Survey of Research in Jewish Education
Dr. Yoel Finkelman
Director of Research and Projects, ATID

Strangely enough not too much is known about how young children themselves look upon their school experience. This fact is particularly surprising in a day when it has become almost a national pastime to find out how people feel about things.

–Phillip W. Jackson1

Where available, surveyed research is linked in the endnotes.

In a recent book, Denise Clark Pope laments a significant lacuna in educational research. "As I reviewed the literature on adolescents and secondary schools, I noticed a particular gap in the research in this area. I found a wide range of studies on adolescent behavior in schools, studies that addressed academic achievement, study habits, classroom discipline, peer culture, and youth dropout rates. However, I did not find many studies that addressed the educational experiences in school from the adolescents' point of view."2 In response, Pope spent much of a year interviewing students, sitting in on classes, meeting students in their homes and workplaces, and hanging out with them and their peers. Her book presents portraits of the educational inner-lives of six overachieving students in a quality public high school. While their teachers perceive them as model students, their own experiences reveal something much more complex, stormy, and tension-filled.

Good teachers learn to trust their intuitions about students and their experiences but teachers may in fact know less about their students than they imagine.
Good teachers learn to trust their intuitions about students and their experiences, and they build on those intuitions to facilitate educational experiences that can have an impact on students. These intuitions are the basic tools-in-trade of so many excellent educators, administrators, and leaders. But – as Phillip Jackson argues by comparing teachers’ predictions of what their students think about school to actual student responses – teachers may in fact know less about their students than they imagine.3 Serious study of the students, and the ways in which they react to, experience, and reflect on school, could only benefit educators.

If such a line of inquiry is valuable in educational research as a whole, it is doubly true of Orthodox Jewish education. As religious educators, we put a premium on educating the whole student, on influencing his or her personality and worldview, on the affective aspects of Torah education. We want our charges to emerge from their educational experiences as benei Torah, as yarei shamayim, and as lovers of Torah. Clearly, how the students experience the Torah education we provide is critical to our successes or failures. Every time we administer a test or ask a question in class, we get information about what our students know. When we examine our students' behavior in school, we get information about whether they follow school rules and observe mitzvot. Yet, what we see in surface knowledge and behavior may mask a more complicated inner reality. It behooves us, therefore, to ask basic questions about how our students live their religious (and non-religious) lives, how they experience schools in general and Torah education in particular, and what they think about all of that.

In Israel, there have been relatively systematic attempts to survey the values, attitudes, and out-of-school behaviors of students in and alumnae of the religious school system.4 Regarding the American Orthodox school system, there is considerably less by way of quantitative data. Dr. Scott Goldberg, a researcher at Yeshiva University's Azrieli School of Education, has taken on a wide-ranging and potentially transformative research project. Distributing questionnaires to hundreds of Orthodox students asking about their religious beliefs, attitudes, and practices, Goldberg hopes to paint a more nuanced portrait of our students and their religious lives. While results of his research are not yet available, his conclusions are sure to be invaluable to anyone who has an interest in understanding what Judaism means, in theory and practice, to Orthodox youth. Similar studies could be undertaken to examine students’ attitudes and behaviors regarding school, their teachers, Jewish and general studies, and use of leisure time.

Several other examples of quantitative research touch on more narrow aspects of these issues. Rabbi Shalom Berger's doctoral dissertation, for example, surveyed graduates of one-year-program yeshivot and seminaries in Israel, asking them about the way their experiences in these programs have influenced their religious attitudes and commitments.5 He discovered that the year in Israel had a significant positive impact on students’ performance of religious rituals, their attitudes toward Zionism, and their knowledge and appreciation of the Hebrew language, and that these increases were not present among yeshiva high school graduates who did not attend a yeshiva program in Israel. (Interestingly, though, Berger found little or no change in yeshiva students regarding attitudes toward ethical behavior and their understanding and adoption of specific doctrines of religious-Zionist ideology). Further, while there was some drop off in some of these areas a year after returning from Israel, the overall trend was toward maintaining more strict religious belief and commitment.

Yael Ziegler, as part of an ATID fellowship, surveyed a group of young women in Israel programs about their consumption of popular culture. Based on these data, she determined that students – even those who are overwhelmingly committed to Orthodox practice and belief – consume large quantities of popular culture. Indeed, they are often unaware of the potential tensions between the values and concerns of contemporary popular culture and Orthodox Judaism.6

While surveys can tell us how many and in what proportion, they are not capable of offering the subtle interactions and concerns that make each person into an individual and each educational experience unique.
As important as these surveys are – and I reiterate, the quantitative research on these issues is in its absolute infancy – it is important to flesh out the information provided by surveys with qualitative observations and analysis. While surveys can tell us how many and in what proportion, they are not capable of offering the subtle interactions and concerns that make each person into an individual and each educational experience unique. Research based on ethnographic observations and interviews can be equally critical in providing educators and religious leaders with a more refined understanding of the contexts in which we work and teach, and how students understand themselves and their interactions with us.

