Livnat's Test: The Long Hard Fight Expected From the Teachers' Unions

There is no reason for education ministers to be demanding budget supplements. There is no shortage of money, but rather a colossal administrative failure by all education ministers and Israeli governments over the years.

Israel's education system is the nation's most important infrastructure. Its success or failure will, to a great extent, determine the future of this country. We have no natural resources, so the standard of our human capital is what will determine whether we can compete and advance in the modern world. Education and knowledge are also an essential ladder for maximizing personal potential and economic advancement. Without them, we are condemning people to both material and cultural inferiority.

Against this background, Israeli society understandably experiences great distress when both an international comparison and local data indicate a serious deterioration in the achievements of Israeli pupils. This was the reason for the establishment of the Dovrat Commission, which submitted its findings this week.

The commission found good reasons to worry. The achievements of Israeli pupils are both low and on a continual downward trend in all major subjects - language, mathematics and science - and in every age group examined. The commission also found large discrepancies between various population groups.

It turns out that despite the years of rhetoric spouted by state leaders and the heads of the education system, the disparities in education between rich and poor have actually worsened. It also turns out that the reason for this is not budgetary, since the level of national expenditure per pupil in Israel is on par with the average expenditure in OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) member countries (adjusted according to purchasing power).

These are very serious findings, but it is worth noting that the previous commission (headed by Herzl Bodinger), which submitted its report in November 2003, concluded that the situation was even worse.

That commission found that the national expenditure on education in Israel is not merely equivalent to the average in western countries, but rather higher than in any other country in the West, after being adjusted for the standard of living (per capita national product). The differences were not small, either.

Education expenditure on students in Israel's secondary education system is 21 percent higher than the average in 39 other countries, and per student expenditure in the elementary system is 28 percent higher than the average in those countries.

The two reports therefore confirm what has been claimed here for years: There is no reason for education ministers to be demanding budget supplements. There is no shortage of money, but rather a colossal administrative failure by all education ministers and Israeli governments over the years.

The Dovrat report raises the question as to how, when scholastic achievements are declining, the percentage of students passing the matriculation exams has increased in recent years. The report responds that some of the answer lies in "organizational and technical changes."

The report does not detail the ministers' misdeeds (that would be unpleasant), so we will provide this service: "The lottery system," which reduced the number of exams (Amnon Rubinstein's idea); "focusing," which reduced the amount of material studied by a third (Zevulun Hammer and Yitzhak Levy's contribution); and "two testing dates," using the higher of the two scores (Limor Livnat's innovation).

In addition, recent years have witnessed the expansion, to the point of absurdity, of leniencies and extra time allowances during exams for anyone claiming a learning disability. The variety of subjects in which students can be tested has also grown, and now even includes horseback riding. So is it any wonder that more students are passing the exams even as scholastic achievements are dropping?

The solution to the low level of achievement and the wide gaps is to upgrade the status of both teachers and teaching. Every teacher will have to have a bachelor's degree in one of the subjects he plans to teach, as well as teacher certification. Teaching will be brought into line with other professions, with a five-day, 40-hour work week, during which teachers will spend eight hours a day in school and 23 to 28 hours a week in the classroom. This is in contrast to the current situation, in which teachers actually spend only 16 to 23 hours teaching. This will make it possible to reduce the number of teachers and raise their salaries.

The reforms will also upgrade the status of the principal, as well as his salary. He will receive a budget that he will manage autonomously. He will be able to choose his teachers and employees.

This means the absolute rule of the teachers' unions will end, and it will finally be possible to distinguish between a good teacher and a poor one, and to remunerate the good ones.

Over the years, the teachers' unions have contributed much to the crisis. They are militant organizations that oppose any change or progress. They are not opposing the report just now, because that would not be popular. But anyone who thinks that the unions will permit the reforms, which will greatly reduce their power, is mistaken. We must therefore be prepared for a long, hard struggle, for long and exhausting strikes.

These will be the test of Livnat's leadership qualities. She has been the education minister for three and a half years already, but has so far not done what is necessary. She has now taken a risk and set up the appropriate commission. Now we must wait and see whether she will win the struggle against the teachers' unions - for the benefit of education, and Israel's future.