A Question of “Excellence”

Lets talk about ‘excellence.’  After all, everyone wants to send their children to an excellent school, donors want to support excellent schools, and almost every school claims to be excellent.  But is it really possible for every school to be excellent?  Is it even possible for a Jewish Day School, while dividing its time between Jewish and general studies to ever be excellent?

Let’s talk about movies.  Let’s imagine your favorite genre is romantic comedies, and your partner’s is horror flicks.  If someone were to ask you and your partner to describe the qualities of an excellent film, chances are you would share some qualities, for example, both films would be engaging and not boring. In the same vein, all excellent schools have some things in common.  Ron Berger, in his short, mind-blowing, must-read book An Ethic of Excellence  identifies three main levers:  A culture of excellence, work of excellence and teachers of excellence.  These three elements should be present in every excellent school.

But to return to our film metaphor, when the horror film buff and rom-com lover compare notes, chances are they would have had far more to disagree about! Even though you would each be describing what made the film excellent to you, you might describe polar opposites, because in some ways, ‘excellence’ is a subjective term with no independent meaning.  Instead, excellence is excelling at being exactly what one intends to be.  

According to this definition, the most important aspect in becoming excellent is knowing who and what you want to be before you start!  Just as a film cannot be both an excellent horror flick and rom-com, so a school cannot be all things to all people.  What makes LaGuardia and Bronx Science two of the best high schools in New York City is not that they do everything well, but that they have clearly defined foci and pursue them relentlessly.

What makes JCDSRI excellent?

There are two primary foci of JCDSRI that we pursue with all our hearts.  They are Progressive Education and a Pluralistic Jewish Community.  Our relentless and ongoing pursuit of excellence in these areas set us apart from any other school in Rhode Island.

What is Progressive Education?

Progressive Education can be understood in a number of ways, but first, it is helpful to understand that progressive education came to exist in the late 19th century in opposition to “traditional” education.  Traditional education is something we are all familiar with, either from our personal experience or from the way movies portray classrooms.  In a traditional classroom, students sit at their own desks in columns and rows, quietly and carefully writing notes presented by the teacher. Traditional education believes that students are “Tabula Rasa” or a “blank slate” waiting to be filled with content by the expert teacher, so the teacher stands at the front of the class lecturing and often writing on a blackboard, whiteboard, or today, a Smart Board.  If students speak to one another or pass notes to communicate, the teacher silences them, or confiscates the note, often reading it out-loud to the class.  Students take tests, often multiple choice tests that are easy to grade, and test a students ability to memorize and recall teacher notes.  In essence– traditional classroom values obedience, accurate repetition of information, and individual completion over exuberance, creativity, and collaborative group work.

The progressive classroom operates by a different set of values, and it is evident in the way classes look and sound, the way homework is given, and the way students are assessed.  In progressive schools, children are not considered mischievous silly creatures who want to just horse around but curious, thoughtful, and compassionate people who want to be successful.  Given that radically different starting point, everything about the school looks and sounds different!

Progressive education values collaborative and cooperative group over competition and individual work so in a progressive classroom, one might find desks placed together into clusters, or simply tables where children work together rather than columns and rows of desks.  Classrooms might seem loud as students discuss, argue, plan and create together rather than passively copying notes. Progressive education values skills and active engagement over content, so in a progressive class, one might see students working on different content while they learn the same skills.  Progressive educators believe that every student is an expert in what he or she already knows and that the only way for a student to learn is to actively construct his or her own knowledge.   Thus, leveraging students’ interests is essential, while teachers who dictate content risk alienating or boring students.

In a traditional school, identical tests are given to all students so their numerical grades reflect the same standards given to all children.  In a progressive school, students are encouraged to do unique work that brings in many different skills, from independent research, to writing, to art and technology.  In a progressive class, cheating is impossible since students are expected to create something unique.

Put simply, progressive education can be summarized by the following adage: “Teachers should be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.”  Progressive education is also referred to as “student centered,” “Constructionist” (or Constructivist),“Democratic,” and often uses “project based learning.”

What does excellence look like at a Progressive School?

  • At an excellent traditional school, one would expect to see student mastery over a certain set content.  At an excellent progressive school, we expect to see students mastering skills that will lead them to become self confident, independent learners and critical thinkers.
  • At an excellent traditional school, one would expect to see students excel at tests and papers, especially standardized tests.  At an excellent progressive school we would expect to see students learning and being assessed through projects, especially group projects that require skills like communication, negotiation, compromise, delegation, and long term planning.
  • At an excellent traditional school, one would expect to see students to follow directions quickly and carefully, without being distracted or distracting others.  At an excellent progressive school we would expect to see students respectfully question authority, either to provide their own valuable ideas and insights, or to gain a further understanding of the ‘why’ behind their assignments.


What is Pluralism in a Jewish context?

I have heard pluralism described as a compromise- perhaps for communities too small to support separate Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform day schools.  I have heard pluralism described at “Radical Tolerance,”  which is closer to essence, but still misses the mark, since tolerance itself has the root of “tolerate” or put up within something one disagrees with.

Pluralism is the deep, heartfelt belief that being exposed to a variety of different ideas, passions, narratives and beliefs makes our lives richer. Pluralism makes us and our children more thoughtful, empathetic, and compassionate people.  More so, pluralism helps us hone our our thoughts and beliefs.  It challenges us to become deeper thinkers and learn to articulate our beliefs with clarity and passion.

Pluralism is the framework of American culture and Pluralist school help us live the American ideal– not just of a melting pot where everyone becomes the same, but where we learn to become confident, independent individuals in a diverse society.

You will see our students praying during tefillah, learning to speak modern and biblical Hebrew, and learning Humash (Bible), similar to any Jewish Day school.  But what differentiates our school is the Jewish values we emphasize.  For example, many Orthodox schools emphasize the concept that the bible is  “Torah L’moshe M’sinai” (that the Torah was literally given to Moses at Mt. Sinai).  At JCDSRI, we explain the concept but also acknowledge that many brilliant and committed Jewish people disagree!

The values we emphasize in our program are “Kol Yisrael Aravim zeh b’zeh,”  “V’ahavta L’reyecha C’mocha,” and “Ezeh hu chacham?  Ha lomed mikol echad.”  (“All the children of Israel are responsible for one another,”  “Love thy neighbor as thyslef,” and “Who is wise?  The one who learns from everyone.”

Thus, while we are engaging in authentic and serious Judaism, we are always reinforcing the values of respect, community, human dignity, and critical thinking.  Our students learn to live a joyous, vibrant Judaism that makes me more confident and compassionate when engaging ‘the other.”  Our students practice Judaism to make their lives richer and world a better place.

What does excellence look like at a Pluralistic Jewish School?


  • Teachers will use language like “many Jews believe,” or “the traditional understanding is…” instead of “We believe,” or “Judaism says.
  • Students will be asked, “given these options, which do you think is correct and why?”  rather than, “Do you understand?”
  • Students are explicitly taught how to embrace a wide variety of belief and practice.
  • Judaism is embraced as a positive, exciting, joyful enterprise without guilt, external pressure, or assumptions about what Jews “have” to do.

Where do we go from here?

JCDSRI is a school in motion.  We exemplify many of the attributes I described above, but some of the descriptors are aspirational.  We have work to do.  But I am proud that we know where we want to be.

If you are lost on a trip, the problem is that you know where you are going but not where you are.  The opposite is true in the life of a person or organization.  For a school, being lost is knowing where you are, but not where you are going.

We are clear about the kind of school we want to become and we are proud of the work we have done and continue doing to become a school of distinguished excellence.