Hard Look / Who Cares About Education?

In the absence of leadership pushing for change, and mainly, pushing to improve the image of teaching in Israel, it's doubtful whether Israel's education system can really improve.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are two of the 10 best universities in the world. Amazingly, both are found in one city, and not a particularly big one at that: Boston, in the northern United States. That achievement probably makes Boston a world leader in academic achievement, but it says nothing about Boston's other schools.

Until a decade ago, it turns out, Boston's education system was utterly mediocre. Excellence in the ivory tower did not filter through. Boston did not stand out from other American cities and the people of the city were dissatisfied. They demanded change.

City Hall heard the cries and poured money into the education system, while instituting a managerial reform. Six years later, Boston found itself with one of the best education systems in the world, and that is not a reference to Harvard and MIT.

You have to be a global giant like the strategic consulting firm McKinsey to be able to properly compare education systems in 25 countries. It did that very thing and in its study, the biggest of its kind, McKinsey used Boston's education system as an example. Of what? Of how changes in administration (in Boston's case, together with very big budgets) can completely change the quality of an education system in very little time.

"It's a lot easier to manage Boston's education system than to manage Israel's," observed Education Ministry Yuli Tamir in conversation with TheMarker. Israel has a lot of different sectors in education, and doesn't have Boston's homogenous high-quality population that pushes students forward, she adds. "But in six years, when we finish the reform at the elementary schools, I think we'll see an improvement in pupil performance as well," she says.

McKinsey indicated three administrative components that characterize the best education systems in the world: quality teaching for all students (helping the weak); constantly improving teacher performance by training; and mainly, choosing the teachers well.

Also, there's a fourth rule: leadership that marks the path and leads the changes that the education system needs.

Yuli's hope of improving pupil performance in six years lies in a number of steps that the Education Ministry carried out in recent years. The first was the reform recently agreed on with elementary school teachers, which gives them higher pay in exchange for increased teaching hours. Most of the extra hours will be invested in teaching small groups, which is supposed to help the stragglers. That meets the McKinsey definition of quality teaching for all students.

Tamir also points at a move by the Education Ministry to raise the quality of Israel's teaching colleges, which is necessary to improve the quality of Israel's teachers. Several colleges were merged. The number of study hours required to obtain a degree was increased. But the most important thing was raising the bar for acceptance to the colleges. Today to get into the best teaching colleges, the candidate must have achieved at least 500 points in the psychometric exam. The average of accepted candidates has risen to 545 points and the ministry hopes to reach an average of 585 points within a few years, perhaps even aspiring to 600 points. One possibility is scholarships for would-be teachers with psychometric scores above 600.

But the Education Ministry admits that the improvement in quality of the teacher colleges still doesn't bring Israel anywhere near the level in the best education systems elsewhere in the world. There, the teachers are all university graduates, and hail from among the top third of the grads, too. With a need for 5,000 new teachers each year and with Israel's plethora of education sectors - and by the way, the ministry's figures relate only to state education, ignoring the 14,000 teachers in the ultra-Orthodox sector - the ability to raise the bar for eligibility to learn at teaching college, to get picker about candidates, is very small.

But the most worrying thing is the lack of leadership. Benjamin Netanyahu lectured a month ago on education reform, which has much in common with McKinsey's findings. His speech stands out in Israel's political sphere if only by virtue of being the only such speech. Politicians like to prattle about education and children but in practice none of them has presented anything like a plan. None have placed education at the top of their priorities.

In the absence of leadership pushing for change, and mainly, pushing to improve the image of teaching in Israel, it's doubtful whether Israel's education system can really improve.