Scaling Up Excellence in Jewish Day Schools

Samantha Pack and Y. Boruch Sufrin

What does it mean for a school to be “excellent”? In order to tackle this sweeping question, we break down the idea of excellence into five key components that have their origins in Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao’s book, Scaling Up Excellence. We came across their work in preparation for a 16-hour flight to Israel, in search of reading material both practical and stimulating. As we delved into the book, we realized it could serve as a roadmap, allowing us to chart the next steps in creating an excellent educational institution.

Each of the five components of excellence in education involves the “scaling up”—or the spread, reinforcement, and constant improvement of—the mindsets and methods that make a school effective and enduring. By grounding these components in some of the phrases and teachings of Judaism, we seek to offer a broadly applicable model for excellence in Jewish day schools.

Relentless restlessness

In order for a school to exhibit excellence, it must possess what Sutton and Rao call a “relentless restlessness—that often uncomfortable urge for constant innovation, driven by the nagging feeling that things are never quite good enough.” Undoubtedly, this tenacious impulse towards improvement can be recognized in the best educators, who never cease to ask themselves, “What can I do to make this lesson (or meeting, or assessment, or process) better?”

In Jewish day schools, we see this same impulse in the concept of temidiyut, persistence, an example of which we find in the daily tamid sacrifice. Arguments in the Talmud that cite the tamid sacrifice verse as the most important one in the Torah text mirror this relentless improvement. In performing a ritual every day, twice each day, there is constant opportunity for either monotony or renewal. Excellence requires a commitment to the latter. To achieve this, we must constantly evaluate, reflect and move forward—rather than stagnate—in order to achieve the renewal of purpose and intention that makes us excellent.

I own this place, and it owns me

Secondly, in order for a school to attain excellence, its stakeholders must feel a sense of ownership over their education. These stakeholders include teachers, support staff, administrators, parents and above all, students. Indeed, educational research shows that students achieve higher levels of academic success if they feel ownership over their learning. Carefully considered opportunities for student choice is one way that schools can foster a sense of ownership. Providing students with structured options for a final assessment—for instance, students may choose to write a play, an essay or a series of diary entries after a novel study—increases the likelihood that students will engage more fully with the unit’s learning, as well as achieve and retain the understandings for which the unit was designed.

Similarly, in the context of the Jewish day school, viewing the Torah as inheritance allows for students’ deep exploration and ownership. Inheritance carries with it notions of both past and future. The Torah as inheritance symbolizes the generations of predecessors, imbuing a rich sense of history that Jewish day schools strive to share with their students. However, Torah as inheritance also indicates an agency and autonomy in interpretation, a dynamic sense of motion and a world of opportunity open to scholars of the text. Thus, the principle of kol mah shetalmid vatik atid lechadesh—“Every innovation that a senior scholar will make was already said to Moshe at Sinai”—exemplifies excellence within Jewish day schools precisely because it engenders the dual sense of rich cultural inheritance and active ownership. Students are encouraged to bring new concepts to light in their study of the Torah—rather than viewing it as something to be passively absorbed and regurgitated come assessment time.

Accelerate accountability

Relatedly, ownership over one’s educational environment engenders a sense of accountability. Sutton and Rao define accountability in corporate culture as the “tug of responsibility,” which is so strong and pervasive that “slackers, energy suckers, and selfish soloists have no place to hide” (20). Excellent schools strive to create similar cultures, in which students internalize the school’s values and take it upon themselves to uphold them. For instance, if students truly feel that their school values respect for oneself and others, they will be more likely to remind their peers about the importance of demonstrating respect and mentschlichkeit. Peer-to-peer regulation is often far more effective than teacher management; kids listen to their friends! What’s more, students’ academic performance benefits enormously if they are held—and feel—accountable for their work and behavior. The same is true of faculty and staff: maintenance of a safe and comfortable work environment—everything from cleaning up after themselves in the faculty lounge to reporting misconduct or harassment—depend both upon stakeholders’ investment in their institution—“I own this place”—and their sense of responsibility to and for their workplace.

