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Education Minister Gideon Saar was very excited last week. "The atmosphere in the system is changing, I can feel it," he said in an interview with TheMarker. "The messages we are putting across are being absorbed and leading to changes in the aims of the system."

What excited Saar so much was not the start of the school year or the solution that was eventually found to the crisis over the admission of pupils of Ethiopian origin to schools in Petah Tikva. Saar was excited when he read a press release issued by the ORT school system, a private network of technical high schools, about a plan to reward outstanding principals.

"Rewarding outstanding professionals, at all levels, is the right direction," Saar says. "We must encourage accomplishment, and that is not a dirty word. The accomplishments should be reflected in all the educational indices - achievements in studies and social and ethical achievments - and I have no doubt that this is the right direction."

No, this does not mean that Saar is planning to copy the ORT network's model in the general education system, and to reward outstanding principals and teachers. One can hear from the excitement in his voice that he would like to do so, but to the same extent it is clear to him that, under existing conditions, this would be a little too ambitious.

One cannot mistake Saar's personal ambitiousness. In the political system he is seen as one of the most promising Knesset members and is mentioned as a possible candidate for the race to the premiership in another term of two. There is a reason why the young MK, who had never been a minister before, received the important and onerous education portfolio.

But Saar, just like his political competitors, is aware that there is a big distance between promise and fulfillment. If he indeed wants to groom himself as a future candidate for the prime ministership, he must first garner credit for doing things and succeeding. This credit is conditional on the extent of his success as education minister.

With this in mind, Saar took on the position of education minister with all the energy and motivation he could muster. For years the job has not been filled by an individual so industrious and so determined to have an influence. On the way, Saar will encounter all the problems that for 30 consecutive years have been tripping up the Israeli educational system.

In view of your enthusiasm over the plan being put into effect by ORT can we expect you to consider applying similar ideas in state schools too?

Gideon Saar: "For the meantime, we are concentrating on giving incentives at the school level."

Saar does not say as much, but it is clear he believes that it would be extremely problematic to grant incentives to workers on an individual basis - rewarding teachers or principals for their success - in view of the reality of the collective labor agreement and the aggressive unions representing the teachers. Therefore the compromise would be the innovative incentives model thought up by the ministry's director general, Shimshon Shoshani, which gives awards to entire schools, rather than to individual staffers within them.

The plan is to build a system of indices with which to measure the functioning of the schools. These will include achievements in studies (eligibility for Bagrut, the high-school matriculation certificate, or success in both the Meitzav, which examine the performance and growth of elementary and junior high school pupils in their schools, and international tests). But social and values-based achievements would also be considered, such as success in keeping underprivileged pupils in school, participation in youth movements, volunteer work in the community, including a post-high school year of volunteer service, and the rate of conscription to the army (in the Jewish schools only).

The Education Ministry has not yet decided how the various parameters would be weighted. Saar reveals that there are still deep educational and administrative differences on this point, but two decisions have already been made.

The first is that each school will have its own index, which will be relative its own performance over the years rather than compare it to other schools. "If we compare between different schools, the weak schools will never have the chance to excel. This will widen the gap in favor of the strong schools in the center of the country. Therefore we prefer to examine every school against its own achievements. A school that shows a considerable improvement in its achievements over the years will be recognized as an outstanding school."

The second decision refers to the way in which a school deemed outstanding will be awarded - with a large cash bonus. One half of the bonus will go to the school's budget for improving its teaching methods system. The other half will be paid out in the form of bonuses to the salaries of all the school's workers, from the principal to the last of the secretaries, he says. However he stresses that there is not yet agreement on what the sums will be.

Another decision is to try and expose the schools to a kind of competition by opening up their registration, and by making public their achievements so that the parents will be able to make informed choices. An experiment of this kind has already been tried in Haifa, Petah Tikva and Netanya.

Will applying the reward system to the entire school suffice to raise the motivation of teachers and principals? The ministry has a few other tools for compensating individuals, but they are far more limited in nature. One of them was part of the recent Ofek Hadash reform plan, according to which educational workers at the highest levels (teachers and principals) will be advanced on the basis of an assessment of their performance. The arrangement in Ofek Hadash limited this opportunity to veteran teachers only and has not yet been implemented. One of the reasons is that the indices for establishing the differential advancement still remain to be fixed. Saar intends to complete the design of the indices of appraisal and to get the plan for advancement rolling in the near future.

