Student Achievement

Down in Rankings, Israel Seeks Changes in Education

By Lisa Goldstein — March 03, 2004 6 min read
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Alarmed by declining student achievement compared with other nations, advocates from within and outside the education establishment, as well as the Arab constituency, are calling for sweeping changes to Israel’s entire system of schooling.

The independent Aleh Commission has presented the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and the Ministry of Education with a redesign of the system that includes several controversial changes. The commission’s report is also replete with features that resonate in the United States: changing how teachers are trained, the way schools receive funding, and what students learn.

“When we look at the state of achievement, we are all very worried,” said Dan Ben-David, an economist at Tel Aviv University and a member of the Aleh Commission, a volunteer group made up of professionals unaffiliated with the country’s precollegiate education system. “One of the most important things for growth in economy is education. We are worried about the caliber of people we have been producing from our education system and what it might mean for the future.”

That worry can be traced in part to the results of the 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Out of 38 countries, Israel’s 8th graders ranked 28th in math achievement and 26th in science. Those outcomes represent a significant departure from a previous generation. Back in 1963-64, Israel ranked first in an international math comparison among 12 countries, Mr. Ben-David said.

Spending, at least, does not seem to be a factor in the decline, according to Mr. Ben-David. “When you compare the amount of expenditures per pupil, Israel is one of the highest spenders compared to other countries that scored better than us,” he said. “We wanted to find out exactly what is going on here. Why is it such a mess?”

Critics, however, complain that Aleh commission members are just a bunch of outsiders. But Mr. Ben-David said their independent status gave them an edge. “The benefit to being unaffiliated with Israel’s education system is that we could write whatever kind of report we wanted without conflicts of interest,” he said. “The downside of not being a part of the system is we took a long time to learn about it.”

Teacher Quality

Commission members spent the past 2½ years interviewing 70 people in the education community, including previous ministers of education, teachers, principals, and parents.

They found that teachers were underpaid, underqualified, and worked less time than they should.

“Teachers’ salaries are horrendous,” Mr. Ben-David said by phone from Israel. “But if you break down what teachers get paid per hour, they don’t do so badly.”

Teachers in Israel earn about $900 a month in gross pay and work half as many hours per year as employees in other fields, he said.

To improve the teaching corps, the commission recommends that teachers be required to obtain a bachelor’s degree in a core subject before seeking additional teacher training. That training could be delivered through universities, the national certification process, or stand-alone teachers’ colleges.

Under the Aleh Commission scenario, teachers would earn higher salaries, but be expected to work full time on school premises. Many currently do planning and grading at home and maintain flexible hours, Mr. Ben- David said.

Dorit Patkin, the director of the mathematics department at Hakibbutzim College of Education, said the role of teachers’ colleges is critical to preparing teachers. “I am not sure [commission members] know the educational field well in order to make such huge changes,” she said in an e- mail interview. “I think that it will be better if teachers will come from seminars and teachers’ colleges and not from the universities, because they must grow in an educational environment.”

The group also proposes changing how teachers prepare their students by setting up a 25-member education authority to craft core curriculum standards for each grade level, which the country currently lacks, Mr. Ben-David said. Schools would then use exams to test students on the core curriculum to see if they were ready to advance to the next grade.

“Now, every school does their own thing; it’s a mess,” he contended. “The Ultra-Orthodox [Jewish] sector learns little math and science, for example. We want to make it so that any school that wants to function must adopt the core curriculum or lose funding.”

In addition, more school funding, which comes from the central government, would go to schools with poor students. Aid would also hinge on performance.

“What we are doing now is trying to create as much public support as we can so politicians can’t ignore it,” he said.

But the Education Ministry had no comment about the specific recommendations in the Aleh report, instead deciding to focus on an upcoming report from its own commission. Last September, the ministry established the Dovrat Commission made up of 18 education, legal, and economics experts. The plan is expected to be ready by next month.

“The Ministry of Education congratulates every initiative that is meant to contribute to the education system,” Anat Manshuir, a ministry spokeswoman, said, translating a prepared statement in Hebrew that refers to the Aleh report, by phone from Israel. “The Dovrat Committee was confirmed by the education department and is concerning itself with the changes of the structure.”

Arab Concerns

A separate group hopes its suggestions for changing education for Arabs will be incorporated into the Dovrat Commission’s work.

The Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education is pushing for a dual education system—one for Arabs and one for Jews—within the same ministry.

An umbrella organization of Arab education advocates, the follow-up committee commissioned a survey earlier this year that showed 85 percent of people involved in education in the Arab sector were not satisfied with how it is run, said Atef Moaddi, a spokesman for the group.

The survey polled more than 600 people, including teachers, parents, administrators, and academics. About 70 percent believe the current structure does not allow for the Arab educational system to improve itself, Mr. Moaddi said.

The report said Arab schools suffer from a lack of Arab representation in the Education Ministry. Discrimination in budget allocations and insufficient input from Arab educators about curricular decisions have kept students from achieving their full potential, it charged.

The authors went so far as to describe the Arab education system as a “pawn for governmental control, thus interfering with the natural development of Arab society.”

Still, only about 28 percent of those surveyed said they wanted a completely separate system, Mr. Moaddi said.

“Some of those surveyed wanted integration, some wanted cultural autonomy, but what we decided is something in the middle—to have something special for Arab education and to be inside the Education Ministry,” he said by phone.

Ms. Manshuir said the Education Ministry had no comment on the Arab-sector report.

But Goory Gur, a Jewish principal who runs a technological high school in Haifa, said in an e-mail interview that many educators perceive Arab education as somewhat independent already.

“They must study Hebrew and the history of Israel,” Ms. Gur said. “The rest [of the] subjects are taught in Arabic. Also, they study Arabic national history, Arab culture, and poetry. So, in general, the Arab education is independent, in fact, with some general regulations.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Moaddi believes a more separate system might help close an achievement gap between Arab and Jewish students. For example, the dropout rate for Jewish children is 5 percent, but is 30 percent for Arabs, he said.

“Indeed, it will be a big fight,” Mr. Moaddi said. “I will be honest. It will not be easy to convince the education structure to take this position and give autonomy. But the structure in the ministry now—we have nothing there.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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