Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Benchmarks

A colleague wrote, “We want to try something that has not been done in this congregation.
We would like to use a checklist of skills to keep the families abreast of the student progress.”

I replied:

If you work on this, I hope you will do it in a way that corresponds to the goals of your school. It would be possible to reduce this to a number of discrete items that, no matter how thoroughly mastered, would not by themselves represent the desired outcome of Jewish school.

For example, many congregations have prayer charts listing specific prayers that a student is to learn at each level. But the ability to read, chant, or recite those prayers doesn’t represent the entirety of what we want from Jewish education. I once had a fourth-grade class that had glommed onto the idea that the only goal of Hebrew school was to “do”certain prayers. Some of the students were uncomfortable with class sessions that required working with ideas, or even with learning new prayers, and when the stress became too great, often a student would insist on standing in front of the class to “do” (perform) a prayer learned the year before.

And I once directed a school where the curriculum for many grades consisted of ten or more pages listing discrete factoids that every student should know. (“Maimonides lived in Egypt. Maimonides wrote the Mishneh Torah.”) It would not have been possible to determine from the written curriculum what a student was supposed to do with all those facts. This was in a state that was in the forefront of mandated testing in public schools.

A number of years ago I was involved with competency-based education, where goals are expressed in terms of “competencies” that a student should develop. In its best form, competency-based education defines the competency on a macro rather than a micro scale, so that a competency is an overarching capacity that may comprise many discrete skills. At Alverno College, the institution that is probably best known for this approach, the goals came to be expressed as 8 abilities: Communication, Analysis, Problem Solving, Valuing in Decision-Making, Social Interaction, Global Perspectives, Effective Citizenship, and Aesthetic Responsiveness.

In addition, the acquisition of skills is integrated with the mastery of content. For example, students would develop skills in analysis through working with subject matter in various disciplines.

I’ll give an example from a part of curriculum that I'll be working on soon. In Kitah Vav (6th grade), the curriculum includes both parashat hashavua and the brachot for the reading of Torah. If all we had was a prayer list, we could check off the Torah blessings as each student learned them. If we happened to remember the parashat hashavua study, we could list facts that the students should know and test them periodically. (“The Torah is also called the Five Books of Moses. The English names of the books are....”) We could even test them on the content of the parashot that they study.

But our real goal for Torah study is that students develop the capacity to discern and paraphrase the p’shat of a short section of Torah text in English. This is hard to put down on a checklist. Although there are ways that it might be tested, we don’t consider that kind of testing appropriate in our school, and the way we would measure a student's capacity is through observing the student’s efforts.