The Truth About Secular Studies In Haredi Schools
The question of whether ultra-Orthodox children are getting enough secular education is wracking New York. The New York State Education Department will decide later this month about whether to start enforcing regulations in ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) schools, regulations proposed in a prolonged public campaign by activist groups such as the Young Advocates for Fair Education. YAFFED asked both the city and the state to crack down on ultra-Orthodox yeshiva day schools, arguing that these schools were offering a sub-par secular education and leaving students crippled by ignorance and poverty.
But is this characterization of Haredi schooling accurate? I have studied Haredi schools in-depth for many years, and I don’t think it is. While there are elements of truth buried in the complaints, I’m concerned by the misconceptions I now see swirling around the legitimate concerns.
It’s true that the secular instruction students receive in most yeshivas (and in nearly all Haredi ones) is more limited than that offered in most public schools. But as an academic who studies education, I’ve come to understand that critics often exaggerate these limits, depicting yeshivas as offering much less secular education than they really do.
Moreover, much of this debate has conflated Hasidic communities’ use of Yiddish as a first language — and the fact that students in Hasidic yeshivas are therefore second-language learners in English — with the secular education that they offer. The criticism ignores the aims of secular education in these schools, overlooking key cultural information about what school administrators, teachers, and parents understand themselves to be doing.
In fact, when you compare the actual content of secular studies in yeshivas with the criticism they’ve received, it’s hard not to conclude that it’s not Haredi education so much as Haredi culture that has people up in arms. What is actually missing from the curriculum is not a basic secular education but the cultural trappings of secular education.
American Haredi yeshivas are hardly a monolith. One main distinction is between schools associated with Yeshivish communities — Haredi societies built around Torah study — and Hassidic ones, which are built around the charismatic leaders who orient Hasidic life. In different communities, different amounts of time are devoted to what are known as “English” subjects. The secular studies in almost all of these schools focus on a core of English, math, social studies and a bit of science.
In yeshivish schools, instruction in secular subjects takes up a relatively small part of the day, but is still robust enough to match many public schools. And in high school, many schools in these communities meet the New York State Regents requirements. Indeed, as a recent Jewish Press article pointed out, many of the private schools with the highest Regents scores in the state are Haredi yeshiva high schools.
Other schools, especially Hasidic ones, offer a less-developed secular education. These are the schools flagged in the recent controversy. They devote less time during the day to secular subjects, and often stop offering secular education earlier than yeshivish schools — usually after eighth or ninth grade.
Yet with very few exceptions, even these schools offer students a basic grounding in core subjects, a fact few people outside these communities seem to recognize. This is because almost no real data exists on these schools; most claims being made about them are anecdotal, rather than based on scholarship or direct reporting.
It’s something I have spent my career trying to remedy. And what I found might be surprising.
For example, I recently visited a Hasidic school in Brooklyn that’s typical of the yeshivas that have come under the most intense scrutiny by YAFFED and other critics. The school does indeed devote limited time to secular education. But it still covers the same core subjects as public schools.
Third-grade language arts covered sentence structure, reading comprehension, spelling and handwriting, and parts of speech. Math instruction followed a standard textbook, and focused on place value, multiplication, calendars, money and time, and problem solving. There was much less science, and what little there was mostly focused on the circulatory system, and social studies covered early American history, and global geography.
This was not a singular experience. In another Hasidic school in Brooklyn, I sat in on a seventh-grade class and observed a scene that could have been taken from any other class in the country, disregarding the students’ distinctive dress and Yiddish accents of course.
At the start of class, students began working on four math problems the teacher had written on the board (multiplying and dividing fractions). While they were working, the teacher, an Orthodox, but not Hasidic, man, was mapping out Frytag’s Pyramid on the board, a classic diagram of the dramatic arc followed by most novels, plays, and movies.
As the students finished the math problems, he began to discuss the elements of the diagram with them. Their discussion was indistinguishable in its essence from any other U.S. classroom I have observed, in either modern Orthodox or public schools.
Students were confidently adopting words like “denouement” — with a Yiddish accent, of course — and were questioning and complicating this pyramid structure with a rigor that resembled nothing so much as their morning Talmud class. A few students even admitted familiarity with Harry Potter when the teacher used examples from the series to illustrate his points (though I am sure the school administration would not be happy to hear this).
