In the Middle of the Night, a Knock on a Teacher's Door

Teachers fired in the middle of the night. There's a bang on the door at midnight so the letter's delivery isn't delayed, heaven forbid, to the next day. The people of Israel can sleep soundly. Busy agents are making sure there won't be any unwanted teachers here.

Teachers fired in the middle of the night. There's a bang on the door at midnight so the letter's delivery isn't delayed, heaven forbid, to the next day. The people of Israel can sleep soundly. Busy agents are making sure there won't be any unwanted teachers here.

Sometimes those who are fired are revealed in the media: a single mother, a young father forced to reduce the amount of milk he buys for his baby, a pregnant woman, and "ordinary" teachers whom the minister and director general decided aren't needed any more.

In the coming months, if they are brave, they'll go to the Employment Service bureau and hope they won't meet one of their pupils or parents. Unemployed, they'll cost the state almost the same as it costs to employ them as teachers, but this time it will be the Welfare Ministry, not the Education Ministry, footing the bill.

In the narrow view of the Education Ministry, that's efficiency. From the overall perspective of the country, it is a crime and a perversion.

A knock on the door in the middle of the night is feared by regime opponents, criminals trying to hide from the law, workers in a foreign land without permission to be in the country. In Israel, there are teachers behind the doors.

When it comes to teachers, Israeli society behaves like a schizophrenic. One personality shows up when deteriorating pupil achievement scores are published. There's a hue and cry and demands to raise the standards of teaching and make classrooms smaller. The papers fill with articles calling for young people to be encouraged to become educators, to improve teacher training and increase teachers' salaries - until the next headline pushes aside those articles and it's all forgotten.

The other personality pops up when teacher salaries are under discussion. Then everyone remembers that teachers only work 10 months a year and that most are women, bringing home a family's second salary. The minister and director general baldly propose that, in order to avoid firings, the teachers give up their holiday gifts and what little money is provided for coffee and cake in the teachers' rooms. Without public support, the teachers are defeated. They are fired, their wages cut. If they can find other teaching jobs, they'll do so with a heavy heart, teaching in classrooms with too many pupils, without any room at the school where they can check exams or speak with pupils. At the end of the month, they'll find it hard to believe how little they are paid. When the politicians speak about the importance of education, the teachers will smile with sadness but nobody will care - until the next survey shows there's been a further decline in the teaching standards and pupil achievement scores.

The Education Ministry needs to be more efficient. It could cancel the district structure that has grown into fat, unnecessary bureaucracies. It could fire administrators and inspectors. But when the average class size in a state school is 30 pupils, when the number of hours spent in class is constantly declining, and when 6,000 teachers are fired, it means even more crowding in the classrooms, fewer teaching and enrichment hours, less support for weak pupils and greater education gaps between strata in society. This is especially true because the firings are mostly taking part in the state schools and in Arab schools, where crowding is particularly rife (between 28-31 pupils a classroom) and the number of teaching hours is particularly low (less than 45 hours a week per pupil). Meanwhile, the independent school systems run by the religious, which have much smaller classrooms (between 19-25 pupils) and many more teaching hours (more than 50 hours a week per pupil), won't be cut. State education and Arab schools will once again learn the lesson of not having political protection.

They aren't merely firing teachers. They are cutting the salaries of those who remain. The wage erosion for teachers, of necessity, harms the ability of the system to recruit new, quality and motivated teachers from the next generation.

The folly of the attack on teachers is not only educational but economic. The finance minister tells us the purpose of the economic program is to encourage capital investment and economic growth. In Israel, where the cost of labor is relatively high, the only worthwhile investments are in firms that are rich in human capital. In other words, investing in Israel is only worthwhile if Israel can offer quality manpower that justifies the cost of employment. That quality will be eroded by the current cutbacks in education. From year to year, the ability of Israeli graduates declines in competition with graduates from most of the industrial nations. If Israeli education continues to drop, countries like Romania, Lithuania or Latvia - where student achievement scores are already ahead of Israel's - will attract the investments that require human capital, and they'll soon be importing cheap foreign labor from Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu claims Israel is a country living in the past, because it does not understand that the modern economic structure requires efficiency and a smaller public sector. The truth is Netanyahu is the one living in the past. He does not understand that in the global world, teachers are the thin man carrying the entire economy on their back. They are the true productive force that can encourage investment and nurture growth. But Israel of 2003 is characterized by a sickening shortsightedness. For it, teachers are parasites.

When teachers hear a knock on the door in the middle of the night, we should all wake up. Because, together with the teachers, they are sending our children to the Employment Service bureaus to look for work in the global markets of tomorrow. And, together with the teachers, they'll find the doors closed.