The Research-Practice Divide in Jewish Education

 Posted by on November 2, 2018 at 10:08 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Nov 022018

When I was first hired at AVI CHAI almost ten years ago, it was to facilitate a process to determine the foundation’s 10-year spend down strategy; our doors will close on December 31, 2019.  We engaged our own professionals, board members, and field leaders outside of AVI CHAI in multiple, themed workgroups and sub-workgroups (e.g. Jewish day school finance, school leadership, institutional capacity building).  Together, we developed a theory of what it would take to leave behind—after our spend down—a “strong Jewish day school field.”  We determined that we wanted to make a meaningful contribution in each of four domains: People & Networks, Institutions, Ideas & Knowledge, and Resources.  It is the area of “Ideas & Knowledge” I discuss here.

While our foundation has always considered itself “research-based” or “evidence-informed,” we understood that we weren’t really making strategic grants to develop the knowledge base in the Jewish day school field.  We were allocating significant resources to AVI CHAI’s Center for Research and Policy, which, under the leadership of Dr. Jack Wertheimer, was producing influential studies for the larger field of Jewish education.  Our program evaluations and commissioned studies were, by agreement, kept confidential.  And, while they addressed our immediate need to decide to make a grant or not, they didn’t have much utility outside of the foundation because of their design or focus.

Make no mistake, the scholarly field of Jewish education—small and mighty though it may be—is home to fine scholars, an active and committed Network for Research in Jewish Education, and a vital peer review Journal of Jewish Education.  But to say that Jewish education practice and funding is deeply informed by knowledge and evidence would be mistaken. Through long and generative conversations with Lee Shulman and also with many Jewish education practitioners, funders, and researchers, an idea was born to see if we couldn’t do more to bridge the gap between research and practice in Jewish education.

CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education), which gets its core funding from The AVI CHAI and the Jim Joseph Foundation is a project which aims to bridge that gap.  CASJE tries to toil both on the demand and the supply side of Jewish education research.  That is, on the supply side it serves as a platform for the production of new, high quality applied research.  On the demand side, it tries to help both educators and funders understand, utilize, and (hopefully) demand high quality, applied research.  CASJE brings funders and educators together to draw out relevant and pressing problems of practice while in conversation with funders.  CASJE then helps facilitate a process of bringing researchers and funders together to address practitioner problems.  Through the expert counsel and vast network available via the CASJE board, CASJE is a platform for bringing the best of the general education field to bare on Jewish education.

CASJE is currently sponsoring three large and exciting research studies, one in Jewish day school leadership, one in early childhood education, and one on Jewish educator careers.  CASJE also sponsors a program of small research grants, literature reviews on topics of interest, convenings to bring funders and researchers together to think big, and workshops to help educators and education leaders utilize research findings.  CASJE isn’t the only way, but it’s one way we are trying to bridge the divide between research and practice in Jewish education.

This post introduces a short series of monthly posts which will dive more deeply into the research-practice gap.  The posts are for funders, educators, researchers, and evaluators who hope to engage with some of the questions and problems that the gap presents.   Future posts will focus on such issues as: (a) the promise and perils of “definitive” research findings, (b) when numbers aren’t enough, (c) the difference between qualitative research and anecdotes, (d) what education leaders can do when they don’t have time to read the literature, (e) how funders can make evidence informed decisions, and (f) using data to teach (and not just sort) students.

What questions are of greatest interest to you at the moment?

Rosh HaShana, Back-to-School, and Teacher Super Powers

 Posted by on September 6, 2018 at 11:41 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Sep 062018

By: Dr. Susan Kardos

As the heat of summer loosens its sticky grip, we naturally turn toward two major events on the calendar: Rosh HaShana and the opening of school. My favorite time of the year.

Rosh HaShana is a time, first, for reflection. In our tradition, this day is Yom ha-din, a day of thoughtful review and evaluation. It’s a time for looking back at the past year—and perhaps what preceded it—to assess choices and their consequences, friends gained and lost, family appreciated or taken for granted, days seized and opportunities missed.

But our tradition also holds Rosh Hashana to be Yom harat olam, our world’s beginning. It is thus also an occasion for looking ahead and for creation—for envisioning the person we want to become and for new opportunities to become or create that person. Perhaps we envision a less flawed or more virtuous version of our current selves, or perhaps we envision a new model, not with minor upgrades, but with core features or functions radically transformed. Indeed, I’ve often thought of Rosh HaShana as God’s annual bequest to us of our own chance to create ourselves.

