Text size
related tags

Lotte, Andre's wife, visited Israel this week and naturally took a great interest in the teachers' strike. Andre is a teacher in Sweden, a model for social-democratic economics, so she understands what the teachers in Israel are going through.

Sweden's education system underwent a thorough reform a decade ago. Responsibility for the schools passed from the government to the local authorities. The teachers' employment terms also changed: their working week was extended in exchange for more pay.

Andre's working week is 45 hours, of which ten are by "trust," meaning, hours that teachers are supposed to work at home unsupervised. Teachers spend the other 35 hours at the school. This is what the Israeli government is proposing for its teachers.

Out of those 35 hours, 18 are spent teaching. A lesson in Sweden is 40 minutes, which means that Andre teaches 27 lessons a week. In Israel, lessons are 45 minutes, and today, grade school teachers provide 26 lessons a week. High school teachers in Israel average 18 lessons a week and attempts to raise that figure to 21, through negotiations with the teachers, have proved fruitless.

The Swedish also changed how teachers' pay is calculated. Pay doesn't depend only on seniority and education, but on performance, too, which depends on the principal's evaluation. For instance, when a shortage of math teachers develops in Sweden, young math teachers are offered higher salaries than veteran teachers of other subjects. Lotte says veteran teachers hated that. Note that over here, the proposal to link teachers' pay to performance was exactly the idea adopted for grade schools, and it is the proposal that the high-school teachers' organization has rejected in horror.

Following the reform, Andre's salary is now identical to the average in Sweden's public service, but it is 9 percent below the private-sector norm. Wages at Sweden's high schools are 10 percent above the public sector average, and are almost identical to the private-sector norm.

At this point, comparisons to Israel become tricky, because here, paradoxically, public-sector pay is much higher than private-sector. Israeli high school teachers receive roughly the average public-sector wage, and under the treasury's proposals, they would be getting about 25 percent more than the average wage (but still 20 percent below the average wage in the public sector).

A decade after the reform, Lotte says the teachers are disappointed that their pay has not risen enough to compensate for the added hours. Also, they feel they don't have enough hours at school to get everything done. Structural changes aren't simple, it turns out, even in chilly Sweden.

Certainly here in hot Israel, reforms aren't a walk in the park, and they can't begin and end with raises. In 1994 Israel made the mistake of confusing "reform" with "raise" and gave the teachers 19 to 30 percent more. In the end, the raises were swallowed up in a wave of public-sector raises (and inflation), which failed to improve the status of teachers, or the condition of the education system.

Teachers' status in Israel today is low because of the low pay, but that isn't the only reason. It's also because of the mediocre - or worse - quality of the manpower that chooses teaching as a profession. There is no distinction between bad teachers and good ones, and the education system as a whole exhibits a low level of achievement. The vicious cycle of low pay, poor manpower, and low achievement feeds itself. The way to break it is through raises, but also by giving teachers the tools to improve performance.

In other words, a distinction must be made between good and bad teachers, as is done in Sweden. Classes should be made smaller. These are crucial steps to improving performance and attracting a better quality staff. But to achieve both, the teachers must compromise. They must agree to some flexibility and they have to agree to teach more hours. That is the main way that class size in Israel can be reduced.