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Journal of Jewish Education, 74:52–67, 2008
Copyright © Network for Research in Jewish Education
ISSN: 1524-4113 print / 1554-611X online
DOI: 10.1080/15244110802493321

Reforming the Loosely Coupled System:

Journal of Jewish Education
Education, Vol. 74, No. s1, October 2008: pp. 1–29

Implications for Jewish Schools

Journal the Loosely
of Jewish Coupled System

School systems in the United States have long been characterized

as “loosely coupled systems,” in which decisions and events occurring
in one part of the system have little resonance elsewhere. Loose
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coupling has advantages in that classrooms are buffered from

outside interference, but it also makes it difficult to bring about
change. Current federal policy can be viewed as an attempt to
tighten the system by using accountability incentives to influence
what goes on in classrooms. For private schools in general and
Jewish schools in particular, national survey data suggest that
accountability reforms are much less salient, as teachers perceive
a high degree of influence over school policy and control in their
classrooms. In light of these results, three other reform strategies
are considered: restructuring, market incentives, and professional
learning. Based on theoretical and empirical considerations,
professional learning appears to be the most promising strategy for
bringing about improvements in teaching and learning in Jewish as
well as other private schools—and probably in public schools as well.

Over the past three decades, advocates of school reform in the United States
have increasingly recognized that improving teaching and learning requires
attention not only to classroom activities, but also to the organizational
context in which teaching and learning take place (e.g., Barr & Dreeben,
1983; Bidwell & Kasarda, 1980; Gamoran et al., 2003; Newmann, 1992;
Newmann and Associates, 1996). Efforts to improve teaching, however,
have often foundered because of the difficulty of penetrating through the
layers of bureaucracy and reaching the classroom. As Weick (1976)

Adam Gamoran is Director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and Professor of Sociology
and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a consultant to the Mandel
Foundation. E-mail:
An earlier version of this article was presented at the conference honoring the memory of Seymour
Fox at the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, November 2007.

Reforming the Loosely Coupled System 53

famously explained, educational organizations are “loosely coupled

systems” in which events and activities occurring in one part of the system
fail to reverberate in clearly patterned ways elsewhere. In this system, the
core technology of schools—teaching and learning—takes place in class-
rooms that are buffered from outside interference (Barr & Dreeben, 1983).
In a field full of fads and fashions, such buffering can be advantageous
because it protects teachers and students from being disrupted by the con-
stantly changing approaches and ideas in education (Weick, 1976). Yet the
loosely coupled system is problematic for anyone who wishes to bring
about change, as it forestalls outside influence on the classroom. In a loosely
coupled system, even managers have limited chances to promote change
because teachers are largely autonomous once the classroom door is closed
(Ingersoll, 2003).
Current federal education policy, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act
of 2001, is an effort to break through the loosely coupled system. Under
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NCLB, states that accept federal funding for education must set performance
standards for students, administer tests in reading and math in grades 3–8,
and hold districts and schools accountable if their students do not hit
the pre-ordained targets in these grade levels. Districts and schools are
responsible not only for student performance overall, but for performance
attained by students in various demographic subgroups (if sufficient numbers
of students in these categories are enrolled). At least 95% of students must
participate in the tests and schools are required to place a “highly qualified
teacher” (one who has a college degree, teaching certification, and subject-
matter knowledge) in every classroom. Schools that fail to meet these standards
face increasing sanctions, from allowing students to transfer in the second
year of missing targets to possibly closing and reconstituting the school in
the fifth year. In light of these sanctions, NCLB reforms are intended to give
educators new incentives to seek out and implement more effective
approaches to increase student learning.
The impact of NCLB is widely debated (e.g., Gamoran, 2007; Zimmer
et al., 2007), but that is not the topic of this article, which instead it poses
two questions about improving learning in private schools. Of course, pri-
vate schools are not subject to NCLB, but the general climate of increased
accountability may spill over onto the operations and ethos of private
schools. Hence, efforts to improve teaching and learning in private schools,
including Jewish schools, may first pose the question: To what degree is the
new emphasis on accountability reaching private as well as public schools?
To answer this question, I examine data on where accountability would
matter most for teaching and learning: in the influence of teachers on their
schools and classrooms.
To preview the results, it is not surprising to learn that school influence
and classroom control are much greater among private than public school
teachers, and while such autonomy has declined substantially in public
54 Journal of Jewish Education

schools, this is apparently less true for private schools, including Jewish
schools. These findings provoke a second question: What alternative strategies
for reform are available? In response, I review current theories and existing
evidence on three other approaches and weigh their potential for improving
teaching and learning in private schools in general and Jewish schools in



