The Truth About Yeshiva Curriculum and Student Outcome

The New York State Education Department (NYSED) is now in a period of public comment over its proposed changes to private school education standards. These changes were proposed after claims arose that Hasidic Yeshivas are generally non-compliant with State education standards and that many Yeshivas were 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 in public schools. Had Yeshivas largely not been compliant with existing standards, a simple NYSED memo clarifying the legal requirements of private schools would have sufficed. However, NYSED is making huge changes to the standards that will upend decades of legally-accepted Yeshiva curriculum. Meaning, it’s only because of these monumental changes to the standards that Yeshivas may be rendered as non-compliant.

Now 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; topics that detractors of Yeshivas claim are "secular" studies. Later in the day, Yeshiva curriculum includes English instruction and science. All those subjects are taught in multiple languages, including Hebrew, Yiddish and English. As such, Yeshiva students are in fact exposed to the core topics required to earn a General Equivalency Diploma (GED), and the students are also well-rounded in many other academic disciplines. Granted, Yeshiva curriculum and public school curriculum are distinct, but the State standard merely requires them to be "substantially equivalent" - not "substantially identical," and Yeshivas easily meet this standard.

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. Well, a survey of thousands of New Yorkers conducted in early 2019 for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation showed that 60% scored an ‘F’ on civics tests similar to the U.S. Citizenship Test. For context, most New Yorkers are educated in public schools; not in Yeshivas. Had these "adequately-prepared" students sought college admission, they would most probably have been remediated to pre-entry level classes as a prerequisite to enter college. Moreover, institutions of higher education were founded precisely because the grade school education system insufficiently prepared students to earn a better living. It is therefore odd that some find it scandalous that Yeshivas join public schools in possibly leaving some students inadequately prepared for the real world.

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 somehow demonstrates the 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, income is above $75,000 across New York, but when the head of householder is under the age of 25 years of age, 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, 66% of households statewide are run by those who are above the age of 45, but only 21% 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 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 65 years of age or older and is in fact identical to the Poverty Rate of the same age group within other geographic areas. Why? Because at the 65+ 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 result? The Poverty Rate for this age group is only 19.5% in Kiryas Joel and 19.9% in Hasidic-populated Boro Park, which is like the 18.4% Poverty Rate in the same age group for all of New York City and 21% for all of Brooklyn.
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. Those 65+ year olds are all Yeshiva graduates and they are living proof of an empowering education system.
In summary, from a legal and practical standpoint, 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 skews the 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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