Dreaming of Finland

Israel's education system is like the team that walked onto the field without practicing, and was surprised it didn't win the championship.

There are many reasons why Israeli students do poorly on international math and science exams, but one sticks out because it is so simple: Doing well on these exams is not our education system's goal. "Advancing educational achievement" is only 12th on the Education Ministry's list of goals.

Israel's education system is like the team that walked onto the field without practicing, and was surprised it didn't win the championship. The low marks are not evident only in international competitions: The education system is having trouble increasing the matriculation rate (which is less than half the number of students eligible to take the exams), despite the continuous lowering of educational standards and requirements.

In the debate over education quality, two sides are facing off: The "business management" advocates, who want to compensate teachers based on results; and the teachers unions, which are demanding raises and smaller class sizes. Education researchers say that teacher quality has the greatest impact on student achievements, but the debate rests on how to develop quality teachers.

Over the past few years, the education system was tossed between approaches. When Likud's Limor Livnat was education minister, she appointed the Dovrat Committee, which recommended a corporate model of measuring achievements and paying teachers differential salaries. The teachers unions considered the Dovrat report an attempt to curtail their power, and foiled its implementation. Livnat's successor, Labor's Yuli Tamir, focused on increasing resources and making classrooms smaller. The teachers' union joined her effort (dubbed "New Horizon"), which will be applied to the entire elementary education system in two years. The secondary school teachers' union has maintained its opposition.

Tamir believes fundamental change must come from the bottom, and not by specifically preparing for international exams, a strategy she equated to athletes taking steroids before a competition. She believes results will come from individualized learning, addressing children in distress, increasing teachers' motivation and improving conditions in schools.

Benjamin Netanyahu wants to shock the system again, through a "massive reform." In his election campaign, he promised "to restore Israeli children to the top 10 spots in international testing within a decade." Netanyahu is proposing emulating the reforms in Finland, the only western country where children outperform Korean, Japanese and Chinese students in mathematics and sciences. He does not reject offhand raising teachers' salaries, but he thinks it is much more important to bolster the prestige of the profession by making acceptance standards more difficult. Neither doctors nor pilots earn a great deal, Netanyahu says, but the exclusivity of their professions raises their pride in their work. Like in Finland, every Israeli teacher should have at least a master's degree, Netanyahu believes.

The differences between war-torn, socially polarized Israel and a peaceful Scandinavian country are obvious. But this is not the sole obstacle to copying their model. The Finnish educational reform took four decades, and the three persons who headed the program identified the following conditions for success: evolutionary, slow change, without rapid breakthroughs; parallel development of strong public institutions, a flourishing economy, a dynamic welfare state and the rule of law; and most important, "a stable political environment." The Finns also focused on narrowing the differences among their own schools, before taking on the Koreans.

Netanyahu wants to get on the field and compete with the big players, and has promised to appoint a "reformist" education minister. But the conditions that led to Finnish success are missing in Israel. There is no political stability, the institutions barely function and work relations are problematic. Therefore, one must not expect miracles; just a tiring, crisis-filled process. At the end of Netanyahu's tenure we shall not be Finland or Singapore.

Netanyahu's reformist will need the prime minister's full backing, just like Tamir received from Ehud Olmert. He will need to be a diplomat, and reach an understanding with the teachers unions, who foiled his predecessors' reforms. And most importantly, he will have to be patient and understand that any change will only bear fruit under his successors. Since their tenure is limited, this is the hardest things for politicians to bear.