A Jewish Literacy Program: Satisfying Our Investors

Steve Bailey PhD

If we were investors in a business venture, we would want to know exactly what service is being created, how it will be presented to the consumer, its effectiveness and, ultimately, what will result in consumer satisfaction. Ironically, when it comes to Jewish education, parents are willing to “invest” tens of thousands of dollars each year to educate their children so that they develop into young adults and literate Jews, but don’t ask the questions that investors are entitled to ask. They expect that their children will be Jewishly literate when they graduate from their Jewish school, but have little idea what the curriculum is, how it is taught by the teacher and whether the curriculum is effective in producing a Jewishly literate child. As investors, parents have the right to know the nature and the effectiveness of the product in which they are investing. Similarly, Jewish education funders have a right to know if their investment has been used well and has met their purposes.


Typically, schools publish a generic mission statement. But in most cases, these “mission statements” are broad, glib sound bites that describe vague goals that cannot be measured or assessed. The sad reality is that, in the end, parents and supporters rarely see evidence of the school fulfilling its expected goal of successfully imparting basic Jewish literacy to the majority of its students.


Aside from ambiguous outcome goals, a further obstacle to assuring a literate graduate is the common fact that different teachers have different ideas of what should be taught to their students. Some teachers stress proficiency in reading texts, while others stress ideas, not specific skills. Still others want their students to have “fun” in their classroom, regardless of what material is taught, while others believe that “Jewish identity” is more important than learning basic Jewish knowledge. In other words, while most curricula contain various educational approaches, what students learn is often dependent on the particular teacher. This results in a kind of “curriculum anarchy,” where students learn whatever their teacher thinks should be taught.


To make matters worse, teachers are expected to produce their own resources, materials, quizzes and tests. Not only is it unreasonable to expect all teachers to research and produce their own materials, but even if they did, the material chosen and taught would differ in content and quality from teacher to teacher. The inevitable outcome is disordered and imbalanced Jewish education for most students, and, consequently, students lack broad literacy and leave with a negative association with Jewish learning upon graduation.


Having researched this issue and implemented a successful Jewish literacy program, I offer the following fundamental guidelines for schools that wish to produce Jewishly literate graduates in a way that fulfills their “investors’” expectations.


First, we have to acknowledge that every school has its own definition of basic Jewish literacy. While some schools emphasize talmudic study and facility in reading text in the original as literacy, others stress the essential themes and values of Tanakh, with less concern for proficiency in Hebrew texts or commentaries. Still other schools may focus on Jewish history and Israel studies as basic, while some focus on Jewish law and custom, holiday rituals and prayer as primary objectives. So the first step in developing an effective literacy curriculum is defining what your particular school considers a “literate” graduate. To be sure, any Jewish day school curriculum will likely include all the above areas, but every school has its own explicit hierarchy of importance as expressed through quantity of material taught and time allotted to various subjects.


The next step is taking these literacy goals and customizing a curriculum, in observable and measurable terms, which reflects achievement of these objectives. For example, instead of this vague statement: “Students will know key figures in the Book of Bereshit,” an objective would state: “Students will be able to name Noah and his three children, as well as the three sets of Patriarchs and Matriarchs and their respective children.” Only the latter statement is considered a measurable criterion for basic Jewish literacy.


Moreover, the curriculum needs to be “spiral” in nature so that teachers at each grade level have specific objectives that prepare the student for the next grade. This avoids needless repetition of material in the higher grade—something that students consider boring and useless. How many time have we heard students complain, “Oh, no! We already learned all this about Pesach two years ago!” To quell this inevitable student revolt, each subsequent grade needs to briefly review past knowledge and then spend most of the class time enriching, elaborating and presenting new, more sophisticated ideas appropriate for the current grade level. Each year builds on the past years.


At this point I need to present an idea that is unpopular with administrators and teachers. The only way to insure that teachers will teach the material that the school has defined as basic Jewish literacy for its students in a structured fashion, is to produce actual student booklets for each grade, containing questions, quizzes and activities on the literacy material—along with teacher’s guides—all of which reflect the curriculum content for that grade. That way, all teachers have to teach the same standardized, basic knowledge and skills at each grade. Moreover, quizzes and tests are standardized by the school to assure that these goals have been achieved, grade-by-grade.


Typically, this idea produces two protests. Administrators will argue that it is costly to actually produce student workbooks each year, as well as teacher’s guides. While this is true, it is a one-time expense for the initial curriculum materials that can be reprinted for many years to come. Furthermore, the word-processed materials can be easily modified and adjusted each year based on teacher feedback, when new booklets are printed. Your customized workbooks, which assure your school’s basic literacy goals, are an investment worth making.


In terms of faculty concern, teachers will protest that they are being asked to “teach to the test” and are not free to “do their own thing” in their own classroom. My answer is: “Yes, you are being asked to ‘teach to the test’ because this will assure that all students will achieve basic literacy (we call that “mastery learning”), but you also are free to enrich and enhance the material once it has been covered and to use your own dynamic and creative, personal style in transmitting the material.” Most teachers are pleased to use standardized curriculum and tests and be unburdened from producing their own materials, so long as they are free to use their own teaching style.


A third critical element to this model may also produce initial protest from teachers. In order to assure that basic literacy goals are met for each grade, teachers will be held responsible for their students achieving a minimal mastery level of material—for example, a criterion of 70% of students scoring 70% or higher on standard quizzes and tests. Monitoring teachers’ effective transmission of the school’s basic Jewish literacy standardized curriculum is critical to assure genuine achievement and preparation of students for the next grade. Teachers’ initial fears of assuming responsibility for their pupils’ learning are often quelled by the fact that a combination of student workbooks, teacher’s guides, standardized quizzes and effective teaching methodology easily produces the expected criterion.


One last critical step is necessary to insure the school’s parental “investors” that they have gotten their money’s worth. The school must assess the graduating student’s Jewish literacy through a final assessment of material learned in the school’s Jewish education program. This may be accomplished best through a comprehensive, computerized, individual examination of each graduating student’s mastery of the school’s basic Jewish studies curriculum. Existing educational software will allow schools to set up areas of questions (using multiple-choice, fill-in, short answer, matching, etc.) on a computer-based, self-scoring assessment module that has a number of separate areas (Tanakh, history, laws and customs, holiday cycle, Israel, etc.), each of which has to be passed satisfactorily. Those who pass all areas the first time receive a certificate, with honors. If students do not pass a subject area at first, they simply retake the exam for that subject until they master the material and receive a certificate, thus assuring eventual literacy success before graduation.


The outcome of this model is that graduating students experience a concrete sense of educational accomplishment—achievement of basic Jewish literacy—as attested to by passing a final examination. Teachers experience a sense of success at producing Jewishly literate graduates; administrators experience great satisfaction at fulfilling their stated goals of educating their students; parents are pleased to see explicit, empirical evidence that their huge financial investment in their child’s Jewish education has paid off and funders are satisfied that their allotment of funds has been used responsibly. Truly, a rare five-way “win-win” model of Jewish Literacy.


Educators and stakeholders can review the details of successful implementation of this model in my chapter, “Jewish Literacy by Design: A Case Study of Developing and Implementing a Jewish Literacy Curriculum,” in eds. Rich, Y., et. al., Jewish Literacy and Education.

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HaYidion Jewish Literacy and Curriculum Spring 2016
Jewish Literacy and Curriculum
Spring 2016