School Matters / Small Classes, Big Dangers

This Sunday, the leaders of the Secondary School Teachers Association (SSTA) - along with the thousands of teachers who shut down the country's high schools for months - achieved one of their main demands.

For the first time, the cabinet approved a long-term plan to cut nationwide class sizes to 32 students. Implementation will begin next school year, and will take about 10 years. Although the teachers had requested a shorter implementation period of five to six years, they encountered opposition from the finance minister, as anticipated. The exact details of the process, such as where it will be implemented first, will be hammered out in the coming days by a committee headed by Prof. Yitzhak Friedman, the former director of the Henrietta Szold Institute.

Several hours after the plan was approved, Jerusalem's Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel held a discussion on the potential consequences of the move. While praising the government for its major investment in the school system - about NIS 2.3 billion, not including construction costs - some of the participants warned of the plan's potential downsides.

In a position paper written before the discussion, institute researcher Nahum Blass, who considers the plan an important opportunity, warned it could bring about a decline in teaching quality. He says reducing classroom size "without changing the number of instruction hours and work hours, and the allocation of classroom hours, will require 9,000 to 17,000 more teachers. Even now the school system has difficulty finding suitable teachers, and therefore expanding the staff by such a degree will force a compromise on the quality of teachers hired."

Blass also warns, "The demand for teachers will increase along with the number of classes, which is liable to create teacher shortages in certain places, mainly in the state school system and Jewish national-religious schools. As a result, there will be increased pressure on good teachers in schools serving weaker populations, or teachers who teach in the periphery, to transfer to schools that serve better-off populations or the center of the country."

Blass also believes the plan will require an investment of NIS 5.7 billion to NIS 9.3 billion. He calculated NIS 2 billion is needed for ongoing expenses, and the rest for one-time investments in construction and teacher training. This is far more than the cabinet approved. When the Friedman Committee completes its work, it will be possible to examine how the government outlay was calculated, as well as the reason for the wide gap.

Current prevailing opinions state that costs may be reduced by cutting the number of classes that have fewer than 24 students. Education Ministry figures show there are almost 11,000 such classes. Blass found a high percentage of them are in the national-religious and ultra-Orthodox sectors, and their small size stems from the separation of boys and girls, mainly in elementary school.

"We have to fight this phenomenon, but that's already a political war," he adds. Past experience teaches that the chances of success in such a war are not great.

No magic solution

After several difficult months, the Education Ministry can be somewhat pleased. The agreement with the Teachers Union, which represents the elementary school teachers, and the results of the SSTA strike opened the gate to increasing teacher salaries throughout the school system, and the process of reducing class size is underway. But ministry director general Shlomit Amihai knows that these two steps are not enough to bring about a real revolution in the school system.

In a conversation at the beginning of the week, Amihai enumerated changes that must take place as well: improving the quality of the teachers and the principals, changing the curricula to include less rote learning and more thinking, and changing the format of the matriculation exams accordingly.

"Nobody knows precisely where to invest in order to register achievements," she says.

However, at least two problems cast a shadow over Amihai's plan: Not only does the pace of changes in each of these areas differ - and therefore it is not clear if and when each will filter down into the schools - but the Education Ministry's budget makes the mission almost impossible.

The main burden facing the ministry is the promise by Education Minister Yuli Tamir to fund part of the school system reform - set to cost NIS 880 million over six years. A senior ministry official dubbed this the "original sin." Most of the budget is earmarked for teacher salaries, and therefore it is mainly the less formal activities that will suffer: assistance for weak pupils, educational initiatives and funding for various groups. This year, most of the cut was absorbed by the Hebrew-language ulpans for new immigrants, but that is apparently only a preface to what we can expect in the future.

"The Education Ministry's contribution to funding the reform is very significant," says Amihai, "and has caused other issues to suffer, but everything was done out of a commitment to leading and promoting the change. What it means is continuing the cuts in the coming years, as the ministry promised."

However, she adds, "If the reform proves itself, we will be able to talk about growth and not only about survival. We have an obligation to make sure the reform is genuine. Then we will say 'we delivered the goods,' and (the treasury - O.K.) will have to help us fulfill our wishes and deal with problems."

One of the ways of overcoming budget difficulties is an international fundraising campaign targeting Jewish donors. "Philanthropy is not a dirty word, as long as it does not enter the heart of the school system," says Amihai. "There are many philanthropists who are convinced that education is the most important thing in the country, and linking up with us is as crucial for them as it is for us. We severely lack 'an extra soul' in education, and they can help."

Amihai plans to enlist donors mainly to invest in computer and science labs, pedagogical initiatives for teacher development and even renovating teachers' rooms. In the distant past, such issues were practically the sole responsibility of the Education Ministry. No longer. In recent years, as the ministry's budget shrank, the way was paved for greater private-sector and nonprofit intervention.

Amihai is not worried about the growing influence of private bodies on the school system.

"When the government explains what it wants, donors respect that, and when the government is self-deprecating, some of them turn into lords and masters," she says.