Friday, March 18, 2005

Day Schools -- A waste of community resources?

Over in Dov Bear there's a discussion about the exhorbitant tuition fees for Jewish Day schools. Of course, these fees may be exhorbitant only in terms of the ability of people of normal means to afford them, not in terms of the actual funds available for education. The comments section then devolved into advocacy for European-syle per-capita state funding for all schools, where private and religious schools with outside funding sources have an advantage over the public schools.

I have several problems with this. I'll start with general policy and move to my more jewish concerns.

Per capita state funding might be OK if the recieving schools agree to not be selective in their admissions and retention as a condition of accepting the "King's shilling." As it is, private schools are notoriously selective; we just got the tuition contract, and the fine print gives them the right to bounce the kid for any kind of vaguely defined reasons, including having parents who are a pain in the ass. And, they won't even give you a pro-rated tuition refund. I'm only sticking with them because I know the administration and trust their judgement, also I can't convince the missus that we'd be better off sending the kids to the local public high school, which is perfectly adequate, in my opinion, although the kids might have to deal with a little culture shock at first.

Given that kind of selectivity, no wonder many private shcools spend less per capita and have better performance. All the problem kids are dumped on the public schools. Selective private schools shouldn't be receiving government handouts; they should be subject to extra taxes!

My next concern has to do with public financing of religious indoctrination, er, "education." I'll be damned if my tax dollars are going to be used to indoctrinate impressionable young minds to follow religious beliefs that I find offensive, such as Fundamentalist and Dominionist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam, and Chareidi Judaism. Of course, membors of those faiths might not want to subsidize my indoctrinating my kids into the Hebrew Secular Humanism known as non-Orthodox Judaism. Fair enough. Thus, the obvious solution is no funding at all for religious education. At the very least, it will slow down the introduction of madrassas to the United States.

And, finally, from a Jewish standpoint, I don't see the value to the Jewish community for universal Day School education in any event. Day Schools force the community to spend scarce funds on duplicating what is already being provided by tax dollars (science labs, gyms, and other secular education.) It's even questionable whether a higher level of academic achievement in Judaic subjects translates into increased Jewish committment. (I derive this from my observations of fellow Day School parents.)

It may well be that "informal education," including youth groups and summer camps, might be a far more cost-effective way to build Jewish identity and committment . There's even some empirical evidence, as presented in the Young Judaea Alumni Study.

  • According to Professor Steven M. Cohen, “The Young Judaea experience exerts a powerful impact upon adult Jewish identity years after the alumni have completed their active involvement in Young Judaea. The Young Judaea experience lowers intermarriage, elevates ritual observance, raises community activity, promotes involvement with Israel and increases all other types of Jewish involvement.”
  • Young Judaea’s impact on Jewish identity compares favorably with results recently reported by the Orthodox Union, in its study of the impact of its youth movement, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Young Judaea is the only pluralistic youth movement able to make such a claim
Young Judaea also costs a heck of a lot less than day school tuition. And kids are less likely to be indoctrinated with chumra-of-the-month fundamentalism, either.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Conservative Apikoris,

I also fear the chumra-of-the-month club at some day schools; my kids experienced those at a local Chabad run "community day school". However, I'll also point out that school took in my kids and educated them for years without my having to beg like at the local Conservative day school for reduced tuition. And trust me, beg is the correct word; we were told that the process involves multiple rounds of written pleading to the board, and that we should "keep trying" when they reject requests. After all, everyone knows that all Conservative and Reform Jews are doctors and lawyers, with huge disposable incomes that they just don't want to give to the school. Thanks for playing, b'bye.

I do agree that we should make pragmatic updates to the way we teach the religious core knowledge; perhaps we can push off Rashi script until later years, although it would take more than a hand wave to provide all new tanakh books to all of those students. I'll all for taking a more modern approach to "Modern Orthodoxy" - but who will teach it? I've been told by many day school educators that very few "Modern Orthodox" YU grads are returning to teach in the day schools due to the piss-poor salaries available, and the general coaxing of parents to aim for "professional careers". The teachers in day schools, therefore, are increasingly from the Chasidic folks ready, willing, and able to teach these kids; of course, there's a little ultra-orthodox baggage that seems to come with many of those folks, and therefore the Orthodox movement leans more and more toward the "right wing" approach to Orthodoxy over time.

