Finally, some good news about the state of Jewish education: Most teachers in Hebrew schools, day schools and Jewish preschools see their job as a career, even if they are only working part-time.
That is one finding of a study, conducted by the Council of Initiatives of Jewish Education, based on questionnaires filled out by more than 80 percent of the Jewish educators in Atlanta, Baltimore and Milwaukee.
The study also found, however, that only a small percentage of those teachers had any formal training as Jewish educators.
“This goes part of the way to explain why people’s supplementary (Hebrew school) experience was the way it was,” said Alan Hoffman, executive director of CIJE.
Taken together, Hoffman insists the twin findings “offer a huge opportunity for the Jewish community.
“You have teachers in classrooms for whom investment in their professional back grounds, both as educators and as Jews, will have immediate payoff,” he said.
Currently, according to the survey, day school teachers receive only a sixth the amount of continuing education as Wisconsin mandates for public school teachers.
Most of the supplementary school teachers have had little or no Jewish education since their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. And the majority of preschool educators had no more than one day a week of Jewish education as children.
In the three cities surveyed, discussion has already begun on what to do in light of the data. One emerging possibility is the creation of master’s degree programs in Jewish education in communities which now lack them.
Such moves toward professionalizing Jewish education will be boosted by the survey, which dispels an image of Jewish educators as transient.
The survey found that two-thirds of the educators had been teaching for more than five years. Even among part-time teachers, more than half consider Jewish education their profession. Only 7 percent are Israeli, dispelling another common myth about these educators.
But only 31 percent of the teachers had been trained in Jewish studies, and just more than half had professional education training. A third had training in neither field.
The 983 teachers surveyed, 84 percent of whom were women, were almost evenly divided between day school, supplementary school, and preschool teachers.
The survey was conducted by Adam Gamoran, professor of sociology and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Ellen Goldring, professor of educational leadership and associate dean of Peabody College of Education, Vanderbilt University.
The survey was undertaken as part of CIJE’s Lead Communities Project, which aimed to use the Jewish educational systems in the three communities as laboratories for revamping Jewish education. Hoffman of CIJE believes that the results can be generalized across North America, nothing the similarity of the results in the different cities – as well their similarities to previous studies of Jewish teachers in Miami and Los Angeles.
Improving teacher training has been a central mandate for CIJE, which was created in 1990 as an outgrowth of the Commission on Jewish Education in North America.
Headed by Morton Mandel, a billionaire Cleveland industrialist and former president of the Council of Jewish Federations, the commission had warned in its final report of “a shortage of well-trained and dedicated educators for every phase of Jewish education.”
The new survey will be officially released at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, being held in Denver next week.
Mandel, whose foundation largely funds CIJE, will be joined in presenting the survey by the researchers and by Israeli Minister of Education Amnon Rubinstein.
CIJE officials hope that against the backdrop of continuing concerns over Jewish continuity in America, and the endorsement of that agenda by Israeli officials, the time has come for American Jews to turn their Jewish educational system around.
“It’s a very involved process; we have to be patient,” said Louise Stein co- chair of Milwaukee’s Lead Community Project. “But there’s enthusiasm in Milwaukee.”
She said her community is looking into creating a master’s degree in Jewish education.
Among the suggestions, she said, is a long-distance program with the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies, or for the University of Madison to offer such a program, using its education and Jewish studies faculties.
Rita Wiseman, principal of Baltimore’s Beth Tfiloh Hebrew School, agrees that training makes a difference in the caliber of teachers.
“You can only impart as much knowledge as you have,” said Wiseman, who taught Hebrew school for 25 years before becoming principal this year.
Wiseman, who has a degree from Yeshiva University’s Stern College, has taken both education and Jewish studies courses throughout the years, and is now enrolled in a master’s program in Jewish education at the Baltimore Hebrew University.
While supplementary school teachers are less likely to have general education training than their day school or preschool counterparts, nonetheless 41 percent have a university degree in education, and a further 5 percent a degree from a teachers institute.
Sixty-two percent of preschool teachers, and 60 percent of day school educators, have a degree in education.
But if Jewish educators start off with a degree, they can expect little professional support for their continuing education.
The officials at CIJE say that one-shot workshops are not the solution.
“The worst thing that would happen is for people to respond to the data and say, `We had X amounts of episodic training opportunities; we will now make it X plus 50 percent,’” said Hoffman.
“One has to target specific populations and think of systematic training that has norms and standards built into it,” he said.
One finding that particularly disturbed the CIJE researchers was the clear gap in Jewish background among the preschool teachers.
Since Jewish preschool education is being bailed as a great way of getting parents involved in the Jewish community, the findings indicate that an opportunity is being squandered.
“Parents of young children will send their kids to Jewish settings, not only because they’re Jewish, but because they have heard the best early childhood program happens to be in the synagogue down my street,” explained Barry Holtz, senior education officer at CIJE.
But the goal of turning the Jewish preschools into a “holistic Jewish education” runs up against the fact that more than half the preschool educators had no Jewish education after age 13.
Fully 10 percent were not Jewish, with that figure 21 percent in one of the three communities.
For Hoffman, this is one more reason for the Jewish community to take to heart the powerful lesson that has emerged from the field of general teacher education in the last decade: “If one invests in teachers, that pays very high dividends.
“That means investing in their self-image, compensation, and thinking through their role in the community, but it also means investing in their training and their upgrading,” said Hoffman.
“We think the North American Jewish community ought to be galvanized by this.”