Substantially Equivalent

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reconsider so much of life that we took for granted before. Are business travel and in-person meetings really necessary? Is working from home as productive as doing the same tasks in an office? What exactly is the purpose of education for our children?

When schools shut down two years ago, many commented on the role that education plays as childcare. Parents send their kids to school so that they are looked after safely while the adults are at work, but we generally didn’t focus on this aspect until COVID. Instead, we worried about the quality of education and learning in the school, not the basic function of supervising large numbers of children so that they are protected from danger during the day.

Today we do appreciate schools as really good childcare facilities. In fact, it is tough to come up with alternatives, especially for working parents. A story on This American Life profiled a single mother who needed to leave her home for work during the pandemic, so she set up a system of cameras and speakers in her apartment to monitor her daughter during virtual school. The system seemed to work well, and she even used it after schools reopened, but she eventually found that her daughter wasn’t getting an experience at home that she needed.

What is the purpose of school? What interest does the public have in education? A Jewish case in the news today forces us to try and find answers to these questions. New York state is set to release regulations that ensure that Yeshiva students receive an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that at a public school. A judge recently ordered New York City to complete its investigation of a yeshiva where a mother complained that her son did not receive the secular studies he is entitled to under the law.

On the one hand, the state has an interest in every student receiving an adequate education: learning the basics so that they can be productive members of society. But what are those basics? As we learned during the pandemic, schools provide all kinds of education. There is social and emotion learning in addition to skills like math and reading. In fact, some argue that a yeshiva education is more rigorous and intensive than a standard secular education.

Critical thinking is buzzword in education today. School leaders and parents are less interested in students learning facts or skills that they may never use and often quickly forget once a test is over. Instead, students are encouraged to develop ways of problem-solving and analysis so that they can be successful in whatever challenges they face. One could argue that that male yeshiva students, in their intense study of Talmud, get some of the best critical thinking instruction in the world. In fact, some in South Korea admire Talmud study so much that they have adopted the teaching of that text for their students.

So perhaps a yeshiva student may not know as much America history or calculus as the equivalent public high school student, but they certainly know how to analyze literature, an important skill in our increasingly text-based world. Even more important questions are whether they will get a chance to translate this skill into the secular workforce, and whether everyone in the ultra-Orthodox community has the ability to do such intense critical analysis. Some people are better with their hands and should be encouraged to find success in those endeavors.

I suspect that even if New York state requires yeshivot to add more secular studies, these ultra-Orthodox schools will still find a way to fulfill their religious curriculum. True, there are only so many hours in the day, but I still don’t see this dilemma as a zero-sum game. The Talmud is an expansive document full of stories, law, math, geometry, history, and science. Creative educators can use the text as a starting point to teach students all kinds of important knowledge so that the next generation can succeed in both the realm of the secular and religious.

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