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Educational excellence in day schools: What it is and how we get there

(This is part of a series of essays on Jewish day schools being published by the Sustainable Stories project of PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.)

SILVER SPRING, Md. (JTA) — I don’t know about you, but as a Jewish day school graduate, parent and former board member, I am a little tired of hearing about how excellent we are. This is not because I embrace mediocrity but because I am increasingly unsure of what it means.

I do see the word “excellence” strategically placed in development materials all the time. It is used in speeches to describe everything from preschool standards to board commitments. But if we know one thing about excellence, it’s that it never surfaces in the telling, only in the showing.  And if we do not define excellence, it becomes virtually impossible to achieve.

Major companies known for excellence do not assume that their employees understand what they mean by the word. Instead, they create core principles, behaviors and standards; train employees to attain them; and then evaluate performance relative their articulated criteria. This is true at Disney, Zappos, Nordstrom and L.L. Bean.

Some companies, notably the Ritz-Carlton chain, make their employees regularly recite their principles or carry them in wallet-size cards. Everyone is expected to know and embody what the company stands for. Ignorance can never be an excuse. Great customer service is consistent and shared across all levels of employment and in all departments. Training is no guarantee, but it creates the force of a shared language and high expectations.

It is in the arena of shared language, expectations and consistent service that we often find ourselves failing. The receptionist is friendly, but the first-grade teacher pretends you’re invisible. The librarian is eager to help, but the principal responds to your emails two weeks late. A parent is treated with respect, but the student is told off in front of other students. To be an excellent institution means that excellence permeates the entire environment.

Here are four different understandings of excellence that come from worlds far outside education.

Relative excellence: We are probably not excellent, but we’re a lot better than any other game in town. This can best be summed up in the words of Dolly Parton: “It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.” In a rhinestone world, a really good fake might not be exposed for what it really is. And relative excellence involves no striving or driving ambition for greatness.

Instrumental excellence: We’re not committed to excellence for its own sake but for the sake of efficiency. This is not a bad motive, but it’s not inspirational enough to create true excellence. It’s just easier to do it right the first time, as captured by basketball coach John Wooden: “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have the time to do it over?”

Aspirational excellence: We set our standards so high that they become unattainable. Some people believe that unrealistic standards should not be a problem because if you create a really high bar, you can get closer than if your bar is too low. Football coach Vince Lombardi put this sentiment into his own winning words: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” But if your standards are so pie in the sky that they cannot be measured, you might as well have no standards at all.

Focused excellence: We cannot accomplish every goal, so we need to determine what we can really do best and be laser-focused on it, share the same objectives and subsequently take deep pride in the results together. This is embodied not only in the words of Steve Jobs but in the products produced by his company. His theory of excellence: “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life.”

Our uniqueness emerges from the Jewish knowledge, identity and values-based community we are trying to build. The Jewish piece of the equation is often our most mediocre component. We might have a few teachers who shine or a good curriculum on a subject, but on the consistency front we consistently fall down on the job.

Excellence cannot be measured solely through the lens of high scores on standardized tests rather than high marks in differentiated learning, character development, or multiple modalities of learning.  We even defend our mediocrity by excusing the quality of teaching, the tedium of the prayer services or the confusion around school identity and ideology. This is not focused excellence. It is not even relative excellence.

Ron Berger is an elementary school teacher. He is also a carpenter. In his book “An Ethic of Excellence,” he describes how carpentry influences his approach to education:

“In carpentry there is no higher compliment builders give to each other than this: This guy is a craftsman. This one word says it all. It connotes someone who has it all. It connotes someone who has integrity and knowledge, who is dedicated to his work and who is proud of what he does and who he is. Someone who thinks carefully and does things well … I want a classroom full of craftsmen.”

In the mishnah that we read traditionally each Friday night, we refer to a passage in the Talmud with a clever word-play (Brakhot 64a): “Students of Torah bring peace to the world, as it is stated, ‘When all your builders are studying the teachings of God, then the peace of your children will flourish’ [Isaiah 54:13]. Instead of reading children read builders [al tikrei banaiekh ela boneiakh].”

Our children are our builders — our craftsmen — builders of our future. We want them and the entire school community to have integrity and knowledge, dedication and pride. And when you put that all together, you get focused excellence. And that’s what we have to deliver every day. So let’s stop talking about excellence, and let’s start achieving it and measuring it.

(Erica Brown is the author of eight books, including her newest, “Leadership in the Wilderness.”)

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