Likewise, as schools open, teachers and students return to school with new plans, hopes, and dreams. Students, with new backpacks or new shoes, carry to school empty notebooks and sharpened pencils, ready to fill the lines with “do nows,” spelling lists, or practice problems. The whole year lies ahead, an eternity until next summer, or so it seems. Students have an opportunity to create themselves anew at school. Gone are the habits or trappings of last year. Gone are the old expectations and familiarities. As students fall into the routines and rhythms of the new school year, they have yet another chance.

Teachers also show up to school with their new stuff: books they found in a museum store over the summer, ideas to make tefillot more relevant, methods to build a culture of kindness in their classrooms, and maybe even new shoes. They, too, have likely resolved to return graded work to students sooner, have more patience in their last period class, or show more enthusiasm when teaching quadratic equations. They may have even resolved (and scheduled in) more self-care during the school year. Second chances. New beginnings. Creation. This is the promise of this time of year.

I remember a new teachers’ boot camp I did the August before I started my first year of teaching at an independent school years ago. In one of our sessions, the instructor, an experienced teacher herself, urged our group of young, novice teachers to try to begin every single day, every class anew: “Never assume that Joey will forget his homework again or that Lucy is again the one in the back distracting others.” She urged us to adopt the mindset that every day, any day, can be the day that a child re-invents herself, and a teacher can never foreclose that child’s opportunity for her own self-creation.

So yes, Rosh HaShana and Back-to-School offer us unique and special times for reflection and renewal. But our teachers have special super-powers. Not only during the first days of school, but every day—even the dark days, deep in February—they cultivate the environments in which children can partner with God in the act of creation.

Shana Tova U’Metukah to students and their families and most especially to all of the teachers out there who will spend their days this year, as they spend their days every year: giving children second chances, occasions for renewal, and opportunities for creation.

May 142018

By: Dr. Susan Kardos

In a recent eJP post, Dr. Erica Brown gracefully laid out an 18-point agenda for Jewish education.  Among the important ideas she put forth was the idea that “We need more great teachers. And we need to celebrate the ones we have.”

The research is unequivocal: teachers and teaching matter most.  Great teachers enable high student achievement, and great teachers make great schools.

Jewish day schools are filled with knowledgeable, creative, and inspiring teachers.  But we need more.  And there are forces that are keeping top talent out of Jewish day school classrooms—low pay and prestige, the demands of the job, family obligations, lack of opportunities for career advancement, and increasing job opportunities for women outside of schools (the best of whom used to go into teaching).  In addition, those who come into teaching often leave prematurely (perhaps to re-enter after their children are older or perhaps never to return) or switch to schools where working conditions, professional culture, and pay are better and challenges and pressures of the job are fewer.

What do Jewish day school teachers really want?  I think they want, more or less, what all teachers want.  They want a combination of the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards that, on balance, make the effort worthwhile and provide enough incentive and reward:

  • First and foremost, they want to be able to do their best work and have success with their students; they want to “make a difference” in the education and lives of young people.
  • They want fair pay and extra pay for extra work.
  • They want opportunities to learn and grow.
  • They want supportive contexts, colleagues, and mentors.

For these, they need the working conditions, instructional leadership, and resources that are most conducive to good teaching, teacher learning, and teacher job satisfaction.

It would be tempting to rely on knee-jerk instincts about how to reward or “celebrate”/“appreciate” teachers more.  Merit pay or performance bonuses are ideas often heard in the boardroom when the topic comes up.  I maintain that such programs are highly problematic in Jewish day school education where (1) student outcomes are hard to measure and harder to tie directly to a particular teacher, (2) schools value academic content and skills in general studies and Jewish studies, and they also value social-emotional outcomes, identity development, spiritual development, and the development of beliefs and commitments—also hard to measure (3) schools work best for a student when teachers collaborate and take collective responsibility for the success of all students, and teacher bonuses would undermine that.

So yes, Jewish day school teacher salaries need to be fair and, on the whole, comparable to salaries in other competing sectors.  They need to respond to market forces: teachers in shortage areas may need to be paid more, or a school that consistently loses its best candidates to a nearby public or private school may need to be more competitive on salary or other benefits.

But we shouldn’t overlook the importance of the intrinsic rewards that drove young, talented, energetic educators into Jewish day school classrooms in the first place.  If the budget and longer-term financial and enrollment forecast allows, by all means, pay teachers more.  But know that they are likely never going to get what they truly deserve.  So in the meantime, who is doing what to make Jewish day schools the best places to work in all of the Jewish community or in all of the education sector?  In what ways are schools optimizing the possibility that teachers have what they need to succeed with their students?  In what ways are schools places of continuous growth, collegiality, and collaboration?  In what ways are schools set up to maximize teacher autonomy, creativity, and career advancement?  The answers to these questions will determine whether Jewish day schools attract and keep the best teachers; Jewish day school teachers fulfill their dreams for their career in Jewish education; and Jewish day school students get the teachers they need and deserve.