For the past 20 years, the National Center for Education Statistics has
periodically surveyed principals and teachers in schools across the nation,
including private as well as public schools, in the Schools and Staffing
Survey (SASS). Among the perennial questions are two items concerning
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teachers’ influence over their working conditions:

• How much actual influence do you think teachers have over school policy
AT THIS SCHOOL in the following areas? Areas of inquiry have included
curriculum, budget, teacher hiring, evaluation, and professional develop-
ment, student discipline, and, new for 2003–2004, performance standards.
• How much actual control do you have IN YOUR CLASSROOM at this school
over the following areas of your planning and teaching? This question
is posed for specific areas including textbooks and materials; content,
topics, and skills; teaching techniques; evaluating and grading students;
disciplining students; and assigning homework. The most recent SASS
was administered in 2003–2004, during the second year of implementation
of NCLB. In light of the accountability provisions of NCLB, one might
expect to see substantially greater autonomy among teachers in private
than among those in public schools.

The 2003–2004 SASS, like previous administrations of this survey, is

comprised of a nationally representative sample of schools. All principals of
selected schools are surveyed, as is a random sample of teachers within
each school. The 2003–2004 SASS included 9,444 public schools and 3,443
private schools, the latter including 114 Jewish schools. These samples
project to a national population of about 90,000 public schools, over 28,000
private schools, and 811 Jewish schools (Tourkin et al., 2007). (Schools
under the Bureau of Indian Affairs constitute another sector included in the
SASS, but they are not included in this analysis.) Jewish schools constitute
one of 17 categories of private schools in the private school sample. Teachers
represented by the SASS respondents project to 3,056,100 public school
teachers, 440,200 private school teachers, and 27,500 teachers in Jewish day
schools across the United States.
Reforming the Loosely Coupled System 55

Table 1 exhibits teacher responses to selected questions about school

influence and classroom control. As expected, teachers in public schools
perceive much less autonomy than their private-school counterparts.
For example, only 21.9% of public school teachers report “a great deal of
influence” over school curriculum policy, whereas the percentage in private
schools is more than twice as high (47.3%). Similarly, only 30.8% of public
school teachers report “a great deal of control” over the selection of
textbooks and instructional materials used in their own classrooms, in
comparison to 52% of public school teachers. Even teaching techniques,
which one might expect to see as purely the province of the teacher, are not
fully under the teachers’ control: 70.2% reported “a great deal of control” in
public schools and 83% in private schools. Teachers in Jewish schools tend
to fall between public and private school teachers on the “school influence”
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TABLE 1. Teacher Perceptions of Influence Over School Policy and Control in Their
Classrooms, 2003–2004 (Percentage responding in Each Category).

