Renee Rubin Ross, program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation and former Mandel Center post-doctoral fellow, contributes today’s guest post.

Through the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investments in Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), The Jewish Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University, the Day School Leadership for Teaching (DeLeT) program, and the Jewish New Teacher Project, the Foundation has invested millions of dollars in educator training and support. The rationale behind this is straightforward: more well-trained and supported teachers and educators will lead to more effective and compelling learning experiences for young Jews, the central goal of the Foundation.

Strengthening teacher training and support has a number of elements, as two presentations at last month’s annual conference of the Network for Research in Jewish Education (NJRE) suggest. One is continually evaluating the quality and effectiveness of the programs designed to do the actual training and support. As with nearly all of the Foundation’s investments, we evaluate whether the desired outcomes are in fact being achieved. In this case, yardsticks from general education, such as proven frameworks that assess the effectiveness of teacher education programs, are helpful.

Another element involves building the field of Jewish education, which we do by elevating the quality of research in this area. Ideally, this research is useful and helps teachers do their job more effectively.

At the conference, Dr. Eran Tamir, Senior Research Associate at Brandeis University’s Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, shared recent evaluation findings on five cohorts of graduates from the DeLeT programs at HUC and Brandeis.[1] According to Tamir, research in general education suggests that particular components of teacher education correlate with positive outcomes for new teachers. These include:

a)       the coherence and alignment of coursework and student teaching experience;

b)      a program’s clear vision of good teaching; and

c)       a program’s emphasis on a specific learning context.

Given that these three elements set up teachers for success, Tamir has been exploring the degree to which DeLeT includes these elements. His research suggests that it does:

  • 81 percent of DeLeT graduates reported high levels of coherence between their coursework and student teaching experience.
  • 93 percent of participants agreed or strongly agreed that DeLeT articulated a clear vision of teaching and learning.
  • Participants felt that DeLeT faculty were committed to preparing Jewish day school teachers (96 percent agreed or strongly agreed) and that the DeLeT community shared a common vision of day school education.  The result was that 81 percent of the participants completed the program reported feeling extremely well prepared to teach in day schools with only 1 percent reporting feeling unprepared.

The feeling of “preparedness” of DeLeT graduates is a key indicator of a successful teacher training program. In the literature on teacher education, this preparedness is correlated with high degree of efficacy once teachers actually enter the field, which in turn may contribute to DeLeT’s high retention rate.

The conference also was an opportunity to examine challenges in the classroom and to determine what more we need to do to train and equip teachers with the right skills for contemporary Jewish education. Frayda Gonshor Cohen, who just completed her doctorate at Mills College in Oakland, explored this area with a study of teachers’ moral dilemmas at a Jewish community day school. In the midst of moral tension about explaining texts in an age-appropriate way, Gonshor Cohen noticed a pattern of teachers saying, “Let’s talk about that later,” regardless of whether they truly intended to come back to the topic.

Gonshor Cohen’s research generated a series of questions. Audience members wondered to what degree this finding was generalizable or could instead be attributed to the individual teachers or the culture of the school. Some respondents said that they appreciated Gonshor Cohen’s observations and wished that there were more ethnographic studies of this sort, to get a sense of the patterns that emerge as teachers from diverse Jewish schools struggle with moral dilemmas. Respondents also considered what kinds of conversations need to take place among teachers to best prepare them for situations of moral tension in advance.

These two NRJE presentations address key strategies for the Foundation. We fund teacher preparation programs and work diligently to evaluate their effectiveness and outcomes. At the same time, understanding and improving Jewish education—and developing new teachers with contemporary skillsets— demands investment in the field more generally. An example of this investment is the Foundation’s support for the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE), whose purpose is to connect Jewish education researchers, practitioners, and funders. As the Foundation pursues both strategies, we are hopeful that more educators with improved training and better access to the findings of high quality applied research will enhance day school teaching and learning.

[1] This evaluation research was funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation as part of an effort to track the short and long-term outcomes of the DeLeT program.