May 102018

SMKTree of Life Award Acceptance Speech
Solomon Schechter Bergen County Community Celebration
6 May 2018
By: Dr. Susan Kardos

Thank you so much, and thank you Sarah and David for that lovely introduction. It’s an honor for me and for Guy to say thank you to all of you, and to say Mazal Tov and thank you to the other honorees, Dana and Golan Yehuda and Marlene and Philip Rhodes.

First, a story:

I’m sitting in my office in New York City one morning last year, and my phone rings. “Hi Susan, it’s Sylvia. Special Friends Day is about to start. Is anyone coming for Yael?”

I couldn’t breathe.

I was already sobbing by the time I started frantically calling Guy and then my parents, but no one could get to the school in time. I sat there, on the wrong side of the Hudson River, totally helpless as the minutes of Special Friend’s Day ticked away.

And then my phone buzzed.

First, a message from a Schechter mom that she had swooped up Yael into her orbit. Then a photo of Yael on the floor with a school administrator. And then another photo of Yael with her brother, our son Yoni, Yael’s special friend for the day.

I forwarded Guy the photos, and he texted me back that half-smiling-half-crying emoji face.

That’s what we all get at Schechter: Partners in raising our kids.

The first version of our speech was different than this one. As a former teacher and education researcher, my first instinct was for us to write about the top-notch secular and Jewish education our kids get at Schechter. But instead we decided to explain why we wouldn’t want our kids anywhere else but right here. Right now.

The reason is this:

We Jews are part of a spectacular civilization.
We are the descendants of poets, scientists, prophets and kings.
We have an unprecedented, uninterrupted twenty-five-hundred-year lineage of Jewish literacy.

Our Jewish story has it all:

It’s a story of brilliant, ancient texts with modern, relevant interpretations.
It’s a story of exile and of finding home.
It’s a story of miracles and answered prayers.
It’s a story of family and belonging, and a story that teaches us to welcome the stranger.
It teaches us intellectualism, spirituality, resilience,
humanity, humility, morality,
optimism, patriotism, and globalism.

Indeed, it provides compelling answers to life’s most profound questions.*


Fania Oz-Salzberger, the Israeli intellectual and daughter of Amos Oz, has said that the Jewish people
are and have always been powered by 2 engines:

The book. And the child.

Schechter brings the two together.

Schechter puts the book in the child’s hand and says to its students:
“Go and be part of Jewish history as it unfolds.
Go and bring the light and wisdom of the Jewish story to the world,
wherever you go and whatever you do.”


So a heartfelt thank you to every single person in this room for your part in powering these two engines.

Thank you to Ruth and her outstanding team;
Caryn, Sarah, and Arielle and the amazing army of AHAVA volunteers;
Adi and the dedicated members of the board;
Schechter parents, the lifeblood of our community;
Current and past supporters, upon whose shoulders we stand;
And most especially to Schechter teachers, who show up every single day to teach, love, and inspire our children.

And finally, thank you to our family & friends who came to celebrate.
And thank you to this amazing guy—who I love—and those two little flying monkeys. Without you 3 this life would not only be impossible, but it would also be meaningless.

Thank you.

*  These remarks were inspired by a panel discussion and breakout session featuring Fania Oz-Salzberger at A Day of Learning in honor of the retirement of Barry Shrage. 29 April 2018. Boston, MA.

Mar 152018

By: Dr. Susan Kardos

You’ll sometimes hear it said in hushed and half-apologetic tones, mostly by policymakers, funders, or central office officials: “change is just hard for people.”  Usually they are explaining why a funded program or state mandate or new idea from the superintendent’s office isn’t taking hold in classrooms.  They are re-enforcing the notion that teachers, as a group, resist change.  Implicit in the comment is that teachers are, at best, “old school,” and driven by years of inertia.  At worst, some higher-ups believe teachers are “lazy” or “worn out.”

The research unequivocally shows that teachers enter and stay in teaching because they want “to make a difference” for their students.  Regardless of whether they are novice or veteran teachers, most care deeply and personally about the young people in their charge.[1]  Most teachers are well trained, have pedagogic and content expertise, and are guided by the wisdom of their experience.  Education fads and “silver bullets” have come and gone, and teachers are still standing.  For the most part, they believe—in good faith—that what they’re doing works best, and they need a coherent argument and compelling evidence to change what they do.  Thank goodness for that.

So what does this mean for school reform and new program implementation?

The education sector is abuzz with innovations and new ideas: tech integration, blended learning, personalized learning, problem-based learning (PBL), STEM, STEAM, and in some religious schools STREAM.  Notwithstanding reformers’ inclinations to speak in oversimplified and exaggerated, bifurcated terms—“teaching today is frontal and traditional and needs to be more personalized/innovative”—there are new ideas in the field that are being introduced to teachers and schools with the necessary respect for teachers’ expertise.