Policy Area No Influence/ Minor Moderate A great deal of

Controla Influence Influence Influence/Control

Performance standards
Public schools 16.2 28.8 37.3 18.0
Private schools 6.5 16.1 37.9 39.5
Jewish day schools 10.0 20.6 41.5 27.9
Public schools 13.8 26.9 37.5 21.9
Private schools 6.2 13.8 32.8 47.3
Jewish day schools 10.4 14.7 40.0 35.0
Textbooks and other materials
Public schools 12.9 24.4 32.0 30.8
Private schools 5.6 15.0 27.5 52.0
Jewish day schools 8.4 15.7 30.8 45.2
Content, topics, skills to be taught
Public schools 10.6 22.0 32.5 35.0
Private schools 3.6 10.5 26.5 59.4
Jewish day schools 5.0 12.6 24.5 58.0
Teaching techniques
Public schools 1.3 4.1 24.4 70.2
Private schools 0.5 2.0 14.6 83.0
Jewish day schools 0.0 3.9 15.7 80.5
Source: Author’s calculations from the 2003–2004 Schools and Staffing Survey, Public and Private School
Teacher Questionnaire. Samples limited to full- and part-time regular classroom teachers. Weighted
(projected) sample sizes: 3,056,100 public school teachers, 440,200 private school teachers, and 27,500
teachers in Jewish day schools.
Note: All figures for teachers in private and Jewish schools are significantly different at p < .05 from those
for teachers in public schools, except for “no influence” responses by teachers in Jewish schools on
performance standards, curriculum, and textbooks, “moderate influence” on standards and curriculum,
and “minor influence” on teaching techniques. Rows may not sum to 100% due to rounding.
For performance standards and curriculum the response categories are “no influence,” “minor
influence,” “moderate influence,” and “a great deal of influence.” For materials, content, and techniques,
the response categories are “no control,” “minor control,” “moderate control,” and “a great deal of
control.” See text for question wording.
56 Journal of Jewish Education

questions (performance standards and curriculum), but much closer to the

private school averages on the “classroom control” items (materials, content,
and teaching techniques). These patterns are graphically illustrated in Figure 1,
for control over classroom content, and Figure 2, for influence over school
curriculum policy.
Although the public/private and public/Jewish school teacher responses
are clearly different, that does not mean the differences are a result of new
federal accountability laws. Indeed, greater autonomy has long been a
hallmark of private schools as a workplace for teachers (Gamoran, Goldring,


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40 Public
30 Jewish


None Minor Moderate A great deal

FIGURE 1. Perceptions of control over classroom content in public, private, and Jewish
schools. (Source: Author’s calculations from the 2003–2004 Schools and Staffing Survey,
Public and Private School Teacher Questionnaires.)

30 Public
25 Private
20 Jewish
None Minor Moderate A great deal

FIGURE 2. Perceptions of influence over school curriculum policy in public, private, and
Jewish schools. (Source: Author’s calculations from the 2003–2004 Schools and Staffing
Survey, Public and Private School Teacher Questionnaires.)
Reforming the Loosely Coupled System 57

& Robinson, 1999). To what extent do the observed differences reflect the
role of NCLB in limiting the autonomy of public school teachers? We can
address this question by examining pre-NCLB responses by teachers on the
SASS survey. If NCLB has affected teacher perceptions of influence and
control, we would expect to see declining autonomy among public school
teachers, but not among private school teachers.
Table 2 presents results from this comparison, drawing on a published
report for the 1993–1994 SASS, 10 years prior to the current survey.
Unfortunately, NCES changed the response categories for this question.
In 1993–1994 there were six response categories, with “no influence/control”
listed on the low end and “a great deal of influence” or “complete control”
on the high end. On the survey form, a two-headed arrow stretched between
these extremes, with no other labels on the intervening category boxes.
In 2003–2004 the survey was revised to indicate four specific categories: “no
influence/control,” “minor influence/control,” “moderate influence/control,”
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and “a great deal of influence/control.” Government researchers have com-

monly combined the two top categories on the six-point scale and called
them “a great deal of influence” (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 1997),
so as a first, crude approximation we will compare the two top categories
from the four-point scale of 1993–1994 to the top category of 2003–2004, and
refer to both as indicating “a great deal of influence/control,” recognizing that
the comparison is imprecise due to the change in response categories. With
that caution in mind, Table 2 exhibits much larger declines in perceptions of
influence and control from 1993–1994 to 2003–2004 among public school
teachers compared to private school teachers. Perhaps most strikingly, 60.5%
of public school teachers reported a great deal of control over classroom

TABLE 2. Change in Teacher Perceptions of Influence over School Policy and Control in
Their Classrooms, 1993–1994 to 2003–2004

Percentage reporting Ratio of public/ Percent change

“A great deal of private school in perceptions
influence” a teacher
Public Private Public Private