The truth is that once you get past the students’ distinctive dress and language, the secular coursework offered in both these schools looked pretty ordinary — not much different from what you might expect to see in many other schools. Students’ math worksheets look like regular math worksheets, and their history books look like history books.
It’s true that no one would confuse this program with that of a serious preparatory academy. But neither are most public schools at that level. And the Hassidic schools I’ve visited were in no way the complete wasteland that critics often claim.
What accounts for the discrepancy between how Hassidic schools are perceived and their actual curricula?
One likely reason is reflected in the complaint I hear most often when I talk about this subject: “But they can’t even speak English!” That’s not precisely true. Almost all Hasidic kids speak basic English, though often with varying degrees of fluency. It is true that their English language arts skills often lag behind grade level. Even when learning Frytag’s pyramid, students in the Hasidic yeshivas I’ve observed still have difficulty with aspects of English-language writing and spelling. (One teacher of a younger grade I observed warned his students that nobody would invest in their companies if they continued to spell the word “much” as “M-U-D-G”).
But complaints on this score almost never acknowledge the main reason for this: Most students in Hasidic schools speak Yiddish as their native language, and are second language learners of English. In other words, the English-language competencies these students acquire in school should appropriately be compared with those of other ELL learners, not those of native English speakers.
In fact, these schools devote considerable energy to these ELL competencies, devoting most of the (admittedly limited) time they spend on secular studies to language arts: reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and literature.
What’s missing is not English instruction in the school day, but the degree to which Haredi schools use English skills to socialize their students into secular society.
Educational researchers have long recognized that socialization is central to all schooling. In addition to subject matter content, schools aim to teach kids what it means to be a productive citizen and to become a functional member of society.
There is also a second type of desirable socialization: schools further aim to socialize students into the norms of different academic domains. For example, we want students to understand what it means to be a scientist: to develop hypotheses, reason based on evidence, conduct trials and experiments, and draw conclusions. We don’t just want them to remember the parts of a cell, because without understanding the norms and practices that make that information meaningful, it will be swiftly forgotten, and even when retained, it will be unusable.
Here’s the salient point: When critics worry about Haredi yeshivas, they often conflate socialization with education. They confuse success in life with college prep. But these are very different things.
Haredi schools’ primary mission, whether Yeshivish or Hasidic, is to inculcate in students a particular worldview, a set of norms, and a culture, not of an academic discipline, but of the Haredi community. They want to produce students who will carry on communal traditions while managing to be productive members of society — both Orthodox Jewish society and, believe it or not, American society.
As one principal explained it to me, “English covers the four basic areas that they need in the future — math, language, social studies, and science — and we limit it to that, no liberal arts, nothing extra.” The objectives they teach are clear: The students will matriculate to go to a rabbinic yeshiva of higher learning, they will get married and study in a yeshiva, and then they will consider what skills they need to raise and support a family.
Parents, administrators, teachers, and students in these communities all agree that religious life is the central objective of schooling. But they also expressed the desire to be able to thrive in the broader world. As another principal put it, you can’t work in Jewish ritual life without basic skills, because it’s important to be a person of the world.
What these schools are aiming for, whether or not they always achieve it, is to produce students who will remain committed to religious observance and lifelong Torah study, but who will also be able to raise and support a family, engage in a productive secular occupation if they wish to do so, and contribute to society. Everything that happens in the school day, from religious to secular instruction, revolves around these goals.
What is really missing from the curriculum is not a basic secular education but the cultural trappings of secular education — all the extras that not only provide students with skills and abilities, but embed them in a culture and worldview different from those the ultra-Orthodox community wants their children to develop. These schools’ purpose is to develop in students a distinctly religious worldview, and not the worldview and culture of secular society.
None of this means that Haredi schools are not trying to develop good American citizens, who will lead productive lives. These communities care about American history and society, about civics and government, about their Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors, and that care is baked into the school curriculum itself.
Aside from obvious examples that come from outside the community in the history and social studies textbooks they use, the schools themselves engage in the broader community. For example, one of the Hasidic schools mentioned above conducts a program every year in which students write to different New York municipal departments (the police, sanitation, etc.) thanking them for their work, while also asking for information about what their jobs entail. These sorts of everyday activities, common to all schools, also pepper the school day in Haredi schools, and have a similar impact.
