The Truth About Yeshiva Curriculum and Student Outcome

The following is a 1,000-word data-based essay:

In recent years, claims arose that Hasidic Yeshivas are generally non-compliant with New York State education standards and that many Yeshivas are not adequately preparing their male students for the workforce. I will address those two claims respectively.

According to New York State law, private school students must receive an education that is at least “substantially equivalent” to an education given in public school. If a few dozen Yeshivas fail to do so, as claimed by Yeshiva opponents, then the New York State Education Department (NYSED) could have issued a memo clarifying the definition of "substantially equivalent." However, a court ruled that the changes sought by NYSED are so monumental that they need full public comment; a process used when government wants to change laws and regulations. In other words, it’s only because of these monumental changes that Yeshivas may be rendered as non-compliant; which means that without those changes the few dozen Yeshivas in question are following the law.

Let's evaluate the quality of a Yeshiva education. Hasidic boys as young as nine years old attend school for nearly 10 hours a day during school days which is substantially longer than public school students. Judaic studies in Yeshiva encompass the disciplines of history, geography, and mathematics. Later in the day, Yeshiva curriculum includes English instruction and science. Those subjects are taught in multiple languages including Hebrew, Yiddish and English. As such, Yeshiva students are exposed to the core topics required to earn a General Equivalency Diploma (GED). Detractors of Yeshivas use the term "religious" studies to suggest that the day is packed with teaching stories of the Torah rather than also including all of the above GED-like topics. Granted, Yeshiva curriculum and public school curriculum are distinct, but the State standard merely requires them to be "substantially equivalent" - not "substantially identical."

Now let's move to claims regarding student-outcomes, which involve two separate areas of review. Detractors claim that Yeshiva graduates lack knowledge compared to their peers in public schools. But a survey of thousands of New Yorker adults conducted in early 2019 for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation shows that 60% scored an ‘F’ on a civics test that is similar to the U.S. Citizenship Test. Most New Yorkers are educated in public schools; not in Yeshivas yet the results are horrendous. Moreover, colleges have prerequisite classes due to the many non-Yeshiva students lacking basic education by the time they finish high school so what is the surprise if some Yeshivas have this outcome? Moreover, institutions of higher education were founded precisely because the grade school education system attend by students through the age of 17 does not sufficiently prepare everyone to earn a better living. So, once again, what is the surprise if Yeshivas that is attended through the age of 17, also leave some students in need of more education?

The second part of the outcome-focused claim pertains to income and poverty. Many people point to the fallaciously-calculated Poverty Rate within the Hasidic community as an outcome that demonstrates the alleged inadequacy of a Yeshiva education. In truth, however, people with decades of experience in the workforce earn more than double than their younger counterparts. For example, when the head of householder is above the age of 45 years old, median income is above $75,000 across New York, but when the head of householder is under the age of 25 years of age, media income is in the $31,000 range. This discrepancy is significant because only 2.6% of households across New York are run by those who are under the age of 25, but as much as 22.5% of households in Hasidic-populated Kiryas Joel (in Orange County, New York) are run by individuals who are this young. On the flip side, most households statewide are run by those who are above the age of 45, but only a small portion of KJ households are run by people in this age group. No amount of curriculum changes will alter the fact that the Hasidic demographic is young and it thus substantially diminishes their income.
The young Hasidic demographic also means that their households contain an above-average number of children. This elevates the Poverty Rate because the rate measures household income relative to household size. Consequently, a larger household will be classified as poor even when it earns a higher income. Indeed, poverty rates in the Hasidic community plummet in households led by those who are 60 years of age or older and is identical to the Poverty Rate of the same age group within other geographic areas. Why? Because at the 60+ age milestone, Hasidic men have overcome the economic obstacles associated with a young person's income, and their household size has shrunken given that their children have grown up.
The fact that the Poverty Rate among Hasidic seniors matches that of the rest of society is quite a feat given that this age group consists in large part of Holocaust survivors, immigrants, native Yiddish-speakers, and breadwinners who had poorer employment prospects due to anti-Semitism and Sabbath observance issues. Hasidic men of this age group are Yeshiva graduates and they are living proof of an empowering education system one adjusting for age and household size.
In summary Yeshivas meet the "substantial equivalency" standard and will continue to do so if the State Education Department does not upend the decades-old, legally accepted standard. As for workforce preparedness, those who attend public school are terribly unprepared as evident by the survey demonstrating that 60% of New York adults failed a basic civics test, and by virtue of the fact that many attend colleges only to better prepare for the workforce. As for income and poverty rates, the young age of the Hasidic community means less income for some and it also skews the poverty numbers among Hasidim as indicated by contrasting poverty rates among seniors. With these factors in mind, there is no merit to the claim that Yeshivas are generally not compliant, and there is no excuse for NYSED to impose monumental changes upon Yeshivas.
Yossi Gestetner is the co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council (OJPAC). The stats in this article are from the 2013-2107 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimate released by the Census and from the NYC Population Fact Finder whose reports are based on Census data.

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