Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, National Director, Merkos Chinuch Office
For as long as I can remember as a professional educator (and that's 40 plus years), parents have been demanding that schools change. They insisted that the status quo won't do and that things can't continue the way they are; across a wide spectrum they all demanded that one thing or another has to change.
What I learned over the years was that change for change sake is counterproductive. Schools that maintained their equilibrium and saw the educational process as constantly evolving and continuously improving, were ultimately the most successful. To enthusiastically embrace all new ideas is folly; many of them will prove to have no more than a placebo effect, some will amount to an exercise in futility, some will prove to be counterproductive. Bottom line: the school ultimately achieves nothing.
Let me share a few ideas, born of experience and reinforced in the school of hard knocks. Only a fool falls for anything which looks new and it takes a bigger one to reject every idea out of hand. Everyone would like to introduce a new idea once it has a proven track record and there are few questions about its success, but that's in reality a prescription for inertia.
First: Stay True to the Mission:
For schools to adopt any change the leadership must first fully appreciate the school's mission and strive to be true to it; no school can be all things to all people. Only changes which will have a salutary effect on an educational system while assuring its consistency and relevance to the school's mission are likely be successful. Clearly, what worked in Osh Kosh may be irrelevant to Ossining; what was the answer to Portland's problems may be beside the point in Providence.
A colleague, a principal of a small Hebrew day school, decided to adopt an interesting Hebrew language program. In the small community his school served there were no Hebrew speaking families, the children came from primarily secular homes but they parent body wanted the children to learn to speak Hebrew. The "Total Immersion" program he adopted failed because he didn't have the time in the school day nor the follow-up at home to allow for its success.
"What were you thinking?" I asked him.
He said "I thought since it worked so well in Montreal, it would be half as successful in my setting". If the mission in his school had been to teach children to speak Hebrew he may have had a chance. His school's mission was to make Judaism and Jewish life relevant to the next generation of Osh Koshians; he had a whole lot more to teach and precious little time, he couldn't afford to spend two hours daily teaching the Hebrew language.
One school board who catered to a primarily Hassidic population decided that the school ought to teach children to translate Hebrew into Yiddish. Many parents, who came from Yiddish speaking homes themselves, liked the idea. The principal was skeptical; he asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe OB"M his opinion. The Rebbe responded that the idea was sound provided that the children were speaking Yiddish at recess and in the lunchroom. In other words the Rebbe said that the school's mission is to teach Torah to children not Yiddish.
A school must be true to its mission. School heads who use that standard to evaluate everything, from pedagogic ideas to capital investments, will find themselves rejecting many on principal and will not get could up in the flavor of the month.
Careful Strategic Planning:
To be able to create a culture of continuous improvement, schools need to have a strategic plan. They need to be fully aware of where they are educationally, what their challenges are, and precisely what problems need attention, and then devise a plan for first dealing with those issues which they have identified as needing immediate attention in addition to developing a long-term plan for dealing with tangential issues over a specified period of time. As such, the school maintains continuous improvement modality, it never loses sight of where it is, where it is heading and how it intends to get there.
It has been said that responsiveness is one of the important attributes of progressive schools. As true as this is, clear, bold but methodical planning in anticipation of future needs is the essential ingredient. Additionally, a good strategic plan takes a long look and establishes clear markers and is flexible enough be able to be responsive to new facts on the ground.
I think, for example, that educated observers of the Jewish education scene will agree that in the ultra-fast, digital world in which our children are growing up, providing wholesome, skills building educational activities which actively engage the child is essential. Yet too many classroom activities resemble those of my childhood. Book centered lessons, followed by exercises duplicated in one form or another.
Who would advocate that we simply get rid of all books, give each child a laptop and provide wireless access and let log into an electronic library? Does that mean that a computer has no place in a Torah studies classroom? A good plan recognizes the fast development of technology sets strategic goals for the adoption of particular technologies and evaluates their success before leaping headlong into some revolutionary idea.
The Self-Study Peer-Review Accreditation Model:
I believe that the American model of accreditation provides the best format for a school to maintain continuous improvement.
In the interest of full disclosure I must submit that I am the chairman of the National Accreditation Board of Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, the only fully recognized such agency serving yeshiva/day schools. I'd like to think that this qualifies, rather than disqualifies, me to write on the subject.
During an accreditation processa school goes through extensive self-study, which is in essence a process of discovery, involving the entire school community, the administration, the faculty and staff, the students, the parents and even alumni. It requires a rigorous review of the curriculum and its effectiveness and all the educational processes and experiences which the school provides. Inevitably this journey into the essence and foundations of the school experience energies the people involved and stimulates them to set goals and strive to meet them. Simply put, the process engages all the participants to cooperatively improve their school.
Following the self-study is an evaluation by peers in the form of an on-site visit by a group of likeminded unbiased educators (appointed by the accreditation agency). This group examines the self-study documentation and compares it to what can actually be observed in the school. The visiting team then works with the school in its weaker areas to bring it up to the level of compliance with all the standards.
To ensure that the movement will be towards perpetual improvement, the visiting team of evaluators meets with the policy setters of the school, to look towards the future. Together they generate a strategic long term plan explaining the goals that the school sets for itself in the coming years.
If I had my druthers I would require every school to undertake an accreditation protocol; most schools would work toward full accreditation, some would not be successful.
Meaningful Change and Continuous Improvement:
To parents and other stakeholders who clamor for change with a capital C, I'd like to suggest that what they are really looking for is an accreditation protocol. I'd like to say: "Drop the idea of remaking a school in your image, the school has a mission. Skip the radical ideas and challenge the schools to become involved in a self-motivating process that encourages participation". Rather than expect to legislate the idea of the moment to the faculty, inaugurate a process which percolates from the bottom up.
When school get involved in a process which by definition brings the administration, teachers and parents together with mutual encouragement, unanimity of purpose and the determination to work toward excellence, the result can only be positive.