B’Yadenu: A Strategy for Whole School Reform
February 13th, 2020
With the Foundation’s grant supporting the B’Yadenu Project now concluded, we are pleased to share reflections and a look ahead from David Farbman, Senior Director of Education at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.
In 2012, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, and five Boston-area day schools launched the B’Yadenu project with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Ruderman Family Foundation. B’Yadenu, which in Hebrew means “In Our Hands,” was designed to shift a whole school to cohesively and collaboratively work to better serve all learners. Essentially a strategic planning process for day schools, B’Yadenu encouraged school leaders and faculty to develop and execute a model for boosting the capacity of educators to strengthen instruction and support for all students. With the project coming to a close, this is a good time to reflect on the successes and challenges we have experienced over the last few years with this ambitious project to re-shape Jewish day schools in ways that better educate diverse learners.
The Significance of the B’Yadenu Model
To better understand B’Yadenu’s potential impact, we need first to consider how uncommon (read: countercultural) the initiative is in the world of education, generally, and Jewish day schools, specifically.
Most schools operate largely under the influence of two powerful forces: urgency and inertia. Taking each of these in turn, consider urgency. Too rarely do day schools address underlying causes or adopt more methodical or systematic approaches to ameliorate challenges. “Fix the problem as quickly as possible,” is the order of the day. The second force is somewhat oppositional to the first. Much of what takes place in schools—from specific lessons to curricular expectations to the daily schedule—results from inertia. Educators tend not to change practice from year to year because when a problem does not emerge (i.e., does not need to be addressed urgently), they see no compelling reason to do so.
At base, B’Yadenu is an effort to break the hold of both of these forces at once. In terms of urgency, B’Yadenu presses administrators and faculty to consider questions that are deliberately non-reactive in nature like “How can we address the root causes of this problem?” or “How can we institute practices that are most effective, even if they will take many months or years to implement fully?” At the other end of the spectrum, B’Yadenu aims to open the eyes of school staff to alternative possibilities that they had not considered simply because they were not pushed to do so. Through B’Yadenu, educators are prodded to ask themselves questions like: “What would our school look like if we did curriculum or scheduling or professional development differently?” and “Why do we have to teach this way?”
For school personnel to consider these questions is not only rare, the task is exceedingly difficult, and, of course, the difficulty stems in part from their rarity in being asked. For anyone—educators or not—to examine one’s own habits and assumptions takes candor and care and trust. That is, deep reflection into how to change current behavior in order to do better requires, first, that we are honest with ourselves and our peers. Second, such inquiry should not be addressed haphazardly, but rather done within the context of a methodical and consistent self-assessment. Finally, the entire exercise of self-reflection must be rooted in an environment of good will and mutual respect. B’Yadenu revolves around these three principles and seeks to guide school teams to abide by them.
What it Takes for B’Yadenu to Succeed
Engaging in B’Yadenu certainly provides a path toward overcoming norms that tend to be short-sighted. But progress is far from guaranteed. As such, below is a brief consideration of some factors that must be in place to make success more likely.
These latter two characteristics together form a healthy tension within successful schools. Striking the balance between these two ends of the spectrum—a demonstrated patience and methodical approach on one side; an incessant drive for improvement on the other—is what ultimately generates enduring and real change.
What Does “Success” Look Like?
What does it actually mean to “transform teaching and learning”? As the question itself implies, there is no single construct that defines transformation. Rather, the change exhibits certain characteristics that, in some combination, can be said to have met the ultimate objective: the evolution of a school toward an institution that meets all learners’ needs and where all learners can thrive. We consider four characteristics of schools that successfully educate diverse learners:
One final aspect worth noting. Though each successful B’Yadenu effort exhibited these four components, the schools differed from each other meaningfully in both the particular challenges they were trying to address and the ways in which they addressed them. What matters less, then, is the what of the B’yadenu process, but rather the how by which each school brought about sought after change.
The Future of B’Yadenu
Taking into account what we have learned over the last eight years, what can we say about how the day school universe overall might take on B’Yadenu and what Gateways can do to encourage more schools to become schools that embody the four characteristics of schools that successfully educate diverse learners outlined above?
The approach to seeding more B’Yadenu schools must focus on how to draw out the potential readiness of schools and cultivate that potential into genuine platforms for transformation. If we can locate those schools that acknowledge that their current educational program is unable to consistently address the needs of all students, then these educators are on the cusp of developing one of the foundational aspects of readiness: willingness to change.
In our experience, schools can be effectively steered toward being ready to take on the challenges of whole-school change through an honest analysis of current teaching and learning practices and how they serve as impediments to all students succeeding. In so doing, school leaders and faculty can be enlightened to three of the four conditions needed for whole-school transformation (desire for change, insight into its evolutionary nature, and the value for external expertise). With these cultural qualities taking root, the school community is then far more prepared to tackle the complicated, but rewarding, work imagined by the B’Yadenu process.
As for the fourth characteristic of strong leadership—which actually stands first in terms of its importance—the very act of organizing a candid assessment is a sign of the school leader’s commitment and vision.
Understanding what characteristics should be prominent in any given school community in order to take on the hard work of B’Yadenu and, in turn, what values we should be aiming to embed to ensure lasting change, we believe the field is better poised to bring about more widespread success in B’Yadenu projects (or any large-scale school improvement initiative). At Gateways, we will use these lessons to continue to guide and model and plan and strategize and prod more Jewish day schools to become places where all learners, regardless of their abilities or needs, can receive the education they so richly deserve.