The AVI CHAI Foundation has, since 2012, been making a wide variety of grants in the area of blended learning, which you can learn more about here.  Our focus is on helping teachers use technology to promote personalized learning in their classrooms and assisting teachers in using systematically collected student data to drive their instruction.  But this post isn’t about the advantages and risks associated with blended personalized learning.  Instead, it’s about the changes we are seeing (and not seeing) in classrooms.

In many schools implementing blended learning, the most obvious observable changes are changes in classroom structures rather than changes in instructional practice.  So, for example, as teachers work to implement blended personalized learning in their classrooms, we are much more likely to see success implementing the classroom design and routines necessary in the “station rotation” model than the differentiated instructional practices that foster deep learning for all students and grant students agency in their learning.  Within a classroom, we’ll see students moving seamlessly from the computer station to the collaborative project station to the teacher-led small group station; however, we’ll also see the teacher employing the same pedagogic practices she would have used with a group of 20 students, except now her group has only 5 students.  If, before the intervention, teachers were unable to make such moves as (a) responding to the social-emotional dynamics of the group, (b) formatively assessing students in real time and adjusting the lesson to address the incoming data, (c) designing the lesson based on clarity of instructional purposes, (d) slowing the lesson down at the right moments to give students time to productively grapple with difficult concepts, (e) scaffolding the lesson, or (f) providing corrective feedback (to name a few), she or he is unlikely to be able to make these pedagogic moves after the intervention.

The point is this: our interventions do exactly what they are designed to do.  If they only focus on structures and routines, they aren’t likely to influence teaching practice much.  In the cases where teachers’ practice is refined and reflective, this may not matter.  But in cases where teachers need opportunities to develop and improve, most interventions will still leave them wanting and needing more.

So, how can we maximize the possibility that classroom or school interventions will lead to better teaching?

Here’s a start:

  • Keep instructional improvement as the central goal, and make sure the goal is clearly understood
  • Help teachers collect and analyze student data of all kinds
  • Give teachers time to collaborate and work together to implement the new intervention
  • Use teacher professional development time carefully and effectively
  • Offer teachers access to ongoing support
  • Provide ample and sustained opportunities for peer, mentor, or supervisor observation and feedback

While it’s true, as Erica Brown also pointed out in her recent EJP blogpost, that over-emphasis on “innovation” can undermine good teaching, it is also true that teachers and schools should always be exercising their innovation muscles.  But they should be innovating—in both large and small ways—with the central, deliberate purpose of improving teaching and learning.

[1] As I write this, our nation continues to learn more about Scott Beigel and Aaron Feis, two teachers who willingly gave their lives to protect students during the tragic school shooting in Parkland, FL.  Such actions by teachers, protecting students from gunfire with their own bodies or exposing themselves to fatal danger to enable students to get to safety, are not unique to this most recent school shooting.  Six adults were killed in Sandy Hook.  One in Columbine.  And the list goes on.

Feb 132018

By: Dr. Susan Kardos

Eight years ago, AVI CHAI began a concerted grantmaking effort in the area of day school finance, seeking to help schools shore up sustainability and improve affordability for parents. Given the scope of the problem—hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition shortfalls annually—we knew that it would be impossible to generate one strategy that would “solve” the affordability and sustainability problems. We also knew that the financial strain is especially tough for schools with decreasing enrollments and thus shrinking tuition revenue.  Since then, our operating partners in the field have enabled us to shape a grant portfolio comprised of a comprehensive suite of programs that address the major areas of JDS affordability and sustainability.  As we and our partners have experimented and learned, some initial programs have gone through radical changes, some have been reshaped along the edges, and some experiments have led us and our partners to dive in more deeply, change course, or abandon an effort.

We invest in programs related to student recruitment and retention, school fundraising, endowment building, government funding, and R&D. The emphasis of our work reflects our sense of where there is the most reasonable and productive short-term and long-term promise. Most immediately, the “holy grail” for Jewish day school affordability and sustainability is (a) increased enrollment to fill empty seats and (b) government funding. In the longer term, endowments offer the promise of an additional, reliable revenue stream for schools.

Thus, we feature 3 efforts in this newsletter: The Atidenu program to increase enrollment; the Generations program to increase school endowments; and our government funding initiatives.  Atidenu and Generations are programs ably delivered and managed by Prizmah.  Both programs seek to build capacity at the school site to improve either their recruitment and retention efforts or their endowment building efforts.  They offer intensive training and ongoing coaching over an extended period of time.  In terms of government funding, AVI CHAI has provided general operating support toward two organizations that advocate for greater government support for private school education:  (1) The Invest in Education Foundation, which promotes scholarship tax credits for individuals and corporations that fund scholarships for private school students, and (2) the Orthodox Union, which works to expand existing NY State funding programs for private schools and introduce a variety of new programs.

