HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Lessons from Public School: The Need for Socially Driven Innovation

by Jennifer Unis Truboff Issue: Educational Innovation

As Jewish day school leaders seeking to nurture and implement successful educational innovation, much can be learned from the implementation of educational innovation within public schools. From a historic perspective, the current drive to innovate that has dominated so much of the educational discourse among Jewish day school educators and their public school counterparts emerged 10 years ago when President Obama established i3, the Investing to Innovate Fund. The highly publicized competition for this federal grant was intentionally designed to drive educational innovation.

One of the significant distinctions of i3 from the educational reform efforts that preceded it was the way it empowered innovation at a school level. Earlier efforts at educational innovation were often imposed upon public schools by the state, and new educational initiatives were introduced into the classroom in a top-down manner by administrators. Instead, i3 drew upon the educational research that emphasizes a whole school approach to innovation. In order for schools to successfully implement educational innovation, schools needed to focus not just upon the learning of the students but also the entire faculty and administration. In this approach, educational innovation is understood as a socially driven process in which the faculty and administrators together develop creative solutions to address the school’s most pressing educational issues.

According to the educational research, educational innovations are not new programs, projects or initiatives but rather are new practices and knowledge within an organization. Furthermore, educational innovation does not come about through the efforts of one individual; it is a collective endeavor. It revolves around collaboration that occurs between two or more people sharing what they know. Instead of taking place only in the administration’s office, it consists of teachers asking one another for advice in the hallways and giving counsel during meetings. It involves lots of talking and at times a bit of social pressure. Eventually, people begin to integrate the ideas and information they have learned from their colleagues and start doing things differently. Their behaviors, actions and ultimately classroom and administrative practices gradually change into something new.

Longitudinal data collected by Carrie Leana, a scholar of organizational science and learning, reveal that teachers interacting with their co-workers and principals in this manner is the most important element when implementing school innovations, moreso even than a focus on the development of targeted skills. While no one is discounting the role of credentialed and capable teachers, principals and consultants, both Leana and Michael Fullan remind us that collaborative learning is often more important for educational innovation and the improvement of educational quality. This point is particularly important for Jewish day schools, since many struggle to recruit and retain high-quality teachers and administrators. Strategies aimed at addressing these school personnel challenges often divert energy and resources away from harnessing the existing capacity of Jewish day schools to effectively innovate and thus enhance the overall quality of Jewish education. Instead, this research reminds us that we might do better shifting more of our attention to the ways in which we can reorganize our schools and transform them into places where socially driven processes can thrive.

Using the research on educational innovation from public schools, along with my own experiences having supported innovations across several day schools while directing professional development and educational technology for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, I will identify four practices that support socially driven innovation. I chose these four because I believe they are the most accessible for Jewish day schools and leaders irrespective of the size of the school and overall resources.

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

In a school that has successfully created a culture of socially driven innovation, administrators know that their success lies in providing their faculty opportunities to regularly meet and communicate with one another during the workday. This change requires a transition away from a model of periodic faculty workshops on relevant but varied topics and instead initiating PLCs, weekly meetings where educators come together to share their expertise and collaboratively develop ways in which to enhance student learning outcomes.

For Jewish day schools with a dual curriculum, releasing educators from their responsibilities in order to participate in PLCs is not easy. Schools must shift some of the organizing structures of the school to accommodate this approach, which will involve creatively revisiting assumptions about scheduling and teaching contracts. Some schools might alter their schedules by increasing the length of the school day, establishing fixed blocks of time for specialized teachers like art, instituting enrichment programs that can be supervised by non-teachers like mini elective courses in dance or makerspaces, and establishing block scheduling.

For strategies that are not as disruptive to the schedule, some schools may choose to eliminate the weekly all-staff meeting and instead dedicate that time to PLC learning. Others might contractually obligate their teachers to arrive an hour early or stay an hour later one day a week, which is particularly effective when schools have clear divisions between Judaic and general studies instruction and teachers are not full-time employees. Another option might be to remove teachers from traditional duties like lunch, recess and buses, and assign these tasks to non-classroom teachers.