Policy Area 93–94 03–04 93–94 03–04 93–94 03–04

Curriculum 34.3 21.9 55.7 47.3 .62 .46 36.2% 15.1
Materials 55.5 30.8 67.9 52.0 .82 .59 44.5 23.4
Content 60.5 35.0 74.6 59.4 .81 .59 42.1 20.4
Techniques 86.4 70.2 91.6 82.9 .94 .85 18.8 9.5
Sources: For 1993–1994, U.S. Department of Education, 1997; for 2003–2004, author’s calculations from the
2003–2004 Schools and Staffing Survey, Public and Private School Teacher Questionnaire.
Response categories changed from a six-category, no influence/control to complete influence/control
scale in 1993–1994, to a four-category, no influence/control to a great deal of influence/control in 2003–
2004. Comparisons are for the top two categories in 1993–1994 (“a great deal of influence/complete
control”) to the top category in 2003–2004 (“a great deal of influence/control”). See text for question
58 Journal of Jewish Education

content in 1993–1994, but 10 years later, only 35% reported a great deal of
control. A decline also occurred among private school teachers, but it was
much smaller and at a higher level overall, from 74.6% to 59.4%. A similar
pattern characterizes the other areas of potential influence and control. The
temporal differences in public schools (Figure 3) can be compared to those
in private schools (Figure 4) for the question about influence.
Although increases in external accountability seem a likely source of
the differential changes over time, it is difficult to make this attribution with

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Curriculum Materials Content Techniques

FIGURE 3. Public school teachers reporting “a great deal of influence,” 1993–1994 and
2003–2004. (Source: For 1993–1994, U.S. Department of Education, 1997; for 2003–2004,
Author’s calculations from the 2003–2004 Schools and Staffing Survey, Public and Private
School Teacher Questionnaires.)

Curriculum Materials Content Techniques

FIGURE 4. Private school teachers reporting “a great deal of influence,” 1993–1994 and
2003–2004. (Source: For 1993–1994, U.S. Department of Education, 1997; for 2003–2004,
Author’s calculations from the 2003–2004 Schools and Staffing Survey, Public and Private
School Teacher Questionnaires.)
Reforming the Loosely Coupled System 59

confidence due to the changes in the questionnaire. Two additional calcula-

tions in Table 2 are intended to probe this issue further. First, we compare
the ratio of public/private school teacher responses in the two survey years.
This is an attempt to hold constant the questionnaire format while comparing
teacher responses over time. If external factors account for the differential
change, we should see a decline in the ratio of perceived control among
public as compared to private school teachers. The results are consistent
with this notion. For instance, in 1993–1994 the ratio of public to private
school teacher perceptions of a great deal of influence over school curriculum
policy was .62, but in 2003–2004 it was .46. In 1993–1994 the ratio for class-
room materials was .82, but in 2003–2004 it was .59. Results for content and
techniques also follow this pattern. Figure 5 portrays the different ratios,
displaying the decline over time in the ratio of public to private school
teacher-reported autonomy, suggestive of accountability policies that affect
public much more than private schools.
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Second, we examine the percentage changes in perceptions of a great

deal of influence or control among public and private school teachers.
For example, in 1993–1994, 55.5% of public school teachers reported a great
deal of control over classroom materials (column 1), but in 2003–2004 the
figure was 30.8% (column 2), a decline of 44.5% (column 7). The comparable
figures for private school figures are 67.9% in 1993–1994 and 57% in 2003–
2004, representing a considerably smaller decline of 23.4%. Results for other
areas of perceived influence and control show similar public/private differ-
ences, as displayed in Figure 6.
These comparisons suggest not only that private school teachers have
more autonomy than those in public schools, but that public school teacher

Pub/priv ratio
Curriculum Materials Content Techniques

FIGURE 5. Ratio of public to private school teacher reports of “a great deal of influence,”
1993–1994 and 2003–2004.(Source: For 1993–1994, U.S. Department of Education, 1997; for
2003–2004, Author’s calculations from the 2003–2004 Schools and Staffing Survey, Public and
Private School Teacher Questionnaires.)
60 Journal of Jewish Education