For his doctoral dissertation, Daniel Jacobson conducted lengthy interviews with eighteen graduates of one-year yeshivas in Israel, individuals who exemplified significant religious change during the course of that year. Jacobson wanted to understand, from the students' own perspectives, what prompted these religious changes, who and what influenced them, how their behavior and attitudes had changed, and how those changes had influenced them a few years later.7

Israeli anthropologist Tamar El-Or adopted a more holistic methodology.8 Her study is particularly important for its methodological contribution, even if she is writing in a specifically Israeli context. Spending more than a year studying in and interviewing students at Bar Ilan University's program for advanced Torah study for women, El-Or was interested in the ways in which these young women understood their own literacy, and the importance of text study and learning for their religious lives. She discovered that these students were careful and cautious consumers of education. Even as they largely identified with Orthodoxy and the values of religious Zionism, they were in a complicated process of questioning and challenging the educational messages they heard. El-Or's study was conducted in Israel, and her agenda derives more from the concerns of feminist-inspired anthropology than from the perspective of educators. Still a similar method adapted to different age groups and educational settings, and conducted with an eye more focused on improving education, would undoubtedly contribute a great deal to our ability to understand and therefore address the concerns most central to our students.

A similar approach was adopted by Lois Ballen Safer, though without the subtlety of El-Or’s analysis, in her dissertation examining the interaction between 6th and 7th grade students and their teacher in an outreach-oriented school in central New Jersey.9 Interviewing students and teachers, and observing the religious studies class for most of a year, Safer examined the ways in which the teacher constructed meaning through the teaching of Torah texts, and the ways the students came to understand themselves and Judaism through the reading of texts. Particularly insightful is her study of the ways in which the students’ questions about the material came to conform to the teacher’s approach to how to live Jewishly, think religiously, and learn Jewish texts.

Despite this recent research, we still know almost nothing systematic about our students and how they experience Judaism, learning, school and life. I would encourage those with an interest in improving Jewish education to continue this trend by conducting further studies along these lines.

1 Phillip W. Jackson, Life in Classrooms (Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1968), p. 46.

2 Denise Clark Pope, "Doing School": How We are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), p. xiii.

3 Jackson, pp. 62ff.

4 In general, the state of the research into these matters is much more developed in Israel than in North America. In Israel, the ministry of education and several university education departments focus much energy on research into religious education. For examples of quantitative studies, see Peri Kedem-Friedrikh, "Changes in the Religious Identity of Religious Zionist Youth: The Impact of Psychological, Sociological and Educational Factors on Processes of Consolidation of Identity," [Hebrew] Iyyunim BeHinukh 2:1 (1996), pp. 201-220; Avraham Laslau and Mordekhai Bar Lev, The Religious World of Alumnae of the National Religious Education [Hebrew] (Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar Ilan University, 1993); and the more outdated Mordekhai Bar Lev, "Alumnae of Yeshiva High Schools in the Land of Israel: Between Tradition and Novelty" [Hebrew], Ph.D. dissertation, Bar Ilan Univeristy, 1977. Also see Shraga Fisherman, No’ar HaKipot HaZerukot (Elkanah, Israel: Orot Yisrael, 1998), which analyzes interviews with tens of yeshiva high school alumna who later abandoned Orthodoxy.

5 Shalom Berger, "A Year of Study in an Israeli Yeshiva Program: Before and After," D.Ed. dissertation, Yeshiva University, 1997. A much shortened version of this dissertation appeared in Ten Da’at 12 (1999), pp. 3-14.

6Yael Ziegler, "The Unconscious Conflict: The Collision of the Values of Popular Culture and Judaism in the Lives of the Contemporary Orthodox Teenager" (ATID, 2000).

7 Daniel B. Jacobson, "Psychological and Religious Change of Orthodox Jewish Boys During a Post-High School Year of Study in an Israeli Yeshiva," Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers University, 2004.

8 Tamar El-Or, Next Year I Will Know More: Literacy and Identity Among Young Orthodox Women in Israel (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).

9 Lois Ballen Safer, "The Construction of Identity Through Text: Sixth and Seventh Grade Girls in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Day School," Ed.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2003.

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