CASJE: Collaborative Research for Advancing the JDS Field
How many times have you been asked, at school or in the boardroom, what the research says on a particular topic that is critical to your work in schools? How often have you thought, If we only knew why teaching X is so difficult or the best way to teach Y, we could increase significantly student learning and the quality of our schools? These are questions that practitioners often face and that funders often seek to answer. As the superintendent of a public K-8 system and the head of a large JK-12 Jewish day school, we are fortunate to be involved in a first-of-its-kind effort to coordinate the work of a diverse range of researchers, practitioners and funders who believe that evidence should drive decision-making in Jewish education. To this end, the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) was formed in 2012 to help develop applied research programs focused on high-priority areas in Jewish education.
By design, CASJE is a collaborative venture to enrich and expand the evidence base to guide improvement of practice and investment of resources in Jewish education. The basic proposition is that rigorous interdisciplinary research (hence the idea of “consortium”), grounded in the problems practitioners face, can generate useful knowledge for the field of Jewish education.
What is “applied” research?
Applied research aims to solve practical problems. To do this, researchers and practitioners work together to conceptualize a research program in a given field (e.g., language education) based on real problems practitioners face, the findings from which can be applied to a specific issue. The research is rooted in both theory and evidence, oriented to practical problem solving, and fueled by early and sustained engagement between researchers, practitioners and other potential users of research. The goal of all applied research is to yield “actionable knowledge” to improve practice in that field.
How does collaboration work at CASJE?
Most of CASJE’s collaborative research programs start with a “problem formulation convening” (PFC), with the goal of bringing practitioners, researchers and funders together to define an issue in the field that would benefit from high quality research. As one example, in May of 2015, we held a problem formulation convening on Jewish early childhood educational leadership. That convening led to a new CASJE initiative, funded by the Crown family, that will explore how Jewish early childhood education can serve as a gateway for greater and long-term involvement in Jewish life. The three-year research program will focus on better understanding opportunities around interfaith families and families that are not currently involved in a synagogue or other Jewish institution. We hope that over time, a series of connected studies can inform the development, training, practice, improvement efforts, and impact of Jewish educational leaders and leadership in Jewish early childhood educational settings.
CASJE’s research program in Jewish educational leadership in day schools is another example of collaboration and is the most ambitious applied research initiative in Jewish education to date. Launched in fall 2014, this groundbreaking three-year study is exploring what characterizes effective leadership in Jewish day schools and, more specifically, what constitutes distinctively Jewish educational leadership in the field.
Led by a research team from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), and supported by contributions from the AVI CHAI and Mandell and Madeleine Berman Foundations, this research project was developed in concert with colleagues who work in Jewish day schools across the United States. In addition to yielding valuable and usable information about effective educational leadership generally, the study will provide insight into the distinct characteristics of effective Jewish leaders. It examines which qualities correlate with high levels of satisfaction and retention among teachers, with a positive school climate, and with student outcomes that are aligned with the school’s academic, social-emotional, ethical and religious learning goals.
One element of this research is the administration of an assessment tool that targets educational leaders at 50 schools. The tool is administered twice, and the school leaders receive feedback that allows them to reflect on their practice and consider changing anything they deem necessary. At the conclusion of the study, this research has the potential to make a significant impact on the quality of educational leadership in Jewish day schools. This project represents not only a collaboration between practitioners, researchers and funders that is at the core of the CASJE model, but also among those in both general studies and Jewish studies at day schools. The project brings to bear the highest level research methodologies in education to advance our understanding of the practices that comprise positive Jewish educational leadership.
Lessons Learned So Far About Successful Collaboration
Over the last four years, CASJE has learned significant lessons about effective collaboration. When bringing together multiple individuals, academic institutions, and Jewish organizations—with varying missions and areas of expertise—we see the importance of:
- Maintaining open and frequent lines of communication, particularly around the status of projects and any changes to an existing research program agenda;
- Face-to-face interactions, even in the era of new media and virtual convenings. The in-person gatherings of CASJE’s PFCs, for example, not only ease the exchange of ideas, but also serve as important forums to develop professional relationships across research and practice that build trust and often result in new, creative ideas that improve our work;
- Engaging a variety of partners from the start. It may mean that significant time is spent building context and expectations, but the payoff is often a much richer product than any that one of the participants would have developed on their own; and
- Managing and balancing schedules. Simply, more people involved means more schedules to coordinate. We know now that not everyone involved in a project will be able to engage in every related activity. Respect people’s time and the time they are giving to collaborate with others.
Both of us share a strong belief that CASJE represents a new model that can make a difference in the lives of Jewish children and Jewish institutions. Funders, researchers and practitioners—including school leaders—can and are collaborating to strengthen Jewish education. While developing applied research is slow, methodical, and steady work, the secular education world offers numerous examples of the benefits that come. As just one, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (CCSR) has done extensive work over a 20+ year period on the extent to which students are on track to graduate high school. As a result of this work, schools now have benchmarks with which to examine whether or not their students are on track and can intervene when needed. They have found that if students miss up to ten days of attendance during their freshman year, and especially at the beginning of freshman year, they will have an extremely difficult time being successful in high school. These findings have led to shifting practices on suspensions and on making sure that counselors and school officials pay close attention to freshman attendance. This is useful and usable knowledge that changes practices.
Similarly, we hope the fruits of labor in Jewish education provide usable knowledge for its education leaders and educators too. Critically, all of CASJE-supported applied research is accessible to anyone at www.casje.org. Moreover, along with accessing the research, we hope that more educators and leaders join the important conversations and grow the community of hundreds of others with different expertise and past experiences. Share what you believe will help improve learning experiences and outcomes for youth. Ask the questions that, if answered, will help you think in new and different ways about Jewish education. By working together, funders, researchers, and practioners strengthen the field and strengthen our Jewish future.