals and implementation.
Through my work over the past ten years in board governance and as the architect of RAVSAK’s Sulam 2.0 program in board development, I have seen firsthand the incredible progress that has been made in day school governance. Working with my colleagues who have led the charge toward best practices, I’ve seen many schools paying increased attention to the role of the board vis-à-vis the administration. Although it hasn’t been easy, boards are pulling back from micromanaging school functions.
The Midrash states that Hashem chose Betzalel by pointing to his name in a book that listed every person who ever was or ever will be born. What is the meaning of this? The message is that just as Betzalel had a specific purpose for which he was chosen, so too every person has a distinct calling. How can we as educators help enkindle in our students the greatness for which they were created? Personal excellence happens when we tap into our own and others’ talents and strengths. Excellence is not reserved for the few. It is inside all of us. It is possible to elicit excellence from each of our students.
- 1 of 2
- next ›