The Melton Research Center for Jewish Education, the research and development arm of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary, has been honored and challenged by its partnership with The AVI CHAI Foundation to help raise the learning outcomes in Jewish studies for day school students in Reform, Conservative, and community day schools in North America.
Common to all Reform, Conservative, and community day schools are mission-driven attempts to imbue learners with elements of the literary, cultural, ritual, halakhic, and linguistic fundamentals that enable learners to participate in a competent, literate, meaning making Jewish life as part of the Jewish community. Academic subjects and experiences with God, Torah, and Israel are found in all these schools, which often have much in common regardless of denominational affiliation. But the cry from school people, again and again, is a call for direction and qualitative markers to help guide decision-making and shape learning outcomes for graduates.
This project seeks to create mechanisms to map the terrain of the relationship between subject matter (curricular content) and Jewish belief and practice, the common freight of most day school vision and mission statements. It seeks to develop a list of benchmarks or educational pathmarkers that can guide day schools in curricular planning and lead to productive methods of school-based assessment (traditional and alternative) once those standards or benchmarks have been adopted to improve students' learning outcomes.
The availability of carefully constructed learner-centered standards endorsed by such organizations as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) or Project 2061, which sets benchmarks in science education, have provided enormously powerful incentives for school self-study, curricular development and reform, faculty training, and higher levels of learner achievement in these important subject areas. Moreover, in Jewish day schools with heavy dual curricular demands, carefully constructed, holistic, integrated, performance-based benchmarks (the level of student outcome that students are expected to achieve by a certain point in their K-12 school career) could make much more efficient use of limited time frames.
Day schools are by nature independent schools that are responsible for all areas of their mission and institutional integrity. Good independent schools are never finished in their quest to become better schools. The sophisticated processes of self-study leading to accreditation by regional and national bodies such as the National Association of Independent Schools and Middle States encourage schools to constantly strive to better themselves. These schools improve through constant self-appraisal by using standards and benchmarks, such as those devised by NCTM. Such standards are an invaluable resource that could hardly be developed in as specific and detailed way by individual schools with their limited resources and staffs. The independent school must reflect on these nationally developed standards, measuring them against the school's self-defined mission and selecting, shaping, and adapting them to the school's own unique vision of itself and its students. While this process works very well for the finest schools in general studies, currently there is no similar set of core-knowledge competencies or benchmarks for day school Jewish studies.
The choice of Tanakh (Bible) as the first subject-matter area for developing standards and benchmarks in Jewish studies was made because Tanakh is universally at the core of day school curricula across denominations. Although each denomination rightfully has its own particular approach, vision, and set of beliefs that guide its goals and practices, there is much that is shared among the schools, for which this document is written.
Development of sophisticated standards and benchmarks for Jewish studies is efficacious for a variety of reasons. School staffs can:
Benchmarks can also enhance the day school movement in some other powerful ways:
This project has been a labor of love and discovery. The Melton Research Center is deeply grateful to AVI CHAI for the financial resources that make it possible, and for the dedicated talents of Yossi Prager, executive director, and Leah Meir, program officer, who have been active partners and mentors in this innovative work. This entire enterprise could not have happened but for the talents, drive, expertise, and passion of Charlotte Katz Abramson, project director. Fortuitously for the Melton Research Center, Charlotte was available just as it started to conceive the standards and benchmarks initiative. Her Tanakh content and pedagogical expertise, years of day-school experience, personal creativity, and team-leadership skills made her presence and this project a match truly made in heaven.
The Melton Research Center also extends its appreciation to the members of the steering committee, Dr. Robert Abramson, Rabbi Steven Ballaban, Ms. Cheryl Finkel, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, and Dr. Mark Kramer, all exceptional Jewish educational leaders who helped guide the writing of the document. We are indebted to the work of the writing team, Charlotte Abramson, Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, Ms. Cindy Friedman, Ms. Tzivia Garfinkel, Dr. Marc Kramer, Mr. Benjamin Mann, Dr. Alex Sinclair, Rabbi Ronald Symons, and Dr. Susie Tanchel who shared their knowledge and expertise of teaching Tanakh in the day school to develop the Tanakh standards and benchmarks. We thank our outstanding standards and benchmarks consultants, Dr. Karen Gazith and Ms. Michelle LePatner and our bible consultants, Dr. Edward Greenstein and Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, who offered invaluable comments to deepen our understanding of Torah study. We are grateful to Melton's Associate Director Dr. Deborah Miller, and Karyl Zemsky, administrative assistant for their on-going support and advice.
Melton is honored and privileged to begin this document with an introduction by Dr. Douglas Reeves, one of the most prominent educators in the standards and assessment field today. It is the hope of those at Melton that the Tanakh is only the first of a succession of day-school Jewish studies areas that it will tackle in the coming years. Ultimately, this is all about raising the level of student achievement and love of Jewish studies and life.
Rabbi Steven M. Brown, EdD
Director, Melton Research Center for Jewish Education
Dean, William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education