For all the very real problems of day schools, there is a large gap between the level of Jewish education provided by day schools and that provided by a few hours of after school and Sunday "Hebrew School" at a local shul. My Conservative shul, BTW, has a damn good example of such a program run by skilled educators (including some frummies) and I must still conclude that the kids that go through that program in general can't hold a candle to education of the kids in the local day schools (both Conservative and Orthodox). How does a kid learn to daven without doing it every day at school; same with grace after meals, brakhot, etc.

A huge issue unvoiced so far in this discussion is the wide variety of home observance in the families of these kids. I know kids from almost totally secular families that send their kids to the Orthodox day schools; those kids don't generally "do anything Jewish" outside of school. I also have seen the opposite: fairly traditional families sending kids to the local public schools, but because the kids are constantly exposed at home to Jewish ritual and beliefs (and often Hebrew), the kids are indeed learning the core religious knowledge. In general, though, it seems that Jewish education for grades K-8 "sticks" best when strongly reinforced at home. If your parents don't care about observing Shabbat (in any way), no amount of schooling is going to convince the kids that they should.

While there's nothing wrong with proposing educational alternatives such as Young Judaea for public school students, I find it hard to believe any of those programs can have more success given the time limitation imposed by "supplemental" education. With all due respect to Young Judaea, is it really surprising that they've concluded their approach is a success? ;-) Jewish cub scouts is cool, and summer camp is great, but those have little to do with learning the religious core knowledge that has sustained the Jewish people for a few years or so.

This is the mistake the Conservative movement made many years ago, and we have been reaping the disaster ever since. There is a reason the Conservative movement sees itself transforming into a leaner, meaner movement. You won't hear the leaders or rabbis say it, but I will: it's because we've been bleeding off a huge number of members into the Reform movement or secular existence because too many of them were raised to think that being Jewish meant writing a check to the shul, putting on a kipah when entering the sanctuary, having a huge bar/bat mitzva party to impress your friends and family. If we had spent half of that frickin' money on making high quality day school education available to every family that wanted it, we would be in a different place today. Now, we're playing catch up.


7:04 PM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

Some responses to Conservaguy:

1) Level of jewish education: I think the community (all denominations, especially orthodox) has unreasonable expectations regarding the "level of education." [This is also, in my opinion, true for secular education as well -- most high school students have no need to learn calculus, the only reason it should be offered is to keep the "brainiacs" from getting bored and causing trouble.] There's no need to be a gemara expert at age 13, you have the rest of your life to learn. I see the purpose of Jewish education as being learning the basics (which, surprisingly I did in my Conservative supplementary school) and getting the right attitude. (Even if you reject the religion, you need to know that you're "an apikoris, not a goy.")

2) Problems in recruiting modern orthodox Judaic teachers: You are absolutely correct, and it proves my point. Our community doesn't have enough money to properly pay Judaic teachers, and we also want to take on the expense of paying teachers in secular subjects? The whole system, of day schools is an inefficient way to achieve the goals of jewish education.

3) Young Judaea as "Jewish Cub Scouts:" You cut me to the quick, here :), as a former Young Judaean, I can assure you the the program includes a significant educational component. The best part about it is that it's done under the control of the kids (most adult supervision are college-age "guides.") That improves the attitude of the members towards learning stuff, because it's stuff they choose to learn. At the camps and weekends, one has th eopportunity for a lot of experiential stuff, you can experiment with becoming more observant in a supportive environment, at the very least you learn what the traditional practices are. By the way, I learned the word "halacha" at Young Judaea, not at my Conservative supplementary school.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Ben Sorer Moreh said...

Add another fault with "vouchers" and per capita funding: Unless they are capped and regulated, the increased demand generated by the vouchers will cause private schools' tuitions to rise. There will be no net savings for parents. Private education will end up further out of reach for those who could not afford it before. Public schools, deprived of funds and the ability to charge tuition, would end up like "Amtrak," begging for lives year after year. The gulf between educated and ignorant will grow in this country. That's not good for the Jews.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) Level of jewish education: I think the community (all denominations, especially orthodox) has unreasonable expectations regarding the "level of education." [This is also, in my opinion, true for secular education as well -- most high school students have no need to learn calculus, the only reason it should be offered is to keep the "brainiacs" from getting bored and causing trouble.] There's no need to be a gemara expert at age 13, you have the rest of your life to learn. I see the purpose of Jewish education as being learning the basics (which, surprisingly I did in my Conservative supplementary school) and getting the right attitude. (Even if you reject the religion, you need to know that you're "an apikoris, not a goy.")

