For decades now, American Jewish day schools have been following the lead of their non-Jewish private and public counterparts.  Some schools have been close on their neighbor’s heels; others have lagged farther behind.  But almost without fail, Jewish day schools have relied on sources outside of our community to provide us with guidance, inspiration, and innovation in the field of education.  The time has come, however, to stop following and to begin to lead.

Education reform in this country, after all, hasn’t been a stunning success.  With each clarion call for change, a relatively small cadre of intrepid educators emerge advocating a pedagogical approach they believe to be the solution.  At the turn of the millennium the call was for 21st Century Learning.  Then it became Problem Based Learning.  Then Project Based Learning, Inquiry Based Learning, Blended Learning, and now Personalized Learning.   A decade ago the call was for such learning to happen in the “Real World.”  Then it was in STEM labs.  Then STEAM labs.  Then it was Makerspaces and now it’s Fab Labs.  Each time a new “solution” is championed, a series of schools jump on board, successes are heralded, national organizations pick them up and share them at their conferences, a few progressively-minded Jewish educators attend the conferences, and slowly the ideas begin to make their way through the cautiously conservative Jewish day school world.

Gil Perl

While all of these approaches have merit and value, none of them represent the solution to America’s educational woes.   To find a solution to a systemic problem, and one that works across the broadest of socio-economic, geographic, and cultural spectra, we have to move beyond specific modalities and techniques to the underlying forces which ought to be driving them.  In today’s world, two such forces hold the keys to unlocking successful education of the future: science and data.

I often tell people that if we practiced medicine in this country the way we practice education, we’d be a Third World country.  Imagine a world where developments in medical research had little to no crossover into the world of medical treatment; where protocols were driven largely by the way the doctor experienced them decades ago as a patient, rather than by what has been proven most beneficial today; where doctors couldn’t access the scientific literature in their field even if they wanted to, because they hadn’t been equipped with the skills to do so.  In such a world, American healthcare would mirror the sorry state of American education.

There is good reason for the disparity.  For much of the 20th century, the science of learning was seen as a “soft science” when compared with the “hard science” that drove the medical field.  The brain, after all, was the least understood of any human organ and so research in cognitive and developmental science was largely relegated to the realm of theory rather than practice.  Today, however, much has changed.  While the brain still represents  one of the great frontiers of scientific exploration, the progress that has been made in understanding memory, motivation, attention, cognition, and a host of other functions directly related to the practice of education that can no longer be ignored.

I often tell people that if we practiced medicine in this country the way we practice education, we’d be a Third World country.

In one important way, though, the field of education has a leg up on the field of medicine.  Unless a patient is hospitalized or sent home with a cutting edge bio-feedback device, the data which most physicians receive in order to make treatment decisions for most patients is woefully incomplete.  On or prior to the day of the initial visit a series of tests are run.  Based on the results, a treatment plan is initiated.  On a randomly selected day a week, a month, or even a year later, tests are run again and the original plan is either renewed, revised, or discontinued in favor of something else.

Our schools run much the same way.  In the best of scenarios, teachers begin the year with some initial data about their students, either from the previous year’s summative assessments or from diagnostics they administer themselves.  In the all-too-common worst of scenarios, teachers simply begin with the assumption that students in 3rd grade are developmentally, academically, and emotionally prepared for the curricula which an objective third party has deemed appropriate for 3rd grade children.  And so the treatment plan begins.  On a randomly selected date some four to six weeks later, an exam is administered and based on the results, in the best of scenarios, the original plan is revised, renewed, or discontinued in favor of a different approach.  In the all-too-common worst of scenarios, the plan is followed irrespective of the results, and it is left for the “specialists” – learning, reading, math, behavior, etc. – to treat the outliers.

The reality, however, is that in education this need not be so.  Unlike in medicine, we, in schools, see our students every day.  Unlike our physicians, we have access to massive amounts of data on everything from academic progress to social-emotional development.  The problem is that our tools for capturing, processing, and using this data are terribly inept.  If I am one of those dedicated teachers who devotes hours every night to marking my students’ homework from the previous day, I know that Sammy is only getting 75 percent of his math homework correct.  The chances are, however, that I don’t have the time or the vehicle in which to consistently track which 25 percent he is getting wrong.  Or, if I run a more tech savvy classroom, Sammy’s math homework might be to play a series of online math-based games, in which case the details of what areas he has mastered and what areas remain a challenge are being captured quite vividly.  But for me to access that data on a daily basis, along with the data created by the online reading program Sammy is using, and the data generated by the writing workshop he is participating in, and then to tailor instruction in each area to specific needs identified by the data  – and to do so for all 25 students in the class – is beyond overwhelming.  Not to mention the fact that even the best of adaptive online software is not going to alert me to the fact that each of the math areas in which Sammy is struggling are areas that were taught on days in which his math group met immediately after PE, and that Sammy’s real struggle is not with comprehending math, but with re-centering himself after considerable physical exertion.

We, in the Jewish community, have a wealth of expertise in the fields of psychology and neuroscience.  Each year more and more of our best and brightest are entering fields of computer and data science.  It’s time we begin bridging the gap between their work and our schools.  Organizations such as AltSchool, Summit, Learning and The Brain, and Neuroscape, have begun a foray into these areas, but there is so much more to do.   Rather than waiting for others to do it and let the effects trickle down to our community, we, who place education at the very top of our values and obligations, ought to be out there leading the charge.

Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl is head of school of Kohelet Yeshiva in Philadelphia, and chief academic officer of the Kohelet Foundation.