The new school year that begins Wednesday is the third to be overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic. On March 13, 2020, Israel’s schools closed for the first time. They reopened about two months later, and during the 2020-21 school year they closed twice more. The pandemic devoured everything. September 1, which in the past was a symbol of new beginnings, disappeared under a mountain of statistics about cases, quarantines and tests whose status and validity are unclear.
Exactly one year ago, the performance by the cast of the rebooted TV sketch comedy series “Zehu Ze!” of the song “Cal Od,” a celebration of the return to school, spread a modicum of optimism. No longer.
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Education Ministry officials now promise a “tough year” with “great difficulties,” as if the mere fact of the warning absolves them of their responsibilities: for example, for implementing the regulations (that were approved at the last moment) requiring teaching staff to provide proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID-19 or a negative result from a rapid antigen swab test in order to enter a school; for the confusion surrounding the status of the COVID-19 tests administered to students (mandatory, recommended or left to the discretion of each school principal or kindergarten director?); for the faulty preparation for a return to distance learning (according to the latest figures, about 150,000 teens will start the school year from home); for the difficulties in recruiting “COVID-19 monitors” for every school; for the ongoing teacher shortage and the growing distress faced by school psychologists and guidance counselors, who are somehow supposed to be capable of dealing with the emotional and social distress of students, which has deepened due to the pandemic.
In addition to addressing these and other urgent issues, what’s needed is some pedagogical sensitivity, but the signs are not encouraging. At a session of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee on Monday, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton said that during the new school year a language skills exam (Hebrew or Arabic, according to the school’s language of instruction) will be given to fourth graders. She emphasized that it will be a “countrywide exam,” in contrast to the Measures of School Efficacy and Growth (Meitzav, in Hebrew) standardized tests, which are given to a representative sample of students. The goal, she stressed, is to understand “where to focus our efforts” in light of the COVID-19 learning gap.
According to Education Ministry officials, broader changes are afoot, including a similar exam to be given in the seventh grade. Both of these new tests aim to measure students’ knowledge against the curriculum, as an aid to the principal, among others, according to ministry officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Perhaps in order to blunt the force of the planned changes, Shasha-Biton said that fifth and eleventh graders will answer a survey on social and psychological aspects.
As someone with a doctorate in education, who also headed a city department of education and served as vice president in a teachers' college, the minister is well aware of the caution that must be exercised in regard to measuring and assessment, particularly by means of nationwide tests, which are imposed on the schools by the system. Contrary to Shasha-Biton’s claim that such exams are transparent and that they reflect “the situation of our children in the area of language,” in fact they shape and interfere with instruction.
The pattern and the debilitating effects of standardized testing in Israel and abroad is familiar to all: In the weeks leading up to the exams (which are scheduled for the first trimester of the school year), the schools will add language lessons, at the expense of other subjects, in the hope of somehow being able to present a (false) picture of meeting the goals. Afterward the class schedules will return to normal, until the next such test.
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As generations of students who have taken Israel’s bagrut matriculation exams can testify, there is little value in “studying for the test.” No less grave is the “standard information” that will be derived from the new exams and used by the authorities that supervise the schools. Numerous studies have shown that to principals this is a threat, a kind of whip held above them permanently.
To the Education Ministry, this seems to be more about tightening its control over schools than it is about measuring students’ abilities. It’s difficult to imagine a more resounding contradiction to the pronouncements of Shasha-Biton and Education Ministry director general Brig. Gen. (res.) Yigal Slovik about the great importance of the autonomy of school principals. In this respect, it seems that the intolerable gap between words and actions will only continue. Which of Shasha-Biton’s contradictory messages should principals – as well as teachers and students – believe?
One can also ask what conclusions can be drawn from a new test, which cannot be compared to the results of the Meitzav exams from previous years. And on the not-entirely-unfounded assumption that the results will be bad, perhaps even terrifying, what are the chances that they will be used for a genuine, presumably painful, assessment of the outdated curricula and study structure, rather than to pass the blame to the schools? That’s what the Education Ministry did in the past in the case of unflattering scores on international exams or a decline in the rate of eligibility for a matriculation certificate. It’s difficult to recall education ministers who admitted their mistakes or who took responsibility. Shasha-Biton’s immediate predecessor, who failed in almost every conceivable aspect, gave himself a grade of 90. Generally, someone else is to blame.
According to a different, more forgiving analysis, these are the two voices with which the ministry has spoken for some time: autonomy for schools (with a difference between teachers and principals) versus a more centralized model, with a mandatory curriculum and a uniform, external system of bagrut exams. The former is the trademark of the reforms introduced in recent decades in countries such as Canada, Finland and Singapore. The world of education is changing, slowly and gradually. Shasha-Biton’s big test will be to formulate a new vision for the education system. The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity that is unlikely to be repeated.