Sunday, October 23, 2011

No Child Left Behind and the Frumkeit Factor

“There is no excuse not to allow every child into school.” This is a direct quote by Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky from an article in Ami Magazine. This is a problem that comes up every year about this time when the school year begins. And no matter how many times the rabbinic leadership complains about it this very sad situation - it seems to be of no avail. Instead of improving, the situation seems to be getting worse as desperate parents will find that there is no room for their child in a particular school.

The reason for this terrible situation is in fact a result at least in part of the major successes of Jewish education since the Holocaust. In his wildest dreams Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz could not have imagined just how successful the day school movement is. The parents of today are the products of those day schools and wouldn’t dream of sending their children to anything but a religious school. (Although economic realities may be changing that somewhat. But that is a different discussion.) Because of that the most basic law of economics comes into play: The law of supply and demand.

As it applies to high schools there is competition among some schools to accept only the best and brightest of students. We have more Yeshiva high schools than ever and yet we have even more applicants to those schools than ever. That means that schools can afford to discriminate as to who they will or will not accept. And because of the fierce competition between schools to be the ‘Harvard’ of high schools - they seek only the brightest students… and feature the most demanding curricula.

This means a lot of children do not get in to the schools of their choice. Imagine the anguish of those parents. Not only do their children not have a school to go to, they are in effect being sent a message that their children are stupid by Yeshiva standards.

These schools obviously feel they can get away with that. They simply say something like ‘there are other schools’ …and feel they are absolved of all responsibility.

To that rabbinic leaders say “No!” No child should be left behind. Schools should not cater only to the best and the brightest.

One might say that this is not fair to the best and brightest. Why should standards be lowered for them just so less talented students will be able to attend and keep up?

The answer is that the standards don’t have to be lowered for the truly bright kids. They can be challenged in other ways. They can be given special tracks and incentives to excel in on a voluntary basis so that the rest of the class doesn’t feel they are second class citizens if they don’t compete at that level.

I can understand that type of competition post high school. By that time a student will know his capabilities and will hopefully choose a school best suited to his talents. But on the high school level - the playing should be exactly that – level. All schools should be open to all children. All children should be accepted no matter what their capabilities are.

On top of that the principle of Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko should be the motto for every single school. Children should be evaluated and taught according to their capabilities. Too many schools teach only to the brightest students in the class. Those who can’t keep up are at great risk of falling through the cracks and going ‘Off the Derech’ to one degree or another. There is nothing more frustrating to a student than to sit in class clueless about what his Rebbe is teaching. And pushy parents who see all their children as geniuses don’t help matters. But as important as that too is a different discussion.

The point here is to endorse what Rav Shmuel says. No child should be left behind. This was the policy of the schools I attended. This was the policy of my Rebbe, Rav Ahron. He never refused a child entry unless he was incorrigible. And it was rare for any child to be seen that way in Brisk.

This leads me to the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia (Philly) – a Yeshiva high school of which Rav Shmuel is the Rosh HaYeshiva. I understand that the entrance standards are pretty high. I would ask the esteemed Rosh HaYeshiva why he does not heed his own advice and open up the doors to his Yeshiva to every student who applies. He should set the tone - No child should be left behind! Not enough room for every applicant? First come first served.

There is another problem that I call the Frumkeit standard. It is alluded to in the Ami article. Rav Shmuel complains that the Frumkeit standard is harming our children.

First let me say that I support the idea that parents should find a school where the Hashkafos match their own. No parent should send their child to a school where the Hashkafos are different than those of their home. That only creates confusion and conflict between what is taught in the home and what is taught in the school.

That said, I don’t like the divisiveness that this causes. I would prefer going back to the days when was in day schools were fighting for students. That forced them to be open to all Hashkafos. Those schools did not have religious standards for the parents. There were in fact plenty of non Shomer Shabbos parents in those schools. And yet the vast majority of those students today are Shomer Torah U’Mitzvos. Some even turned out to be some of the big names in the Torah world.

How wonderful t was for the Charedi kids of that era to be friends and interact with the modern Orthodox kids. That’s how it used to be.

Today the divisiveness is so strong that I sometimes see hatred of people with different Hashkafos. This would not happen if there was no Frumkeit factor.

My advice to parents who insist of Frumkeit standards is to look into the past and see how well schools did when they didn’t have these standards – and compare it to what we have today. Are we really any better off?