"I looked at the ORT plan for rewarding outstanding principals and saw that they too chose indices that combine excellence in studies with values-based and social achievements. They also added the component of technological innovativeness, and I feel this is correct," he says. But still he is not prepared to copy the step forward taken by ORT - rewarding outstanding teachers with an annual bonus.

You will not hear one bad word about the teachers unions from Saar. Even though it is their stubbornness on the matter of collective work agreements that is responsible for the fact that it is not possible to imagine granting incentives in the state schools like those that ORT is introducing. Still, Saar prefers to work with the unions.

Treading water

You will also not hear one bad word from Saar about the most frustrating administrative problem he faces - the Education Ministry's administrative staff. Even though Saar knows that it is a ministry that has been treading water for many years, that has failed to supervise the teaching levels in the ultra-Orthodox school system, and that has not updated teaching curricula for decades.

The only change he has made in the running of the ministry so far is to bring back new-old director general Shimshon Shoshani, who is considered one of the most experienced directors in the Israeli school system.

Is the education ministry not an administrative failure?

Saar: "Those are slogans. Some 90 percent of the budget goes to salaries, with only 10 percent of being discretionary for innovations and changes, and there is nothing that can be done about that. Out of this, the employees in the ministry take 1.5 percent of the budget, after the serious efficiecny measures that have been undertaken. The ministry staff was reduced from 2,100 to 1,700 workers, and the ministry underwent serious budget cuts."

Now you sound just like all the previous education ministers: the only thing wrong with the educational system is its budgets, and the treasury is guilty of everything.

"The thought that it is possible to improve education in Israel without investing budgetary resources is an illusion, but that does not mean there are no systemic problems."

The main problem Saar sees is the many divisions in the system. The proportion that the state schools make up is decreasing in size all the time, while the number of partially private schools (schools that are recognized but not official) is constantly growing, because there is political surrender to the ultra-Orthodox streams. But this is only one of many built-in problems. Others include, as noted, the teachers unions, an inert staff that has not introduced changes in the ministry, and too few tools to improve the administrative functioning of school principals.

Beyond the idea of advancement in rank, the ministry has no other means for providing incentives to principals, a significant weakness in the administration of the education system. Instead, the ministry, with the assistance of the Rothschild Foundation, invests effort in offering principals continuing-education programs in administration. Additionally, it will provide assistance to weaker principals, who will be helped to improve their work by outstanding principals. At the same time, however, Saar believes in one thing more than any other: the quality of the individuals who are chosen for the position of principal. Improving that will require a certain amount of flexibility on the part of the teachers unions, so that outside principals can be chosen.

The ministry is also trying to increase a principal's administrative tools. Since teachers cannot be rewarded on a personal basis, except for the little that Ofek Hadash permits, Saar is planning to give principals other powers to compensate for this. One of these would be the critical privilege of being able to fire teachers who fail at their jobs. A circular that is being put out now will make the dismissals much simpler. In fact, until now this has been merely a theoretical possibility, since the actual process is so long and complex. Saar and Shoshani now hope this will be an effective tool.

Another tool is the evaluation process that new teachers undergo after two years of teaching experience, and before they get tenure. This will be an additional hurdle to pass, after the tightening of a number of standards, including raised admissions requirements at the teachers colleges, increasing the number of teachers who have master's degrees, and other attempts to bring higher-quality personnel into the schools. The latter include several innovative programs for the retraining - in the wake of the economic crisis - of 500 university graduates (mainly with high-tech training) to teach science and mathematics in the junior high schools. Each of them will be offered a personal contract for three years, "and I hope that at least some of them will turn teaching into their mission," says Saar. A similar project has been initiated, with the goal of enlisting 500 new English teachers.

There is also a plan, in conjunction with the Joint Distribution Committee, to offer grants to outstanding university students who are prepared to go into teaching. The education system is also enlisting mature public figures, such as retired senior army officers and business people, to volunteer as teachers.

All of this is fine and dandy, but one can't improve the status of the teachers by having reserve officers to volunteer to teach. Is there a way to improve the quality of Israel's teachers?

"Part of what we have to do is to use the feeling that already exists among the public, I believe, that education is our future and that people should be going into teaching. But this can't be done if we don't make the profession more attractive. One of the things that puts off good teachers is the problem of violence and lack of discipline. We have given instructions for dealing with this that will make it possible to take more stringent action against offending pupils. At the same time, of course, teachers salaries must be dealt with."