Will we support the day school of tomorrow?

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Hillel David Rapp

There has been a lot of ink devoted to proposing ideas for using philanthropic dollars to lower the costs of Jewish education. These ideas include raising subsidy dollars, soliciting endowment funds, coordinating estate and life insurance gifts, and other ideas in this vein. The problem with all these ideas is that they assume the next generation of schools will function in more or less the same way as they do today. The conversation tends to assume that the economic model and structure of schools generally, and Jewish schools in particular, will not change.

But there are compelling reasons to consider that we may be on verge of a major shift in education broadly that will completely reshape the learning, content, method of delivery, metrics for success, and economies of scale in education. Jewish Education will not be immune to these changes and could stand to benefit from a model that can provide a superior product at a significantly lower cost.

The Future of Education

On the surface this is hard to imagine. The school as an economic model and its basic curricular content has not changed all that much in the last 100 years. Chances are that a young person in school today is learning the same basic topics in math, science, English, history, and Judaic Studies that her parents studied. Even as schools have expanded curricular offerings, the core curriculum is largely the same. If the system hasn’t changed for so long, why would it change now?

Yet when we consider that nearly every industry has experienced or is poised to undergo significant disruption as a result of disintermediating technological advances, there is no reason to assume education will be an exception. We can already see the beginning of this trend. There used to be several intermediaries between a learner and knowledge, such as schools, publishers, teachers, etc. Today, technology has made vast amounts of knowledge directly and broadly accessible. Indeed, a growing crescendo of voices has been advancing this idea. To paraphrase a few popular thinkers such as Sir Ken Robinson, Sal Khan, and Yuval Noah Harari, the current model of education was built to serve the needs of a society built on the industrial revolution and not the needs of today, let alone tomorrow.

In the current model, students are sorted and advanced by age, as if the most important purpose of learning is to graduate a new crop of workers each calendar year. Those who can master the material taught before an arbitrary date in June are designated as high performers relative to their peers, opening opportunities to accumulate credentials and move to the next stage of education. Those students who can’t master the material but can muster a passing grade—the C and D students—are moved along for a time with the clear message that the doors of academic advancement will eventually be closed. And then there are those whose academic struggles mean that the doors are closed almost immediately. You easily get the feel that we are educating to fill the hierarchy of the industrial machine, from executive to mid-level management to the worker on the factory floor.

To take this one step further, until recently, the only way to make education broadly available and economically scalable was to put one teacher in charge of a large group of students. Success had to be narrowly defined to focus on a standardized curriculum with achievement measured against the other individuals who happened to be born in a twelve-month period of the same year.

To be fair, today, growing awareness of the multifaceted needs of students has generated large investments in additional personnel and technological resources to assist the teacher and student with learning. Schools have been racing to get students on devices, flip classrooms, and add innovative courses. But this has the feel of a square peg in a round hole, as teachers need to maintain fidelity to a fixed curriculum and grading scale while accommodating broadly different learning needs and skill levels. The result is a tug of war between the student needing to conform to the learning being offered, and the school offering the learning each individual student needs.

In addition, schools have also always been excellent institutions of socialization and, in this regard, division by age group makes a lot of sense. Schools take responsibility for more than just knowledge; they also form the first communities with which young people identify. They are the place where children learn to live with each other, bond over shared ideologies and interests, and conform to the standards of behavior needed for cooperation and collaboration. But this also has its downside, as large investments in student programming, clubs, and activities have stretched students thin and nearly eliminated what was left of adolescent free time.

With regard to Jewish Day School in particular, all these additional investments—adding more educators with broader expertise to serve learning, student programming teams to provide excellent socialization, administrators to coordinate the complexities, and development teams to pay for it all—leaves us with a 100-year-old model that has been souped up for today’s children, but comes with a souped up price tag, too. Instead of working to sustain this system, we should be thinking about redesigning a better system.Along these lines, the edifice of our broader education system may be beginning to show cracks.

Let’s start with undergraduate universities, the primary destination of the educational journey for most students and the reason for our course structures and grading metrics. Until recently, a university served two important purposes in preparing a young person for his or her future. First, it provided access to knowledge and ideas that were otherwise unavailable to the average person. Second, it provided a fertile ground for effective socialization and the skills needed to begin to engage effectively with others.

