With five weeks to go till the start of the Israeli school year, parents are beginning the annual routine of buying books and backpacks, and giving thought to after-school programs.
But this year, the routine also includes watching the headlines to see whether the treasury and teachers unions reach a collective labor agreement. Without one, teachers are threatening to strike September 1, when classes are supposed to begin.
The strike threat is the latest crisis for Israel’s education system, which seems to lurch from one emergency to the next. The last school year ended with teachers staging a partial strike, and before that the schools struggled with remote teaching during the COVID pandemic.
The new school year will be starting with a shortfall of some 5,600 teachers – most of it in the critical subjects of math, science and English.
And those are only the current problems. Israeli schools face a much more fundamental dilemma: Despite record spending on education and improving metrics for such things as student-teacher ratios, Israeli students test poorly against their peers in other developed countries in critical skills.
That’s an existential problem for a country that depends on an educated population to sustain its democratic system of government, power its high-tech industry and crew an increasingly tech-focused army, says Dan Ben-David, a Tel Aviv University professor of economics who has written extensively on the problems of education in Israel.
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“Startup Nation is cutting edge, our universities are among the best in the world. Then there’s the other Israel, which is receiving a Third World education that makes the situation unsustainable,” he says. “When our children grow up, they will have been trained for working in a Third World economy.”
Israel’s education system does almost nothing to measure student achievement over time. But the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administers its Program for International Student Assessment every two years, and the results are depressing: The latest PISA exam shows Israeli 15-year-olds scoring at the bottom of developed-country teens for reading, math and science skills (ranking 37th, 41st and 42nd among all 79 participating countries).
Israeli students made some modest improvement in their PISA scores over the first decade of the 2000s, but since then their scores have plateaued. And in the last PISA exam (administered four years ago, due to COVID), they actually fell. Israeli scores were weighed down by especially poor numbers by Arab students, but ultra-Orthodox students aren’t tested at all. If they had been, the overall scores would have been much lower, since Haredi schools don’t for the most part teach nonreligious subjects.
Poor use of resources
Teachers unions attribute the poor performance to low teacher pay and poor conditions. While that may have been true years ago, the education budget and salaries have grown considerably over the last decade. By most metrics, Israeli schools measure up to their OECD peers.
Even after discounting for inflation, spending on education per pupil has been rising steadily since 1990 – especially for secondary schools. Israel devotes 5.8 percent of its gross domestic product to education, more than any other OECD country. It also has a relatively large student-age population. But even after taking that into account, Israeli school spending is in the middle of the OECD range.
Although Israeli classrooms generally have more students than the OECD average, Israel’s student-teacher ratio is mostly lower: At the elementary school level, there are 15.4 students per teacher versus 14.7 for the OECD. But in middle schools the Israeli ratio is a more favorable 12.1 versus 12.8, and in high school it is even better at 9.9 and 12.1, respectively.
Teachers’ salaries have risen 90 percent over the last two decades, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, to an average of 12,000 shekels (about $3,500) a month in 2019, versus a national average of 10,800 shekels.
The problem Israeli schools contend with isn’t a lack of money or staff, but an extraordinarily poor use of the resources it does have, experts say.
One example is the system of teacher pay, which does nothing to attract and retain the best staff.
Teachers with years on the job get paid well, averaging 20,000 shekels a month for those aged 55 or older. But increased pay isn’t connected with job performance – salary increases are based on seniority and bonuses for advanced training. There’s no such thing as bonuses for excellence or significantly extra pay for taking on more work, such as homeroom teacher.
Pay for teachers in fields where there is a lot of demand but less supply, such as math, is the same for those teaching other subjects.
In contrast to veteran teachers, starting salaries for new teachers are very low and it is rare for them to find a full-time job. On paper, a starting teacher earns 9,600 shekels a month, but in practice most work only two-thirds of a day shift because without seniority and union protection, new teachers are at the mercy of school principals anxious to fill slots. In reality, their average pay is only 5,600 shekels a month.
Large numbers of young teachers quit the profession everywhere in the world, among other reasons because many discover that they’re not suited for the work. However, Avrum Tomer, an education policy researcher at the Kohelet Policy Forum think tank, is concerned that in Israel too many of the best leave – and that’s because of low pay and poor conditions.
High turnover among younger teachers has left the education system starved for staff. According to the Education Ministry, there are 5,600 positions unfilled ahead of the 2022-23 school year, with especially severe shortages in the center of the country, and in English and math.
That number probably understates the real shortage because it is based on positions principals say they have yet to fill. But in many cases, the schools aren’t even aspiring to teach critical subjects like computer science. If they did, the shortfall would be greater. Moreover, enrollment at teachers colleges and retraining programs for people seeking to move into the teaching profession have been declining, meaning the shortage is likely to grow worse.
Those shortages can’t be easily solved, because the system is too rigid to respond to supply-demand imbalances by offering high salaries.
“We have a major problem finding good math and English teachers, because there’s so much demand for them in the private market,” says Ben-David. “We need to pay a fair salary for everyone, but we need to pay higher salaries in fields where it is difficult to recruit.”
In the current round of negotiations, the treasury wanted to institute some reforms, but it appears to be backing down on most of them in the face of opposition from the teachers’ union – which is seemingly more interested in defending the rights of older teachers, who represent its core membership, than in encouraging new ones.
Tomer says the solution lies principally in decentralizing the educational system, which would solve problems such as hiring and keeping quality teachers. Other countries have done so successfully, and Israel too in other parts of the public sector.
“In other systems in Israel, like the healthcare system and the welfare system in recent years, the role of the government is to set the policies, manage the system from above,” he says. “In the educational system, it hasn’t happened. We are among the few countries where the Education Ministry makes all the important decisions, down to the smallest details.”
Lacking problem-solving skills
Today, the teaching profession doesn’t attract the best students, either. The average score on the psychometric exams students need to take before applying for a degree program is far lower for first-year education students than other students – in some cases as much as a third lower, according to figures compiled by Ben-David’s Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research.
In terms of literacy and numeracy skills, Israeli teachers rank at or near the bottom, an OECD survey of adult skills shows.
“Centralization leaves the system lagging in terms of innovation and variety,” Tomer says, “but most importantly, it hurts its ability to attract a quality workforce. When you dictate to people exactly what you want them to do, you get lower-quality staff,” he observes. “You have everyone in the system – good, even excellent people – but the average isn’t good enough.”
Experts say the system is so bad that the issue of teaching itself often takes a backseat to management issues. In part, that’s because it is so varied by school and community that it’s hard to address the issue of teaching methods and curricula on a national level.
Nevertheless, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, said in a 2020 interview with The Jerusalem Post that teaching methods seemed to encourage students to excel at “reproducing subject matter content,” but that they lack the problem-solving skills and ability to creatively apply knowledge – which is critical in a high-tech economy.
In fact, the OECD’s assessment of Israeli adults’ workplace skills bears that out. Its last assessment conducted under its Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies found that a third of Israelis were at the lowest level of literacy and numeracy.