Navigating the Middle East Conflict and Assessing Mission Success

The Hamas-Israel war has reignited tensions not only in the Middle East but around the world. School leaders are among those faced with demands that they take a public stance on the conflict while others oppose the idea. People are watching schools closely, and any perceived bias can lead to charges of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or both. 

As with any challenge to the value and integrity of schools, this is an opportunity to reaffirm our core commitments as educators. History has left humanity with a terrible dilemma: two groups of people, each with strong claims over the same territory. We are all heirs of that historical legacy, and it seems likely that this conflict will exist in some form throughout the lives of our students. Our job is not only to prepare the next generation for this ongoing conflict but also, in the spirit of the unquenchable optimism that lives in every educator, to give students the tools they need in order to be the ones who find a just solution.

What exactly are a school’s responsibilities to students? First and foremost, schools must preserve for students a sense of safety and security, both physical and emotional. Beyond that, teaching about the Middle East is part of the educational mission of schools. This means schools must help students develop a strong fact base on the topic. They must help students place those facts in an ethical framework. And they must support students in applying their critical thinking skills to evaluating proposed courses of action.  

Schools that are able to fulfill these responsibilities can develop a strong response to critics. More importantly, by giving students a sense of safety, by providing them with historical awareness and an ethical framework, and by encouraging open and critical dialogue, a school is fulfilling its responsibilities in the strongest sense of preparing the next generation to be knowledgeable and empathetic observers, commentators, and leaders.

“[Schools] must help students place those facts in an ethical framework. And they must support students in applying their critical thinking skills to evaluating proposed courses of action.”

Tom Rochon, ERB President

In reflecting on these challenges, ERB created a series of survey questions intended to gauge student perceptions of how the Middle East conflict has been handled within their school. These questions address school success with respect to the fact base, the ethical framework, and the ability to critically analyze information in order to develop an informed perspective. There is also a question about the tenor of discussions within the school—discussions that should be rooted in mutual respect and that enable every student to state their views without being made to feel uncomfortable.

Here are our questions, each designed to be answered on a 1-5 scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”:

  1. I have the information I need to understand the history of the Middle East conflict.
  2. I learned about the human rights issues of the Middle East conflict in a fair way.
  3. My school is a place for balanced discussions of the Middle East conflict.
  4. I can analyze information to develop my own views on the Middle East conflict.
  5. I feel comfortable talking about the Middle East conflict in school.

We offer these questions for school leaders to use or adapt as they see fit. Taken collectively, they provide teachers and administrators with valuable information on the school’s success in helping students navigate this complex and sensitive topic.

If school leaders would like external support in administering these questions and compiling the data, ERB can help. These questions can be added to our Check-In Survey, with the results available in ERB’s data portal, 360 Access. The Check-In Survey is a 15-question, 5-minute online survey of a student’s emotional well-being, academic engagement, and perceptions of belonging in the school community. It is designed for students in Grades 3-8 and can be administered at any time and as often as a school wishes during a school year (for a single fee).

A school can add questions to the Check-In Survey on any mission-related topic of its choice. If enough schools use the questions on the Middle East conflict listed above, we will aggregate the results to prepare a research paper documenting school success in addressing this subject.

The territory of Israel and Palestine has long played a prominent role in human history. It is incumbent on educators to help students understand that history and to navigate the contemporary conflicts that stem from it. Assessing student perceptions in this area can help teachers and administrators direct their efforts effectively—and still the voices of critics.

About the Author

Thomas R. Rochon became president of ERB in 2017. He has held faculty appointments at Princeton University and Claremont Graduate University, a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, and a year as Fulbright Scholar in Japan. Administratively, Tom has served as dean and provost at Claremont Graduate University, as provost at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and as president of Ithaca College in New York. During the 1980s and 1990s, he was a regular speaker on European political trends for foreign service officers in the U.S. Department of State. Within the world of educational assessment, Tom has served as executive director of the GRE testing program at the Educational Testing Service. 

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