'The System Is Constantly Attacked Unjustifiably'

Just a short while before leaving the government for the opposition, Education Minister Yuli Tamir appears more relaxed than usual. Last week, she openly criticized the effects of reality TV, saying it "poses a great danger to our values by creating a distorted image of reality in the eyes of children and youths." A month ago, during a closed debate on the Ofek Hadash reforms to school programming and bagrut matriculation examinations, Tamir allowed herself to burst out laughing - one of the participants of the debate had said it would take another three or four years before high-school students would begin to feel the results of a process that began a year and a half ago.

The Ofek Hadash reforms are meant to improve the wages of teachers and quality of students' education by changing employment conditions and the current structure of the studies.

Tamir, like education ministers before her, knows that changes to the system require a great deal of patience until their true impact is felt. She also knows that, contrary to the slow nature of education reform, the public seeks immediate results - in students' achievements, the level of violence at schools and professional status of teachers. In the face of such an enormous gap, sometimes there is nothing to do but laugh.

Tamir says: "When they asked me how much time it would take for the effects of Ofek Hadash to be felt, I said I didn't know but it would take time. I told the ministry staff they should not stop working for a moment but also that I didn't have a stop-watch. But no one has the patience or the understanding for these processes. There is tremendous impatience to see results."

That is not the only obstacle that Tamir encountered during the two years and nine months, in which she served as education minister on behalf of the Labor Party. She says the courts make it difficult for reforms to be implemented - they make decisions about education without being familiar with the complexity of the system. Tamir takes to task the High Court of Justice's decision to make funding Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] schools conditional on their acceptance of the "core" public-school program.

"If we fight to make everyone study that program, the Haredi world will merely close up even more," she says about the logic behind her attempt to reach a compromise with the heads of the religious school system, a move which drew strong criticism. "The High Court on this matter adopted a binary rather than procedural approach. But what can we do if we live in a society where if there are improvements at all, they are always gradual? I don't belong to the group of people who believe we have to declare war on the Haredi issue. A struggle of that kind, which merely creates further hostility, is a critical mistake, and it could lead to the disintegration of Israeli society."

The harsh words about the core program are part of a broader problem that Tamir calls "education populism." She says: "Everyone feels that he can write or say amazingly dumb things. Anything goes. The ideas of a professor of education who has examined the issue, done the research and reached conclusions have the same weight as those uttered by the mother of a pupil. I, who have been engaged in education for 20 years already, seldom talk with any certainty. On the other hand, the less people understand, the more decisive they are. The result is that the education system is constantly unjustifiably attacked."

Tamir says the "education populism" was expressed in the wide support Ran Erez, the head of the Secondary-School Teachers Association, drew for his public campaign against Tamir during the high-school teachers strike a year and a half ago.

"Knesset members go onto the dais in the plenum and promise teachers a wage increment of 100 percent without even asking for an additional hour of work. These are crazy claims, not only under the present economic conditions, but even before the economic crisis broke out. I stood up against the teachers and said that whoever made them these kinds of promises was cheating them. But the simple teacher who gets a low wage and hears these promises is convinced we are trying to do him harm."

Erez is depicted as a bitter rival of Tamir, unlike Yossi Wasserman, the chairman of the Teachers Union, who cooperated with the Education Ministry to implement the Ofek Hadash reforms. But the start of their relationship seemed more promising. Following Limor Livnat's stormy period as education minister and the struggle over the Dovrat Commission's report, the teachers unions welcomed Tamir with open arms. But the decision of Tamir and the heads of the treasury to separate the negotiations between the two unions and to sign with only one of them, led to an inevitable clash. A few months ago, the confrontation between Tamir and Erez also became personal.

"Erez succeeded in preventing any kind of change and today, with the publication of the advertisements in the newspapers greeting Netanyahu on his appointment, I believe he refused to reach an agreement with me for political reasons," she says.

Tamir says that her proposal to reform the senior classes, details of which she reveals here for the first time, was received coldly by Erez. According to that plan, teachers would receive a 26-percent wage hike to work longer hours, but the change would be gradual and would distinguish between a teacher who taught regular hours and those who offered additional instruction for final projects or to small groups of students. The proposal includes hiring teachers with doctoral degrees to teach the upper grades while continuing to work in higher-education research. However, Tamir says: "I didn't get the opportunity from the Secondary-School Teachers Association to push the idea forward. Erez has no intention of agreeing to the reform because every move of that kind must include new definitions of the work week, the way wages are paid and the means of teaching, and for that one needs courage."

Sources in the teachers association said in response that a proposal of this kind had never been discussed and that the negotiations on the reform blew up after the Education Ministry refused to recognize that the union also represented middle-school teachers. As for the accusations against Erez, they said, "Tamir is like a ballerina who doesn't know how to dance and blames the floor for being askew."

Tamir's term of office was not free of mishaps. Her promise to "overturn the educational pyramid" and to increase the investment in education for pre-school children, was never kept. The participation of the ministry in funding the Ofek Hadash reform - NIS 140 million per year - also levied a heavy toll on the ministry. Nevertheless, Tamir championed the program, which has now been introduced in some 800 schools. She doubled the number of hours devoted to the teaching of civics and encouraged significant changes to the syllabus. If the changes are felt, it will take, as noted, another few years and only if the process continues. But with the changeover of ministers and the expected changes in policy, there is no certainty of anything.

During her term in office, Tamir learned to understand "just how complex and convoluted the school system is. Correcting the education system in the Arab sector, for example, requires a change in the way Arab society functions that is in no way tied to the system itself. To understand the seclusion of religious schools, one must understand the psychology of the split within the national religious camp, and we have not yet touched on the crisis in the state school system or the flight of elitist groups to all kinds of educational bubbles. I watched the elections in the United States, and I thought how nice it must be for Obama to be able to say that the U.S. is now returning to the values of the founding fathers and that everyone feels education is a unifying element. We, on the other hand, are deeply divided and the children of every social group go to school with a great deal of suspicion.

"Every education minister has to understand that he cannot correct society and it is forbidden for him to wait with a reform to the educational system. One must do what one can within the existing framework - with the existing teachers, with the pupils, with the economic and political reality, to try to build a better system. It will not be perfect, but perhaps it will be better than in the past."