The Michael Method, an Israeli educational method that claims to teach people how to develop their full potential, takes pride in being a breakthrough method recognized around the world.
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The website of the Michael Project reads: “The Michael Method is a unique, holistic program to develop and realize an individual’s emotional, intellectual and behavioral potential.... Students of the Michael Method learn how to use a range of practical tools and principles that allow them to exploit their innate talents more efficiently and achieve dramatic improvements in their educational and personal achievements.” It goes on to say that the project helps people develop their potential in the two most important arenas for human beings in the 21st century: the ability to change, and the development of creativity.
Behind these sweeping descriptions stands a privately owned company, a profit-making business in every way, owned by social psychologist Meni Barzilai, who started his career as the prime minister’s adviser on social affairs during Shimon Peres’ term as prime minister in the mid-1980s. Since then, Barzilai has become one of the most prominent Israeli entrepreneurs in the field of education and social affairs, thanks in large part to his close relationship with the Education Ministry.
The Michael Project has been benefiting from Education Ministry budgets every year since 1994, with the exception of a three-year hiatus. The ministry’s education and welfare department, whose main goal is to keep the most troublesome students in school until graduation, uses the project to teach empowerment and skill acquisition after school.
The state comptroller’s 2009 report on the education and welfare department found that the Education Ministry had paid the Michael Project 91 million shekels (more than $23 million) since the government started working with Barzilai’s project. Since then, the government appears to have paid at least another 30 million shekels, for a total of 121 million shekels paid by the Education Ministry over the past 20 years.
It was only in 2014 that Education Ministry officials began asking themselves why the ministry had paid so much money to a privately owned company even though, contrary to the standard practice, the Michael Project never put up any of its own money for the project. The officials also wondered how it could be that the relationship with the company could continue for so many years with no appropriate supervision or control.
The facts are that until 2010 — in other words, for 15 years — the Michael Project was not subject to a government tender.
Has Michael met its goals?
Education Ministry officials assumed that the Michael Project contained unique learning methods at a world-class level. But since that claim was never investigated until 2010, the Education Ministry never examined whether the project was so unusual that no other company could compete with it in teaching empowerment and skills acquisition to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it never checked whether it was in fact successful and world-class.
In 2010, another provider did compete with the Michael Project for the tender, but was disqualified for not meeting the basic requirements, and Michael remained the sole player on the field.
As to whether the project has met its goals, the Education Ministry has never examined that claim — in part because few goals were ever defined for the project.
The 2009 comptroller’s report revealed that the Education Ministry had never bothered to evaluate the project. The only data it has on the program come from studies commissioned by the Michael Project itself (which found, of course, that its performance was most impressive).
The only study the ministry began on the project took place in 2001 and was abandoned in the middle. At no point did Education Ministry officials or the ministry’s tender-exemption committee require the study’s completion as a condition for continued funding. When the state comptroller asked the head of the education and welfare department why no assessment studies had been carried out, the head of the department answered that he had no need for such studies since “my professionalism and extensive experience give me the authority to draw my own conclusions.”
It turns out that the Michael Project was not meeting the only two goals that had been set for it.
First, under the requirements of the education and welfare department, 60 percent of the students in the project were supposed to be from socioeconomically disadvantaged background. But the state comptroller found that was only the case in one-third of the classes.
Second, and worse, the project’s dropout rates were high. The education and welfare department agreed to a 25-percent dropout rate, but the actual rate reached 40 percent. Let us bear in mind that the department’s main goal is to prevent disadvantaged students from dropping out of school.
Strict disciplinary requirements
In addition, some truly disadvantaged students were turned away because they did not meet the strict disciplinary requirements.
In an interview in Haaretz in 2003, Barzilai took pride in the fact that “toughness” was required “to bring the pupils out of the chaos of the supposedly liberal educational system, which makes the pupils incompetent.” The interview also noted that students could be thrown out of the program for being as little as one minute late to class. But the students who fall under the purview of the education and welfare department have a great deal of difficulty with tasks and discipline and have no study habits to speak of.
The extent to which the project did not suit its ostensible goals should have been revealed in 2008, when increasing pressure from within the Education Ministry led its education and welfare department to conduct an experiment: For one year, the Michael Project was required to accept only students who were placed in classes meant to help students struggling to graduate. Project officials opposed this, saying they would need two to three years to build curricula suited to those classes.
Indeed, dropout rates that year reached 50 percent to 75 percent. It seems that when the students are truly from disadvantaged backgrounds, the project does not really empower them or give them special skills. Yet the Education Ministry maintained its relationship with the project.
And that is how, for 20 years, the Education Ministry funded a project that excluded the very students who needed reinforcement the most. It took on students who did not need the extra help, leaving the more challenged students to drop out.