Susan Kardos

Feb 212019

By: Susan Kardos

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.

[As The AVI CHAI Foundation prepares to sunset, a year-long series from their staff about philanthropic lessons learned.]

About ten years ago we, at The AVI CHAI Foundation, set out to determine our spend-down strategy for our Jewish day school work, which we have been documenting and sharing here. Our intention was to spend down thoughtfully and strategically, and we came to understand that we would also have to think about both the ecosystem within which our programs operate and the long term viability of that ecosystem. In short, as we embarked on the spend-down planning, we learned that our vision for what the Jewish day school field would look like when we closed was not dependent on the effectiveness and sustainability of any one program or even group of programs. Indeed, if we wanted a strong and sustainable Jewish day school field, we’d have to invest our resources toward that end.

Here’s how it happened: Our staff and trustees first prioritized programs in terms of mission alignment, return on investment, audience served and other salient factors. Our trustees were, at the time, “program trustees,” which meant that each trustee presided over her or his own set of programs, and prioritizing forced our trustees, Executive Director and program officers to shift away from program advocacy. I mention this process because the work of prioritizing programs was the Foundation’s first big step (and a big mental shift) toward an integrated and strategic approach to our spend-down grantmaking.

The driving questions we constantly asked ourselves were:

  1. What programs and initiatives can we support that will best enable Jewish day schools to graduate students who will be the energizing nucleus of young people poised to lead the Jewish people intellectually, spiritually, politically, and culturally into our glorious future?
  2. What do we want the Jewish day school field to look like on December 31, 2019, the day we say our final goodbye, shut the lights, and lock the door at 1015 Park Avenue, our New York office?

For us, these questions were embedded in our longstanding conviction that a vibrant Jewish future depends on a commitment to Jewish living, learning and peoplehood and our belief that the best hope for attaining this vision of the future is through focused investment in immersive and intensive educational experiences for Jewish youth – primarily in Jewish day schools – which are meaningful, engaging and full of joy.

Guided by these questions and assumptions, we set up active work groups of program staff, trustees, and field experts from outside the foundation in the following topic areas: (1) Jewish day school finance, (2) Strengthening Institutions, (3) Educational leadership and innovation , (4) Generating philanthropic support for day schools, and (5) Knowledge management. Although we started with these categories and groups, the focus, participants, and work changed and evolved considerably over time. For example, “Strengthening Institutions” morphed in surprising ways and ultimately led to our work in organizational capacity building, mergers, research, and thought leadership.

As we continued the strategic planning work, we began thinking not only about programs but about their relationship to one another, to others in the field, and to the larger context of the field itself. We saw a framework of a strong Jewish day field begin to emerge: four distinct but overlapping and interdependent categories of interventions we believed to be essential for a vibrant and sustainable field:

  1. “People and Networks” – which referred to educator, school leader, lay-leader and program provider talent and robust ways for them to connect with each other
  2. “Institutions” – which referred to schools and intermediary organizations with the capacity to deliver a high quality education, services, or programs in an efficient and financially sustainable way
  3. “Ideas and Knowledge” – which referred to research evidence, working theories, and innovative ideas and mechanisms to engage members of the field with these ideas and knowledge
  4. “Resources” – which referred to the business models and philanthropic revenue needed to sustain the Jewish day school field.

What became increasing clear, with 10 years left to operate, was our overwhelming desire to leave behind a strong Jewish day school field with the talent, institutions, resources, and ability to learn and innovate – a field that could meet the evolving educational needs of Jewish youth.

In order to do that, we determined that we needed to make meaningful philanthropic investments in each of the 4 identified “strong field” areas. Thus, we set out to do the planning that would enable us to build a meaningful and strategic portfolio of old and new programs and initiatives. (Notably, the Jewish day school framework that emerged for us had some shared features with, but was different from, “The Strong Field Framework” that the Bridgespan Group wrote about in this report sponsored by the James Irvine Foundation.)

It was this thinking that guided us to the programmatic portfolio we ultimately developed, which is summarized in this “AVI CHAI by the numbers” infographic showing our efforts in day schools and summer camps in the context of our strong-field framework. It also led us to support the merger of the national denominational Jewish day school umbrella organizations to create Prizmah.

