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Even those already inured to the past decade's bad news on the level of achievement in the Israeli education system had trouble digesting the most recent statistics. A comparative, international study published yesterday places Israel in the bottom third on the list in achievement in reading, mathematics and science. The research found that one-third of Israeli 15-year-olds don't understand what they read and Israel has the largest gap in the Western world between the achievements of schoolchildren whose parents have higher education and household income, and those of children from poorer, less educated families.

The findings echoed those from similar research published not long ago. That research put Israel in 23rd place out of 35 countries in fourth grade reading comprehension. Just more than half of eighth graders in the public school system, two-thirds in the religious education system and three-quarters of Arab test takers failed standardized math tests. These results indicate a sharp drop in the level of achievement compared to similar tests administered in 1997.

There is one no-no: explaining that the source of the problem is a lack of budget. Every international comparison indicates that Israel's national spending on education is similar to - or higher than - the norms in Western countries.

It is also well-known that in the education system billions of shekels disappear in waste - on inefficiency, redundancy, and unnecessary entities.

The Education Ministry has seven districts nationwide, each with dozens and some with hundreds of employees. All the district offices are unnecessary. The education system has 850 supervisors, most of whom are unnecessary. There are 40 teaching colleges, half of which are unnecessary. The cost of the Education Ministry's bureaucracy is mind-boggling: 7 percent of its annual budget. In Finland, for instance, the cost of the bureaucracy is just 1.7 percent of the education budget and in South Korea it is 1.9 percent. The level of achievement by students in both those countries is higher than in Israel.

There are those who blame various teaching methods. But the Education Ministry invests hundreds of millions every year in experimental teaching programs, which provide employment for all sorts of functionaries and researchers. But striving for originality and innovation doesn't make the programs successful. The most prominent examples are the "modern" teaching methods for reading and math, which have been forced on all teachers in recent years and which failed resoundingly.

If the poor achievement doesn't stem from the budget or the teaching methods, whose fault is it? This was examined by a team of experts headed by Professor Victor Lavi and Education Ministry director-general Ronit Tirosh. The team developed a "reform model" to be presented at the 11th annual Caesaria Conference, starting today in Jerusalem.

The team determined that the Achilles' heel of the Israeli education system is the structural characteristics that impair efficient utilization of budgets. The team found the main structural problems to be overly great centralization, school principals' limited authority and responsibility and a wage system that doesn't differentiate between good and bad teachers.

The team recommended decentralization: the transfer of authority, budget and implementation powers from the ministry's Jerusalem headquarters to the local authorities and school principals. The revolution will also include merit pay for teachers, so that the good ones stick around and the poor ones are ejected.

Many countries have carried out similar processes in recent years. The best examples are Sweden, Holland, England, Belgium and Canada, which all had students who performed impressively in the international standardized tests. The reform in Sweden was implemented in a single year - 1991. Even if we are not as swift as the Swedes, it would be enough for Education Minister Limor Livnat to carry it out in two years.