Curriculum Materials Content Techniques

FIGURE 6. Percentage changes in public and private school teacher reports of “a great deal of
influence,” 1993–1994 and 2003–2004. (Source: For 1993–1994, U.S. Department of Education,
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1997; for 2003–2004, Author’s calculations from the 2003–2004 Schools and Staffing Survey,
Public and Private School Teacher Questionnaires.)

autonomy has declined much more than that of private school teachers over
the last decade. A plausible interpretation of the results is that external
accountability measures have created these changes. Corroborating evidence
for this interpretation comes from a recent analysis of SASS surveys by
Phillips and Flashman (2007), who showed that teacher perceptions of
autonomy declined significantly in states that enacted accountability reforms
prior to NCLB, compared to states that did not enact such reforms in the
same time period. In short, while accountability reforms seem to have
broken through the loosely coupled system in public schools, it does not
seem to be the case for private schools.


Many observers of American education would see the findings on autonomy

in private schools as a positive result, arguing that private schools provide
more space for teachers to exercise professional judgment (e.g., Nichols &
Berliner, 2007). Yet this optimism may be misplaced, especially in Jewish
schools where day school teachers of Judaic subjectmatter tend to be
underprepared for their roles (Gamoran, Goldring, Goodman, Robinson, &
Tammivaara, 1994, Gamoran, Goldring, Robinson, Goodman, and
Tammivaara, 1998; Gamoran et al., 1999). If teachers lack professional prepa-
ration, relying on their judgment may be an ineffective strategy for day to day
practice, let alone an approach to reform. Moreover, reforms from the outside
may be prevented from having an impact if teachers are autonomous once
the classroom door is closed. Thus, loose coupling remains a formidable
barrier to school improvement in private schools, including Jewish schools.
Reforming the Loosely Coupled System 61

Since external accountability seems not to have penetrated the class-

rooms of private schools, those wishing to improve teaching and learning in
private schools must consider other means. Three other strategies may be
considered: marketplace incentives, school restructuring, and professional
learning. What do available theories and evidence indicate about these


In the United States, private schools generally receive no government funding,

and therefore must compete in the marketplace for students and funding.
Private schools are supported largely by tuition, although private school
sponsors often provide substantial subsidies. If public schools are improving
due to a new accountability regime, perhaps private schools must respond
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accordingly, even though they are not subject to the same regulations.
Arguments supporting private school choice emphasize both efficiency—
the marketplace is expected to encourage schools to use resources wisely—
and effectiveness—to compete with other private schools and public
schools, schools of choice are expected to select whatever strategies are
most likely to lead to positive outcomes, such as high levels of learning or
whatever it is that consumers value (e.g., Chubb & Moe, 1990).
Despite these provocative notions, the benefits of the educational
marketplace have been little manifested in practice. First, while Catholic
schools may produce higher achievement than public schools (e.g., Bryk,
Lee, & Holland, 1993; Coleman, Hoffer, & Kilgore, 1982; Morgan, 2001),
this does not seem to hold for other private schools once population
differences are taken into account (e.g., Gamoran, 1996). Moreover, recent
studies cast doubt on the achievement benefits of Catholic as well as other
private schools (Lubienski, Crane, & Lubienski, 2008). Second, the market-
place as a reform mechanism may be limited in areas such as education,
where perceptions may be more influential than substance in parental
choice. Recent studies of choice indicate that parents choose schools
where achievement is high, but only insofar as high achievement reflects
an advantaged student population, not as a result of the school’s distinctive
quality (Lauen, 2007). Other studies show that parents and students tend to
choose schools that are located nearby and whose demographic profile is
similar to that of the chooser, rather than basing choice on school effective-
ness (e.g., Hastings, Kane, & Staiger, 2005). For these reasons, school choice
and the mechanisms of the marketplace remain an unproven strategy for
education reform.
In the realm of Jewish education, whether or not to support public
vouchers for private schooling is a matter of long-standing debate (e.g., Ain,
2000; Religious Action Center, 2001). On the one hand, vouchers would
62 Journal of Jewish Education

make Jewish schools more accessible to families, particularly to those with

modest means. On the other hand, available evidence suggests that vouchers
would do little to improve the quality of Jewish schools, the marketplace
notwithstanding. Even if competition with public schools boosted the aca-
demic outputs of Jewish schools (a finding that would contradict available
evidence on non-Catholic private schools in general), there is no competition
with public schools in the arena of Judaic studies, a primary interest for
those who wish to improve Jewish schooling. Thus, vouchers would be
likely to boost the size but not the quality of the Jewish school sector.

