Fundamentally Freund: Israel’s educational mediocrity

Instead of empowering principals to dismiss teachers who don’t fit the bill, the system requires them to go through a tedious bureaucratic process.

August 31, 2011 22:51
4 minute read.
Teacher with students (illustrative)

Teacher with students. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

In countless thousands of homes across the country this morning, the same scene will repeat itself, as children are awakened from their summer slumber and shipped off to start a new school year.

There will be plenty of yawns and complaints, as well as legions of bleary-eyed youngsters wondering just how it is possible that July and August slipped by so quickly.

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But as with all of us, they too must learn that time stands still for no man, not even cranky teenagers.

So whether they like it or not, the children of Israel will open a new chapter in their educational careers. But just where, exactly, are they going?

Sadly, it seems what awaits them is a little more than a cauldron of mediocrity.

Consider the following. In December of last year, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released its world educational rankings based on a study conducted in 65 countries.

The report examined the performance of 15-year olds in the fields of literacy, math and science, and its findings should concern every parent in this country.

Simply put, Israel came in 29th overall, putting it behind Slovakia and barely ahead of Turkey, Chile and Mexico.

In other areas, too, Israel’s educational system lags behind. When it comes to the average number of students in each primary school classroom, the Jewish state has one of the highest rates in the world among developed countries.

Go visit your local elementary school, walk into a class, and you are likely to find 30 or more boisterous kids.

Even if every teacher was Mary Poppins, he or she would not be able to give each student the attention they need, let alone maintain control over what takes place in the classroom.

The natural reaction that many of us have to this sad state of affairs is to say: hey, let’s throw more money at the problem! If we would just pour more funds into the system, it would have to get better.

Well, believe it or not, Israel already does so.

An OECD paper on Israeli education policy from June of last year noted that “In international comparison, Israel devotes a relatively high share of GDP to education.”

“Public and private expenditure on educational institutions,” it said, “is around 8% of GDP, compared with an OECD average of about 6%.”

So it’s not that we aren’t spending enough, we just aren’t getting our money’s worth.

In recent years, the government has instituted changes to improve the system, such as the “New Horizons” program in elementary schools or the “Oz LeTemura” reform in secondary schools that was agreed upon in May.

These include improving teachers’ pay while boosting the number of hours they put in.

There are still a whole host of problems that need to be addressed, from what is taught to how it’s taught, to how many it is taught to at a time.

But a critical factor is who is doing the teaching?

Now don’t get me wrong. Israel is blessed with many dedicated teachers who devote their lives to imparting knowledge. But bad teachers do exist aplenty, and as Channel 10 news reported on August 17, it is virtually impossible to fire a lousy teacher in Israel. The bureaucratic process is so prolonged and tiresome that many school officials don’t even bother.

Instead of empowering principals to dismiss teachers who don’t fit the bill, the system requires them to go through a tedious process that involves mounds of paperwork and reports, consultations with representatives of the Education Ministry as well as sit-downs with the teacher and the school adviser. All this while they have a school to run.

While the system is designed to protect the rights of teachers, in the end it infringes on the rights of students because bad educators remain stuck in the system.

A key part of this phenomenon is what former New York city schools chief Joel Klein once referred to as “the dance of the lemons,” whereby lousy teachers are simply shifted to a different school.

So even if a principal does succeed in getting rid of a problem teacher, he or she usually ends up becoming someone else’s problem instead.

There is no reason for this to be the case, and it’s time for parents to speak out.

The teaching profession needs to be transformed from a weary bureaucracy into a flourishing meritocracy, where achievement is rewarded and failure has its consequences.

Principals need to be given more power to fire bad teachers, and the reams of red tape standing in their way need to be cut.

This simple yet necessary change will have a profound impact. Bad teachers not only ruin students, but also damage the reputation of good teachers.

We Jews may be known as the People of the Book, but we are raising a generation that has a hard time reading one.

Changing the way the system handles bad teachers, along with a host of other reforms, will go a long way toward reversing this worrisome trend.

The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel (, a Jerusalem-based organization that helps lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities return to the Jewish people.

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