"We're in trouble," asserted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he spoke about the state of the education system in Israel last December. At least on this issue, there is no argument. Following the start of another school year, let's take time to reflect on where we are.
Perhaps now more than ever, the heads of government and the education system responsible for decades of decline should reflect on the poor quality of teaching, the sparse achievements in education, the difficulties students face in integrating into the workforce, the lack of investment in research and development on the academic level, the brain drain, and, more than anything else, the blows taken by the main resource leaders love to talk to about – human capital.
If you don't want to be eaten up by concern over Israel's future, it may be best that you don't read this article. The picture arising from the trends characteristic of Israel's education system in the past decade, from nursery schools all the way through to higher education, is very concerning. And yet, there is a sense that all is not lost; it's still not too late, and the shortcomings can still be rectified.
The danger, according to teaching and education experts, is that should the Israel's leaders fail to come to their senses quickly and instate a true education revolution in Israel, the implications could be disastrous. Netanyahu made promises, and the recently declared reform in higher education is perhaps the harbinger of change.
Times changing, education isn't
One issue that experts deem as having existential implications is related to the changing demographics in Israel. A report recently put together by Nachum Blass from the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies found that between 2000 and 2009, there was a 47.5% growth in the number of children enlisted in haredi nursery schools and kindergarten. A similar trend was witnessed in the Arab sector with a jump of 54%. The two sectors together currently make up about half of all nursery school children in Israel. In the same time period, there was a mere 2.4% growth in public education system.
According to Blass, the main reason for this increase is the instatement of a law obligating children aged 3 and 4 to be placed in an educational framework, as well as increased awareness within haredi and Arab society regarding the importance of education at a young age.
No core subjects. Gaps growing (Photo: Baruch Leibovich)
Education experts are generally satisfied with the level of integration into the education system. However, a look into the future reveals a real threat to the economy. According to them, the poor level of teaching in Arab education and the lack of core studies in haredi education are liable to create serious illiteracy problems within Israeli society, making it increasingly difficult for Arab and haredi children to integrate into the workforce, and thus becoming, by no fault of their own, a burden on the economy.
"There is no problem with demographic growth and the expansion of sectors in the population. The problem is in the perception of the State of Israel as a country founded on the values of education and culture and the basic knowledge expected of every citizen," says Prof. Ofra Mayseless, the dean of the Education Faculty at the University of Haifa and chairwoman of the Forum of School Leaders for Education in Israel.
According to Mayseless, there is significant concern that the country will lose its identity and uniformity in the near future. A third of students are enrolled in the national public education system, a third in the haredi education system, and a third in the Arab education system.
"The biggest failure of the education system, in my eyes, is the willingness to grant autonomy to the various sectors over the years regarding the curriculum and methods of instruction. There is no doubt that once a large group within the population does not learn the core curriculum subjects and does not obtain basic skills and knowledge, a serious social problem is created.
"If we soon reach a situation where just 30-40% of the children in Israel are familiar with the sciences, English, and reading in Hebrew, this will have far-reaching implications on the existence of the country," she said.
Prof. Anat Zohar from Hebrew University's School of Education, who previously served as the chairwoman of the pedagogical secretariat of the Education Ministry, makes a distinction between the Arab education system, which operates according to the Education Ministry's curriculum, and the haredi education system, parts of which don't teach core subjects.
"The struggle is over the spirit of Israeli society in light of the frightening fact that in the near future a significant portion of citizens will not have the economic and social skills required for the existence of an advanced country," Zohar says.
Regarding the Arab education system, Prof. Zohar says a large gap has been created over the years between Arab and Jewish education that will be very difficult to close.
"Research studies have proven that there is a connection between socio-economic status and academic achievements. Therefore, the country must come to its senses and invest more in the development of Arab towns and Arab education," she said.
However, the Education Ministry claims its hands are tied by the law exempting haredi education institutions from core studies.
"For the future, we will be obligated to act with moderation and forbearance in order to convince as many students as possible from the haredi sector to study core subjects, so that they can integrate into society, and even higher education," says long-time Education Ministry Director-General Shimshon Shoshani.
Regarding the Arab sector, Shoshani says that there was a 2% increase in academic achievements by Arab students in the past year. "The Education Ministry prepared a five-year plan to close the gaps and raise the number of students eligible for high school matriculation," he noted.
Even those who learn the basics, like English, math, and science, do not reach a sufficient level of knowledge. Another worrisome trend in the education system is the declining quality of instruction, prompting students seek private lessons outside the school system.
A report published by the Knesset Research and Information Center on poverty and scholastic achievements includes a survey indicating that 30% of Jewish students in elementary school require private tutors. Not surprisingly, notable gaps were also found between students from financially stable towns and students from the periphery in terms of access to private tutoring services.
These figures are in line with data presented in a reported titled 'Israel's Education System – An International Perspective, authored by Taub Center Executive Director Prof. Dan Ben-David. According to the report, some 48% of middle school students have less than two weekly hours of science classes. Thirty-four percent learn less than two weekly hours of reading, and 20% make do with less than two hours a week of math.
The report says the significance of this is that about 38% of Israel's students must make up at least four hours of math studies outside school. The average figure for OECD countries, which Israel was so proud to have recently joined, is only 15%.
