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Is day school worth it? How do you judge?

For a real answer, parents need to know what they want and schools must articulate their core values

We keep coming around to a single, central argument about day schools: is it worth it? As long as tuitions keep rising, as long as the strain on families keeps growing, as long as most Jews live in areas with strong public schools, we will look in the mirror as ask whether the enormous investment is really worthwhile. I am a day school teacher and I ask the same question for my own two sons.

What I do not understand is how we treat this as a question with a single, definitive answer. Day school is either extraneous and a luxury or else the future of Judaism depends on it. Let’s get a few things straight. Jordana Horn, writing in The Forward, is certainly right that there are many different recipes for raising children with love for and commitment to Judaism. It is no more true that one must attend day school to have a strong Jewish identity than that one must be religious in order to be moral. On the other hand, there are studies that show a significant impact of Jewish day school on later Jewish identity, though other studies make similar claims for Jewish camps and youth groups. So I think we can all agree that day schools are successful enough that they are sticking around, and that not every Jewish kid needs or wants them.

None of this helps me to decide whether the investment is worth it for my family. To have a real answer, I need to define what would make it worth it. What exactly am I expecting day school to do? The problem is that most parents are not exactly sure. We all want our kids to develop a love of Judaism and a strong connection to the Jewish People. But our real concern is outcomes – that our kids have strong Jewish identities as adults – and outcomes are almost impossible to predict and are the product of too many diverse factors to truly identify causes.

My biggest problem, though, is that I find it hard to make sense of studies that describe day schools as a category. Jewish day schools vary widely one from another in the content, range, and quality of the Jewish learning they offer. And as a consumer, I am not paying to send my kids to the median day school. I need to know whether the learning my kids will get in one specific school is greater than I could provide them through other, less onerous means.

I am waiting for us to stop arguing about day school in the abstract and start talking concretely about what exactly we want day schools to accomplish. For example, I believe that Hebrew fluency is essential for taking ownership of Jewish tradition, and I am not doing nearly enough of it at home. The language and experience of tefilla are deeply important to me, and only rarely do my kids actually sing with me on Friday night, no matter how hard I try. And I want to them to have an authentic experience of Jewish ritual and practice shared with a community of peers. I am thinking of elementary school – I have written elsewhere about the core elements of what Jewish high schools have to offer.

I believe that a day school education can provide essential elements of a Jewish education and identity that are important to me and that I cannot easily provide otherwise. But I do not think that every day school does those things well, nor do I assume that every day school shares my priorities in the first place. So I am not interested in a conversation about “day schools”. To earn most parents’ investment, schools know that they need to articulate their core values and show how those values are realized concretely in the education they provide. To survive in an economically stretched world, schools are put in the position of constantly justifying themselves.

And that, to me, is a good thing. Because to do that well, a school needs to do more than just hone its message. It has to turn inward and ask whether it is reaching its core educational goals and how it can achieve them better. It needs to do the hard educational work of making sure that the specific content aligns with and works effectively toward its overall mandate. And this process, in turn, ensures that a school’s statements of values and principles are more than fancy turns of phrase – it pushes them to ask and to explain how their principles shape what they do on a daily basis.

As a day school educator – a provider and not just a consumer – I want us to put aside unanswerable questions and focus on the concrete. Tell people what we are teaching, why it is important, and why a day school is the best place to get it. Then we can, without judgment, let families decide what is right for them. If we are doing our job well, our work will speak for itself.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Cahan teaches Rabbinics at the Schechter Westchester High School. He received his Ph.D. in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he served as Director of the Beit Midrash. He also founded and directed the Northwoods Kollel, an intensive Talmud study program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
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