Welcome to First Grade

The new and distorted approach to education says you cannot demand too much from students; anyone who has a hard time studying has 'learning disabilities.'

This year's most surprising letter to Haaretz on education was sent by Uri Kol of Tel Aviv, a recent high-school graduate. The letter (published in Hebrew on August 20) discusses the results of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which recently ranked Israeli students particularly poorly: They are lazy, ignorant and stupid. Student Kol has a different explanation for the deterioration. He says once he was told that the tests had no affect on his grades and were only for "Israeli pride," he chose his answers randomly so as to finish as soon as possible, "and many of my friends did the same."

Maybe we have a values problem, but it seems it is impossible to use these exams to reach conclusions on the level of Israeli students' knowledge. Still, we don't need these tests to know that our education system is sick.

We have outstanding teachers, but we also have poor ones, whom the system is incapable of removing due to their complete protection by the teachers' unions. Former education minister Amnon Rubinstein says that during all his years in the post he only managed to fire one teacher.

The Education Ministry, which tries to be popular, chose in recent years to advance "students' rights," but completely eroded teachers' rights. Today's student is a "customer" and must be satisfied. If not, they will complain to the Education Ministry. Therefore it is not worth it for the teacher to punish, but to give high grades.

Today you are not allowed to send a disruptive student out of class, so chattering and disturbances have become the norm. Half of class time is wasted on maintaining quiet, while the students have no problem talking on their cellphones and even eating during class - things that in the past would have been completely unacceptable.

The new and distorted approach says you cannot demand too much from students. Anyone who has a hard time studying has "learning disabilities," and you should not make demands that would frustrate them. You cannot demand that students read books or memorize material. Even tests have been made almost superfluous. The system sanctifies the lowest common denominator: shallowness and superficiality. It is no longer deemed acceptable to give homework during vacations, because vacations are holy. Only learning isn't.

The result is stammering students whose ability to express themselves in writing and orally are embarrassingly low. There is also amazing ignorance of all concepts of history, Zionism and Judaism. Reading books has almost completely disappeared. Too few students take "difficult" subjects such as math, science and English at the top levels.

If so, why is it surprising that private schools are growing? Why is it surprising that more and more parents are making the financial effort to move their children to a place where they can learn? After all, the relationship between current levels of education and knowledge and future earnings are clear to everyone. That is why we need a revolution in the education system. We need to turn 180 degrees and go back to good old values.

We need to raise the acceptance standards for teacher training and demand that every teacher needs a bachelor's degree. We need to restore the respect, status and authority of teachers so they can control the classroom and not have students control the class.

We need to give principals full managerial freedom and control of their budgets. The principal must be able to choose teachers, get rid of failing ones and pay higher salaries to stars. Achievement and excellence must stop being swear words in school.

The Education Ministry received additional funds in recent years of about NIS 5 billion as part of the New Horizon reform program, which improved the salaries of elementary school teachers. As a result, average spending per student in Israel is higher than the European average. The problem is that too much of the budget goes to bureaucracy and unnecessary layers of administration - instead of to teachers' salaries.

Uri Kol has already finished high school. But his younger friends who are starting first grade are entitled to a better educational system - one that teaches more and educates better. It needs to be an educational system that respects the teacher, demands more of the students and restores the old-time rules of discipline. And without any concessions, please.