School Restructuring
A second alternative strategy for school reform is restructuring. Recognizing
the importance of the organizational context of schools, a variety of
researchers during the 1990s explored the viability of restructuring as a
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way to leverage change in the classroom. The rationale behind this

approach was that by changing the structure of schools, through mecha-
nisms such as block scheduling, team teaching, detracking, class size
reduction, and so on, administrators could create new classroom condi-
tions that would lead teachers to improve their teaching and enhance their
students’ learning.
While promising in principle, research on restructuring indicated the
results did not work out as intended. Generally, changes in school structure
had little impact on classroom activities for exactly the reason identified in
the first part of this article: loose coupling. Once the classroom door was
closed, teachers were largely autonomous, so structural changes had little
impact on practice. Two major research projects reached similar conclu-
sions after in-depth study of school restructuring. Newmann and Associates
(1996) examined 24 highly restructured schools, seeking to identify struc-
tural “levers” that could elevate classroom performance of teachers and
students. What they concluded, however, was that restructuring in itself
had little impact on what they termed “authentic” teaching and learning, by
which they meant instruction and achievement that reflected in-depth,
disciplined inquiry of core academic concepts with relevance beyond the
classroom. What mattered far more than structure, the authors concluded,
was the intellectual quality of teachers’ and students’ work. Restructuring
made a difference only in the context of intellectual quality and professional
community, with a shared focus on student learning, collaboration, and
opportunities to examine, reflect on, and react to one another’s classroom
A similar conclusion was reached after intensive study of three restruc-
turing elementary schools: Despite substantial efforts at organizational
change, few effects were observed in classrooms. As Peterson, McCarthey,
and Elmore (1996) explained:
Reforming the Loosely Coupled System 63

Changing practice is primarily a problem of [teacher] learning, not a

problem of organization . . . . School structures can provide opportuni-
ties for the learning of new teaching practices and new strategies for
student learning but structures, by themselves, do not cause learning to
occur . . . . School structure follows from good practice not vice versa.
(p. 149)

To change teaching, these authors discovered, one must enable teachers to

learn. Rather than structure placing constraints on the classroom, structure
can enable teaching improvements if it is responsive to good practice.
In light of the substantially reduced autonomy of public school teachers,
it is possible that structural changes may exert more leverage on the class-
room than in the past. This cannot be said for private schools, however,
including Jewish schools, where teachers retain substantial control over
classroom materials and activities. Consequently, however things may have
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changed in public schools, restructuring does not seem to be a viable strategy

for private school improvement.

Professional Learning as a Reform Strategy

A major conclusion from studies of school restructuring is that teacher
change is responsive to teacher learning. Consequently, the professional
development of teachers deserves consideration as a potential mechanism
for improving teaching and learning. As Gamoran, Secada, and Marrett
(2000) argued, teacher professional development is a promising engine of
change because it has the best chance to penetrate the classroom despite
loose coupling. This conception of school reform is more dynamic than that
of the restructuring approach, and it suggests, as Peterson, Elmore, and
McCarthey (1996) noted, that in effective schools, structure is a response to
practice rather than a constraint on classroom activities. According to this
view, resources are required to promote professional learning. Among these
are material resources such as time, money, and curricular materials; human
resources such as the knowledge and commitments of teachers, and the
insights of outside experts who can contribute to teachers’ professional
growth; and social resources such as relations of trust and shared expecta-
tions among educators in a school (Gamoran et al., 2003).
Professional development as a reform strategy seems well suited to
Jewish schools, and indeed has been a major thrust of much recent work in
Jewish education (e.g., Commission on Jewish Education in North America,
1991; Holtz & Dorph, 2000; Holtz, Gamoran, Dorph, Goldring, & Robinson,
2000). While teachers often lack professional preparation, they tend to be
committed to Jewish education as a career, particularly day school teachers
(Gamoran et al., 1994, 1998). Consequently, professional development is
likely to have a long-term payoff. Indeed, as Gamoran et al. (2003) argued,
64 Journal of Jewish Education

