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In 1957, the U.S. was taken unawares. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik I and had turned on its head the notion that the Americans had the technological advantage. President Eisenhower did not wait long before declaring the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). But the Soviets did it again, and in 1961, they sent the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin. The U.S. was sent into another tizzy, and this time President Kennedy declared a revolution in technological education. The administration placed science at the top of the agenda, and within 10 years the U.S. had overtaken the Soviets, sending the first man - Neil Armstrong - to walk on the moon in 1969. Since then, the U.S. has been at the forefront of science and technology.

In the past two weeks, Israel has been dealt a similar blow. Its naive belief that its standard of education and teaching was high - because Jews the world over excelled at such things - was smashed in one fell swoop when international reports showed that Israel languishes in the bottom third in everything concerning studies in science, math, comprehension and reading. The surprise sent the Likud faction into proposing, according to David Levy, the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into the low achievements, and Shimon Peres called upon the Knesset to turn Israel into "the science state."

Let's make it clear that this is not a budgetary problem, as our expenditure on education is among the highest (relatively speaking) among the Western nations. The problem is one of management, of over-concentration, of not distinguishing between the excellent teacher and the lazy one, of an education system that specializes in mediocrity, that does not call for achievements, because whoever talks of striving for brilliance is not politically correct.

At last week's Caesarea Conference the Technion president said: "We are witnessing the decline of university acceptance standards, and in the future we expect to see an even further deterioration in math, physics and all the sciences."

With this in mind, it is noteworthy to draw one's attention to a place of learning that only a few know about. The School for Scientific Education is in Tel Aviv, and the high-school pupils study for chemistry and physics up to the 5-unit level. Nine of the 15 teachers hold doctorates, while the rest have master's degrees. The school is well cared for and aesthetically pleasing, with well-equipped laboratories. The teachers work 40 hours a week, half of these in front of the class, five days a week, at relatively high salaries - and all with commensurate results.

Do we have leaders with the greatness of Kennedy who can change the order of the day and make science the national priority? Whatever happens, the parliamentary panel, Shimon Peres and any other leader ought to visit this school first - and maybe they'll find a role model there.