In September 2006, four months after becoming education minister, Yuli Tamir issued a special message for the start of the school year, in which she said she had "no illusions that the education system provides Israel's children with everything it should be giving them."
She described the school system as "bruised and scarred, with a shortage of classrooms and of classroom hours."
A year later, Tamir admits she still does not "feel that the educational system enables every child to live up to his or her potential," but overall she appears to be satisfied.
"We realized a fair part of our plans," she said. "We signed a historic agreement with the teachers, initiated a significant pedagogical change, beefed up civics studies and strengthened the informal education system. The glass is more full than empty," Tamir declared.
As a philosophy professor who has also taught at Tel Aviv University's School of Education, as well as a founder of Peace Now, Tamir has been subject to high expectations for her performance as education minister, but the "line of credit" extended to her by the unions, ministry officials and academics has also been high.
In June 2006, Tamir submitted a program to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, focusing on four main targets: improving the status of teachers, instituting curriculum and methodological changes, improving preschool education and strengthening the public education systems.
Tamir believes she has made clear gains on the first two aims and failed on the third, while the jury is still out on the fourth goal.
The collective-bargaining agreement signed with the union representing elementary-school teachers calls for raising starting salaries to about NIS 5,300 a month, raising other teachers' salaries by about 26 percent and increasing the length of the official workweek for elementary and junior-high teachers to 36 weeks.
Negotiations with the Association of Secondary School Teachers, however, are still bogged down.
Tamir points proudly to changes in the curriculum, in teacher training and in the bagrut matriculation exams, all part of a transition from "passive to active learning that emphasizes creating meaning and developing understanding, as well as learning and thinking skills." She says the goals in this area will be reached within five years.
"There's a big gap between saying and doing," says the director general of ORT Israel, Zvi Peleg. "Maybe Tamir truly wants to change the bagrut exams, but in the meantime, she and the director general of her ministry, Shmuel Abuov, keep repeating the same mantras" about increasing the percentage of high-school graduates eligible for a bagrut certificate. "In my eyes, that is real idol-worship that pushes the [education] system downhill. The mayors get the message and all they want to do is to raise the matriculation rate. They don't care how many students drop out along the way or about the quality of the matriculation certificate," Peleg said.
The first aim cited in Abuov's secondary-education work program for the new school year is "raising by 3 percent over the next few years the number of students taking and passing bagrut exams."
Tamir has backed down from her grand plans of a year ago that called for "flipping the pyramid" to focus on preschool education, which was to be accomplished by expanding the identification and treatment of at-risk children, supervising all private daycare and kindergarten facilities and subsidizing preschool tuition, among other things. Today, these issues are barely mentioned in public. "We did not succeed in advancing preschool because the budget - NIS 2 billion to NIS 3 billion - was not available," Tamir admitted. She noted, however, that hours at some kindergartens have been extended and other improvements are in the works.
The country's public education was hit hard by the passage of a law requiring local authorities to fund schools that are "recognized but not offical," most of which are ultra-Orthodox.
Tamir opposed the bill but did not fight it, citing it as a "done deal between Olmert and the Haredim." In addition, she supports exempting the "small yeshivot" from the mandatory core curriculum in exchange for a commitment on their part to provide students with 12 years of schooling, up to age 30.
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