Day school tuition continues to rise five years after the affordability crisis began. Avi Chai, PEJE, the Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University, the Kohelet Foundation, and many other organizations have devoted significant resources in an attempt to solve the affordability crisis, helping schools raise revenue, cut expenses, and become more efficient. These organizations have helped schools become more sustainable, while providing more need-based scholarships. Schools, however, are still not affordable, which can only be accomplished through lower tuition.
Education is expensive. The United States spends anaverage of $11,000 a year per student with New York andNew Jersey more than $18,000 per pupil. Jewish day schools have about a 40% longer day, requiring teachers, administrators, office staff, and books. Jewish day schools are generally less expensive than independent schools, and on an hourly basis spend less per student than public school, making current tuition levels appropriate.
After 5 years are we making day schools more affordable? No, and we won’t until we address the problem correctly.
Schools are very labor intensive; with staff salaries and associated costs make up about 75% of a school’s budget. Trying to save money on electricity or office supplies will yield minimal savings per student. An ambitious school that will cut an extra curricular program, reduce elective offerings, and combine bus routes to save $100,000 will have lowered its tuition by $500, when dividing the savings amongst the 200 students. This large savings will help the school become more sustainable, but not more affordable.
As an aside, for reducing costs by $100,000, the school principal and board members will receive countless complaints from those that will no longer have the educational opportunities or will need to wake up early for the new bus route. If two students transfer out due to these changes and don’t pay tuition, the savings are significantly reduced, in addition to the negative PR created.
Only through reducing staff will tuition be lowered to an affordable level. This might seem impossible considering that teachers facilitate the entire learning process. They explain concepts, motivate, lead discussion, impart values, form relationships, and mentor. Many times, teachers will seamlessly adjust their approach in response to a facial expression. There are, however, many tasks for which a physical teacher is no longer necessary in this day and age. We do not need teachers to create and grade vocabulary quizzes, mark routine math homework problems, or take attendance. We should maximize the amount of time a teacher can devote to explain, motivate, and mentor.
Some major advances in technology now allow students to learn more independently and have a computer program perform many tasks that teachers normally do, but which they are not needed for. As technology takes on these responsibilities, teachers have more time for more students. Through leveraging technology, we can raise the student- teacher ratio without damaging our children’s education.
This educational model that integrates technology and education is called blended learning and when fully implemented can lower tuition by at least 30%, and possibly more, as schools will be able to achieve the same educational results with half as many staff. The Christensen Institute has compiled a cost per student analysis of dozens of blended schools. Some blended learning schools operate at similar costs as the local public school, but many operate at significantly lower cost per pupil.
Blended learning means more than having iPads or MOOCs in the classroom. Blended learning achieves efficiency by having the more basic ideas initially taught through text, audio, and video and then having a robust assignment and assessment system measure student learning and guide next steps in the learning process.
There are even ways in which technology can perform better than teachers. Technology can grade instantaneously and tracks student progress over a long period of time. Testing reveals the specifics of what has been learned and what has not. Armed with data-filled student profiles, teachers will no longer begin a lesson figuring out what students know and don’t know; they will have detailed test results. Parents can also access this information to see their child’s development.
Imagine students having the tools to learn independently and therefore being able to learn at their own pace, achieving individualized education. As they progress, students receive immediate feedback on their learning, to know whether they need to try again or move to the next unit. Receiving updates, teachers will supervise the learning, provide accurate and immediate support, lead discussions about meaning and values, and otherwise motivate and mentor. Teachers do not need to worry about balancing the class pace with the wide range of learners in the class. While the teacher spends less quantity of time talking to the student in a group setting, the teacher has individual interactions with each student that are of a higher quantity and quality.
This style of learning should be familiar to anyone who studied in a Beit Midrash environment, where students learn independently, with teachers playing a supportive role and more available to form relationships. The blended learning charter school Carpe Diem Academy has already created a Beit Midrash type room for learning. This environment will allow teachers to teach a wider range of student, including students learning different levels of math like Algebra and Geometry. In this dynamic environment, students will be able to collaborate (havruta), as will teachers, who will no longer be the only adult in the room.
In Great by Choice, Jim Collins stresses the importance of firing bullets, then cannonballs. We need to test out ideas in a low risk environment before going all in. Any school community that wants to lower its tuition should experiment with blended learning. They should see how it works for one unit, in one subject, in one grade. I would recommend starting with math where the technology is most developed. A next step would be for a school to offer a $1000 tuition discount for a student to participate in a yearlong, higher student-teacher ratio, blended learning course. As schools see success, they should continue integrating blended learning, which grow by leaps and bounds each year, and then pass the savings along to parents.
Until we lower tuition, families will feel burdened by the high cost of Jewish living. The consistent featuring of day school affordability articles over the past five years speaks to the angst tuition causes and the past five years have not eased those anxieties. Let’s start taking the steps to excellent and affordable Jewish education and lower tuition.