The AVI CHAI Foundation has long been known for its laser-like and disciplined focus on supporting programs and providers in our mission’s bullseye, and our staff and trustees have developed keen expertise in identifying or creating grantees and programs to advance our mission. But building a field is not the same as funding programs; field-building requires something more. It requires a deeper and longer view of programs and grantees which takes into account program and organizational capacity and sustainability. It requires a collaborative stance with grantees and other funders which privileges partnership and co-creation over solo grantmaking. It requires more listening, learning, and experimenting which bring the benefits of field expertise and prototyping to the grantmaking. It requires believing in people and making grants that provide leeway for them to be creative and make mid-course corrections. It requires the persistence needed for iterative, complex problem solving. It requires risk-taking and imagination. It requires integrated and strategic thinking. And it requires leaps of faith.

In the end, context matters. If we aim to do anything more than support individual programmatic interventions and their sustainability, and instead support and build a field, foundation staff and trustees have to shift their mindsets, decisions, and actions. Our spend-down thinking led us to field building. What we have come to believe is that spend-down thinking is not just for spend-down foundations. We believe that field-building is a key strategic approach for philanthropies to make meaningful and sustainable change in their sectors of interest.

If you think that field building might be a useful way to think about your own programmatic or funding work, please feel free to contact me or one of my colleagues at AVI CHAI. We would love to help.

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

Getting Beyond the Survey

 Posted by on January 31, 2019 at 8:45 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Jan 312019

By: Dr. Susan Kardos

In November, I wrote a piece posted here about the wide chasm that often exists between research and practice.  In that post I promised additional posts related to the broader topic of “evidence informed decision making.”

During the first week of January in a WeWork conference space in New York City, I had the honor of spending the day with the Nachshon Project Graduate Fellows during their 10-day intensive on “data-driven decision making” through the lens of the Jewish day school sector.  Organized and facilitated by Prizmah, Nachshon Project staff, and faculty assembled by Prizmah, this was an intensive week of learning and site visits: after concentrated work in New York, the fellows, their faculty, and Prizmah staff travelled to Jewish day schools in Memphis and Detroit. It was meant to deepen their knowledge about Jewish day schools as potential sites for their future work, introduce them to applicable concepts and methods related to data-driven decision making, and enrich their cohort experience.  I was honored to offer three sessions to frame their subsequent learning, and I learned a lot from their thoughtfulness and passion.

There are lots of different angles from which to think about “data-driven decision making” (I prefer “evidence-informed decision making”). These include the following: how to find and use existing data to inform decisions; how to apply existing theories or study findings in one’s own context; how to collect your own data; how to interpret data collected at your site; how to guide expert researchers or evaluators to do a study most useful to you; and how to engage in data collection and analysis that is not only useful to you in your site, but also contributes to a broader knowledge base about educational issues.  And those are just a few.

Here I am focusing on one critically important and seemingly obvious point about research, inquiry, data collection, and evaluation: You must first get clear about what it is you want to know.  If there is one key nugget to take away from this post, that is it, and I invite you to stick with me for the next few minutes to work it through.  But if you know you always spend sufficient time, at the outset, clearly articulating the question you want to answer (and really considering it and appreciating all its dimensionality), and you do this with colleagues and critical friends, then you just found yourself a few extra minutes to do something else. (Enjoy!)

You heard it before, or you may have even said it.  You’re in a conversation with colleagues, grantees, funder partners, or practitioners and someone says: “We just finished this program/initiative/event and we want to do a survey…”  That sort of thinking is akin to “I just finished my workout and I want to go get my blood pressure measured.”  That may or may not be a good idea; we can only determine what you should measure (Blood pressure? Heart rate? Weight? BMI? Mood? Strength? Flexibility? Social satisfaction? Sense of accomplishment? Persistence?), when you should measure, and how you should measure after we understand what it is you really want to know about the workout.