Already, universities have lost their monopoly on the first role. Knowledge and ideas are freely available to anyone with a device, an internet connection, and some self-discipline. Even as universities can still claim a unique role as a socializing force, that place is challenged by a generation growing up on social media and redefining the social landscape.

It’s no wonder tech giants like Google and Facebook don’t seem to care if their engineers have a degree from a prestigious university, or even if they have any degree at all. This is not because they don’t believe in the value of higher education, but simply because they have learned that a prestigious degree is not nearly as good a signal of success as the internal tests and interview methods they have designed to evaluate talent. What’s to stop other companies from following suit? As the cost of education grows and the amount of freely-available knowledge grows, students are bound to opt for free knowledge and, as such, companies are bound to realize the pool of talent is larger if they don’t narrow their job searches to elite university graduates.

Harnessing online and digital resources can already provide cheap, easily accessible knowledge, but it’s only when we can marry those resources to intelligent organization and delivery systems that can observe learning, understand student needs, and adjust content and delivery accordingly that we can create a truly useful digital education product. At this point, a talented classroom teacher is still the primary asset in providing education. But the trajectory of advances in artificial intelligence suggest the role of the teacher may change in ways that will fundamentally impact the nature of classroom and school as we know it. Now, let’s explore some these changes in the context of Jewish education in particular.

The Future of Jewish Education

So what does all this mean for the future of Jewish education?

Let’s begin by identifying what Jewish Day Schools are meant to accomplish, which today is an exceptionally broad mandate. In their best version, they are meant to provide knowledge, skills, and training in General Studies at or near the level of equivalently priced private schools. Students are expected to gain entrance to top universities and be well prepared to succeed. Add to that a full Judaic Studies curriculum that is also meant to provide knowledge, skills and training in Judaic content but with the added need to inspire and ignite Jewish passion and pride. Finally, Jewish schools are meant to provide socialization and acculturation within the Jewish community so that graduates will always see a Jewish home and community in their futures.

As a community, we find ourselves asking: what type of philanthropic investments can support such a broad mandate for the next generation?

When we generally consider the potential disruptions to education as outlined above, the potential applicable benefits for Jewish education should give us pause before making major funding commitments supporting the current model. If tomorrow’s school will be something fundamentally different, investment in the future based on needs of today’s school will, I think, amount to throwing good money after bad. Raising an endowment meant to support talented and pricy Heads of School, administrators and educators comprising roughly 80% of budgetary commitments could be unnecessary in a school without age divisions, classrooms, or frontal teachers.

If we really want to create a better and cheaper school, I would suggest an investment model built on venture philanthropy instead of charity. For starters, these investments could be focused in three key areas of development that will facilitate some of the disruptions and infrastructure needed to advance change and bring Jewish families a better product at a lower cost.

I. Artificial-Intelligence-Supported Online Learning

Imagine if classroom teachers had machines that could tell them precisely how much focus and attention each student was investing at a given moment during class. This would be a powerful tool. A teacher could quickly remind a student who was fading to come back on task, or ask a provocative question to re-engage the student with the lesson. But, ultimately, if the material chosen or method of instruction fails to engage the student, it’s only a matter of time before attention slips away again.

Instead, what if the teacher could draw on thousands of available lessons and methods of delivery, and provide individual packages to each student? What if these lessons could be delivered while monitoring student attention in order to determine which content and method best suits each student’s learning style and interest? Of course, a human teacher couldn’t possibly do that. However, a computer algorithm coupled with a biometric eye sensor built into the screen camera could conceivably have no problem providing such customized educational feedback.

While this investment is not particular to Jewish education, this type of development could not only cut back on the expense of teachers, administrators, and student support professionals, but it could achieve far better learning outcomes and superior diagnostics. Until this point, the best educational assessment can only identify the psycho-educational issues that may interfere with the delivery of standard curricular content. But it cannot also provide the precise lesson and teaching style to mitigate those issues with immediate and ongoing measures of successful implementation. An AI-driven online education could easily do everything from the educational assessment to solving for a student’s particular learning needs.

When we consider the broad mandate Jewish schools carry, a superior education at a fraction of the cost offers the possibility of a sustainable model far less reliant on philanthropic giving.

