Two's Company, 35's a Crowd

Juggling social responsibility and popular opinion, costs and concerns, education and finance ministry officials try to cut class sizes.

The arguments over reducing overcrowding in the classrooms tend to be loaded with statistics. It's confusing, perhaps even tiring. Therefore, it might be worth starting with the figures that make up the bottom line: at the beginning of the current school year, almost 50 percent of junior high-school classrooms and around 26 percent of high-school classrooms in the state-run Jewish school network had more than 35 students.

Some 81 percent of junior high school classrooms and some 41 percent of grade 10-12 classrooms had 30 or more students. The overcrowded-classroom rate in the Arab sector is even higher. In the state-run religious-schools network, the rate is drastically lower and stands at around 10 percent.

In order to meet the teachers organization's demand to have the maximum number of students per classroom gradually reduced to 30, a demand that has met widespread public support, the education minister and the finance minister agreed to present, within 75 days, a multiyear plan. The ministers' commitment is also anchored in the cabinet decision earlier this week, but it is evasive: it contains no details about the final objective, about the length of the process or the budget allocated for it. Moreover, the plan calls not only for reducing overcrowding but also for the addition of more study hours and the school's ability to split classes. All of it, the cabinet decision stated, "will be subject to the budgetary limitations."

The Education Ministry has over the last few days started looking into ways of reducing the overcrowding. Officials estimated the final plan would emerge within a month and it will certainly be affected by cost considerations. According to previous Education Ministry and treasury estimates, the required budget is expected to be more than NIS 5 billion.

Four main options are under consideration. The first is "age-based" reduction: the number of students in first grade will be reduced to a yet-to-be determined rate, and over the years older grades will be reduced, too. The second option is an "across the board" reduction: the number of students will be reduced each year in all grades in a process that will last for at least five years. A third option is "a socioeconomic" reduction: classroom sizes will be reduced first in communities with a weak socioeconomic standing and will proceed from there to the rest of the country.

The fourth option, revealed here for the first time, proposes a new way of thinking: instead of a focus on smaller class sizes, it is more beneficial to add more class hours. The move would enable overcrowded classes to be divided as the schools choose, so that classes, at least in some subjects, would be conducted in groups of less than 20 students. Dr. Ami Wolansky of the Tel Aviv University School of Education, a former Education Ministry deputy director general, submitted this proposal last week. According to Education Minister Yuli Tamir, the details of the proposal are being reviewed; Teachers Union chairman Ran Erez said it is "a step in the right direction."

Under the proposal, the extra hours would come from a change in the formula used to allocate classroom hours per student. Such a change, Wolansky wrote Tamir, "would transfer the decision to the school's discretion, reinforce institutional autonomy, and enable the slicing of classes into halves or thirds. This would make it possible to conduct seminars for small groups or use modular-learning methods. This approach will allow the school to allocate additional resources for promoting subjects the school deems essential (such as those where there is a high rate of failure) or pedagogic subjects that it wants to stress because of an educational ideology, the needs of the students or of their communities."

The proposal, of course, requires a new budget (Wolansky mentions a cumulative return of around 280,000 class hours), but it is still less expensive than the costs entailed in the other options, which require, among other things, large-scale construction of new classrooms. The other options also mean addressing the shortage of public space and changing the local and district municipal master plans. As far as the teachers union is concerned, the proposal's shortfall lies in the fact that overcrowding in the homeroom will continue. On the other hand, it is likely to achieve a considerable reduction in the number of students in the classroom, at least in subjects which are more complicated to teach.

"The additional hours could also be of considerable value in restoring pedagogic discretion to the school's educational staff. The offense felt by the teachers is connected to, among other things, the professional authority that was taken away from them," Wolansky said.

Who's the boss?

According to Tamir, a less-anticipated result of the teachers strike is the heightened differences and "division of authorities" between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance. As proof, Tamir cites the most recent concession by teachers over additional classroom hours in return for an immediate increase in salary. Various parties involved in the negotiations are less supportive of this outlook. During the course of numerous discussions on purely pedagogic matters, the Ministry of Finance took a hard line and uncompromising position, officials said. Furthermore, it is uncertain if the treasury, especially in the budget department, agrees with Tamir.

The cabinet's decision earlier this week stated that, among other things in the first stage, junior-high and high-school teachers would be offered a package of reforms including a wage increase of 8.5 percent in exchange for working three additional hours and "other components relating to administrative and employment flexibility." No details were provided, but a hint may be found in the cabinet's request that the National Labor Court issue injunctions. The new terms of employment, it stated, would include broadening principals' authority in the matters of hiring new teachers, granting tenure to a teacher, professional evaluations of a teacher's work and resource management in the schools.

The treasury was quick to note that these terms are the same as ones authorities agreed to with the Teachers Federation, the essence of which relates to a principal's ability to initiate the dismissal of a teacher for pedagogic reasons, and reduces the dismissal process to a year or two. In recent years, some 10 teachers were dismissed for "pedagogic reasons."

However, some Finance Ministry officials are calling for additional steps, based on the perception the education system suffers from "structural failures" that impede its progress, even with an additional influx of funds. The treasury especially enjoys talking about the lack of transparency and budgetary efficiency, all basic terms in the spirit of the Dovrat Report on education reform.

"The problems are not only budgetary," a treasury official said recently. "We must avoid a situation where there will be a 'spilling of money' and this does not refer only to the additional of work hours in return for a wage increase, as the teachers are now demanding. Something basic still must be changed."

The Finance Ministry does not like to provide details about its basic beliefs or about its future plans, even if the goals do have a tendency to reappear every few years. Nevertheless, in talks with various treasury officials and their colleagues at the Education Ministry, there emerges a vision: using personal contracts to hire principals, term limits for principals, choosing all the teachers in the school, simplifying teacher dismissal and, the perennial favorite, substantially broadening the option a parent has in choosing their children's schools.

As far as senior Education Ministry officials are concerned, as well as education researchers in academia, the plan is disturbing.

"Even countries that did major reforms were very careful about the use of personal contracts," explains one official. "Doing so means inserting unacceptable, harmful tensions into the school. In order to ostensibly justify the use of personal contracts, there will be widespread use of assessments and evaluations of principals, teachers and also students. Everything will then be measured, but it is very hard, and apparently impossible, to quantify all components of education with a simple formula."

"The managerial approach says in effect that it is possible to affect the microprocesses inside the classrooms by changing the macro on the structural level. The problem is that this has never been proven," adds Dr. Dan Gvaton, of Tel Aviv University. As for the expansion of parental choice, a Ministry of Education official said that it would mean "widening privatization. The demand for good schools will prompt them to accept only outstanding students or those whose parents are able to pay thousands of shekels per month."

And lastly, the cabinet decision highlights the diversion of billions of shekels to "promoting and empowering the education system" and "improving and reinforcing the teachers' status." Among other things, the cabinet decision notes that already in the 2008 budget, 1.354 billion shekels are allocated for "implementing the reform plan." It was noted in the margins that the money includes salary payments resulting from arbitration over the erosion of teachers' wages. Compensation for wage erosion amounts to around 850 million shekels, and that sum is unconnected to the cabinet's good will.