Have you and/or your school been influenced by these or other efforts to improve the affordability of Jewish day school education? What lessons have you learned?

Nov 212016

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.


By Susan Kardos and Ellen Goldring

CASJE (the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) recently released findings from the first phase of a study conducted by American Institute of Research (AIR). In Leadership in Context: The Conditions for Success of Jewish Day School Leaders, researchers offer valuable insight about specific leadership practices and the conditions that support them in Jewish day schools. As we discuss belowand as presented in Table 1 that summarizes these findings – the research highlights specific actions school leaders can take to be effective leaders and to have the most positive student outcomes:

  1. Vision: The school leader promotes a vision for Jewish living and learning.
  2. Staff: The school leader enables teachers’ learning and professional growth.
  3. Community: The school leader interacts with the school community to attend to the interests, priorities, and needs of students, teachers, parents, and external organizations.

In thevisiondomain, school leaders consistently articulate the Jewish vision of the school, encourage staff to promote it, and are role models who bring the vision to life. To do this effectively, school leaders first develop relationships with teachers. A relationship of trust, according to the study, helps leaders build a committed staff united by common understanding of school values and a shared purpose. Participation in professional development on topics related to Jewish studies also enables leaders to promote the school’s vision for Jewish living and learning.

In thestaffdomain, school leaders build teacher trust and promote collaboration, empower teachers to identify and implement new approaches to instruction, solicit feedback and suggestions from teachers, and provide access to professional development. Researchers found that spending fewer than three hours per week on planning curriculum; meeting with teachers and parents about instruction and learning; and observing teachers in their classrooms hampered leaders’ ability to support their teaching staff. Spending more than eight hours on each, however, did not significantly increase leader support of teachers’ growth.

In thecommunitydomain, school leaders are accessible to students, teachers, and parents; proactively initiate dialogue with students, teachers, and parents; and encourage and model a culture of open and honest communication. These behaviors can be practiced more easily when school leaders are part of a professional leadership team and when school leaders have collaborative relationships with other organizations. The school leadership teams help develop effective communication systems with parents and cultivate a caring school community. Developing relationships with Jewish community leaders and other Jewish organizations greatly benefit schools by expanding the curriculum and enhancing extra-curricular activities.

Thus, Phase 1 of this study offers a full set of findings and potential new and important implications for better understanding Jewish educational leadership in Jewish day schools. The study proposes that certain leadership practices and contextual factors that influence those practices – in the domains of vision, faculty, and community/collaboration – lead to specific school, teacher, and student outcomes in those domains to be further explored and tested in Phase 2 of the study.

By the end of Phase 2 of the 3-year study, the study will have produced databases and findings showing relationships between principal practices and student, teacher, and school outcomes. In addition to a set of briefs and a final report, the effort will produce a research-based and standards-aligned evaluation tool that measures the effectiveness of school leaders by providing a detailed assessment of a principal’s performance. This assessment will focus on learning-centered leadership behaviors that influence teachers, staff, and – most importantly – student achievement.

Susan Kardos is Senior Director of Strategy & Education Planning at The AVI CHAI Foundation, which provided funding for this research. Ellen Goldring is the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Education Policy and Leadership, and Chair, Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations, Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, and is a member of the CASJE Board of Directors. View the full Leadership in Context report and an “At a Glance” brief of the key findings.

