Education reform - Tomer Appelbaum - 295.2011
Teachers' representative Ran Erez, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gideon Sa'ar and Yuval Steinitz, May 29, 2011. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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The agreement signed Sunday in Jerusalem by the government and the Secondary School Teachers Association on a comprehensive reform of the high school education system is a first step in improving the state of education in Israel. Even on such a momentous occasion, it is unfortunate that it took the government about 10 years, dealing with a reform program implemented on a limited basis in a few schools, to understand that spending on education is an investment for the future.

The understanding that the education and finance ministries reached with the teachers' union, which will soon be contained in a new collective bargaining agreement, improves the pay scale of teaching staff through a generous increase of about 50 percent and special grants to outstanding teachers. Another component, which is no less essential, is that it provides teachers the opportunity to work with students, whether weak or strong, in small groups. This component is of particular significance in large high schools, where many students don't get personal attention.

The "Oz Letmura" ("Courage to Change" ) reform was a Secondary School Teachers Association initiative. It is not self-evident that a labor union would seek to expand the scope of the work its members perform. Following an initial pilot implementation of the reform program and its assessment by outside evaluators, it was found that the program led to an improvement in student performance and in the atmosphere at school.

The pilot was stopped due to education budget cuts and was followed by negotiations riddled with obstacles between the union and the government. The talks were marked by the adamancy of union chairman Ran Erez on various provisions, until the current agreement was reached.

If the new reform plan is to succeed, the Education Ministry and the teachers' union must recruit the teachers themselves in support for the changes. To actually enlist the teachers' support in this effort, they must be offered the chance to enhance their professional development and expand the educational autonomy that they enjoy in schools. In Finland, these elements were among the factors that led to the success of that country's school system on international test scores.

At this week's signing ceremony on the reform plan, politicians proclaimed that the Israeli education system was entering a new era. Changes in education take time, however, and are implemented gradually. The politicians would do well to let educators fully implement the reform plan over time and free of outside pressure.