Embracing Innovation In Yeshiva Education


At the Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJE), we are proud to be partnering with three new yeshivas to aggressively embrace educational innovation with an eye towards affordability.

Yeshivat He’Atid launched this past September in Bergen County with 116 students, and Tiferet Academy and Westchester Torah Academy will open in September 2013 in the Five Towns and Westchester, respectively. There have been concerns expressed about both the newness of our model and the effects new schools will have on existing yeshiva day schools.

Given the havoc the tuition crisis is wreaking on our communities, however, we feel an urgent need for an immediate push to embrace innovations in the way we teach our children.

While we would be honored to be able to take credit for these incredible educational innovations, the ideas that our schools are implementing are already the norm in many schools across the country; we are simply partnering with experts in the field to adapt those models to our schools. Over 40 states have virtual schools or online learning initiatives and a recent study estimated that “two thirds of districts are offering some online or blended program.” The compound annual growth rate of pre-K through 12th grade online learning is 43 percent, and that number is growing every year.

Some of the largest foundations focusing on U.S. education are already investing aggressively in blended learning initiatives in order to improve educational quality in both public and charter schools. The foremost goal of the Gates Foundation’s “Next Generation Learning Challenge” grants totaling $24 million is “increasing the use of blended learning models.” The Dell Foundation, Hume Foundation, and Hewlett Foundation have also spent millions of dollars on similar initiatives.

Why has blended learning been growing in popularity at such a rapid pace? Because studies are showing that it works. A 2009 meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education found that “in recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective.”

Rocketship Education, which runs seven elementary charter schools servicing 2,500 students in Northern California and has been implementing blended learning since 2007, has shown very impressive results. Despite 90% of its students coming from poverty and starting out 2-3 grades behind, Rocketship’s students outperform every elementary school in the area and are on par with their affluent peers in Palo Alto.

In KIPP: Empower, a blended learning elementary school in Los Angeles that uses the same in-class rotation model being adopted by our new schools, 94% of students scored at or above the national average in math, with 54% scoring in the top quartile. Those results were even better in reading, with 76% of students scoring in the top quartile.

We have the tools available to provide a personalized learning experience to our students in small groups by empowering our teachers with tools to track each student’s progress using real-time data. Why not take advantage of these amazing tools? In our schools differentiation is the rule, not the exception; each child experiences a truly individualized educational program.

It is possible that in the short run, establishing new schools may negatively impact some existing day schools. On the other hand, we have never encountered any industry, for profit or non-profit, where the value to the consumer has been enhanced by limiting choice. Yeshiva day schools exist only to serve the community. They are a means, not an end. If they are structurally unable to meet the needs of the community in their current form, we need to have an outlet that does.

Our current yeshiva day school network leaves the vast majority of families priced out of yeshiva tuition, or left with little remaining income for savings or for worthy charities. This has placed an unbelievable burden on young families. We strongly believe that providing a Jewish education to our children should require sacrifice, but a reasonable sacrifice. Our day schools all teach middot, derech eretz and chesed to our students, but the task becomes easier when the school itself sets an example that is sensitive to all families across all levels of income.

It is our hope and expectation, however, that our new schools – and we are already starting to see this in the respective neighborhoods in which we are operating – will encourage existing schools to finally embrace innovation in ways they had been unwilling or unable to do so previously.

We firmly believe that by adopting this model we can elevate educational quality and simultaneously reduce the cost per student of educating our children. We are not saying that all yeshiva day schools need to follow our exact model. What we are saying is that there should be at least one option for every student in every community to enjoy the benefits of a high-quality Jewish and secular education at a price that is affordable for the average family. Ultimately, a rising tide lifts all boats and we believe aggressive innovation could dramatically expand the pool of students attending Yeshiva day schools, thereby strengthening not only the new schools but the broader Yeshiva day school ecosystem.

Mark Nordlicht is founder of The Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJE) and Jeff Kiderman is the executive director of AJE. They can be contacted at info@ajeproject.org