Students may not know the names of movie stars or singers, but they are engaged in society, and it is important to community members that their religious life be comfortably embedded in the American communities in which they live.
Because socialization is so central to the fabric of Haredi education, critics’ attempts to radically reform these schools from the outside would profoundly disrupt these communities’ social and cultural fabric. And it’s far from clear that such drastic change is necessary. For starters, there is an intense intellectual rigor to these schools’ religious studies, something I have written about previously. More importantly, there’s little evidence that they are suffering in the realm of professional and economic success.
Real data on student outcomes in these schools is hard to come by. Very little serious quantitative research has examined yeshiva students’ eventual incomes and professions. But what we do know should give us pause before sweeping in to turn these communities’ educational system upside down.
Pending any serious data otherwise, there are plenty of reasons to believe that on the whole, these communities are prospering — even the all-Yiddish Hasidic communities.
Much has been made of the rate of ultra-Orthodox families living in poverty. But this is misleading for many reasons. The first and perhaps most significant is that in this deeply religious community, many members choose to pursue low-paying religious occupations.
Men studying Talmud full-time will rarely make more than the equivalent of a graduate student’s stipend, and those who are teachers in religious schools might make only a bit more. These outcomes reflect community members’ deliberate choices to live in accordance with their beliefs and traditions, rather than their inability to support a family.
Moreover, the conflation of poverty with income level inadvertently fails to capture central features of the Hasidic community. For example, the UJA study on poverty, which YAFFED has used as a source for poverty rates, would require many Hasidic families to make over $100,000 to not be considered near-poor, simply because they have so many children. But once again, having many children is a choice and a deeply held religious value, not a product of a sub-par educational system.
The same goes for Yiddish; for Hasidic communities, the use of Yiddish is a communal religious value, not a failure of an educational program that devotes the vast majority of its secular education to English language arts.
Haredi religious sensibilities do more than just point people to low-paying jobs; they allow families to function in these jobs by providing strong communal supports — charity organizations, medical care, roadside assistance, babysitting and mother’s helpers, among many others. These features of the community are worth an essay in and of themselves, but it suffices to say that the very same things that push incomes down also makes living with those incomes feasible.
Violent crime is nearly non-existent within these communities, unlike in many low-income communities — another indication that this poverty is not really poverty in the traditional sense, as it is a near axiom in social science research that the poverty-crime correlation is close to universal.
Finally, though we have no statistics on this, there are good reasons to think that yeshiva students who wish to do so are able to pursue further academic work. On one end of the Haredi spectrum, graduates of the most prestigious yeshivish schools routinely attend Ivy League law schools. On the other end, Master’s programs in special education at institutions such as Touro College and TTI (an institution that partners with a number of colleges to provide classes to ultra-Orthodox students) are routinely filled with Hasidic men who have experienced the same ELL education that has been so roundly criticized.
The main problem with the current outcry over yeshivas is that it isn’t really about education at all; it’s about Haredi culture.
I have no doubt that the yeshivas’ critics are acting in good faith. Those I’ve met are thoughtful and sincere, and clearly want the best for students in these schools. They left a community that they believe has failed them and want to reform it to better support current members of the community. There is nothing ignoble about this desire.
But well-intentioned as they may be, they greatly overstate the deficits of Haredi education, especially when Yiddish-speaking students’ status as ELL learners is factored in. Nor does any hard data demonstrate that yeshiva students’ education is insufficient to allow them to live happy, healthy lives.
These critics aren’t really complaining about education. They’re complaining about the social and cultural meaning — or more precisely, lack of intrinsic meaning — these schools assign to secular knowledge; and this reflects a deep unhappiness with the Haredi religious worldview and culture more broadly.
It’s precisely not the case that yeshivas fail to provide students with the basic tools they need to succeed in life. Instead, what is true is that many are bothered by the nature of the life they lead.
Religious occupations, loads of kids, Yiddish language, minimal exposure to secular culture — none of these are educational concerns. But they shape the role and meaning that secular education has for this community.
What critics are really asking is for these schools to fundamentally change their orientation to religious life, and to give secular education a different place within it.
And that is something no Haredi school can — or should — be forced to do.
Moshe Krakowski is an associate professor at the Azrieli Graduate School for Jewish Education at Yeshiva University in New York.