investments in sustained, collaborative professional development do not

depreciate, as do investments in supplies and equipment; instead, they
generate new human and social resources, as teachers obtain new knowl-
edge and skills, and work out new strategies in collaboration with their
colleagues. Moreover, when teachers have substantial autonomy in the
classroom—as is evidently the case in Jewish schools and other private
schools—professional development is the approach that is most likely to
reach the classroom and consequently affect student learning.
While professional development is generally regarded as a promising strat-
egy for school improvement, it may be especially effective in the Jewish sector.
This is because poor preservice preparation is endemic in Jewish schools.
A study of three communities in the 1990s indicated that only 19% of teach-
ers in day, supplementary, and preschools had professional preparation in
both education and Jewish studies (Gamoran et al., 1998). Even in day
schools, only half the teachers were professionally prepared in education,
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and just half were prepared in Jewish studies at the professional or

collegiate level. Consequently, the need for increased training among teach-
ers in Jewish schools seems particularly great and given the low starting
point, its payoff may be especially large.
Conceptual considerations make this approach the most promising for
school improvement in the Jewish sector. Moreover, unlike school choice
and school restructuring, there is no contradictory evidence from research
on general education. Still, research that demonstrates the effectiveness of
professional learning as a reform strategy for Jewish schools is just beginning
to emerge (Feiman-Nemser, 2007; Holtz et al., 2000; Stodolsky & Dorph,
2003). Much more work will be needed to assess the impact of this strategy.


Data from a national survey of teachers clearly shows that private school
teachers perceive substantial autonomy in their schools, and particularly
within their own classrooms, compared to teachers in public schools.
On indicators of classroom control, responses of Jewish teachers mirror
those of other private school peers. On measures of perceived influence
over school policies, teachers in Jewish schools may be somewhat less
influential than those in other private schools, but they have more say than
those in public schools. While teacher autonomy has declined somewhat
over the last decade even in private schools, it has not declined nearly as
much as it has in public schools, so that the autonomy gap between public
and private school teachers has widened. Thus, private schools—including
those in the Jewish sector—remain a loosely coupled system.
How does one bring improvements in a context of loose coupling?
Recent research suggests that choice and restructuring are unlikely to
Reforming the Loosely Coupled System 65

improve quality. While vouchers may make Jewish schools more accessible,
they are unlikely to result in quality enhancements because most parents
choose schools on other grounds. Of course, schools must pass a basic
threshold of safety and order, but parents do not seem to focus on quality
beyond those essential considerations.
For these reasons, the professional learning of teachers seems to be the
most promising strategy for improvement. Although more research is
needed to document the effectiveness of this strategy, it is widely recog-
nized that teacher quality is the most important school-related factor in
determining outcomes for students (e.g., Rice, 2003). While teacher quality
could be improved by enhanced preservice as well as in-service preparation
of teachers, the need for better teacher quality for Jewish schools is too
great to be met through better preservice preparation, at least in the short
term (Gamoran et al., 1999). Consequently, professional development
seems to be the most practical option for improving Jewish schools, as well
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as the strategy that is most consistent with available evidence.

Teacher professional development may also be a key strategy for public
school improvement even in the current context of increased accountability
and decreased autonomy (Gamoran et al., 2003). Although NCLB has evi-
dently succeeded in creating new incentives for teaching improvement, its
specific strategies for promoting change (free tutoring, public school choice,
evidence-based practice, and raising the bar for teacher qualifications) have
been implemented so weakly and inconsistently that they have not led to
much actual improvement (Gamoran, 2007). Whether or not increased
accountability is necessary for improvement, it is clearly insufficient, as
teachers need opportunities to learn new strategies to enhance student
learning. Consequently, teacher professional development seems essential
for the public as well as the private sectors of U.S. education.


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