Table 1: Summary of Findings and Potential New/Important Implications

Leadership Behaviors Supporting Conditions What’s New or Important
Consistently articulates Jewish vision Relationship of trust with faculty The study identifies specific school conditions positively related to “Vision” behaviors. The behaviors and school conditions need to be assessed and nurtured. Absence or weakness in conditions may predict absence or weakness in behaviors or vice versa.
Encourages staff to articulate Jewish vision Engagement in professional development (PD) related to Jewish studies Highlights the importance for new leaders to learn/practice/pay attention to building trust relationships with faculty. New leaders in the study score low on this and, importantly, comprise 41% of the representative sample.
Acts as role model Highlights importance of professional development related to Jewish studies (JS), especially because only 20% of respondents reported participating JS related professional development.
Highlights need for better JS professional development experiences for school leaders.
Has implications for design and curriculum of Jewish day school leadership training, ongoing professional development and coaching.
Builds teacher collaboration and trust Time set aside specifically for instructional leadership The study identifies specific instructional leadership behaviors to nurture and the specific school conditions positively related to these behaviors. Both the leadership behaviors and the conditions that support them need to be assessed and nurtured. Absence or weakness in conditions may predict absence or weakness in behaviors or vice versa.
Empowers teachers to identify and implement new approaches to instruction Autonomy to make decisions Leaders should have fewer administrative and teaching responsibilities and more focus on instructional leadership. Data suggests that spending fewer than 3 hours a week on each of the following tasks hampers leaders’ abilities to support teachers, but spending more than eight hours a week does not significantly increase leaders’ abilities to support teachers: curriculum planning and development, meeting with teachers and parents about learning and instruction concerns, and observing teachers in their classrooms.
Solicits feedback and suggestions from teachers Adequate facilities and education technology The study includes suggestions from the data of ways to manage time and make more room for instructional leadership.
Provides and enables access to professional development Highlights the importance of Head of School/Principal autonomy from board interference and Principal/education leader autonomy from Head of School interference in educational decision making.
Has implications for design and curriculum of Jewish day school leadership training, ongoing professional development and coaching.
Has implications for school leader assignment of responsibilities.
Has implication for Jewish day school board governance practices and resource allocation.
Is accessible to students, teachers, and parents Communication with parents The study identifies specific leadership behaviors to nurture and the specific school conditions positively related to these behaviors. Both the behaviors and the school conditions that support them need to be assessed and nurtured. Absence or weakness in conditions may predict absence or weakness in behaviors or vice versa.
Proactively initiates dialogue with students, teachers, and parents Existence and utilization of a leadership team Highlights the importance of parent relationships and communication.
Encourages and models a culture of open and honest communication Collaboration and partnerships with community and other external organizations Highlights the importance of setting aside sufficient time to reach out to families and solicit feedback from parents.
Highlights that school leader should communicate (a) an openness to feedback, (b) a sense of respect and fair treatment for all families, (c) school responsiveness to parent suggestions and requests regarding school wide policies, and (d) transparency about school areas for improvement and steps taken.
Has implications for school leader skill-building and assignment of responsibilities.
Aug 072013

By: Susan Kardos

On July 21, I wrote an eJewishPhilanthropy blog post about AVI CHAI’s foray into different types of activities in these, our sunset years.  I developed a gymnastics metaphor and compared a back flip (which may be scary at first, but where you can always count on seeing the whole landing) and a front flip (which is scary during most of the second half because the landing is blind).  I explained that AVI CHAI has mostly liked to flip backward—engaging in high-impact activities, where we knew we could stick the landing.  Our spend-down, I posited, requires some more courageous—and risky—forward flipping.  While we continue to support our signature and newer programs to enhance the Jewish content and character of Jewish day schools and overnight summer camps, we have also expanded our grantmaking portfolio to include activities which we believe—in the case of Jewish day schools, for example—maximize the possibility of a strong and sustainable Jewish day school field.  One of the primary examples of this is our investments in building the capacity of some core institutions that serve the Jewish day school field, such as the Davidson Graduate School of Education, RAVSAK, and the Schechter Day School Network.  Discussion of these forward-flipping efforts will be the subject of an upcoming blogpost.  I also discussed in some detail, as a single concrete example, our Jewish Day School “Strategy_Lab,” which took place for 2.5 days last week in New York City.

The purpose of the Strategy_Lab was to bring a diverse set of people together and engage—intensively and immersively—with the problem of Jewish day school affordability and sustainability.  Our hope was to learn together about how school leaders, agency and foundation professionals, and lay-leaders understand the problem and how they think about solutions.  We wanted to learn together about what is being done locally, regionally, and nationally and what this group thought ought to be done.  We wanted to give people (including ourselves) the opportunity to “workshop” ideas that they had been considering in their own settings and perhaps utilize the group genius to imagine new approaches.

The work was masterfully facilitated and deeply engrossing.  We spent a total of 23 hours together collaborating, questioning, and creating.  In the night hours we ate, slept, checked in with our families, checked email, and played around—in our heads—with questions, comments and ideas we heard during the day.  The dance of the days was beautifully choreographed and purposeful; the language was wise and melodic; the physical space was radiant blues and purples; the soundtrack was both playful and penetrating.  And these are not metaphors.  We experienced as many as 10 hours a day in a high school gym as if we were transported into the center of a poem.  Seriously.

