Shrinking the school week, school vouchers and closing gaps in teacher training were just a few of the topics floated by a group of English-speaking Likud members during a recent meeting with Israeli Education Minister Yoav Kisch.
The meeting was organized by Paul Wiener, chairman of the Likud Anglo Division.
“We are building our own protectsia [‘influence’],” he said of the group. “We address issues that affect everybody, and that affect olim [‘new immigrants’]. And who knows, maybe our members can eventually become members of Knesset.”
Native-born Israeli Oshy Ellman, who returned to Israel from the United Kingdom in 2017 with four children in tow, has experienced education systems on both sides of the pond.
“My passion is education,” she said. “I think it is the basis for everything. It’s essential to Judaism, Israel, our identity, promoting Israel’s advancement. For our future and our children’s future we must get education right,” she said.
She went on to explain that when Anglos immigrate to Israel, it’s taken for granted that the educational framework available for their children will be worse.
“Everyone says ‘throw out your expectations about the educational system,'” she said.
To which Kisch quipped in response, “Then we can only exceed your expectations!”
However, Ellman insisted it was no laughing matter.
“People told me we shouldn’t care, as long as our children are happy. But why should we settle for happy? Are our children really happy? And where will they end up in the future?” she said.
While she took care to note the positive—children in Israel have a lot more independence and take a lot of initiative in school—she went on to state that there is a downside to the country’s education system that cannot be ignored.
“The methods of teaching and the tools the teachers are given are below average,” she said, “and we can see that in the results.”
It was sad to see, she said, that many children in Israel work from decades-old textbooks.
“Head teachers in the United Kingdom have more tools at their disposal,” she said.
She also noted that “here, they can’t fire a bad teacher. The salaries rise but raises are not merit-based.”
Instead of temporary, stop-gap measures, genuine reform was needed, she concluded.
‘The system requires a total overhaul’
Ellman produced charts and graphs, courtesy of Professor Dan Ben-David, president and founder of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research and a lecturer in Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy.
The graphs paint an alarming and frankly damning picture of the future of Israel, based on the qualitative gaps in the education system.
Yes, Israel has a robust high-tech industry, composed of mostly educated and highly creative people, but Ben-David, with whom I spoke afterwards to clarify the data presented at this meeting, points out that technology accounts for only 10% of Israel’s overall economy.
Many of the graphs were based on comparisons between Israel and partners in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 38 countries that works to support policy reforms in specific predetermined areas, such as integrity, anti-corruption, governance, rule of law, investment and business climate. Israel joined this group in 2010 when Netanyahu was prime minister and Gideon Sa’ar was education minister.
Compared to 25 OECD countries, based on PISA exams from 2018, Israel’s students scored second to last. Israel’s Arabic speakers were in last place. Israel did however take first place for the number of pupils failing in the core subjects of mathematics, science and reading. Israeli students’ math scores were the lowest out of all participating countries.
“This means that, as adults, Israel’s children will be incapable of maintaining a modern economy, advanced health care or sufficient defense,” said Ben-David.
Longitudinal studies following students during school and after graduation and entering the workforce showed that the higher the level of math students had in school, the greater their wages were when they entered the workforce.
Ben-David reasoned that had ultra-Orthodox students participated in the testing, the scores would have been even lower, since most of the boys do not study core subjects.
His research also shows that Israeli teachers’ literacy skills are lower than in all other countries with the exception of Italy.
According to a Shoresh study from 2019, the average class size in Israel’s primary and lower secondary schools greatly exceeded that of every OECD country, as did the number of pupils per teacher. While the average Israeli class size was listed as 26 in primary and 28 in lower secondary as contrasted with the 20 to 23 number in OECD schools, today there are classes in Israel with as many as 30 to 40 children in many schools.
“The system requires a total overhaul,” explained Ben-David, who has met with many education ministers to advocate for the creation of a uniform core curriculum for all of Israel’s schools, and for a system that teaches teachers not just how to teach, but how to master core curricula themselves.
“Most education ministers do not base their educational policy on science or research. Instead, they just have a condescending ‘We know best’ approach,'” he said.
“Children have to be studying at higher levels. Reading, spelling, civics, math and science should be at a much higher and more uniform level. In Israel, education has a higher budget than the defense industry, but it isn’t giving us what we need.”
He also pointed out that Israel ranks No. 1 in terms of educational inequality from district to district. As far as the education of teachers, in 2018 the vast majority (79%) went to teaching colleges, while 17% went to general colleges and only 4% to university.
