The Problem With Israeli Schools Isn't the Budget, but How It's Used

Education expert Ruth Klinov responds to the OECD's education report that painted a grim picture of Israel.

The OECD education report that was published last week painted a grim picture of Israel: Its teachers earn less than their peers in other countries, and total investment in education is also lower. The report made waves and headlines, and some people even concluded that the fault lay in the size of the country's education budget.

But Prof. Ruth Klinov, the country's leading education economist, says otherwise. Klinov was the person who interpreted and explained the OECD figures to the Education Ministry, and all the newspaper articles were based on her work.

Prof. Ruth Klinov September 16, 2010 Janice Ben David
Janice Ben David

"The budgetary outlay per pupil is secondary to how the outlay is allocated," she told TheMarker. "The current allocation needs a lot of work before we increase total expenditure on education."

First off, it's not clear that Israel doesn't invest enough in education, she said. The OECD report had two indexes for measuring investment. According to one index, the PPP, Israel lags behind other countries. But the other index - expenditure as a share of per capita GDP - is the more important of the two. And on that index, Israel is around average in terms of investment in primary education.

But the data suggest that investment in preschool is lagging, and the trend also points to diminishing investment over the years, which is not encouraging.

The OECD figures do not reflect the New Horizon reform, which significantly increased the country's investment in education as well as teachers' pay. Once the reform is in full swing and is reflected in the statistics, in another two or three years, Israel's status will be clearer. That's when it will be possible to say whether the reform has reversed the trend of diminishing investment.

The main problem facing the country's education system, however, is not the size of the investment, but how the money is used - namely, how much of it is actually being spent on education, as measured by classroom hours, average classroom size, average instruction hours per teacher and teacher pay. These are all much more important than the fiscal measures in the OECD report.

Needed: Fewer teachers, more hours

In terms of classroom hours, the Education Ministry reported that Israel's students are significantly better off than the OECD average: Elementary school students receive 1,044 classroom hours a year, while the OECD average is 800.

Klinov was very surprised to see such an extreme figure, and double-checked it. She found that the ministry's figure was the number of hours allocated, while the number of hours that students receive in practice is about 740 - which is much closer to the situation in many OECD countries.

What's disturbing is the gap between allocation and reality. About 30% of allocated classroom hours are missing, something that neither Klinov nor the ministry could explain.

Where are the lost 300 hours? Are schools making good use of them - for instance, by splitting classes into two? Or are these just wasted resources?

"The gap between the large number of hours the ministry allocates and the number of hours students spend learning immediately leads to the conclusion that the large number of hours is the main thing making the education system so expensive," Klinov said. "The large number of hours demands a large number of teachers, which makes it more difficult to find quality teachers."

And classroom hours affects teacher pay: Too many allocated classroom hours means too many teachers are employed, nearly certainly more than are needed.

The OECD report shows Israeli teachers teach significantly fewer classroom hours than their peers in developed countries: Elementary school teachers teach 755 hours a year, compared to the OECD average of 786, while high-school teachers teach 541 hours, compared to 661.

Since teachers work few hours, the system needs more of them. This means that the student-teacher ratio is quite high in Israel, and the quality of teachers hired is certainly lower as a result.

Ultimately, the large number of hours allocated to students - many of which never reach the students - and the small number of hours that teachers teach make Israel's education system very expensive. So to reduce expenses, Israel greatly increases classroom size - the average class is 27.6 students, as opposed to an OECD average of 21.6 - and pays teachers very little: Teachers with 15 years of seniority receive 49% of what the average Israeli college graduate earns, and 77% of what college graduates working as teachers in OECD countries earn. Both factors harm Israel's education system.

"An international comparison reveals the allocation is unbalanced," said Klinov. "Lots of classroom hours and few hours per teacher make the system more expensive. And the means of compensation for this reduce the quality of education: Low pay makes it difficult to hire quality teachers, and large class size makes teaching difficult.

"The education system is always competing with the business sector - and the more teachers you need within a given budget, the lower the salaries will be and the harder it will be to find quality teachers."

The solution is to reduce the number of classroom hours per student and increase the number of instruction hours per teacher, Klinov said. That would create resources to raise teacher pay and reduce classroom size.

"It's not clear whether an internal change in priorities would be enough, but there's a long way to go before the budget as a whole needs to be increased," she added.

Basically, the system needs to employ far fewer teachers, have them work for more hours and pay them more. These steps would likely improve teacher motivation and quality. Additionally, the Education Ministry should improve supervision over the use of classroom hours. That could enable it to significantly cut the number of hours allocated.