So what am I talking about?  Forty-six people participated in the 2.5 day event. The whole event.  No leaving early, no coming late.  No cell phones.  No email.   We could have had 146 participants or even 1046, and we could have targeted participation within a certain region or sector or school type.  But we didn’t.  We kept it under 50, and we tried to compose as diverse a group as we could.  We entered the room and took off our figurative hats (actual kippahs stayed on) and became part of a living laboratory designed to distill questions, pose hypotheses, mix solutions, test ideas, and imagine new realities.  We moved between small groups and larger groups; we journaled quietly and built 3-D models; and we consulted theory, research, and the lived experience of the people in the room.  We participated in activities that helped us remember the past, understand the present, and imagine the future.  We said old things in new ways and new things in old ways.  And we listened.  And we listened some more.  And we tried to flip forward.

So what was the “outcome”?  Some of us joked that when the Lab first started we felt the kind of thrill and angst a camp color-war captain experiences when she gathers all the seniors together after dinner and has one night to make 2 murals for color-war Sing, write 3 songs, figure out how to teach the songs to the entire team (half the camp), and assign everyone a role in the Apache Relay.  It was that kind of electric.  And that kind of electric requires some buzzing and then some time for the circuits to cool.

But here is where we are right now:  The Lab did not unearth a secret, magical, game-changing solution that will make Jewish day school affordable, sustainable, and top-flight across the board.  But there were ways of understanding the problems and language for expressing those perspectives that was fresh.  There was clear articulation of current efforts and there was energy for and scrutiny of new possibilities.  We are currently pouring over approximately 150 pages of notes, transcripts, photos and videos to help us make sense of the experience and the content.  And the interpretation our small AVI CHAI group comes up with may be different from the sense-making of other participants.

Our first serious level of analysis is determining thematic categories within which most ideas fit (and there were dozens of ideas that were put forth throughout the Lab).  While we framed the Lab around Affordability, Sustainability, and Learning, we understood that almost all of the ideas fit in to one of four organizing concepts: (1) the quality of the connections and relationships among sub-communities and institutions at the local level; (2) the coordinating, synthesizing, assistance and advocacy role of a national entity; (3) the possibilities of old and new tuition and revenue models; and (4) the need to upgrade and modernize the educational experience for the 21st Century.  Our next step is to continue to work within this conceptual framework to understand and assess the many ideas that fit within each.  We hope that other participants are doing the same, and we invite them to share their own experiences and analyses.  We intend to continue to process the Strategy_Lab and its implications for our work as transparently as possible.

While the Lab (intentionally) was short on cookies and excess sweets (our facilitator insisted!), it wasn’t short on energy and inspiration.  In my previous blog post, I used Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s gold medal winning floor routine to make a point about the need to take risks and push 100% when you have one last chance to achieve your dream.  At the end of the routine, Raisman whispers to herself a subtle and breathy: “wow.”  (Yes, you can see it in the video, and yes, that’s reason enough to indulge yourself and watch it again!)

The question is, what will we all whisper to ourselves when our Hava Nagila stops playing? I hope it’s a thrilled and humbled—and maybe even surprised—“wow.”

Susan Kardos is the Senior Director, Strategy and Education Planning at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Jul 222013

This article is cross-posted from the eJewish Philanthropy Blog.

by Susan Kardos

The AVI CHAI Foundation is a Jewish education philanthropic foundation which will be spending all of its assets and winding down its operations by 2020. We have tried to build a good reputation among grantees in the Jewish day school and summer camp worlds for being focused, supportive, and outcomes-oriented.

The programmatic grantmaking that we have done over the last 18 years to enhance the Jewish content and character of schools and camps speaks for itself, but lately, as a foundation spending down, we have been investing somewhat differently. What that means, for example, is that in addition to continuing our funding of curriculum and professional development programs for Jewish day schools, we have also decided to invest in building the capacity of the institutions that develop and implement such programs (e.g. Davidson School at JTS, RAVSAK, and Schechter Day School Network); in supporting new efforts to help day schools be financially sustainable; and in increasing the capacity of the field to produce and utilize applied research in Jewish education.

This shift is our attempt at a somewhat more strategic approach to field building, which necessarily includes investments not only in people and programs, but also in institutions and knowledge.

In addition to adapting some of what we do, in some instances we are experimenting with revising how we do it. I have often said that I believe that there are two types of people in this world: forward flippers and backward flippers. This gymnastics metaphor refers to a gymnast’s preference to flip forward or flip backward. Imagine a gymnast standing in the middle of a balance beam. She is four feet above ground, and she can see the four-inch wide plank stretching out eight feet in front of her, with another eight feet stretching out behind her. A preference for flipping backward or forward depends on where the gymnast prefers the blind spot to be. Although it looks difficult, it is pretty easy to land a back flip because once you’re upside down, you can see the entire landing. The downside, of course, is the time it takes for your feet to leave the ground until your head is back far enough and your body is rotated enough to see the beam again. In my opinion, that’s the scariest part. You need to have courage to flip backward, but mostly at the beginning. If you’ve practiced enough and you’re ready, once you commit to doing it, it is actually a pretty safe bet. A forward flipper, on the other hand, has to contend with a blind landing. You can see where you’re going at the beginning, but the further you are into the trick, the scarier it gets because you don’t really know you are going to land until your feet hit the beam. It’s not always quite as beautiful as a back flip, but there is surprise and drama in the landing that is breathtaking. Go ahead, watch it again.

