Israel is the only country in the developed world where children go to school six days a week. As a result, despite Israeli students spending 34 more days in school than the average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and more than any other country in the group, the number of days off for holidays and summer vacation is also among the highest.
This schooling format makes Israel exceptional. On the one hand, the country invests in more days of study; on the other, the long holidays force parents and the state to find child care solutions and damage work productivity. The situation leads to a disconnect between the school calendar and parents’ vacation days, since Israelis get less vacation than most workers in developed nations. The average Israeli parent who has used up all of his vacation days still has to deal with 47 days when the children are home, but he has to work.
Additionally, the Education Ministry invests hundreds of millions of shekels annually in an extra school day – an investment that doesn’t lead to higher achievement scores, which remain low among OECD nations. On top of this, the state spends hundreds of millions of shekels on subsidizing summer vacation activities.
This reality is probably going to change. Last week, the Bank of Israel released a program for shortening the Israeli school week to five days while cutting the number of holidays and summer vacation days. The plan cuts the number of days off by 29, which will help synchronize work days and school days.
The plan is expected to save households between 1 billion and 1.7 billion shekels ($285-$485 million) annually, and cut the need for subsidizing school programs during the summer and holiday vacations, which runs to 630 million shekels a year for students up to the third grade. The plan would incur no significant costs to the state budget.
Teachers organizations have rejected proposals for cutting vacation for years. However, the current Bank of Israel proposal offers many advantages for the education system, as well as for parents and the economy. Teachers won’t be required to work more weekly hours or more days per year, but rather will switch to a four-day workweek. The upshot is that rather than working on Fridays, they will work on days during the holiday vacations, when most people work anyway.
The Bank of Israel also offers a solution for parents who have to work Fridays, which it says constitute just 8% of families: It will provide four-hour enrichment programs for their children. The cost of these programs is marginal compared to the current framework.
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Hard to give up flexibility
But teachers still oppose the current plan. They refuse to give up the holiday vacations, and fear their flexibility to choose a weekly day off will be hurt. One of the teachers organizations claims that because Israel’s number of school days is the highest in the OECD, there is a need for longer vacations. But that argument is imprecise because that high number stems from the fact that only Israel has a six-day school week.
While students study 219 days annually in elementary schools and 209 days in middle schools, students in OECD countries go to school just 185 days a year on average. The school year is 180 days in the United States, Canada, Austria, Hungary and Ireland, and just 162 days in France.
The teachers organizations claim that Israeli teachers need to teach more than their OECD counterparts, which is also inaccurate. While students in Israel must go to school six days a week, their teachers get a weekly day off, working only five days a week.
While students are in school more days than their cohorts in developed nations, Israeli teachers teach an annual average of 182 days in elementary schools, compared to 183 days in the OECD. The comparison relates only to frontal teaching hours in each country, and not to additional tasks like individual tutoring, developing curricula or preparing and checking papers and tests.
Additionally, the OECD’s annual education report’s comparison of vacation days shows that Israelis rank ninth out of 37 countries in length of vacations (summer and holidays combined). Israeli middle school children get 15.1 weeks off, compared to 9.5 weeks for Switzerland, 12 for Germany, 13 for Finland and 10.9 for Denmark. Only Russia and Ireland have longer vacations of 17-18 weeks.
Parents say yes
The forum of parents committees responded favorably to the Bank of Israel’s proposal, but the Teachers Union rejected it out of hand. “The proposal is out of touch with reality, meant solely to grab a newspaper headline,” the union commented. The “research ignores the high number of students per class and the number of teaching hours that educational workers perform, significantly higher than anywhere else in the world,” the union stressed. “The Bank of Israel probably didn’t understand that teaching employees are not babysitters.”
The union insists that the problem is not the number of vacation days but rather the low number of parent vacation days. “Israel is ranked lowest in the West for worker vacation days,” it stated. The average is two weeks per year. In contrast, workers in other countries – as well as Bank of Israel economists – average over a month of vacation per year.
“The gap should be corrected by adding vacation days for parents and not by cutting vacation days for education workers, a profession recognized as a profession that wears you down,” the union stated. “Every change in the employment structure or salary is negotiable. As is well known, Bank of Israel economists enjoy the best salary, benefits and days off in the country.”
The Teachers Organization, which represents high school teachers, refused to comment on the plan, asserting that it is only a proposal and there is no intent to implement it at this stage. The organization has opposed similar plans in past.