Israel's Education Crisis Is Not About Pedagogy

Rami Livni
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Children outside a bilingual school in Kibbutz Eshbal, in Israel, last month.
Rami Livni

When you identify problems correctly and give them the wrong solutions it’s terrible, but you can take comfort in the fact that you understand the situation. But when you identify imaginary problems and invent absurd solutions to them, which only aggravate the real shortcomings – it’s tragic. This is what's happening with the conversation on education in Israel.

What are the three fundamental problems of the education system at present? 1. The inequality problem: the gaps between what children from different socioeconomic strata receive and the gaps between communities in central Israel and outlying areas. 2. The infrastructure problem: teacher salaries, classroom overcrowding and the low quality of teacher training, which is an obstacle to improving the quality of teachers. 3. The problem of literacy and of socialization: the decline in students’ education and skills, particularly in reading, writing, general knowledge and familiarity with canonical texts, against the backdrop of declining social cohesion.

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All of these make it harder for schools to give children the cultural background and common social denominator they need. There are of course other difficulties, but few will deny these are the most important areas.

How is it possible to compare the investment in a student in Kiryat Gat to one in Tel Aviv? How can the overall quality of teachers be greatly improved? How, in the age of the internet and of social media, can children take an interest in and study Bialik, Herzl and the prophet Jeremiah? These are difficult questions; let us at least agree that these are, in fact, the questions.

Oddly enough, people aren’t talking about them. Not the education experts and the educators in teachers’ colleges, and not the reformers in the Education Ministry, including Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton.

What are they talking about? Nonexistent problems. The pressure and “intolerable” number of bagrut matriculation exams – even though their number has whittled down to tolerable levels. The whining recurs every year. It seems easy to identify with, but it’s overboard, if not entirely invented, at least so long as we’re not seriously considering a move to an exam-free utopia. Shasha-Biton, like everyone else, wants fewer bagruts, “significant learning” and for students to have “fun” in school. She has a doctorate in education, after all, and her style is more welcoming than that of her predecessor, so people listen to her populism.

What else do they talk about? The “terrible centralization” of the system, which must be reduced in favor of more autonomy for principals – to the point of letting them drop entire subjects. It’s not even clear that this centralization is anything but a myth. And even if the Education Ministry is in fact strong and influential, it’s not clear that it’s a problem. Teachers and principals already have considerable leeway in shaping the education routine. Perhaps consideration should be given to expanding them. The concern is that reducing the role of the professional level, with its broad experience, vision and responsibility, will lead to de facto privatization that will only exacerbate inequality and further reduce social cohesion. That is, another absurd and harmful solution to a nonexistent problem.

And finally: It’s exceedingly trendy to call for abolishing the focus on “information” and memorization, in favor of “acquiring tools,” nurturing emotional experience and “finding a personal voice.” Here too, we see a lack of diagnostic abilities. There hasn’t been any memorization in schools for ages, and information-based demands are minimal. Moreover, the students’ world is chock-full of “tools” and “experiences” and an absence of hierarchy. In fact, they need balance. The proposed solution, to reduce the commitment to core learning and teacher authority, is preposterous and destructive.

The education crisis is at heart a structural, not pedagogic, crisis. But it’s boring to talk about structures and exciting to talk about pedagogy. It’s an anomaly. Instead of dealing with what’s important, we deal with what is purportedly interesting. Instead of facts, fashion. The results will not be long in coming.

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