II. Significant Increases in Content Development for Judaic Studies

Online education only becomes a differentiator in educational outcomes when it can outperform a human teacher in providing customized and creative content. Right now, if I wanted to learn about the French Revolution, I could run a search and there would be hundreds of lessons and videos instantly available to review, including videos with excellent production value that can rival the most charismatic history class. However, if I wanted to learn the first sugya in Sanhedrin, there is some content online but few video lessons, and nothing that would come close to being in class with an excellent teacher.

The Jewish community does not lack great educators. An exceptional Gemara teacher with a talented production team could design a “Crash Course” type series on the first chapter of Sanhedrin for some initial investment and would produce superior content for hundreds of Jewish schools around the world without any ongoing expense.

III. Decoupling the Social from the Academic

Jewish schools often function as an awkward marriage between camp and school. As far as I can tell, this is a marriage of convenience. If our children are going to spend the better part of their days in one place because of the demands of a dual curriculum, and they are already grouped with their peers and friends, then it makes the most sense to provide trips, Shabbatonim, color war, hagigot, and other programs during that time.

These programs are critical in cultivating a sense of communal identity and socialization, and instilling in our young people Jewish purpose and pride. But they don’t really have anything to do with the goals of an academic program designed to build certain aspects of knowledge and critical thinking skills. Color War will not do much to help a student decode a pasuk and understand the positions of Rashi and Ramban, much as biblical reading skills will not be much help in leading an incredible team cheer. But these goals will be forced to compete for time and attention packed together in a long and overscheduled day.

An alternative model could separate these two agendas with time to spare. An AI-driven online educational program not hindered by the skill-gaps in traditional age groupings, or the divided attention problems of frontal teaching, will presumably afford students the opportunity to learn in far less time. Imagine a group of Jewish High School students finishing their daily studies at 3:00pm in a school that provides AI-supported individualized education and skill based collaborative learning. With the extra time these students are ready to join with their peers and head over to their local shul, Bnei Akiva, NCSY or another Jewish youth program for hours of activities and socialization unencumbered by periods and bells. These informal educational programs can provide better, more hashkafically targeted Jewish communal socialization.

Investments in these three areas could lay the groundwork and procure the path for Jewish education to undergo transformative changes ahead of the curve.

Possible Objections

Of course, we can anticipate a series of possible arguments against the vision laid out here. For one, some might express concern that this model will involve fewer teachers who can remain on our schools’ payrolls. Indeed, any time we invest in something that has the potential to fundamentally disrupt a market, we are broaching the territory of creative destruction, whereby there will be some real human costs that come along with the creation of something better and cheaper. With that said, I think that teaching, as a profession, will be a big winner through this type of change. The largest savings will come from significantly scaling back on large, expensive and cumbersome administrative structures, student programming and staffing, and student support needs. There will be fewer teachers overall, but the skills required to meet the demands of a new model will enable a winnowing of the professional ranks to the most highly skilled and best compensated educators.

An additional question might be posed against the proposal to decouple Jewish academics from socialization: doesn’t such a move merely shift the economic burden from one place (schools) to another (shuls)? Yes, parents would have a new fee to pay for Jewish socialization and communal identity via some external youth organization. But I would consider a few important points here.

Firstly, the budgetary needs for programming are hugely impacted by economies of scale in a totally different way than education. It is far more efficient to run a shabbaton or trip for 500 students than for 50. In the current model, the population of students in need of programming is divided into schools based primarily on academic and financial needs. In a decoupled model, students are free to join whatever organization suits their overall hashkafa and provides the right creative and social outlets for them at a cost that is more transparently reflective of the service provided. This should allow for much larger groupings under, say, a Religious Zionist or Neo-Chassidic or Frum Yeshivish focus.

Secondly, I think a lot of this cost can be absorbed in shul membership. Shuls are already aligned more closely on considerations of socialization and communal belonging, and they have buildings that are largely available for use. Finally, if nothing else, this bifurcation allows parents to make genuinely informed decisions about where to invest their limited resources. Maybe one parent is focused on knowledge and less on socialization, while another parent is willing to make use of publicly funded education for knowledge provided that these opportunities for socialization are available.