So what does this have to do with Jewish philanthropy? In the case of AVI CHAI, I think we have always preferred to flip backward. We prepare and plan and practice, and then once we’re ready, we go for it. There may be an early moment of uncertainty or even fear, but more often than not we can predict the result: a strong, high-value performance. And a “stuck landing.” This predilection has worked remarkably well for our Foundation, and we have initiated and funded high-quality programs for Hebrew language and Judaic studies curriculum and professional development; new teacher mentoring; school leadership training and development; and Israel education, to name a few. But as we seek to address old problems with new and innovative solutions, we are learning to resist the tendency to want to know and see where we are going to land.

As a foundation spending down, we have to be prepared for the possibility that we may not “stick” all of our landings. We have to suspend our desire to want to know exactly where we will land before our feet actually hit the floor. Thus, as mentioned above, we have made new and serious investments in organizational capacity building, applied research, and experimental school models. These forward-flipping commitments are courageous and high-risk; yet the need for them and the potential return should not be underestimated.

At the end of the month we will be sponsoring the Jewish education Strategy_Lab, a discrete and small upcoming example of our attempt to deviate from a more comfortable and certain path. In our efforts to increase Jewish day school affordability and sustainability, we spend millions of dollars annually on programs related to Jewish day school endowment building, fundraising, cost-cutting, government funding, and new educational models and have a dedicated program officer on staff who is working exclusively on this portfolio. Four years ago, as part of the effort to develop our spend-down strategy, we convened a Jewish day school finance working group, which met for 18 months and was instrumental in developing some of the initiatives we now fund. We have attended convenings and meetings and sponsored white papers with other foundations and lay and professional leaders to try to develop solutions to the urgent problem of day school affordability and sustainability. While we are pleased with the incremental successes of our work thus far, we know we have not yet struck upon the kind of lasting, bold, and creative solutions that this problem may require. It is time to have a different kind of courage.

The Strategy_Lab is structured to be an intensive and immersive creative experience. Fifty plus participants will be actively and collaboratively working for two and half days to reframe and reconsider the problem of day school affordability in all its complexity, propose new solutions, and put them through a rapid testing protocol. By the close of the lab, which will be facilitated by Architectz of Genius, a firm knowledgeable and experienced in this work, we will have sensible and actionable next steps. The Strategy_Lab is unlike anything we have ever done before. It is more organic and uncertain and risky than the usual processes we utilize to solve problems. In our view, the complexity and urgency of the problem, combined with our spend-down, demands this sort of bold approach.

Aly Raisman, the 18-year-old Jewish American Olympic gymnast (herself a preferred forward flipper), was perhaps my favorite Jew of 2012. She quietly and tenaciously led her American team to gold for only the second time in Olympics history with her explosive and reliable performances, culminating in her masterful and awe-inspiring floor routine (choreographed to the world’s fastest version of Hava Nagila, no less). A careful observer will notice a very important difference between the floor routine she did in order to clinch the gold medal for Team USA and the floor routine she did when she was competing for her own individual gold. Watch the first 15 seconds of each routine again. You’ll see in the team competition (red leotard), she slightly downgrades the first tumbling pass. Spectacular though it is, she takes out the final front layout flip. Her routine has everything it needs – if she hits it – to secure the gold for her team, so it’s simply not worth the risk. You will notice that in the individual finals (red, white, and blue leotard) her first tumbling pass ends with the additional front layout flip that the team final routine lacked. This is her last routine of the Olympic Games and she has the chance to win the gold. She knows the urgency and she knows the kind of courage that is required to achieve her life’s mission and be an Olympic champion. She decides to hold back nothing, take the risk, and lay it all on the line. There is no other choice. In addition to the team gold, Aly Raisman wins the individual gold in floor exercise.

It may seem like a stretch (we’re an education foundation, after all, not Olympic athletes), but, in this case, we also feel the urgency to achieve a goal that we set for ourselves: to explore real, innovative solutions to Jewish day school affordability and sustainability problems. We hope to have encouraging news to report regarding the outcomes and next steps of this unusual process that we are about to embark upon. Meanwhile, we’ll play Hava Nagila very fast and dream about gold.

Susan Kardos is the Senior Director, Strategy and Education Planning at The AVI CHAI Foundation. She is formerly a competitive gymnast, and (full disclosure) has always been more comfortable flipping forward.