From the now-ancient history of the closure of the country’s schools four months ago, to the stuttering preparations for the new school year, the coronavirus crisis has exposed an education system with very little trust among its various components. Not between the various government ministries, which failed to establish coherent policy or to follow it for very long; or between the Education Ministry and the principals and teachers in thousands of schools around the country, or between the ministry and teachers unions, local governments and above all the millions of parents who were shocked by the inadequate preparations and the clueless directives.
The restoration of trust in the education system is a complex goal, and as has become clear over recent months it is also critical. Yoav Gallant’s appointment, during an ongoing crisis, a person with no background in the field to head the ministry, reflects a mistrust of educators. Clichés about the importance of “nurturing the teachers,” as the education minister promised when he began the job, can’t conceal his disdain.
For the past five years, Amit Edry was Gallant’s chief of staff in the housing and immigrant absorption ministries. He previously served in the army in various logistics positions, retiring at the rank of colonel. Gallant has told journalists that during Operation Cast Lead, Edry saw to it that “neither a bullet nor a canteen” ever ran out. Just two weeks ago, the education minister failed when he tried to issue orders to the secondary school teachers union on extending the school year. The National Labor Court let him know that this was not the way to manage a public system. It’s not clear that the message got through.
In choosing Edry, who has no experience whatsoever with running an education system, Gallant made it clear that the profession of education means nothing to him. Not only does everyone “understand” education, but Edry’s experience in “developing protocols, work methods and training and guidance programs” in the army (as the Education Ministry said in a statement) is sufficient to run one of the most complex government ministries, rife with organizational, pedagogic and budgetary crises and challenges that are difficult to deal with even when there’s no pandemic. His close relationship with Gallant is enough, it’s more important than anything else.
And so, courtesy of Israel’s security fetish and army networking, retired male officers are seen as being experts in everything and as skilled administrators. The effect of this on the women who make up the vast majority of educators in all but the highest levels is clear.
In Israel, cabinet ministers do not have to be masters of the fields entrusted to them. But to conduct policy effectively, it is desirable for the director general of the Education Ministry to be familiar with the system he has been assigned to manage, beyond the parent-teacher meetings he may have attended. Moshe Bar Siman Tov is not a physician, but at least he knew other sides of the public health system before he was hired as the Health Ministry’s director general. In addition, whereas that ministry is responsible mainly for setting policy, the Education Ministry actually operates significant portions of the system, with varying degrees of control. Unfamiliarity with it will exact a concrete price.
Gallant claims that his ministry’s main problem is “operational-organizational.” But decisions of this kind are not made in a vacuum, detached from a worldview – from determining classroom seating arrangements to whitewashing history and citizenship curricula, funding the activity of religious organizations in secular public schools or giving priority to the religious Zionist public school. (“In every parameter, the religious student receives more from the state budget than a student in any other type of school,” a senior Education Ministry official admitted in a meeting of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee last week, adding: “The Education Ministry ascribes enormous importance to state-religious education.”)
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A hint as to the principles that guide Gallant can be found in his decision to appoint an advisory team led by Dan Ariely -- without authority, without Arab representatives (also without Haredim, but this community will continue to enjoy educational and budgetary independence), and while ignoring the Education Ministry officials whose job it is to advise the minister.
And perhaps, on second thought, the parachuting of Edry into the sensitive position of director general of the Education Ministry will have the opposite effect: It will make it impossible to conceal its long record of failures, that in recent months have been exposed for all to see.