In the session with the Nachshon Graduate Fellows, I showed them this video of a children’s choir (take a look: if you’re like me and you find children singing uplifting and inspiring, you’ll be happy you did).  I asked them what sorts of data they could collect about what they just saw. Think about it. What data could you collect?  How many kids?  What are their ages?  How many boys and girls?  How often do they practice?  When did they join the choir?  Who are the soloists?  When was the choir formed?  For what reason?  Good questions.  All pretty easy to answer.  I then showed them the video again. I asked them to step back and think about their interests as graduate students, Rabbinical students, and Jewish educators.  What was it that they really really wanted to know?  What might help them understand or do their own work better?

Their questions were wonderful, important, and complex:  How did the choir director come to be the director of this choir?  What are the relationships among the children like?  What keeps the singers (and staff) motivated?  How do the children become members of the choir, and why is that particular process employed?  What, if anything, is the “hidden curriculum”?  What other things do these children do together and why?  What was the process for choosing that particular song; what role, if any, did the children have and why?  Have the children developed relationships, beliefs, or behaviors as a result of participation in the choir?  What is the nature of those relationships, beliefs, or behaviors?  How do parents support their children’s participation in the choir?  What is the average tenure of children in the choir? Is that the ideal tenure? Why or why not?  What is the business model for Voices of Hope?  What are its biggest organizational challenges, and is the organization sustainable?  What impact did the singing have on the audience members? What did the judges think and feel, and why?

It should be apparent that when you start from what you really want to know, rather than what data you can collect—or worse yet, how you can collect the data (a la “let’s do a survey”)—the nature of the questions changes powerfully.

So when you think you want to understand something better in your work, the three main questions you should ask are:

  1. What do I really want to know?
  2. Why do I really want to know that?
  3. What decisions can I better make once I know that?

Try to apply these questions to something in your own practice or organization.  What do you really want to understand better and why?  If you understood that aspect of your practice or organization better, what could you do or decide differently?  Here I’m focusing specifically on research you might do yourself or hire someone else to do about your work or your organization, but the basic principle applies to large multi-year, multi-million-dollar studies too.  If you don’t spend adequate time understanding what driving question you want to answer, you’ll have a very hard time taking any steps after that.

Here are some examples of questions that might guide a teacher’s study of her practice:  To what extent are my students able to choose “just right” books?  To what extent do my students consider their relationship with God during tefila?  To what extent are my students’ “study skills” improving?  What do I really believe about the STEM abilities of the girls in my class?  To what extent do my students feel ownership over the learning community I’m trying to create in my classroom?  In what ways are my students learning to think like scientists?  To what extent are my students able to understand complex concepts related to Israel?  You get the picture.

A funder might want to know: To what extent do our funded professional development programs align (or conflict) with what is already known in the field about effective professional development?  In what ways, beyond grant dollars, do my grantees benefit from our partnership?  To what extent does the reporting we require from our grantees advance their learning and their work (versus our required reports being time-consuming, compliance documents)?  When I look across programs, are there subcategories of potential participants (people from a certain neighborhood or geography, people who hold a certain set of beliefs or practices, people of a certain age or economic status, etc.) who aren’t accessing the programs we are offering?  Getting the question right requires a thoughtful process and, I believe, collaboration.

Getting the question right, as critical as it is, is still only half the battle (or, I would argue, more like two-thirds).  The next step is considering the following:

  • Is what I am seeking to know, knowable?
  • What kind of data do I need?
  • How can I (what methods will I use to) get the data systematically?
  • How can I (what methods will I use to) analyze the data systematically?
  • How will I interpret it?
  • How will I understand the limitations of this inquiry?

My intention is not to discourage inquiry, but rather to point out that there is more to think about beside just what survey questions you’ll use.  To be most useful and usable, any research, evaluation, or self-study must begin with a good question.

At AVI CHAI, we believe that the field of Jewish education can benefit greatly from a better developed culture of inquiry, where educators and funders are demanding and using evidence (where it exists) to make their best decisions and where researchers are producing usable (new word idea: “Jewsable”) knowledge that helps Jewish educators and funders solve their most pressing problems and answer their most vexing questions.  We invite you to learn more about AVI CHAI’s efforts to promote this culture of inquiry.

Dr. Susan Kardos is Senior Director, Strategy & Education Planning at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

The Research-Practice Divide in Jewish Education

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

By: Susan Kardos

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.