External Networks

Enabling teachers and administrators to participate in professional networks that extend beyond their school is critical for the spread of ideas. According to Fullan, a well-regarded expert on educational change processes, the prevailing assumption that a successful pilot in one school can be expanded to many others is often not feasible. Pilots are often site-specific, preventing their easy transfer elsewhere. The original school often has a level of motivation not found in other schools, and funding for expanding pilots is rarely available long term.

Instead, Fullan suggests engaging many different schools together in a process of collaborative learning through networks that encourage the transmission of new knowledge and ideas. Research shows that those with whom we have weaker connections often provide us with the necessary new information that catalyzes the innovation process. Networks present successful innovations, and then schools can identify which elements of the innovation are most relevant to their needs.

Fortunately, there are many ways in which Jewish educators can participate in external networks. On a national level, Jewish day school educators can participate in the Reshet Prizmah networks. Day school leaders from several schools within a single community also can be an important network. For example, the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland convenes a network of Jewish day school leaders multiple times a year. Graduate and postgraduate training programs in Jewish education possess vast alumni networks that, when appropriately leveraged, provide a wealth of expertise. Lastly, Jewish day school leaders should not limit their networks to the field of Jewish education. We have much to learn from those in the public schools. There are several state and county educational service organizations that provide opportunities for networking, as do many of the independent school associations that credential Jewish day schools.

Shared Decision-Making and Trust Between Faculty and Administrators

A school with an innovative climate engages both teachers and administrators together in shared decision-making. By regularly seeking advice from one another, the educational leadership recognizes that consensus from all stakeholders is a prerequisite for educational innovation. When administrators involve teachers in such decisions, they are helping to reinforce the belief that teachers are part of a larger collective endeavor.

Within the faculty body, this cultivates sentiments such as responsibility, ownership, accountability, and most importantly, a desire to work towards the successful adoption of innovations. Shared decision-making also generates trust between teachers and administrators, which enhances the quality of the working environment. This in turn strengthens these relationships and enables the successful exchange of knowledge and resources that serve as the foundation for educational innovation.

Supporting shared decision-making within Jewish day schools committed to innovation implies that principals should be involved with PLCs and/or create other opportunities for regular collaboration. Jewish day school administrators are often extremely busy and are required to fulfill many tasks throughout the day. In order to prioritize these educational conversations with their faculty, they should devise strategies to delegate responsibilities accordingly.

Educational Leadership

All the preceding recommendations are not possible without strong educational leadership. Leana and Fullan note that administrators should be active learners with their faculty and lead them in ways that will encourage socially driven innovation. This may be a departure from the kinds of tasks they are accustomed to, as most principals typically address educational issues by managing the school’s curriculum, conducting teacher evaluations, and providing oversight of lesson plans. Instead, administrators may require training in group-facilitation processes. They will most likely also benefit from mentorship, as they look to implement structures within their schools to support socially driven innovation.

While the drive for educational innovation keeps us oriented towards an exciting future, it also challenges us to come up with solutions to problems that we encounter on a regular basis in our professional practices. As tiring as it may be at times, the act of innovating reminds us that no matter how messy education can get, it is a relational business. Through the process of innovation, we can gain strength from the wisdom and rich resources of those engaged in similar work in public and private schools as well as peers in Jewish day schools. Together, we are all part of the same educational story, and innovating together ultimately strengthens our students, schools and broader communities.


Articles for further reading

Michael Fullan, “Amplify Change with Professional Capital”

Carrie Leana, “The Missing Link in School Reform”

Naomi Thiers, “Making Progress Possible: A Conversation with Michael Fullan”

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Educational Innovation

The articles in this issue represent the balance between the old and the new, sacred and profane embodied in Jewish history. The issue tells the story of the drive for innovation in modern education that has gained strength in recent decades. It features efforts to learn from, adopt and adapt innovative programs and pedagogies from the larger educational universe, even as authors advise caution, patience and planning around such changes.

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