Ministry of Education Wants Israel's Schools More Artsy, Not Fartsy

The country's top official for arts education sharply criticized the public schools' treatment of the subject as a "luxury" meant for artistically-inclined pupils only.

The country's top official for arts education sharply criticized the public schools' treatment of the subject as a "luxury" meant for artistically-inclined pupils only.

"The subject suffers from an erroneous conception that brands it a 'luxury' to be studied only by those who have creative talent or special interest in it," wrote Sigal Barkai, the Education Ministry's arts education coordinator. "As a result of this attitude, budget allocations have been cut back, and there has been a reduction in the number of school hours devoted to arts instruction." Barkai leveled her criticism in advance of a Tel Aviv education conference later this week, to which she was asked to submit a paper on the state of Israeli arts education.

Illustration: High school students sitting an exam.
Nir Kafri

Barkai was particularly critical of a directive to elementary schools that two weekly hours only were to be devoted to music, theater, dance, or visual arts. She was skeptical about a policy that compels "one branch of the arts to compete against, and cancel out, another."

Noting that that "integrating different branches of art is the main trend in contemporary culture," she wrote that such integration in elementary schools "would complicate the budget schedule administered by school principals, and so whether or not arts disciplines are integrated depends upon a particular principal's world view, or whether parents are willing to make payments." In any case, Barkai noted that arts education in elementary schools is in better shape than it is in middle schools, where she writes that "a real black hole" has been created in arts instruction.

While elementary schools are required to devote two hours a week to arts instruction, middle schools are under no such obligation. Whether or not middle school pupils are exposed to the arts depends on a principal's commitment, or pressure applied by parents.

"Taking arts instruction out of the required core education curriculum has in recent years brought about a drastic reduction in the number of teachers, and the amount of hours devoted to arts instruction in middle schools; some schools that offered arts education in the past now devote resources to other subjects." Barkai complained that due to "the lack of continuity in middle school study of the arts, many pupils lose their interest and curiosity in the field, and that disinterest continues in high school. A pupil who wants to study the arts in high school will have trouble satisfying that interest."

While acknowledging that high school students can choose the arts as a matriculation exam topic, she noted that many schools do not offer an adequate arts education track leading to the matriculation exam. In such schools, a pupil who does not have private arts lessons will be at a disadvantage compared to pupils at schools where parents subsidize arts education.

"Principals have a tendency to emphasize plastic arts in high school arts instruction programs because they make a good impression on parents - but, in practice, most principals don't really know how to put together a solid arts instruction program," said Noa Hazan, past director of arts studies at Seminar Hakibbutzim College, the country's leading teacher-training institute.