Jewish Educators Say That Research in Jewish Education is Floundering

Research in Jewish education, which is urgently needed to improve the quality of schools and teachers, is floundering for lack of coordination between researchers and the funding and policy making bodies of the Jewish community, it was asserted at a two-day seminar on the subject.

In day-long sessions, 18 educators, all of whom are engaged in either full-time or part-time research, thrashed out the problem with two representatives of major agencies involved in coordinating, planning, and funding: Dr. Donald Feldstein, associate executive vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, and Dr. Peter Friedman, an assistant executive director of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

The meetings were part of a series of six “pre-conference conferences” for special interest groups, held prior to the opening last week of the Tenth Annual Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE), which continued through last Thursday at Northern Illinois University here. Almost 2,000 Jewish educators from the U.S. and 10 other countries attended.

The research sessions were planned and conducted by two CAJE members: Isa Aron, assistant professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, and Adrianne Bank, senior research assistant at the Center for the Study of Evaluations, UCLA.

A MAJOR CONCERN

A major concern of all the participants was the need for a network of communication that would involve all parts of the Jewish community that have a stake in Jewish education — funders, policy makers, educators, and researchers. A concommitant need, it was agreed, was for one or more clearing houses or centers of information that would record research completed or in progress, and thereby avoid duplication of time and effort, as well as affording an opportunity for matching people with common interests.

A general complaint was that there were no clear and easy channels to sources of funding, and no infrastructure to hold the research community together.

Up to now, it was noted, most researchers have been working individually, with only minimum knowledge of what their colleagues might be investigating. Indeed, most research has been conducted in relation to Ph.D. theses.

Typical of many recommendations for initiating cooperation and communication among researchers was a suggestion for “programmatic research,” which was defined as “a set of investigations around a common problem that is perceived as important by both funders and researchers.”

As a specific step toward building a Jewish research network, the researchers at the CAJE session agreed to constitute themselves as the beginning of such a network, and to extend that network through personal contacts and the provision of lists for special solicitations by mail.

Speaking from a funder’s point of view, Feldstein cautioned the group to keep in mind that Federations are oriented to action, and will usually fund research only if it relates to practice. “They will never be a rich source for basic research,” he stated, “but for projects the door is more open than you realize.”

Feldstein urged researchers to “build credibility by committing yourselves to greater rigor,” and pointed out that those who have already established reputations for accuracy and accountability can always be assured of a fair hearing and a potentially favorable decision.

He also urged all educators to have “a research stance to problems,” indicating that many problem areas are suitable subjects for research and analysis that can benefit other practitioners.

A current trend among Federations, Feldstein noted, is to move from a major concern for Jewish day schools toward providing more funds to supplementary schools. “Outreach has become a priority,” he said, “and it has led to increasing funds for the educational activities of synagogues.”

TREND FOR THE NEXT DECADE

Forecasting a trend for the next decade, Feldstein predicted that population studies would attract growing attention, and that the Council of Jewish Federations would move toward establishing a data bank.

Friedman, taking up the theme of Federations and research, declared that the climate for research had become increasingly favorable.

“Although Federations are not sponsoring research right now, they are becoming increasingly interested in schools,” he said. Citing results of recent population studies, he stated that “although only 30 to 40 percent of school age children are enrolled in Jewish schools at any one point in time, more than 80 percent will have had some kind of Jewish education by the time they are eighteen.”

“Despite the increase in school enrollment,” he added, “the vast majority of Jewish youth are still limited to supplementary education in afternoon or weekend schools.”

“As a consequence of these facts,” Friedman maintained,” the matter of quality in education is becoming a paramount issue. And when quality is the question, then research is important.”

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