An Educational Introspection

The numbers show that the level of education and knowledge we are providing to graduates of our education system has been falling steadily for decades.

This year it happened on exactly the same days. The High Holy Days that began this week fell on the same day that ended the month of Ramadan and marked Eid el Fitr. The Jews use the 10 Days of Repentance for self-examination and repenting their sins. The Muslims use the month of Ramadan, and in particular the last 10 days of it, for the same purpose: introspection and cleansing the soul.

It would be appropriate to examine ourselves and correct our ways in a variety of areas: between ourselves and our fellow man, between man and God, in society, economics, security and public policy. But there is one matter that everyone agrees is where we should start. Everyone says it is the most important for our future, and there is also wide agreement that it is a problematic and sick: education.

The numbers show that the level of education and knowledge we are providing to graduates of our education system has been falling steadily for decades. International tests testify to that, and every one of us can also see it personally.

This is not a budgetary problem. The education budget rose by NIS 5 billion in the past few years as part of the New Horizon plan, and a comparison with Western nations reveals that investment per pupil in Israel, relative to GDP, is similar to the average in OECD countries. The problem is in managing the budget.

For years, the demands made of students have shrunk. We have looked for all sorts of reductions and tricks instead of demanding effort: homework, reading books and remembering material. In the same way, we have made the lowest common denominator holy - so now everyone will be satisfied and no one should, God forbid, complain.

Instead of forcing students to behave properly, we allow them to run wild and interfere in class in the name of "students' rights." They have turned into customers, and school teachers have become suppliers who are commanded to find favor with their customers. It is an inverted and distorted world.

The failed management of the education system can be demonstrated by the absurd situation whereby high school classes for all practical purposes end right after the Passover vacation at the end of April or beginning of May. The high schools, which once taught according to a horizon-expanding plan, have turned into schools aimed at only one goal: success in the matriculation (bagrut) exams.

The teachers teach only the material required for the exams and no more, and the minute the Education Ministry announces, based on its new methods, which material will not be on the tests this year, the teachers only concentrate on what is left. Because there is no time. Because the school year was cut by a quarter.

Once the matriculation exams were given only in 12th grade and only during July, at the end of the school year. In those years pupils studied the entire year in 10th, 11th and also 12th grades. But a few years ago the Education Ministry decided to spread the matriculation exams over three years - 10th, 11th and 12th grades - and to give the tests during the school year, starting in May. As a result, in practice no one studies during the final quarter of the school year in each of the three most important years of high school.

So why is it surprising that the level is falling and achievement is so low?

Immediately after Passover the atmosphere of learning disappears from high schools. One day there are the preparatory tests, then the school's own tests, and then later come the matriculation exams themselves. The possibility of a second chance for the tests in English and math expanded the test season even more. And before each of these tests the students are allowed to prepare for them at home over a couple of days of self-study, and there are also various other days off and extra study sessions. In short: No school.

An experienced teacher complained to me about the situation: She cannot allow questions in class, no discussions and no expanding on the topic, "because they have taken away a quarter of the year and I must rush to cover the material," she said.

That is why we have to restore the school year to its proper length, as in the past. We must go back to the days when students learned in high school in May and June too, until the end of the school year. In those days there were no matriculation exams in 10th and 11th grades, only in 12th. Classes in 10th and 11th grade were longer and broader - without the threat of exams hanging overhead. And in 12th grade the exams took place in July, after the school year ended.

This is how the school year can return to being eight months of net learning, and not six months in practice. If we can gain only that from the 10 Days of Repentence, it will suffice.