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Educational Excellence in Jewish Day Schools: What It Is and How We Get There

The following is the first piece in PEJE’s Sustainable Stories series—a smart and provocative collection of JDS essays, by people who are professionally articulate. Novelists. Essayists. Journalists. Professors. They will make you think hard about day schools, as well as the way you speak and write about them.

 

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—although we all have those days—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 pre-school 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 it.

Major companies known for excellence in the retail, entertainment, and food arenas do not assume that their employees will 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, companies that also have produced books and training courses to help spread the word. Some companies make their employees regularly recite their principles or carry them in wallet-size cards, as does the Ritz-Carlton chain. From chambermaid to CEO, everyone is expected to know and embody what the company stands for in their own work and collectively. Ignorance can never be an excuse. Great customer service emerges from an attempt to be great in product or service delivery in a way that’s consistent and shared across all levels of employment and in all departments. Of course, 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 in the day school world often find ourselves failing. The receptionist is friendly, but the first-grade teacher that you pass in the hall pretends you’re invisible. The librarian is eager to help you solve a problem, but the principal responds to your emails two weeks late. A parent is treated with respect—sometimes even fear—but the student is told off in front of other students. To be an excellent institution means that excellence permeates the entire environment, almost (excuse the vulgar comparison) in the way that an electric air freshener continuously releases a smell into the air.

Rather than use the term “excellence” loosely and fail to create a universal understanding that can be recognized in all corners of a school environment—from the bio lab to the gym to the front office, let’s spend some time establishing what excellence is often mistaken for and what it can truly be. For the purposes of this conversation, I’d like to present four different understandings of professional excellence that come from worlds far outside of 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 his company produced. 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.”

Jim Collins took the latter approach in Good to Great, advising companies that strived for greatness to be careful about diversification. Identify what you can do better than anyone else and then mine your uniqueness. This should not be difficult for Jewish day schools. This is more than our life—it is our enduring mission. We cannot afford not to be excellent.

Our uniqueness emerges from the Jewish knowledge, identity, and values-based community we are trying to build. And yet those of us who are passionate about Jewish day school education often find that the Jewish piece of the equation is the most mediocre component of what we’re all about. 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. We excuse ourselves when we say that a day school is a non-selective community school and can, therefore, not achieve excellence. This is a very narrow view of excellence, as seen solely through the lens of high scores on standard tests rather than high marks in differentiated learning, character development, or multiple modalities of learning. What’s worse is that 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. That is just us tolerating the intolerable, giving a pass on what should be our most stellar selling point. 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 mishna that we read traditionally each Friday night we refer to a passage in Talmud with a clever word-play (BT 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.

 

This guest post is by Erica Brown, author of eight books including her newest, Leadership in the Wilderness. She writes regular columns for New York Jewish Week and blogs for Psychology Today. For more information, go to ericabrown.com.