Source: HaYidion – Fall 2015
Two years ago, our team at Rosov Consulting had an opportunity to evaluate the impact of Israel trips of 8th grade day school students. While working with Jack Wertheimer on behalf of the AVI CHAI Foundation on the Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day School project, we were approached by the Jewish Agency for Israel. The Agency recognized that many of the two thousand 8th grade students who were participating in the AVI CHAI study, and had already completed a student survey, would soon participate in school trips to Israel. They proposed a follow-up study with a sample of students after their return. This study would make it possible to explore a question that until then had not been researched: if and how middle-school students’ self-understanding and their connections to Israel are changed by participating in short-term educational programs in Israel. What we learned from the study of the participating schools can be useful to all schools that run such programs. Indeed, the study models what learning can be set in motion by evaluation work in general.
In total, 13 middle schools participated in the study: six affiliated with RAVSAK; four with the Solomon Schechter Network; three schools identified themselves as modern Orthodox. In total, 227 students responded to both pre- and post-trip surveys, equivalent to 86% of all of the students who participated on trips from these schools. The students were surveyed before their departure as part of the larger study of 95 schools, and then again between two and four weeks after their return to the United States. The students were asked many of the same questions on both occasions to see whether their attitudes and understanding had shifted as a result of their time in Israel. The trips in which they participated ran for between 10 and 23 days.
What We Learned
Taken together, our pre/post research design revealed that short, ten-day to three-week trips to Israel are related to important outcomes. In cognitive terms, the trips crystalized the ways in which young people thought about Israel and the world. They helped certain ideas about Israel fall into place. For example, there was an intensification in the students’ images of Israel as a “home away from home” and as “a place where teenagers have more freedom to do what they want.” More traditional ideas or spiritual images of Israel didn’t seem to shift. The students came to identify more strongly with ideas or attitudes they had not previously considered: for example, that Israel can be “a warm and friendly place.” And there were clearer and more consistent connections between their ideas about, for example, the meaning of Jewish peoplehood and their connection to the State of Israel.
The trips also influenced students’ affective relationships to Israel, especially for those who previously were not inclined to identify with Israel. The scale of the shift observed was moderate, but still surprisingly large given the brief length of time that participants spent in Israel.
The trips had a significant impact on some students’ understanding of contemporary Israel. Most strongly influenced were students’ thoughts about what it is like for people to live in the country, and especially what it’s like to be a teenager in Israel. In our experience, these personal themes are quite different from those, such as Israel’s place in Jewish history or in religious life, that are more heavily emphasized by day schools over the course of many years of Israel education. In this respect what students learned in Israel was quite different from what they learned about Israel in their classrooms.
Lastly, it seems that program time devoted to reflection and discussion were most closely correlated with the changes we observed. We should note that the participants themselves were not fully aware of these effects; they did not appreciate the impact of time spent in such discussions, especially when compared to the programs’ more dramatic components. Our pre/post analysis revealed that these elements were critical to the educational process.
For those schools that offer Israel trips to their students, these data provide important information to help school and trip leaders reflect on their effects. These data also help answer questions school leaders have about their curriculum. From our perspective this study is no less valuable for the questions it poses than for the answers it offers. We see this study as a strong example of how evaluation can stimulate profound questions about practice.