by Kim Silverton, for the Huffington Post

What skills do you expect your child to know by the end of 1st grade? Reading comprehension? Basic spelling? In the world of religious Jewish education, these are relatively new questions.

One organization, the Crown Heights-based Menachem Education Foundation, set out to find answers. The resulting initiative — the Data Driven Instruction program, which was launched in September and is currently implemented in first and second grades in four Orthodox Jewish schools in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh — is catching on.

Inspired by Norman Atkins, co-founder and CEO of Teacher U, the Menachem Education Foundation created their Data Driven Instruction program (DDI) which emphasizes student learning. Frequent tests and periodical assessments are used to gather data and ensure students are absorbing the class material. “Why are we focusing on a program for Judaic studies?” asked Rabbi Zalman Shneur, executive director and founder of the Menachem Education Foundation. “The reality is in Orthodox Jewish schools, Judaic studies are the primary focus and so many skills can be utilized from Judaic studies that are crucial to children’s success: critical thinking, analysis, creativity. Also, there are so many organizations to improve general studies, but few for Judaic studies, until now.”

“DDI is not changing what children are being taught, but it is hopefully changing the outcome,” said Rabbi Menachem Greenbaum, principal of Cheder Menachem in Los Angeles where DDI is currently operating. “These skills always existed and teachers always taught them. But before we were focusing on what was being taught as opposed to what was being learned.”

DDI offers oral and written assessment tests every six weeks and data analysis based on those tests. This data gives a lot of insight into how well students are learning, said Greenbaum. Teachers can then see which skills are not being mastered by individual students or the class as a whole.

Prior to the school year, skill standards are created for each grade. According to Chani Altein, first grade teacher at Girls’ Yeshiva School of Pittsburgh, much of these skills were already being taught to her class. But some skills were new. “It never even occurred to me to introduce them because I didn’t think the girls were ready,” Altein said. “But with enough practice and explanation they really got it. It’s nice to see how much can be accomplished with standards.”

DDI allows for different classes to operate at different paces. According to Greenbaum, one of his two first grade classes mastered the material and one needed more time and practice. With individual assessments, teachers can see which students need additional assistance before they move on to the next topic. “One first grader was having a harder time,” he said. “It was brought to light. Chances are without this program, he would go until third or fourth grade without people realizing.”

Based on the assessments and data analysis, teachers create action plans to reteach weak areas, but the data is not limited to each individual school in the program. MEF has formed a network between numerous schools, said Rabbi Yosef Rosenblum, Principal of the Boys’ Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh and Director of DDI. The five teachers participating in the program send Rosenblum data from their school’s assessments which can be used to create future teaching plans.

“When Rabbi Greenbaum told me about it (DDI), it just made so much sense,” said Rabbi Shneur Munitz, first grade teacher at Cheder Menachem. “Before the school year even started, we sat for hours. We mapped out the skills we expect first graders to come out of first grade with. We named them. It was such an eye-opener for me.” All schools using DDI, plan to extend it to their upper grades. Munitz marveled that parents and teachers will soon know exactly where their kids are holding.

“Everybody is benefitting from it – teachers and students,” said Fradel Bukiet, principal of Bais Chaya Mushka School in Los Angeles. Bukiet described the student perspective of DDI’s assessment tests. “Students don’t realize anything is different. They don’t even know it’s a test. It’s for our assessment. Students don’t need any pressure, just a worksheet they do in class. But I benefit because I can see what exactly they’re learning and how well they’re doing.”

“Before DDI, we were lacking a certain amount of focus,” said Rosenblum. “Like a GPS that guides us to our destination. If we don’t have a clear destination, then we don’t assess what children are really learning.” Understanding the need for improvement in Jewish education, Shneur formed a group for men’s educational leadership in New York which included both Rosenblum and Greenbaum. A similar leadership program exists for women both programs are led by the New York City Leadership Academy. The group concluded that Jewish education lacked standards and to create and maintain such standards, data needed to be collected and from this came the idea for DDI.

Other schools are following the educational initiative, Rosenblum said. And they’re realizing this is the way to go.

“It’s definitely hard work, but it’s worth it,” said Munitz. “In the end any teacher is in the business not because it’s a business, but so the children can gain the most out of their learning experience.”