HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
The Case for Certification of Teachers in Jewish Schools
Accreditation is the primary vehicle for quality control in all professions. Every profession requires practitioners to be certified either by the state, by voluntary accrediting agencies (AMA, Bar Association, etc.) or by both. Beauticians, embalmers, mechanics, plumbers, and barbers must demonstrate their knowledge and expertise before they can work in their fields. Jewish education is perhaps the only profession in which untrained, uncertified, and often unskilled individuals can have a career as teachers. Many of today’s Jewish educators are exceptionally motivated, passionate, and creative. Yet the Jewish community does not value their services in the same way it values other professionals. General studies teachers must be licensed. Why aren’t the same demands made for those who teach Jewish studies, who nurture and mold young minds to become literate, committed, and proud Jews?
There must be a normative national or regional standard for teaching certification. In fact, unbeknownst to many, one already exists. The National Board of License For Teachers and Principals of Jewish Schools in North America was founded in 1941 to serve as a coordinating and standard-setting body responsible for establishing the professional conditions for licensing teachers and principals, and for the type of teacher training which would qualify graduates for certification. The certification process is designed to provide recognition to qualified educators as well as to encourage those who are entering the field to pursue professional training.
The structure of the contemporary Jewish community frowns on any mandatory standards. Enforcement is difficult. However, as the world’s oldest model for universal education (see TB Bava Batra 21a, TJ Ketubot 8:11:32c; also Maimonides’ Hilkhot Talmud Torah), it behooves us to establish and adhere to standards of teacher preparation. The standards articulated by The National Board of License are voluntarily accepted by those who wish to demonstrate competence and by those communities that wish to have trained, competent teachers in their schools. Some schools will not hire a teacher without an NBL license. Some communities make their allocations contingent on the number of licensed faculty and not on the usual per capita basis.
Across the nation numerous unqualified individuals are in the classrooms of Jewish schools. Students are exposed to them because communities cannot find, hire, pay, or retain teachers with the proper credentials. They are placed in classrooms because school and community leaders are forced to lower their expectations based on economic reality and the available pool of those willing to teach. There are so many excuses and rationalizations used for this practice that the Jewish public has trouble grasping the extent and impact of this phenomenon. Precise studies have not yet been conducted in Jewish schools, but anecdotal reporting by professionals in the field has confirmed this as a fact. Israelis may not be trained in teaching Hebrew as a second language, nor do many have the knowledge base to teach beyond the primary grades. Rabbis and seminary graduates may have the knowledge base but not the Hebrew language or the pedagogic skills.
In the public schools, student achievement and teacher effectiveness can be measured because grade and subject benchmarks for mastery have been established and testing indices are available. In Jewish studies, by contrast, there is no uniformly accepted standard for what students should know by grade and subject nor are testing instruments generally available to gauge success. This makes it difficult to measure the success of a licensed Jewish Studies teacher as compared to an untrained teacher. However, the data from public school research makes the case.
Teachers need coursework and, more importantly, supervised student teaching experience before they walk into a classroom on their own. 69% of certified teachers (National Board Certified Teachers) surveyed reported positive changes in their students’ engagement, achievement, and motivation as a result of certification. The same study also showed that 91% said that certification had positively affected their teaching practices, and 83% said they have become more reflective about their teaching.
It is unacceptable, as a matter of Jewish communal policy, to hold students to academic standards that some of their teachers are unable to help them meet. Communities should ensure that every teacher in every classroom has met teaching standards that are aligned with learning objectives. Standards may vary between what is necessary for a day school, early childhood program, or a congregational school. However, if we want our students to meet certain standards, we must hold their teachers to high expectations.
In 1899, John Dewey observed, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children.” This dictum is still valid, and is supported by hard data. A study of public attitudes towards teaching revealed that parents want teachers to be well trained and knowledgeable about how to teach effectively and have prior experience as a student teacher. Another study showed that 82% of those surveyed about how to improve education felt that recruitment and retention of better teachers was paramount. Interestingly, in that same study, 67% wanted to require teachers to pass a competency test every year.
What concerns the general public about the lack of qualified teachers, also concerns (or should concern) the Jewish community. Sadly, the axiom about Jews having higher standards in education than the general society is no longer true. We have always prided ourselves on being well educated, and showed the highest respect to teachers and scholars. Unfortunately, this is not the case today.
The following story (related by Dr. Miriam Klein Shapiro, a”h) illustrates this point all too well. The scholarly shamash (sexton) of a synagogue was feted at a dinner when he retired after many decades of service. He made the following remarks: “When I first came here people valued study and knowledge. We were still truly am haSefer, The People of The Book. Now, that has been totally replaced by other values, including Zionism. We are now am ha’aretz!” (In case the play on words was missed, am ha’aretz, lit. people of the land, also means an untutored ignoramus. He was offering a witty criticism which they didn’t understand.) Suffice it to say that this was greeted with wild applause. Just as this congregation didn’t “get it,” so too the Jewish community as a whole (with some notable exceptions) doesn’t fully comprehend the state of teacher preparedness for Jewish schools in this country.
We have an obligation to our children to build a high quality teaching profession in which teachers can thrive. The Jewish community’s challenge includes developing a sustainable and rewarding professional career system for all teachers. Licensure for all teachers in Jewish schools is part of a larger plan, which includes mentoring, incentives, and quality professional development. The following steps are recommended as part of a strategy to meet this goal:
- Set and maintain high standards for entry to all teaching positions in Jewish schools.
- Adopt National Board of License criteria for licensure with some modifications for a multi-tiered and entry-level system.
- Make data on teacher licensure public.
- Collect and use data on student achievement and teacher licensure.
- Enact incentives and support for certification.
- Allocations to schools should be based on a per capita of licensed teachers.
The Jewish community must sharpen its focus on educational practices, standards, and accountability. We must keep sight of the impact that quality teaching and professional development have on student learning. This requires a persuasive, effective, and continuous system of professional development. ♦
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