Educating the Education System

Everyone knows that the education system in Israel wastes money and is inefficient. It is not even managed; the teachers' associations are the ones who decide.

One person has already benefited from this: Haim Hecht. He is leading the publicity campaign of the Secondary School Teachers' Association: "Cheap education cost us a bundle." The timing is not coincidental. Because right now, quietly, the biggest struggle of the year is taking place: the new teachers' wage agreement.

It is, therefore, easy to understand the extensive publicity campaign of the teachers. They want to score public opinion points - and that is the positive side of things. On the other hand, they are raising a very large, menacing stick of one more strike, this time for two hours, closing all high-school classes. Thus, they are signaling to the prime minister that it is not a good idea to mess with them, because they are in charge of education. The teachers' associations emphasize the low wages teachers receive, and this is true. Their pay needs adjustment, but it is only one symptom of what ails the education system.

Many committees tried to heal the system. The most recent one was the Dovrat Committee, which recommended important reforms, but the teachers fought against former Education Minister Limor Livnat and succeeded in sinking the reforms. The current minister, Yuli Tamir, who had supported the reforms as a member of the Knesset Education Committee, rushed to adopt the stance of the teachers' associations when she assumed office. From a political point of view, it is easier, and on the personal level, less risky.

But the education system cries out for drastic reform. Because the achievements of pupils in Israel are low, and dropping, in all fields. The gaps between rich and poor are growing, and the core curriculum is not being implemented in the Haredi education system. Fifty percent of first-graders are ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs and Bedouin, and the education system is not providing them the basic tools that will prepare them for modern working lives - and this portends ill for Israeli society.

However, Tamir is focusing her efforts on the education budget. Every time complaints about the education system are raised, Tamir argues that it all stems from a lack of funding. If she could only get several additional billions for the Education Ministry budget, she says, it would be possible to fix the system.

That is the perfect alibi. Because no one intends (or is able) to increase the education budget. Furthermore, international comparisons show that if we calculate correctly - and take into account per capita income here (which reflects standard of living), it turns out the investment in education in Israel is above the average spent by developed, industrialized states, members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Everyone knows that the education system in Israel wastes money and is inefficient. It is not even managed; the teachers' associations are the ones who decide. They do not allow school principals flexibility in hiring staff. A former education minister, Professor Amnon Rubinstein, said that only after endless fights did he manage to have one teacher fired, out of 120,000. The teachers' associations are also preventing any flexibility in wages. They refuse to allow a more dedicated teacher to be paid better.

The big budgets are not directed toward the wages of the teachers, but to other ends. As a result of the way in which funding is carried out in the education system, smaller schools are established, with higher costs. There are many colleges for teachers, and some are superfluous. There are seven education districts in the country that need to be closed; there are 700 unnecessary inspectors; and there are several layers of management, at the ministry, in the municipalities, in the districts and the schools, that are also not needed.

In other words, it is possible and necessary to carry out a revolution in both content and in the level of the teachers. It is possible and necessary to streamline the system, and the funds that will be saved can be used to raise teachers' wages. This requires a direct confrontation with the teachers' associations, and Tamir will not do it. The expectations that accompanied her entry into the office were great, and so is the disappointment.

The reform proposal of Dr. Shimshon Shoshani and Professor Uzi Arad will be presented at next week's Herzliya Conference. One of the aims of the reform is to increase the number of those receiving matriculation certificates - a worthy end however one looks at it. But, in the cynical reality that exists in Israel, that goal is already being achieved in various ways.

As education minister, Rubinstein invented the "lottery system," which lowered the number of required matriculation exams and improved the statistics. Zevulun Orlev cut by a third the material necessary for study through the "focus" system. Livnat contributed the offer of "two exam dates" for math and English. In recent years the rules have become looser, and exam time has been extended for the many who have suddenly become learning disabled. The choice of subjects has also broadened, and it is now possible to have a matriculation exam in equestrianism.

Now, Education Minister Tamir is proposing open-book matriculation exams, and has recently authorized special considerations for youth from Sderot and communities near the Gaza Strip who are planning to take the exams. This way more teens will pass their matriculation exams, but the level of education will continue to decline.