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Krakowski Presents at NRJE Conference

Dr. Moshe KrakowskiDr. Moshe Krakowski, associate professor and director of the Master's Program at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, presented a paper at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Network for Research in Jewish Education, which ran from June 17 - June 18, 2019. Below is the text of his paper.

Chassidic Education in the United States: Pedagogy, Perception, and Politics

Over the past year, the New York state government has assumed unprecedented oversight of charedi boys’ yeshivas throughout the state—a response to political activists who have called for strict enforcement of state laws requiring private schools to provide “substantially equivalent” education to that of public schools. In November of 2018, the state education commission published Yeshiva education guidelines that, at least on their face, would require the state’s charedi schools to radically change their curricula.

This paper examines three interrelated aspects of this unprecedented chain of events. Using site visits, interviews, and observation of four of the chassidic elementary schools targeted by the activists’ original complaint, I will map out basic aspects of the secular and religious education offered in these schools: How much time do they devote to different subjects? What pedagogical models do they employ? How do school administrators understand the curricula they offer? Who teaches in these schools, and what are their qualifications?

I will then turn to representations of these schools and their attendant communities by activists and popular media. Drawing on blog posts, op-eds, articles, social media, and personal emails, I will survey and assess the most common claims made about these schools, both by people who have had no personal experience with them and by those who have themselves grown up attending them.

Finally, I will address the socio-political implications of this data. The politics of this issue must deal with broad questions of law (such as the balance between freedom of religion and the need to have an educated populace) as well as with sociological questions, such as how minority communities and ex-members of those communities can, or should, relate to one another.

My initial fieldwork suggests that these schools are not homogeneous in their approach to secular education. While they share core features, subtle differences among them shape how each handles secular education in the school day. Contrary to many activists’ claims, these schools do provide basic secular education, with an emphasis on English Language Arts and math. Both the amount of time devoted to these subjects (usually an hour and a half to two hours, four days a week) and school administrators’ attitudes about them vary from school to school.

Thus, for example, some administrators in these schools are well-educated themselves (with advanced degrees) and have developed secular curricula mapped to well-articulated goals and outcomes. Others expressed to me enthusiasm about secular education but are essentially untrained themselves, and lack a clear sense for how to provide such education in a systematic way. Others are indifferent to secular education, leaving the teachers to determine what to teach, and how. The secular studies teachers I observed likewise possessed a wide range of pedagogical skills and experience, in part linked to schools’ hiring policies: some schools hire only chassidic men as secular-studies teachers, some hire only Orthodox men, and some deliberately hire non-chassidic men (whether Orthodox or not).

The students, too, displayed a wide range of engagement and ability in the classroom, even within the same school. In some classes students were clearly enthusiastic and involved in the lessons, and in others it was clear that the students considered the material unimportant at best.

The overall picture that emerges from my fieldwork is not entirely consistent with critics’ assertions about the secular education they offer; secular education is provided, and based on my interviews and observation, is even considered valuable, but only as a tool with which students can navigate the outside world. Critics are predominantly (though not completely) correct, however, in the claim that these schools do not care about secular education as intrinsically important. Given the data gathered during these site visits, this paper will close by examining how some of these schools (and communities) might be changing organically, rather than through State mandate. Though these changes will certainly impact the overall level of secular education in chassidic communities, they may not satisfy either the demands of the activists or the mandates of New York State.