Prof. Ben-David explained that the figures highlight the irony in comparing Israel's education system to the average OECD education systems, where students receive fewer hours of instruction while their scholastic achievements are far better.
"There are many parents today who have grown exasperated with the education system which, according to them, doesn't deliver the goods. Therefore, they are searching for alternative solutions," Ben-David said, noting that only educated parents who understand this, largely people with means, can afford private tutors for their children. Thus, the gap between the periphery and the rest of the country widens.
"We seemingly have it all when it comes to knowledge and capabilities. However, unfortunately, there are obstacles blocking the transfer of knowledge to Israel's children," Ben-David says. "I am not familiar with any other country in the world with such a gap."
"The inclination towards private lessons stems mainly from the fact that teachers have a hard time teaching, and, in practice, a large part of class time is dedicated to addressing disciplinary problems and not to teaching," Prof. Mayseless says.
This, she says, has prompted teachers to forego responsibility for their students' knowledge and education. "In light of these difficulties, many of the teachers in Israel have lost their joy of teaching. They dedicate less of themselves to the student. Instead of the education system focusing on increasing students' curiosity and motivation to learn, there is a growing tendency for students to study and memorize the material only for the exam, and not to enrich their knowledge," she says.
Meanwhile, the Education Ministry's director-general pointed out that Israel has the highest rate of high school matriculations among OECD nations.
"The Israeli education system operates in an equal fashion and prevents dropouts even amongst weak students. We are the country with the highest number of school hours out of the OECD countries. We hope that via a strategic effort, we will also be able to improve the quality of education, the teaching and learning process, and hope to see results of this on the next round of standardized tests," he said.
The trouble with our teachers
Reports on school efficiency and growth indicators from 2009 reveal more worrisome data. Some 32% of students between seventh and ninth grades reported generally negative feelings towards school. Only 40% reported feeling closeness and empathy with their teachers.
In addition, a memorandum put together just last week by Dr. Ruth Kalinov from Hebrew University at the behest of the Education Ministry revealed that the starting salary for a beginning teacher in Israel is about $18,000, while this figure is nearly doubled on average in other OECD countries.
Chairman of the School Principals' Association Dr. Arieh Locker claimed that there is a direct connection between teachers' salary and the desire of university and college graduates to integrate into the education system.
"About 25 years ago, when I became a school principal, a teacher's salary was relatively reasonable in comparison with the average salary. Therefore, the selection of teachers was higher, and a principal could choose the most talented and fitting candidates," he says. "In recent years, following wage erosion and a decline in the image of teaching, we have naturally been forced to make do with what is available and accept teachers for the job who don't always meet the desired criteria."
On this matter, the Education Ministry emphasized that "according to the 'New Horizon' agreement, teaching salaries will rise by 26% between 2009 and 2011."
Dr. Locker says the main failure of the education system lies in the budget cuts made over the years in professional and technological education, which have essentially forced students to choose theoretical study tracks.
"In my experience, at least half of the students have natural technical skills and don't connect with theoretical studies. The problem is that instead of allowing them to realize their technological potential as is done in many countries in the West, they don't connect with the curriculum and suffer from severe feelings of bitterness and frustration," he says.
Academia's declining prestige
In the stage after primary and secondary school, an entire academic world is found on a downward decline. Even though many colleges have opened in the past decade making higher education more accessible to the broader public, international reports indicate that Israeli universities are losing their prestige.
According to former Education Minister Yossi Sarid, the fact that a first degree is accessible to so many people has cheapened the degree, which has lost some of its weight and value. "
There is no doubt that the level of academic degrees is not what it used to be," he says. "Students who were mediocre throughout school will not suddenly become gifted in a higher education setting. The result is that professors are complaining that the students in higher education institutions are of much lesser quality than it used to be."
Another report published by Prof. Ben-David presents troublesome figures regarding a phenomenon that has already become cliché – brain drain.
The impetus for Israeli academics to seek positions outside of Israel is the lack of investment in research and development in Israel's universities.
According to Ben-David, the number of academic faculty grew impressively following the state's establishment, and continued to do so until the mid-1970s. Ever since, there has been a steep decline in academic research budgets.
"It is hard to believe, but there are 20% fewer academic positions at Tel Aviv University today than there were in the '70s," he says. "The rush to foreign academic institutions has led to a total collapse of the institutions in Israel. In the field of economics, for instance, we excelled with two Nobel Prize laureates. Today, there is a serious lack of instructors. About 16% of the young economics faculty members in the best US universities are Israeli."
Open University President Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, formerly the chief scientist of the Science Ministry, says the lack of research budget has led universities to find creative solutions that are detrimental to academia.
"There are fields where the equipment necessary for research is very expensive...In light of this, universities are forced to recruit donations, and, left with no option, to forego research in fields such as the humanities and social sciences," Messer-Yaron says, adding that the situation will worsen if something is not done.
The Council for Higher Education responded by saying: "A multi-year plan has recently been presented that provides a comprehensive response to a range of issues, including brain drain and eroded budget and funds for research."
After years of promises, we are left only to hope that this new school year will indeed bring improved prospects for our education system.
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