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October 4, 2015 / 21 Tishri, 5776
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After Sixty Years: Thoughts on Jewish Education

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That parents are now more involved in the school lives of their children is a development we should welcome. Gone are the days when parents sent their kids off to school and scarcely knew what happened during the many hours they were entrusted to teachers and other school personnel.

Of course, when their children came home with report cards, invariably parents examined them closely and experienced nachas when the grades were high and concern when they weren’t. Many also paid attention to grades on tests and other information pertaining to school performance, yet in the aggregate there was a certain deference – perhaps it should be called decorum – separating parents from what transpired at school, the assumption being that teachers and principals could be relied on to be fair.

If a child got into trouble, it was a good bet parents would not side with their offspring, except perhaps in the most egregious situations.

This pattern was evident in all yeshivas. I cannot write first hand about public schools, although that’s where I was enrolled until early in the fourth grade. I believe the factors that contributed to a limited parental role in yeshivas were also factors determining how parents were engaged decades ago in the education of their children in other basic educational settings.

There has been a major change. Parents are like big brothers and big sisters in relation to their children’s schooling, helping out with homework and other assignments and, at times, crossing the line and doing more than helping out. They are also more knowledgeable about classmates, whom their children are friendly with, and much else.

From nursery on, parents are invited and expected to be at their children’s “graduation,” special performances and notable events. They show up at PTA meetings, carefully examine report cards, compare notes with other parents, and assess teacher competence and how their children are doing socially in relation to their teachers and to their peers.

Why the change from the pattern that once existed? All social relationships are subject to change, whether due to economic developments or other factors. What is occurring in basic education, however, transcends the ordinary or expected alterations in behavior and attitudes that inevitably occur over time. What we have seen is, in effect, a cultural sea change, the rejection of one mindset and its replacement by what appear to be radically different attitudes and behaviors.

One likely contributory factor in yeshivas and day schools is tuition. There was a time – it now seems distant – when yeshiva tuition was extremely low for most students and non-existent for the most indigent families. We all know how this has changed, what with the tuition crisis and with many schools and parents being in a tense relationship regarding the setting of tuition and its collection.

As I have written over the years, basic Jewish education that once was regarded as primarily a communal responsibility is now viewed as a consumer product, and like all products it must be paid for by those who make use of it. As is the case with conventional products, parents who pay tuition understandably feel they have the right to demand good value for what they are paying. They have the right to ask questions and to get answers from school officials, professional and volunteer, and from teachers.

But this is no more than a partial explanation. The reality is that parents who receive substantial tuition assistance are also heavily involved in their children’s school performance, as well they should be. Likely, the primary contributory factor is cultural, meaning there is an expectation that parents are not merely giving their children over to the school but are in a sense partnering with the school in their children’s education, helping with homework and assignments, keeping in touch with teachers and school personnel, talking with other parents about what is going on in the classroom, etc.

About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years. He can be contacted at mschick@mindspring.com.

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