By Michael Feuer
A dedicated community of scholars, education leaders, and funders is working to build new bridges and roads to connect good research to the problems and challenges of Jewish education. This vision forms the basic rationale for CASJE – the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education. At the risk of overdoing the transportation metaphor, CASJE aims to repave – and in some cases lay down – pathways connecting rigorous scholarship to the improvement of practice. It is a complex undertaking, motivated by the increasing awareness that researchers, practitioners, and funders from the private and public sectors can benefit from intensified efforts to leverage each other’s work for their collective benefit.
Let me expand this notion a bit. Educators toiling in the real world of Jewish education, whether as school leaders, teachers, camp directors, community center directors, early childhood providers, or museum managers, have a healthy appetite for research-informed advice. Jewish education research, though, is not always satisfying, in terms of its relevance, timeliness, or reliability. Hence, there is a growing interest in applying the best methods of education and social science research, and to do so in a way that is systematically responsive to the needs of its ultimate users. This is about connecting the wisdom of practice (a concept made famous in the literature of education research by my co-chair and friend, Lee Shulman) to the practice of wisdom.
If this sounds more complicated than designing and implementing, say, a new highway system connecting center city Washington, DC to its multicultural suburban circles, that’s because in fundamental ways it is. But as co-chairs of the CASJE Board, Lee and I see evidence that the experiment is starting to bear fruit in several areas: Hebrew language education, leadership in Jewish day schools, improvement of Jewish early childhood education, enrichment of Jewish camp experience, advancement in the understanding of what “Jewish peoplehood” means and its implications for educational settings, experiential learning with emphasis on the Jewish cultural arts, and even the economics of Jewish education. To borrow an aphorism that will be familiar to readers of this blog, we are a small organization with a big agenda. Fortunately, we have extraordinarily generous support from The AVI CHAI Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, without whom this sort of venture would be left on the scrap heap of imagined projects never implemented
We are experimenting with processes to help us advance toward our basic goals: We organize and lead “Problem Formulation Convenings” and online “blogcasts,” and conduct follow-up correspondence to develop research questions that, if answered, will help educators be more effective in their work. At the same time we are initiating new research by seeding projects on priority topics, in hopes of demonstrating how results of such work can inform practice and perhaps generate useful larger-scale studies. The key ingredient in this work is the vision of safe and efficient paths connecting communities of researchers and educators who don’t otherwise have productive ways of working together. CASJE is a hub with an engine: it brings scholars and “doers” together to help us understand – and hopefully improve – Jewish life and learning.
Here are a few examples of our current work:
- Researchers from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), one of the premier nonprofit research and evaluation organizations in the world, are conducting a groundbreaking study exploring what characterizes effective leadership in Jewish day schools and, more specifically, what constitutes distinctively Jewish educational leadership. They are seeking to answer such questions as, “What priorities do effective Jewish educational leaders face?” “How do they adapt their leadership style to different schools and contexts?” and “Which leadership styles and qualities are most likely to yield desired progress as measured by various teacher and student outcomes?” This program is supported with generous grants from the AVI CHAI and Mandell and Madeleine Berman Foundations.
- A new three-year Jewish Early Childhood Education (ECE) program—launched a few months ago with generous support in part from The Crown Family Philanthropies—will explore ways in which (and for whom) Jewish ECE can serve as a gateway for further Jewish education and involvement in Jewish life. The program has a focus on opportunities for interfaith families and/or families that are not currently involved in a synagogue or other Jewish institutions. The research will build on knowledge from the study of ECE in general (or secular) settings and existing Jewish ECE studies, in hopes of producing useful new evidence of benefits and costs of ECE for families, organizations, and Jewish communities. We hope to enter into an exciting new agreement with two prominent research organizations that will conduct this study.
- Researchers Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni have visited and surveyed Jewish summer camps across North America to learn how they incorporate Hebrew language. They shared preliminary findings earlier this year at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly. Soon they will release a report on the survey portion of their study, which CASJE believes will contain a treasure of insights about systems that support the infusion of Hebrew at Jewish camp. This s a project of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, with generous funding from The Wexner Foundation.
- My colleague at The George Washington University, Professor Ben Jacobs, is taking the lead on a new conceptual framing of experiential education that emphasizes the cultivation of Jewish learning via the arts. This is another example of our commitment to building new pathways: in this work we will be connecting the rich and growing body of literature on informal learning (as distinct from more traditional classroom-based pedagogy), scholarship on the Jewish cultural arts, and the real-world needs of educators in diverse Jewish learning settings. The project builds off GW’s unique Master’s program in experiential education and the Jewish cultural arts, a joint project conceived with Jenna Weissman Joselit of GW’s program in Judaic Studies, funded generously by the Jim Joseph Foundation.
I hope this overview inspires readers to visit our website — http://www.casje.org — and more importantly, to engage with us as we continue on our exciting journey. Good transportation and traffic planners need input from the citizens they aim to serve; so do we.
Michael Feuer is Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University and President of the National Academy of Education.