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The Education Ministry's Whip

A few weeks ago, elementary school children sweated over the definitions of complicated geometric shapes. Rhombus, for example, or octagon. The lucky ones had no difficulty at all. A nice teacher bent over their small heads, asked what the problem was, and even helped them solve it.

A few weeks ago, elementary school children sweated over the definitions of complicated geometric shapes. Rhombus, for example, or octagon. The lucky ones had no difficulty at all. A nice teacher bent over their small heads, asked what the problem was, and even helped them solve it.

Thus a few schools whose pupils sat the "Meitzav" (School efficiency and growth index) test, won clemency for another year. Their students proved relatively good proficiency in the material, their teachers were marked as having relayed this material successfully, and they - the schools themselves - could get onto the "good" list. As if that were not enough, at the next press conference, thanks to this fraudulent magic, the Education Ministry could record the progress on some graph, indicating the increase in student achievements, meaning the ministry's achievements.

Thus instead of locating the true weak points in the system and trying to find solutions that would train better teachers and more skilled students - the whole system is busy covering its patched behind.

This is how the representative feedback test - an innocent, though somewhat clumsy and imperfect tool, but one with a reasonable potential for evaluation - was turned into a tool that is clearly partly political and partly economic. Political, because any minister can use feedback tests and various efficiency and growth indices for his own purposes; and economic, because in the accelerated process of the privatization of education, which long before the era of Education Minister Limor Livnat and ministry Director-General Ronit Tirosh had already earned the politically correct name, "independent management of schools," the focusing on the achievements of schools had become a whip in the Education Ministry's hand.

This whip is liable to punish schools with low achievements and reward those with high achievements (even if these were attained at a high price, such as teaching exclusively for the Meitzav at the expense of all the other subjects, or cheating on the tests). The result will be the exact opposite of the original purpose of the feedback test, but this, of course, is no accident. Exam hysteria, the teachers' fear that makes them lose their sense and their educational ethics - all these are the stinking fruits of the privatization of education.

Unlike other branches of the economy, whose privatization - or at least the reduction of the government's involvement in them - is essential for the creation of a healthy economy, education, social welfare and health are areas from which no government should remove its involvement. Granted, there are various models of incorporation and the privatization of services, mainly in the health care sphere, which lead to more efficiency in the government-run system as long as the government restricts itself to overseeing efficient management. Hasty, uncontrolled privatization, however, and mainly the type plagued by political preferences, as happened in the Education Ministry starting in the 1980s, causes the rapid weakening of the system.

All the stages of privatization in education were done in the following twisted way: One hand transferred services to an external body and hastened to report the savings, while the other hand made sure that an association close to the reigning minister and his political worldview received the contract for those services. One hand raised the importance of mathematics and technology, while sidelining civics, general history, literature and everything that smacked of a broad cultural education, while the other hand set up emergency committees to investigate why achievements were sliding. One hand inflated parts of the system via unnecessary political appointments, while the other despaired as the complement of qualified teachers shrank over the years.

Now there is a new excuse: the talented went into high-tech and the education system has no money to entice them into education. That is the most typical excuse for privatization, except that the education system cannot, and will never be able to compete with high-tech or any other private sector. Furthermore, it is also not supposed to compete with them.

Good candidates for education are not necessarily found in the halls of high-tech companies. Most such candidates would be happy to become educators on the condition that their social status and terms of employment are improved - and not only their pay slips. Staff rooms need to be improved as well, as do opportunities for continuing education, class sizes, etc.

The long school day, the short school week and teachers who can devote their best efforts to their profession in a pleasant work environment, as Dr. Dan Ben David of Tel Aviv University has been suggesting for years, based on well-known models in Europe - these are only some of the changes that the education system has to adopt.

In an atmosphere of achievement hysteria, when the political privatization serves as the only tool for increasing efficiency and the already terrible gaps between the strong and weak students worsen from year to year, this system has no great chances of recovering. Next year too, and the year after that, terrified teachers will bend over their confused and ignorant students and the education minister will point to the improvement in reading comprehension.