Outlining the Economic Benefits

Finally, it is worth elaborating with greater precision the economic benefits of this proposed model. Schools, as they are currently structured, benefit from the typical dynamics associated with economies of scale. That is to say, the larger the school, the more efficiently it can run. In the current structure, consolidation would likely benefit most Jewish schools from a pure cost savings perspective.

But all that is due to the fact that the current model is built on a goal of delivering education to the “average” student in a given age group. So a class of 25 is certainly more cost effective than a class of 10, a student support professional with a portfolio of 50 students is more cost effective than of 15 students, and an administrative structure working on programming and scheduling for 1000 students is more cost effective than for 300 students. Now, there is undoubtedly a threshold that would lead to diseconomies of scale (ie less efficiency with size), but I am not aware of too many Jewish schools today that would save money by splitting into two or more schools.

However, once we move away from the model of teaching to the average, or teaching to the curve, and we build a model of education based on individualized mastery of curricular content without the conflicts of student programming, we see a much different picture of where the savings accrue and a new analysis for the costs/benefits of scale emerges. For example, a Jewish high school could open tomorrow serving a cohort of 65 students that costs roughly $13,000 per student and has teachers making $140,000 per year, among the top earners in their field. But the job of a teacher in this new school would be considerably different than a typically structured Jewish High School.

Let’s assume the school hired 5 educators that broadly cover the following disciplines: Judaic Studies, Math, Science, Engineering, English language and literature, and Social Studies. These educators are hired based on 3 core criteria: Their ability to observe, curate and communicate. In other words, they need to able to observe student learning and properly diagnose areas for improvement, curate content that speaks to those needs and to effectively facilitate education through clear and understandable communication. Their job would be to provide packages of digital content culled from online resources or otherwise prepared on their own and delivered to students who advance based on a skill acquisition measure instead of their average in a course of study. These educators would facilitate group discussions, experiential learning, co-curricular programs and hands-on engagement to complement and enhance the digital content and skill packages they have curated.

If you think about it, a full time teacher in the classical school model can end up teaching almost double the total number of students and make thirty to forty percent less, watering down a school’s competitive hiring ability and the amount of individual learning that takes place. The classic model also prioritizes a teacher’s communication ability (keeping a large group engaged) at the cost of spending time observing learning and curating content. A teacher who is preparing packages of content in advance—drawn from online resource or prepared individually—for much smaller groups, say 6-10 students each, based on their particular skill level will yield a greater focus on individual learning needs and should provide better outcomes.

Now, for the back of the envelope savings. Five educators for 65 students making $140,000 per year totals $700,000 in personnel costs. If you assume that all other costs stay the same (ie facilities, materials, etc.), those typically represent about 20% of a school’s budget, which would mean an $850,000 operating budget for this cohort and a cost of $13,000 per student. I actually think it could be closer to $12,500 per student when you make the necessary adjustments in considering that a school built on this individualized model will not require the same overall square footage and classroom space of a typical school.

What you have likely noticed is that this school has no administration, support, or programming staff. The idea here is to marry the most talented educators available on the market with the best resources available online and keep the operational needs minimal enough that these well-compensated educators can handle the support, scheduling, parent communication, etc. generally covered by additional staffing.

Even as I am suggesting we rethink our future minded investments in education, it is worth noting that what I lay out in the example school above could happen tomorrow without a single penny invested in AI supported learning or increases in online Jewish content. However, those investments would make this model considerably more effective, and provide the particular investment needed to secure an educational product that is far superior to what a student receives in the classical model, and at less than half the current cost. This is exactly where our investments will yield the most significant future payout. Investment in the areas upon which a new education model can emerge are investments that are transformative, self sustaining, and can avoid much of the ongoing needs for philanthropic support that each school faces.

What I am advocating for here is that we rethink how we solicit and donate within Jewish education for the long term. There is always fundraising to keep the lights on and the teachers paid that is undoubtedly more critical to our immediate needs. But when we begin to discuss multi-million dollar endowments and long term sustainability, I believe, that investing long-term resources today to prop up yesterday’s school misses where our needs will be in the future. These changes in education are likely happening regardless of what our community does, but targeted investment in these trends now could accelerate, focus, and enhance the educational and economic benefits for our community.

Hillel David Rapp is the Principal at Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto.