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Struggling to Make the Grade with Its Educational System in Dire Straits, Israel Ranks Near Bottom O

The environmental-studies teacher kneels with a group of second-graders in a garden patch as together they plant a row of cabbage seeds, digging just deeply enough to protect the plants they will become. The seemingly ordinary activity is a first for the Gderot School in central Israel.

The money to hire Gderot’s first environmental studies teacher is one of the benefits of being among 200 schools participating in the government’s pilot program that aims to revitalize Israel’s much-maligned school system.

“It’s the beginning of a change,” said Niza Vider, principal of the Gderot elementary school, which serves a cluster of moshavim near Rehovot.

The pilot program was launched this year. It comes as Israel’s schools are considered to be in dire straits. Students place near the bottom on international tests compared to their Western counterparts. Students have to scramble for attention in large and crowded classes, and rates of school violence — mostly in the form of severe bullying — are high. Teachers are underpaid and, in some cases, considered underqualified.

“The kids from Israel, for them school is like camp. There is no discipline or regulations. You do what you want,” says Eitan Stoller, 30, a civics and history teacher at Lady Davis Amal High School who was voted best teacher in Tel Aviv last year in a local magazine poll. He has enforced a strict code of conduct in his classes that has proven successful.

But in many of Israel’s classrooms, an atmosphere of chaos reigns. Teachers struggle to control classes with as many as 40 students. Both parents and students complain that the school system has become a place less of intellectual stimulation than of boredom.

In what may be a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, low teacher expectations contribute to the downward spiral.

Zemira Mevarech, an education professor and vice rector of Bar Ilan University, and two colleagues recently completed a study that found Israeli teachers to be among the least demanding in the developed world.

“It’s amazing how little we demand,” Mevarech said of teachers’ expectations for students. Trying to ensure that students pass matriculation exams at the end of high school, teachers tend to spoonfeed information rather than challenge their students to think creatively and critically, she said.

Given the failure to push students, perhaps it’s not surprising that an international survey in 2003 ranked Israel 33rd out of the top 41 developed countries in science, 31st in math and 30th in reading.

“It’s really low. We were shocked to see it,” Mevarech said.

Israel’s academic elite warn that if the education system doesn’t improve, it could have catastrophic consequences for the country’s ability to compete internationally. Technion professor Aaron Ciechanover, who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry with an Israeli and an American colleague, said the educational system is plunging Israel into a “quiet crisis” that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves.

“Unless rapidly corrected, this choking of brainpower will soon erase the admirable progress Israel has made in joining the First World. It will destroy the opportunities and the future that Israel’s people deserve. It will also decimate the great source of pride Israel has bestowed on Jewish communities around the world,” Ciechanover wrote in a recent essay.

“At this dangerous juncture, the government must make education a high national priority. Earmarked

support from Jewish communities world-wide is now more crucial than ever,” he continued. “Only if Israel will be able to supply the world’s best-trained, most creative and knowledgeable workers will the nation’s economic independence and social progress be assured.”

Some educators say the Israeli school system has been on a downward slide for two decades, attributable to a range of factors from shrinking budgets to the challenges of teaching an especially diverse student body.

Low salaries make it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain qualified teachers. Furthermore, the structure of the Education Ministry — which oversees several distinct bureaucracies because of divisions among secular, religious, Arab and alternative schools — has made it difficult to streamline educational management.

Compounding the problems, Israel has one of the largest gaps in the Western world between wealthy and poor students. Poorer students consistently perform below those who come from wealthier homes, and the gap between what rich and poor students achieve in school is greater in Israel than almost anywhere else in the world, researchers said.

“Poverty is linked with almost everything bad in education,” said Tom Gumpel, an education professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Virginia Commonwealth University whose expertise is school violence and special education. The single biggest predictor of whether a student will need special education is family income, he said.

Poverty is at its most intense among Israeli Arabs, who make up about one-quarter of Israeli students but whose educational levels remain consistently below those of their Jewish counterparts. The Arab sector has higher drop-out rates, and fewer Arab students complete matriculation exams.

Israel spends as much on education as many of developed countries do — about 8.6 percent of GDP — but results continue to fall short.

Student performance in the major cities is considered better than in towns and villages. Experts say that may have more to do with the higher socioeconomic level of the urban students’ parents than with the schools themselves.

In addition, teachers in urban areas often are wealthier and better educated than their counterparts in the periphery.

Israel maintains its image as a country of innovators thanks in part to its universities, all of which are research institutions. The research focus drives much of the innovation emerging from Israel, as the universities push students to excel academically.

The army also is a major factor in Israel’s status as a force in fields like high-tech. Many of the country’s top technology entrepreneurs served in army units that focus on high-tech research and development.

The challenge facing the educational system today is to lay the necessary groundwork earlier, during the years of every child’s regular schooling, experts say.

“In the classroom, what helps most is if the student is motivated and positive. When they have this spark in their eyes, we can really help them excel,” said Hagit Gal, a science teacher at the Gderot School. Additional personal attention to students and a new range of subject matter, which the school is enjoying thanks to the pilot reform program, have helped engage students, she said.

Education Minister Limor Livnat began implementing the program in the autumn at dozens of schools, mostly in poorer parts of the country. The schools are to follow the recommendations of the Dovrat committee, which was charged with addressing the decline in Israeli schools, specifically low achievement in math, science and literacy on international tests.

At the Gderot School — where students come from a relatively high socio-economic background compared to other schools participating in the pilot program — the reforms have been welcomed by most.

“As a principal I always have visions and dreams for what I want to do, and some of those dreams I have been able to realize this year,” said principal Vider, noting that teachers now have extra time and resources to focus on both gifted and struggling students.

She also is excited about the extra courses the school can offer, from a toy-making class based on principles of physics to music lessons and math enrichment for top students.

One reason for the decline in education is the inability to attract enough top young people to the teaching profession. Though salaries for teachers have never been high in Israel, the profession used to attract some of the brightest and most dynamic people. Especially during the early years of the state, there was an ideological focus on creating a well-educated younger generation. In addition, salaries in other fields were low then as well.

Now, however, bright university graduates have promising horizons in high-tech and other industries, and relatively few choose to go into teaching.

Starting teachers receive about $666 a month. The Dovrat Committee recommended raising starting salaries to $1,000 a month

The committee on reforms was headed by Shlomo Dovrat, a millionaire who made his fortune in high-tech. He and his committee members consulted with hundreds of experts over 15 months, but they drew fire from teachers’ organizations for not including teachers on the committee.

The Dovrat report is similar in some ways to President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” plan from 2001. That plan also tried to bring a business-like approach to the classroom, holding teachers and principals accountable for students’ success and making the entire educational system more results-oriented.

In addition to seeking a raise in salaries to attract and retain quality teachers, the Dovrat reforms recommend extending the school day, a controversial issue in Israel. They recommend changing the school week from its current six-day week of five hours per day to a five-day week of eight-hour days, arguing that a longer school day produces more focused and intensive learning.

The reform program also seeks to develop a core curriculum, requires closer surveillance of student performance and aims to reduce bureaucracy by giving schools and principals more autonomy in budget and personnel decisions.

Shmuel Har-Noy, the Education Ministry coordinator in charge of implementing the Dovrat recommendations, said he’s optimistic that gradual improvement is possible.

The reform program “gives answers to main problems,” he said.

The government refuses to reduce class size — it could cost millions of dollars — frustrating education experts who see large classes as a barrier to quality education. Hebrew University’s Gumpel, however, says the beneficial effect of smaller classes has yet to be proven by research.

Gumpel believes the most important change is to bring discipline back to the classroom. He said all teachers need to be trained in classroom and behavior management so that students know there will be repercussions for disruptive behavior.

Yael Shamir, 17, a student at Lady Davis Amal High School, spent two months last year on an exchange program with the Milken Jewish Community High School, a private Jewish day school in Los Angeles. She was taken aback by the discipline and rules the American students followed, and by how seriously they took their studies.

In Israel, she said, “people don’t invest in school for their future.”

Like Israeli society at large, Israeli schools have tended to be more relaxed than rule-heavy. In recent years, however, behavioral problems have intensified as parents have become more lax about discipline and authority at home, educational experts say.

In turn, some children come to school with less respect for the authority of adults, including teachers.

“Behavior is dictated by environment, so we need to modify the environment,” Gumpel said.

Violence in Israeli schools mostly entails students bullying each other in physical, emotional or sexual ways.

Startled by the violence and deterioration of the educational system, Stoller, the civics and history teacher in Tel Aviv, decided to adopt a “tough-love” style in his classroom.

In a style reminiscent of movie classics like “To Sir, with Love,” students have to follow a strict code of conduct in his class. They can address him only as “teacher” — most Israeli students refer to their teachers by their first names — and must stand when he enters the room.

Stoller gives recalcitrant students academic punishments, such as writing essays. He has suggested that metal detectors be installed in schools and that violent students be dealt with harshly, even with expulsion.

He has written to the Education Ministry asking that violent students not be allowed to apply for drivers’ licenses, and that they be banned from combat units in the army.

“I explain that if you are tough and give boundaries you show you care about them, and you have a better chance to implement values in their personality,” Stoller told JTA.

Meanwhile, in Gderot, where some of the reforms are being piloted, the principal is heartened to see students coming to school more motivated than ever.

“Our goal is to make school an attractive place to be, not a boring place but somewhere pupils can say, ‘I come because people care about me here, because it’s interesting here,’ ” Vider said.

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