Friday, December 23, 2011

Final for Social Responsibility class: Sermon on Education Reform

The start of any new year, Jewish or secular, asks us to think about where we have been and where we are going.  The secular practice of setting new year’s resolutions, a seemingly worthwhile activity, is not in fact a Jewish practice.  A resolution, or statement of intent, sounds similar to making a vow.  As we know from Kol Nidrei, vows are not only discouraged in Jewish tradition, but also strictly forbidden.  The Kol Nidrei prayer annuls us of any vows we might inadvertently make, or be forced to make, in the year to come.  The question is why? Why are vows, even vows with positive outcomes, discouraged?  Jewish tradition teaches that one should not make a vow in God’s name because there is always a possibility that we will not be able to keep the vow.  We cannot predict what the future will bring and any number of outside factors can easily thwart even what seems like the simplest vow.  Judaism is not a religion of outcomes.  We strive to be better people in the world and we learn and teach in order to prepare ourselves for whatever might come our way.  Instead of setting specific goals and working toward particular outcomes, we seek to constantly push ourselves to grow from the experiences and knowledge we have gained.  We strive to change norms and work toward a more just society, but do so knowing that change can take many forms.  More importantly, we know that our work is never done.

Our synagogue community embraces these values on a number of levels, particularly in the realm of education. We are proud that our educational philosophy in this congregation asserts that b’nai mitzvah is not an end to a young person’s education, but one milestone in a larger process of learning.  We work hard to ensure that our religious school curriculum does not focus on preparing students for bar mitzvah, as if it were a culminating exam or performance.  Instead, our curriculum enables students to discover how Judaism is relevant to their lives today.  We push our students to think critically about the role of Torah in their lives and discover for themselves what it means to be Jewish in the world today.  B’nai Mitzvah is only one milestone along the journey, an affirmation of our students’ commitment to continued learning.

These values of discovery, exploration and integration as an educational model must not stop when our students step outside our synagogue walls.  As American Jews, we have a responsibility, not only to educate our youth in Jewish tradition, but also to support and shape the education they receive in the public sphere.  The Jewish community in America has supported public schools since we arrived in this country.  According to historian Stephen Brumberg, Jews were among those most dedicated to public education in New York City in the 1880s and 1890s.  At this time, the Jewish community saw public education as an opportunity to assimilate in society at large so as not to remain segregated from their larger community.[1]  The Jewish immigrant community carried a thirst for knowledge with them from the old country.  In America this thirst for knowledge extended beyond the realm of Torah so that the Jewish community came to see public education as an opportunity for success in America.[2]

Today, our commitment to education remains at the forefront of our Jewish values, not only for the sake of our own success in America, but for the greater good of American society as a whole.  We, as a Jewish community, have a responsibility to support our public education system, regardless of whether our own children are currently enrolled in the system.  The success, or failure, of the public school system directly impacts every other aspect of our lives as Americans.  Not only the knowledge, but also the values that our children take away from their time in school impact and influence the way they function in society.  It is up to us to ensure that the values of this system reflect our own values.

We all know that the current system is stressed and broken in many ways that demand our attention.  One particular stress of the system has to do with the elevation and reliance on test scores as the sole way to assess students, teachers, and schools in general.  Test scores are becoming the single determining factor not only for policy changes within schools, but also for students as they graduate from high school.  A student who scores poorly on a placement test in 8th grade may never have a chance of working his way back toward a path where he will be accepted into a good school, regardless of his skills in other areas, or his capacity to learn.  We judge our teachers by the same criteria, suggesting that teachers serve one purpose: to increase their students’ test scores. 

A recent article in New York Magazine discussed a new principal’s determination to focus primarily on test scores at an elite public school.  Bronx Science, one of three elite public high schools in New York City has always been known for the high profile resumes of its teachers.  These teachers have multiple degrees from various fields and embody the teaching philosophy in which the school was founded by putting student inquiry and discovery at the forefront of teaching.   In 2001, a new principal entered the school who felt that test scores were not high enough for a school of this stature.  She decided to make testing her top priority.  Teachers who did not embrace this philosophy were given unsatisfactory ratings and replaced to the point where in 2010, 25% of teachers had less than three years of experience.  Though test scores have improved since the new principle arrived, the school’s national rating has dropped from 20 to 58 and many of the teachers who left Bronx Science are now teaching at Stuyvesant, the number one public high school in New York City.  There is a great deal of controversy amongst teachers and families associated with the school.  This article shows how the top schools are setting a standard that says testing is the only thing that matters. This is not only unachievable, but it sets an unrealistic standard for the vast majority of struggling schools working with disadvantaged youth.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves if it is worth it.  Is this method successful in promoting real learning in any school, elite or struggling? Do test scores really assess teaching and learning? 

A recent article in the Washington Post shares the story of Marion Brady, a school board member who decided to take the 10th grade standardized test.  This man is not only educated, but also incredibly successful as an adult in the real world.  His reaction to the test reflects what educators have been saying for years about the fact that these tests do not assess or promote real-life learning.  He says,

“I won’t beat around the bush, The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%. In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.  He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities. I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession…  …A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took. If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had. It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning.”[3]

Brady describes what the field of Jewish education embraces and is working hard to enact: life is not about working toward a test, it is about growing and developing skills that will enable you to function in the real world in a meaningful way.  Not only do these tests fail to educate our students how to function in the real world in a meaningful way, they place emotional burdens on students who perform poorly at a very young age.  As Brady says, many students never recover from the stress of being told that you are not good enough.  Not only do the tests fail to educate, they turn young people away from the potential value of education in general.  On top of this, teachers and principals are stuck in a system that forces them to teach to the test and judges their ability to educate according to the ability of their students to score highly on tests that are irrelevant to their lives.  

So, why should we care?  Not only does the current system threaten the potential growth of our country as a whole, it also undermines our Jewish values in regards to the field of education.  It is difficult, if not impossible for us in the Jewish community to convince our students that their religious education is not a preparation for B’nai Mitzvah if this is the only the framework in which they operate during the day.  How can we expect them to understand that Jewish education is not about the test, if this is what education means to them in every other aspect of their life?  If we want to make a change in the norm in our own community, we must seek change in the broader community as well.

At the end of his reflection on the standardized test, Marion Brady offers an opportunity for us to enact change.  He describes how a number of principals in New York are starting to rebel against a system that places too much emphasis on student test scores as a form of evaluation for teachers and principals.[4]  We have a responsibility to support our teachers and our principals in this effort.  The first step is to educate ourselves on the policies and positions of our local community and make our voice heard when we vote for members of our school boards and public officials. 

I want to take this opportunity to invite you all to join us for an event with the principal of the local high school in our community.  At this session we will learn about the issues facing our local school and discuss different ways in which our community can get involved to create change both at the local high school and in the education that occurs in our own synagogue.  Please speak to me if you would like to be involved in the planning of this important program. 

As we each go off and celebrate the arrival of this secular New Year, let us put our efforts not toward an unrealistic resolution, but toward work that furthers our own potential for growth, as well as the potential for growth that we see in the young people of our communities.   

[1] Stephen Bromberg.  ‘Going To America, Going to School: The Immigrant-Public School Encounter In Turn-Of-The-Century New York City.  Page 96.
[2] ibid. Page 97.
[3] Valerie Strauss.  ‘When an Adult took Standardized Tests Forced on Kids. December 5th, 2011.
[4] Valerie Strauss.  ‘Principals Rebel Against Value-Added Evaluation. November 3, 2011  

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