The Jewish day school context allows for an additional dimension of self-reflection that contributes to accountability. This is especially true when we remind ourselves annually in the Hebrew month of Ellul to prepare for a new year on Rosh Hashanah through a process of introspection and reflection. As students progress through schools that place emphasis on consistent self-evaluation through cheshbon hanefesh, spiritual accounting, they are well situated to evaluate their actions. This, in turn, allows for a level of accountability—that “tug of responsibility”—that gives rise to reflection and growth.

Hot causes to cool solutions

In the world of education, professional development is often considered crucial. Who could argue with the value of teacher training workshops, seminars and conferences? However, to achieve excellence, schools must make a successful transition from what Sutton and Rao term “hot causes to cool solutions.” Participation in cutting-edge training does not necessarily translate into excellent teachers or excellent schools. Many educators can relate to the feelings of inspiration that follow professional development workshops—the “hot causes”—as well as the muted feelings that come months later, when they vaguely remember learning something interesting, yet have reverted to tired or stale practices since the workshop took place. The more difficult work—the work that defines excellence—comes in setting out specific plans for morphing inspiration and new ideas into tangible, measurable and achievable action—the “cool solutions.” Excellent administrators guide their teachers by asking, What is your plan for implementing the strategies we learned today, and what does your timeline look like? How can you, the teacher, translate inspiration into action, and what concrete forms will that action take—lesson plans, mindsets, practices, collaboration, technology use?

We also see the power of action in the phrase lo hamidrash ikkar ela hama’aseh, “learning is not primary, only action.” An excellent Jewish day school takes this message to heart in the way it views teacher professional development. While it may seem counterintuitive for a school not to consider learning primary, we interpret this phrase more broadly, and with the help of Sutton and Rao’s contention that “every skilled executive, manager and supervisor is both a ‘poet’ and a ‘plumber’.” Both the “poetry”—the beliefs, mindsets, mission statements and inspiration—and the “plumbing”—concrete, nuts-and-bolts actions, behaviors and, often, changes—are necessary for excellence in education. One cannot exist without the other, but what makes action “primary,” in this sense, is that the inspirational learning will soon evaporate without the concrete action to see it to fruition.

Having addressed the principle of lo hamidrash ikkar ela hama’aseh as it applies to teacher professional development, it is worth examining whether this phrase also applies to student learning. Let us take the example of experiential service learning, which relates closely to the Jewish principle of tikkun olam. Instructing students about poverty and homelessness within the walls of the classroom does not make quite the same impact as, say, working with students to personally pack and deliver bag lunches to homeless shelters. Indeed, research supports the effectiveness of experiential learning in engendering empathy, as well as reinforcing and extending classroom learning. However, without appropriate and meaningful preparation and framing—that is, the important foregrounding work done in school—the experiential learning (the “action”) outside of school may lack significance and context for students. Thus, to achieve excellence in Jewish day schools—indeed, to uphold many of the values that schools hold most dear—both the “poetry” and the “plumbing” are necessary.

Don’t just do something—stand there

Finally, the fifth component of educational excellence builds on King Solomon’s wisdom of et lechal devar—“there’s a right time for everything.” One of Sutton and Rao’s mantras—“slow down to scale faster—and better—down the road”—takes conventional wisdom about the speed of progress and turns it on its head with their phrase, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” This notion of slowing down now to ensure positive growth later acts as a counterpoint to the relentless restlessness. Just as excellence requires both the “poetry” (inspirational ideas) and the “plumbing” (concrete actions), so too does excellence demand both the constant drive to do better and the ability to stand back, reflect and assess before moving forward. For example, in the context of a school, excellence will more likely come from implementing mentoring programs or protocols for less experienced faculty members, rather than loading new teachers with more responsibilities than they are ready for. Sutton and Rao cite the metaphor of racecar driving, used by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn: “You need to know when to accelerate, when to brake, and when to change gears.” Excellent educators and administrators “shun shortcuts,” resisting the urge to scale up too quickly, while also recognizing that improvement will never come if all they do is “stand there.”

In outlining these five key components of educational excellence, we hope to offer a multi-dimensional picture of what excellent Jewish day school education includes, as well as what it looks and feels like. Our hope is that this picture helps to provide for other Jewish day schools the same roadmap we found on that long flight to Israel.

Samantha Pack is the English department and Journalism chair and Rabbi Y. Boruch Sufrin is head of school at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Los Angeles. [email protected] and [email protected].

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HaYidion Excellence Summer 2015
Summer 2015