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It's Elementary:
Reconstructing Our Jewish Educational Priorities
Rabbi Ari Segal

Reish Lakish said in the name of R. Yehuda Nesiah: The world continues to exist only in the merit of breath of schoolchildren... Reish Lakish said in the name of R. Yehuda Nesiah: We do not divert schoolchildren [from Torah study] even for building the Beit HaMikdash. - Shabbat 119b

From my many years of working with young children, I have come to the conclusion that elementary school education is immeasurably more important than high school education when it comes to shaping and molding the Jewish future of our children.

I spent seven years working in a high school and saw the difference that quality early education can make. The students who had enjoyed a positive Jewish experience in middle and lower schools were eager to learn and take advantage of what our high school had to offer. Our jobs as educators were made significantly easier by the experiences these students had accumulated in the younger grades. On the other hand, the students who had had a negative experience in middle and lower schools were embittered, and for the most part, closed to what our high school had to offer. Often, it did not matter if we did or did not teach Ivrit be-Ivrit, if the students were in homogeneous or heterogeneous classes, or in open or closed classrooms. What mattered is that their foundation was flawed and proved difficult - although not impossible - to build upon.

Clearly, I do not intend to suggest that Jewish education at the high school level is meaningless or that we should focus all our energies and resources on elementary schools, but I contend that elementary school is fundamentally of more importance, in the same way the foundation of a structure is more important than everything else from the ground up. Without a proper foundation, one canít even begin to talk about which kinds of bricks to use, where the plumbing should go or what color to paint the walls.

On a more practical level, our talent pool is skewed toward secondary school education. While we certainly have superstar educators in our elementary schools, too many of our most capable educators choose to work in high schools and would rarely deign to apply to a middle school, let alone a lower school. Why is there such a prestige and salary discrepancy between high school and elementary school professionals, selling short those who do choose to teach younger children? Why is it so rare to find a YU musmakh teaching elementary school in an out of town day school? Finally, why is it that discussions of education among Modern Orthodox thinkers are primarily directed toward high school issues?

If my analogy to a structure is valid, then finding answers to these questions becomes much more urgent. If we are putting a disproportionate amount of mental energy, fiscal resources, and top manpower (and womanpower) into high school education, what have we left for the foundation? Certainly, we may build a magnificent structure, with cutting edge appliances and state of the art design, but if we havenít put top quality materials into our foundation, it is only a matter of time before the building develops problems and becomes susceptible to damage and decay.

While I do not have all of the solutions to these issues, it is important to discuss the why behind this inequity. Perhaps if we can identify the origin, we can begin to address the how of fixing it.

What follows are various theories that I have often contemplated while trying to figure out how to address this problem. I think that as is true in life, the answer lies in a combination of the following theories - and probably several I have not included.

  • Many otherwise intelligent people think it is somehow beneath them to talk about little children; moreover, they feel it is somewhat silly to talk to little children. They see it as a waste of their erudition.
  • The salaries and prestige are greater in high school and, therefore, a majority of quality candidates are attracted to the high school level. This implies that older students are the educational priority. (I was unable to find a study of salaries in Jewish Day Schools, so my statement above is based on anecdotal evidence., a website with reliable information about employee pay levels in the general educational world, shows a 5% salary difference between elementary and high school educators and I would think there is a significantly greater difference in the Jewish private school world.)
  • As opposed to the Modern Orthodox world, the right-wing Orthodox world places great value on elementary school education. Teaching younger students is considered important work, a mission in life for all, including the most accomplished educators. Even someone who learns for twelve years for semikhah may become a fifth grade rebbe. And when that teacher comes back to his hometown shul, the synagogue rabbi will proudly announce, "We would like to welcome back Rabbi Goldberg, who is a fifth grade rebbe in Houston, Texas!" People will eagerly greet him with an enthusiastic and genuine "Wow! That is fantastic!" The same dialogue would not likely take place in a Modern Orthodox shul, where that sort of response is reserved for a Ram in a yeshiva in Israel or a teacher at one of the top Modern Orthodox yeshivot in the New York Metropolitan area.
  • While Azrieli, the Graduate School of Education of Yeshiva University, does a fine job of giving its students a global perspective on education, YU and its rabbinic leadership needs to convey to its musmakhim that elementary school education is as consequential as high school education.
  • While Stern College has an education program that emphasizes the significance of education at all levels, Yeshiva College does not. Why is that?
  • Study in a scientifically validated way the relative importance of high school and elementary school Judaic education in the growth and development of students. Perhaps if there were data to support the idea, then there might be a greater likelihood of sea-change in the Jewish educational world.
  • More research and discussion aimed at elementary school teachers.
  • Pay parity.

Having made the case for the overriding value of elementary school, we recognize that there are other obvious factors that greatly impact a studentís development, such as family life, environment, friends, individual interests, and personal challenges, among countless others. All of those factors can work in a positive or negative way to change the efficacy of the educational process. So no, I do not claim that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between a studentís positive experience in elementary school and his or her development into a happy and well-adjusted young Jewish adult. But I do think, based on what I have outlined above, that there is a high correlation in these areas.

Now that I am the principal of a K-12 school, my belief in the value of elementary school education has been reinforced. I see the profound effect that all teachers have on their students; but most significantly, I notice the pronounced impact that the lower and middle school teachers have on the overall environment in the school.

I hope these observations and comments help initiate a discussion within our community that might lead to some serious reflection and reprioritization of our resources.

Rabbi Ari Segal is a resident of Houston, Texas, where he serves as Principal in the Beren Academy, Houston's largest yeshiva day school. Ari spent six years as Director of Student Programs at the Ramaz High School and Youth Director at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan prior to moving to Houston.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the thought of ATID. They are presented here out of a conviction that compelling ideas, frankly stated, are an important element in engaging the community of Jewish educators in critical thought about our holy work.

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