Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Response to Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein

"We, as a community, are losing talented teachers. Some never go into education. Others burn out quickly, feeling unappreciated. Our schools are forced to hire teachers with no training or experience, just to have a warm body in the room. We are losing talent to business, law, occupational therapy and high-tech."

These are the words of Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein, published recently on the Cross-Currents website. In a cogent and heartfelt essay, she prescribes nine ways to enhance our yeshiva education system by improving the lot of teachers.

Much as I agree with the merit of Dr. Klein's points, I'm afraid they don't stand a chance. The underpayment and under-appreciation of teachers cannot be assessed in a vacuum. Its root causes are deep and dogmatic. Consequently, unless those causes are nullified, or at the very least, mitigated, the result will be the same: teachers will continue to be underpaid (though not necessarily under-appreciated).

Modern American Chareidi society creates several conditions which, combined, result in the problems Dr. Klein addresses. (Understand clearly that I am not judging the wisdom of the Chareidi model; Gedolim whose ankles I do not reach have endorsed it. I am merely stating what is factual.)

Modern American Chareidi Society presumes that in a perfect world all men should be learning Torah full time. This is not what happens, of course; eventually most men do go out to work. However, the very premise that all men should be learning Torah full-time leads to a yeshiva system that significantly limits the secular education those men will later need to earn top-paying employment positions. This limitation starts with the undermining of secular studies at the elementary and middle school level, continues with a paucity of secular studies at the high school level, and ends with the absence of secular studies at the college level. There are certainly exceptions of varying degrees to this generalization, but as a generalization it is accurate.

Next, the average American Chareidi, who does go to work, will nevertheless delay entry into the working world for several years, which will be spent in kollel. When he does enter the workforce, he does so with a family already in need of significant support, but with job prospects that, on average, are not commensurate with the income he requires to address that need.

Meanwhile, his wife will have been working from Day One of the marriage. She will have got a better secular education and may very well have gone to college. Nonetheless, her secular education is not generally on par with that of the top tier of American earners, and she, as a rule, will not enter the "professions" or climb any corporate ladder. She will train for and take a job that allows her the flexibility to simultaneously raise a family—which she will be expected to do. She is both breadwinner and homemaker.

This couple will go on to have, on average, seven to eight children, all of whom, in addition to food, clothing, and shelter, will require a private school education. They will then educate those children along the same lines that they were educated: "Torah only" for the boys; dual roles for the girls.

Expenses for these families exceed—and often far exceed—their income. In the good old days (the 1980s and 1990s) grandparents and parents stepped in to fill the budgetary holes. Today, those grandparents are dead, the parents are now the grandparents (with upwards of forty grandchildren), the largesse is less large. For many, the family money is gone, having already been spent.

Stepping into this picture is a discussion about tuition. Many financial frustrations are unfairly taken out on the yeshivos under the banner of "the tuition crisis." But the fact is that tuition is the only big line item on a family budget that is subject to negotiation. Don't pay your mortgage, ultimately (and, yes, I know that can be a long time), you will lose your house. Don't pay your utility bills and your heat, water, phone, etc. will be turned off. But tuition—that's a little flexible. You can ask for a break, you can delay payments, you won't necessarily see your children thrown out of yeshiva over a bounced check (although those grounds, too, appear to be shifting somewhat).

The yeshivos are under enormous pressure. They must educate children in both limudei Kodesh and limudei chol (however sparingly), over the course of a ten-hour day, and do so on a budget funded by tuition payments that their parents cannot afford and often resent paying. There's only so far that the fiscal math can bend.

So teachers get underpaid.

When teachers get underpaid, only the most dedicated want to become teachers. When fewer people want to become teachers, those who do so are deemed less capable. Alongside the attitude Dr. Klein cites—"Those who can't do, teach"—is Dennis Prager's comment that anything associated with children is considered childish. This, he claims, is why Western culture has devalued the status of Motherhood. This is less true in the frum community, but not so foreign to us either. When was the last time you saw a chosson's seventh-grade rebbe be his Mesader Kiddushin? The rosh yeshiva is always asked—even if the talmid's relationship with his rosh yeshiva is tenuous, and even if his seventh-grade rebbe was the one to really ignite his passion for learning.

Was the seventh-grade rebbe even invited to the chasunah? Few yeshiva bochurim dream of being a seventh-grade rebbe.

All of Dr. Klein's suggestions are good ones—and are usually implemented in what she calls "the generally better paying Modern Orthodox institutions." But there's a reason for this. The Modern Orthodox institutions have a parent body that does not follow the matrix outlined above. At the end of the day, apples-to-apples, they have more money.

But in the righter-wing yeshivos, her suggestions cannot readily be implemented because the funds simply aren't there. And as long as the yeshivos continue to promote and propagate the very conditions that lead, ultimately, to fewer funds, the results will be the same.


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