NEW YORK (JTA) — The teacher stands in front of the sparse classroom, its walls bare and paint peeling.
“This school looks like a prison,” one of my fellow travelers whispers.
Many of the children are huddled in coats; schools in this neighborhood do not have heat, and the unexpected rain and cool air chill the room.
Overcrowded classrooms, minimal instruction hours in core subjects and a shortage of qualified teachers have taken a toll on the country’s education system. These children must study in an NGO-funded afterschool program to gain the basic academic foundation they need to break the cycle of poverty.
This scene took place a few weeks ago not in a Third World country but in Israel — a country that leads the world in patents per capita, is known for its technology startups and boasts 10 Nobel laureates, but also in some other frightening statistics.
On the most recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exam, Israeli students ranked 25th out of students from 25 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in academic achievements. Israel’s weakest students scored last among the weakest students from the participating OECD countries; its strongest students were 24th out of 25.
Israeli children are products of an education system that has been in decline for decades. Studies by many leading organizations, including Israel’s own Taub Center, reveal the link between a country’s educational achievement and its economic stability. As Israel’s education levels have decreased, wages have declined and the quality of life has dropped.
Israel likely will have to wrestle with the ramifications of having at least one generation of undereducated children who are ill suited to compete in today’s world. If trends continues, wages will continue to fall, and more people will be underemployed or unemployed and increasingly reliant on the government for subsistence. What kind of picture does that paint for Israel’s future?
To be sure, education is just one of Israel’s pressing societal issues. Last summer, Israelis demanded access to more affordable housing, medical care and other basic necessities. In addition to the need for social infrastructure, outside pressures are also very real. Just a few weeks ago, approximately 200,000 children in southern Israel could not even attend school because of missile attacks from Gaza.
The answers to Israel’s education woes are not simple, but here are a few steps Israel could consider to move in the right direction:
* Put more emphasis and resources on the core subjects critical for participation in a global economy. I have been hearing demands recently for increased emphasis on Jewish studies or Zionist history in the public school curriculum; I won’t comment on the importance of these subjects. I will say that Israeli children must excel in math, science and literacy to succeed in a global workforce. Those core subjects need to get the attention first.
* Improve training, support and pay for teachers. Israeli teachers are woefully underpaid when compared to their OECD peers. They also receive less training and professional development. Give Israeli teachers the tools, training and mentoring they need to improve classroom outcomes.
* Raise the standards for becoming a teacher. If the government gives more, it should get more in return. Most Israeli teachers graduate from one of many three-year teacher colleges; the range of requirements and quality varies greatly among the schools. Teachers are not required to have a four-year university degree, let alone a master’s or other advanced degree. Require the academic excellence of the teachers we want from the children.
* Reach the children who have been “left behind.” Systemic change takes time. Meanwhile, a whole generation of children remains ill equipped to handle the complexities of today’s workforce. Get them the programs they need to catch up and to maximize their academic achievement. It may feel like a band-aid approach, but we can’t let communities bleed to death.
These are just four steps. There are many others to consider and the challenge can seem overwhelming. However, as the sense of urgency surrounding this crisis continues to grow, I am confident that a partnership of government, NGOs and philanthropists can create the long-term solution that will enable Israel to not just survive but thrive.
(Karen Berman is the executive director of the Youth Renewal Fund, a New York-based organization that provides supplemental education to disadvantaged Israeli children. The views expressed here are her own.)