November 01, 1999 2 min read

Exodus: For most of this century, American Jews have tended to send their children to public schools, which fostered assimilation, and not to Jewish parochial schools, which were seen as relics of the Old World. But that’s changing, reports Peter Beinart in the October issue of the Atlantic Monthly (“The Rise Of Jewish Schools”). The proportion of Jewish children enrolled in public schools has declined from more than 90 percent in 1962 to about 65 percent today. Many Jews have become disenchanted with public education and are now choosing schools like New Jewish High School, in Waltham, Massachusetts, founded in 1997. It is, Beinart writes, “an institution virtually without precedent,” filled with students sporting headphones and sunglasses, not the velvet yarmulkes and white button-down shirts found in Orthodox schools. Indeed, most of the parents at “New Jew,” as the students call their school, are associated with Judaism’s Conservative movement, though “many are less than observant.” “Yet such parents,” Beinart notes, “by choosing Jewish schools, are preparing their children to lead more observant, less assimilated lives than they do.” Even though Jewish citizens make up only a small proportion of the U.S. population, supporters of public education have cause to worry about the phenomenon, the author writes. That’s because Jewish organizations, “fearful of any breakdown of the wall between church and state, have traditionally lobbied hard against school vouchers and other government aid to private schools. As awareness grows that voucher programs might benefit financially strapped Jewish schools, that opposition may diminish.”

Stop The Madness: Teacher and writer Susan Ohanian takes on the standards movement-and just about everyone associated with it, which she describes as “a noisy alliance of politicians, corporate CEOs, and media pundits"-in the October 18 issue of the Nation (“Standardized Schools”). “Tougher tests,” she writes, “and more uniformity are not going to do anything but push kids into the dropout bins and drive creative teachers out the door in even greater numbers than they are leaving in now.” Last January in New York state, for example, 280,000 4th graders took a $5.8 million reading test designed by CTB/McGraw-Hill. Ohanian, author of the new book One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards , claims that “mounting hysteria” preceded the test: “Teachers abandoned reading aloud to students, substituting practice on test-taking techniques; parents supervised mind-numbing workbook drills at home; and 9-year-olds confessed to reporters that they worried they might fail the big test and thereby shame their school, neighborhood, and country.” But a rebellion is under way, Ohanian reports, sounding hopeful. In Massachusetts, some parents kept their children home for two weeks last May, when tests were being given. Parents in Ohio, California, and Oregon followed suit. In July, Wisconsin legislators responded to parent pressure and killed a new $10 million high school graduation test. “The students, teachers, and parents with the most to gain-or lose-from public education,” Ohanian asserts, “can tell the difference between real standards and standardization.”

-David Hill