The new school year is not getting off on the right foot, partially because Israel’s two teachers organizations are at loggerheads.

The Secondary School Teachers Association (SSTA) declared a labor dispute against the Education Ministry on Sunday over what it termed “growing discrepancies” with the Teachers Union (TU).

The declaration should not affect the official opening of the school year today, but SSTA teachers are threatening to call a strike in two weeks, when it just so happens school children will be on a break anyway for the High Holy Days.

The ostensible reason for the labor dispute is a new wage agreement signed between the Education Ministry and the TU, extending the Ofek Hadash (New Horizon) school reform program by two years and improving conditions for teachers in that union, while leaving those of their colleagues in the SSTA unchanged.

Implementation of the agreement this year will cost an estimated NIS 250 million. The TU had been threatening to declare a labor dispute as well because the previous wage agreement had expired.

Under the new agreement, junior high and kindergarten teachers who assume extra responsibilities will receive a pay increase in the form of 36 overtime hours worth 25 percent more than regular teaching hours.

The TU represents teachers from kindergartens, primary schools and many junior high schools. The SSTA, which represents most high school and some junior high teachers, is implementing another reform program, called Oz Letmura (Courage to Change).

“Many teachers are angry over the underhanded attempt by the Teachers Union and the state to introduce improvements to the Ofek Hadash reform at our expense,” declared SSTA chairman Ran Erez, saying it was “sad” that the new education minister, Shai Piron (Yesh Atid), was “abandoning” secondary school teachers.

“We have been fighting for several months to improve the employment terms of the teaching staff, and in recent weeks we’ve spent days and nights with the Treasury and the Education Ministry to reach this important breakthrough,” retorted TU secretary-general Yossi Wasserman.

For his part, Piron announced at Sunday’s cabinet meeting that the new school year would open on schedule, focusing on what he called the “goals of learning.”

“We will bring the educational system into the 21st century by broadening learning objectives, expanding knowledge and providing tools for critical and creative thinking,” Piron said.

Piron has already stirred controversy by announcing the suspension of the Meitzav standardized achievement exams, which have been used in the past to evaluate schools around the country by administering language, math and science tests to fifth and eighth graders.

According to Piron, children should be studying for the sake of learning rather than mere memorizing to pass a test. But his predecessor, Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), who is now interior minister, disagrees, calling Piron’s decision a dangerous one that will lead to worsening academic grades.

Who, then, do we believe – Piron or Sa’ar? And which union is right – the SSTA or TU? As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps Piron is correct in playing down test scores at the expense of a genuine education.

But students still need to learn the art of test-taking, which they will need to progress through the educational system.

Regarding the two reform programs, the Education Ministry should be working with both teachers organizations to enforce uniform changes while adapting to modern needs.

At the Holon Conference on Education last week, President Shimon Peres rightly called on the government to increase funding for education.

“If Israel does not invest in education today, it will not be able to compete on a global scale tomorrow,” he warned. “If we do not sow today, we will not be able to reap tomorrow.”

Among other things, Peres stressed the need to begin teaching children English as early as kindergarten, because it has become the global lingua franca and the language most widely used in the digital world.

Heeding the president’s wise words, we urge both teachers and children to sharpen their English skills. This is something that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives, providing an invaluable tool for getting ahead in today’s world.

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