After years of denial, the Education Ministry has finally admitted to having a shortage of teachers. Even if this belated recognition stemmed from the state’s negotiations with the teachers’ unions over a new wage agreement, it constitutes progress.
The shortage of teachers threatens to empty the public school system of all meaning. To begin solving the problem, we need new thinking about outdated axioms. This is true not only regarding the principles that determine teachers’ work and their salaries, but also regarding the accepted separation between the two branches of the state education system – the Jewish one and the Arab one.
The murky relationship between the Education Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the teachers’ unions is responsible for some of the education system’s chronic ills. Among them are the low and patently unattractive salaries, which especially hurt new teachers; the absence of any remedy for teachers who are left to cope on their own with the personal and social hardships of students; and centralized management that suppresses pedagogical autonomy and administrative initiative. Attempts to change these familiar educational patterns have been met with votes of no confidence from the government. The result is a battered, calcified system. The shortage of teachers should serve as a needed wake-up call.
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During the current school year, the number of teachers is 12 percent lower than it was the previous year. Another statistic that bodes ill is that the number of people studying to become teachers has dropped by 16 percent. Principals who are now preparing for the coming school year say they’re having real trouble ensuring the necessary number of teaching hours. This means there will be a silent but tangible cut in classroom hours in certain subjects. Some principals also admit to increasingly compromising on the quality of new teachers. Any discussion of high-quality education has almost disappeared. In times of famine, it’s seen as an empty promise.
Now is the time to look beyond the ethnic separation. Several factors have resulted in thousands of Arab teachers who attended college and obtained the necessary degrees being unable to find work. In recent years, the percentage of Arab teachers who obtain jobs in schools has fallen from around 40 percent a decade ago to roughly 25 percent over the last academic year. This means that 7,000 teachers have been left without work. Yet their integration into the Jewish school system remains slow and limited.
Opponents of such integration point to the predictable problems – Arab teachers’ imperfect command of Hebrew, their concentration in subjects where there is no shortage of teachers and their geographic distance from the schools that need them. Others make claims about the ostensible cultural differences between these teachers and Jewish students. But all these difficulties can be overcome with help and guidance. The Jewish education system would benefit from absorbing thousands of Arab teachers. This would ease the shortage of teachers, even if only partially, and would also contribute to creating a new civic and educational vision.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.