Ellman also argued that Israel’s six-day school week should be reduced to five days.
“I started a campaign three years ago,” she said. “My kids literally couldn’t get up in the morning, they were so exhausted from the six-day school week. I tried to make a local change in Ra’anana. We made a video. From all the comments I got, many people were all for it, but somehow, no one thought it would be viable.”
Israel, she noted, “is the only country in the world with a six-day week, and children never have a down day. Research shows that growing children need time to relax.” Teachers, too, would benefit from a two-day weekend, as would the country’s economy as a whole, she said.
She focused specifically on the issue of schools opening on Fridays for a mere 3.5 hours.
“Half the kids don’t show up and nothing really gets taught. It’s a waste of a day and a waste of the teacher’s and staff’s time,” she said. Instead, she suggested, Fridays should be reserved for extracurricular activities and nature hikes.
“Why not save the money and put it into the system, and make the rest of the week more productive?” she said.
Kisch agreed and said the five-day school week discussion was on the agenda.
Jon Surasky was one of several participants at the meeting who pointed out that Israeli schools are losing the opportunity to infuse Israeli children with excitement regarding their identity. He suggested that the Education Ministry launch a system to teach Jewish history in all schools.
“Some children have never been to Judea or Samaria, so all they know is what they hear from the propaganda machines,” he said. “Many never even visited the Wailing Wall or other Jewish landmarks,” he added.
Sarah Koren, a retired nurse from Or Akiva, raised the issue of the huge discrepancy in funding between districts, depending on the district’s demographic.
On a down note, Kisch said that there is a tremendous lack of human resources in the education field, a problem that he expects will get worse.
The issue wasn’t a matter of finances, he explained.
“It doesn’t depend on salaries,” he said. “There is a violent atmosphere in the schools, reflecting the overall violent atmosphere we are seeing in Israel.”
According to Koren, another big issue is class size.
“Some basic changes must be made. The class sizes in Israel are just too large. Why not use retired teachers and why not encourage more national service volunteers, after giving them a brief course?” she said.
“In the hospitals, we used the American Hospital Association to accredit nurses and it was quite successful,” she noted. “All medical staff have required courses that medical professionals must do online and pass. And the Health Department also added spot inspections. Why not have annual accreditations for teachers to help them sharpen their skills?”
She noted that Haifa recently established a course for qualified teachers who already have their bachelor’s degrees, complete with internships.
“If all the teachers in the country had to go through a recertification, the quality of education would improve,” she said.
Rivka Felsenstein, a music therapist who has been in the school system since 1994, agreed that the class sizes were far too large.
“The number of children in classes is way too high, and the number of children diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, learning disabilities who are in the regular classes is increasing every year,” she said. “It is impossible for an ordinary teacher to deal with the number of children. Regular teachers, especially veteran teachers who studied mainstream education, should be given more training about special education.”
She noted that while there are currently counselors available to help teachers, there are no mandated courses in special education.
‘Parents can make a meaningful choice’
Beit Shemesh resident Shaul Behr put it bluntly: “The public schools are terrible.”
Behr, who immigrated from South Africa 21 years ago, suggested the government consider issuing school vouchers to encourage competition in the education sector.
“Rather than forcing poor people in the periphery to send their kids to ‘free’ public schools that give them a rubbish education and perpetuate their economic and social status, take the money that the government allocates per child and let the parents decide which school to send their child to,” he said.
This, he argued, will help fund private schools while creating a free market that will allow schools to compete for enrollment and state-allocated funds.
“If you move to a voucher system, private schools will spring up like mushrooms after the rain,” he added. “When a poor family has money to spend on choosing the right school for their kids, you can bet there will be institutions popping up to compete for that money, even in the periphery. Some will succeed, some will fail, but the winners will be the kids whose parents can now make a meaningful choice where and how they want their child educated.”
David Wiener, a community leader in Beit Shemesh, suggested that core subjects be offered as an “after-yeshiva” program for teens and young adults coming up through the haredi school system. He said that he already had a group of around 50 people between the ages of 18 and 24 interested in committing to a program.
“Educating them will allow them to compete for better-paying jobs in the workforce, and give them an independent source of support,” he said.
Kisch left the whirlwind meeting with a fistful of notes and some new perspectives on education.
“We addressed a lot of issues, and I think Yoav got a lot of good, substantial ideas from our group,” said Wiener. “We’re planning more meetings with him and other Likud members in the near future.”