There is a huge gap between the religious educational levels you've offered! On one end of the spectrum is your characterization of day schooling as creating Gemara experts at age 13; at the other end is a few hours a week of a little Being Jewish 101 in between archery practice at camp. My kids aren't Gemara experts, but my 13 year old daughter is studying Gemara to learn about the history and practice of how we understand laws built upon the framework of Torah. She's starting to understand to incredible ethical system outlined by both the masters of old and some modern thinkers. My 12 year old can tell me all about the categories of activity that are not allowed on Shabbat and where those ideas came from, and what some different groups hold for understandings of some of the details - and why Shabbat was so important to our family as we first began to observe our traditions (by "forcing" me to not work for those 25 hours a week at the time our family "reunited" on many levels). My 9 year old is working hard to catch up with his peers to be able to translate every word of Torah phrases into English (my kids entered day schooling "late") - shouldn't he be able to see for himself if the English translation provided is accurate or slanted toward a certain viewpoint? I wish I could! They've learned plenty of the "right attitude" studying and practicing these time-honored values with their peers. My kids can also slam a basketball in through the hoop with the best of them, too, and tell you who sang lead on most Beatles songs. OK, they learned that last one at home ;-)

We can each have fun exaggerating the extremes, but in all seriousness, let's consider the impact of those two diverse approaches to Jewish education. The day schooling approach is generally associated with Orthodoxy (yes, a gross generalization) and the supplemental approach is generally associated with The Conservative and Reform movements. Now, let's check in on the movements and see how they are doing at transmitting some reasonable semblance of both theory and practice. Orthodox: near 100% transmission; other movements: ouch. Why? Simple: without a solid understanding of Tanakh study, Halacha, davening, and in depth exposure to an active, involved Jewish life which interweaves our traditions into our lives, Judaism becomes something that (as I previously wrote) you turn on and off just as you put a kippa on your head when entering the shul and take it off when leaving. Like I said, the JTS folks realized this over a decade ago when they took a close look at the personal observance level of the vast majority of Conservative members and had a rude awakening.

Perhaps, though, we're arguing past each other on some points. One thought I had when reading your concerns about duplicated resource expenditure is that perhaps one of the many (needed) updates to public schooling would be to increase the idea of modular/block scheduling. For example, high school students in my city can elect to attend the local arts "magnet" academy for half a day after a half day at the main facility. It might be interesting to treat Judaic studies in the same fashion; it would be a "middle ground" between full-time day schooling and "Hebrew School" and the like. I don't see it happening, though.

In any case, I feel good that my wife and I are giving our kids a solid education in the basics of our religious tradition so that they may make whatever choices they will make as adults from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance. I can live with that, and, with God's blessings, so will they.


11:45 PM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

'scuse me for coming out of left field, but all of this is highly irrelevant to kids who are "different." The local Schechter (Conservative) school wouldn't take our borderline-hyperactive son, and he couldn't handle USY because of his social skills (or lack thereof). There's not much out there for children with disabilities, and most of it is offered by the Orthodox, which can be problematic for those of us who aren't. (Hard-core egalitarian that I am, I wasn't about to send my son to any school that put the boys and the girls in separate-and-unequal classes.)

I remember very well having been advised by an Orthodox mother of a child with disabilities who was in our son's school *not* to try to find a day school for our son, because the day schools were simply not in a position to provide the help that special kids need. State funding really does make a difference.

In addition, the stress of a dual curriculum can be a bit much for a kid who's already having trouble learning to read *one* language, not to mention that, once you factor in the second curriculum, there simply aren't enough hours in the day for minor details such as speech therapy.

So where are *our* kids supposed to learn to be yidden? We did the best we could at home, the Hebrew School having been rather limited, but, at this point, our efforts don't appear to have been very effective. I'm just praying he doesn't bring home a non-Jewish fiance in a few years.

For further info, and, I hope, insight, see my series "On raising a child with disabilities," and/or click on over to and read her series on raising a special-needs child, "When something's wrong."

5:38 PM  
Blogger Lyss said...

-I went to a Schechter school until 8th grade and then onto a yeshiva high school.
-I was diagnosed with ADD my freshman year of hs. I made it through high school and through 4 years of college, graduating 2nd in my collge class. I had No Help from my high school. None. It sucked (and I did fail math freshman year, which meant summer school). They did not have the money to hire specialists. And tution wasn't cheap there.
-My friends who went only to afternoon Hebrew school (overhwlemingly) have very little knowlegde about their own religion. It is sad.

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