Thinking clearly about education

If Israel wants quality education, says Dr. Yitzhak Ersoff, it must start from scratch.

September 17, 2007 19:37
Thinking clearly about education

ersoff. (photo credit: )


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A year ago, Dr. Yitzhak Ersoff made aliya from Oregon. With decades of experience and a doctorate in law, Ersoff's professional specialty has been a hard sell here. Simply put, it does not yet exist in the Jewish state. What is that specialty? Ersoff is an education policy expert, a scholar of education systems and education law. While education is often the subject of discussion among politicians and economists, jurists and political scientists, rabbis and philosophers, there is no sense that the education system is itself a unique specialized entity - that a well-functioning one must be shaped not just by experts in management or politics, but by experts in education systems. Which is where Ersoff could step in. Before making aliya, the 47-year-old was involved with the Oregon state teacher licensing advisory board and developed and supervised programs that affected tens of thousands of disabled students. Since the Eighties, he has taught in several schools and universities, most recently Eastern Oregon University, and has carved out a niche in education law. Here in Israel he teaches at the Open University and Sapir College, and at the Tabeetha School in Jaffa. According to Ersoff, the myriad troubles that afflict our education system - test scores in steady free-fall for decades, a growing skill gap that becomes a growing income gap, poorly-trained and poorly-paid teachers - cannot be resolved separately, as politicians from Binyamin Netanyahu to Yuli Tamir insist on doing. Before dealing with teachers' salaries, enhancing the core curriculum or even Zionist and Jewish values, somebody must examine, interpret and understand the system itself. The field of expertise which understands the elements unique to education and can see the whole system at once with all its interlocking elements is missing from the debate. "Education itself is a subject, an expertise," Ersoff told The Jerusalem Post in a series of conversations recently on what's led the country into the mess it's in. "Developing education policy with philosophers, lawyers and businessmen - but not education experts - is part of the reason Israeli education is failing in its most crucial missions. We have specialists in criminal law, negotiation, contract law, constitutional law, etc. We have specialists in foreign policy, economic policy, transportation policy, natural resource management and so on. We even have interdisciplinary experts in law and policy or law and business. If Israel wants to build a quality educational system, it needs to recognize that the leadership must come from expertise in education law and policy." According to Ersoff, this expertise, which in the US is understood to be central to any discussion of education policy, could have saved Israel many of its past mistakes in education reform - from blind across-the-board pay hikes to well-meaning but poorly implemented attempts at ethnically integrating schools - and should be allowed to save it from its future mistakes as well. Along the way, it might just pull education into the 21st century. THE PICTURE is not entirely gloomy. "We know a lot about education, as much - or close to it - as in many other countries," Ersoff believes. The act of teaching - "how to take a curriculum and deal with it, what methodologies work, how to teach and how people learn, and how to figure out whether they're learning" - is as good here as elsewhere. But this knowledge, he insists after a year of meeting teachers and conversing with educators and education experts throughout the country, is not contained in academia, but among the teachers themselves. "The teachers in Israel," he insists simply, "know how to teach." But aren't the country's underpaid and often undertrained teachers part of the problem? "I don't know that teachers' salaries matter," he says, apparently out of step with the prevailing wisdom. "I've never seen any research that supports the notion that with higher salaries you'll get good people. I've worked with teachers and as a teacher a long, long time. Education is really a lifestyle, a committed profession. It's not a profession that people go into for money, and you don't want them to. They're in it because of a commitment to education, to doing something important, living the academic lifestyle - lower salaries, but also frequent vacations, the ability and time to teach and learn. It's a whole different way of living. "I think it's ridiculous to go from that argument to saying that teachers don't need more money. Of course they need more money. The job they're doing is worth much, much, much more money. But I don't think money is going to bring better educators." In fact, Ersoff quickly notes, this short discussion on salaries is a good example of the problem - the conceptual problem - at the heart of the system: No single factor can significantly advance education reform. Policymakers "look at teachers' salaries, multicultural issues, the quality of the school buildings - individual issues - and then think we're going to get anywhere," he complains. In fact, "the problem is that the education system was never planned. There was never a comprehensive approach to education that is necessary to create a successful system." What do you mean, "never planned"? Nobody sat down and developed the current system? "The Israeli system came into existence in 1949, a whole year after independence," Ersoff explains, "and for good reason, since there were other issues then. But ever since that time, reform attempts have addressed political or secular-religious questions, salaries - always individual issues. The occasional attempt at a comprehensive reform was unsuccessful." He relates a conversation he had with a teacher in Sderot. "I was sitting with teachers, and one of them suddenly said, 'I know what we need to do. We need to blow up the Education Ministry and start from scratch.' She's exactly right. Not that we need to physically blow up the ministry, but that Israel could have a great education system. But this means actually going out and building one. Israel needs a group of people who undertake to do that, to design a comprehensive education system, with a group of experts that includes expertise specifically in designing education systems." HOW, PRACTICALLY, does an education system repair itself? In the US, "the Carnegie reports in the 1980s were as blunt and devastating as the recent Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War. They said that the US had failed in education at all levels. And they said that education needed to become just that - education." What was it before it was education? "The academy," Ersoff explains, "with its focus on research and publication, had lowered the quality [of teaching] so drastically that there simply was no education happening. You don't have to teach, or even know how to teach, if all you do is accept people who learn without being taught," for which the college application process screens. "This dearth of educational competence filtered down from higher education to elementary and secondary education. People didn't know how to teach. They lectured, assigned readings, gave ridiculous, contrived tests and things got worse and worse. Not only that, but when we looked around for a way to solve the problem, we realized that there was nowhere to look. To become an academic, all you had to do was produce research and publish, [but] the results were ridiculous. Everywhere you looked - it's still like this in Israel - you found all kinds of rubbish masquerading as 'scholarship.' What was worse, these so-called scholars couldn't actually do anything. Ask them to implement comprehensive improvement [in a school system] and they couldn't do it." A few months ago, Ersoff was speaking with an "esteemed" professor of education at "one of the country's leading universities," he relates, when the professor "asked if I was interested in a position. I replied that I prefer applied practice, 'comprehensive reform,' to the Israeli research paradigm. The professor said, 'What's that? What is comprehensive reform?' I said school-wide and system-wide implementation of research-based program improvement. The professor said, 'Working with whole schools at once?!' The professor was shocked. It is still so far beyond the Israeli way of thinking." American research shows that the minimum level for sustainable reform is not the teacher, but the school. According to the research, teachers who receive extra training and whose results rise will see those results drop again when they are placed in a dysfunctional school. Over the last two decades, the US has translated this new understanding to "an entirely new approach - comprehensive school reform," Ersoff explains. "We took the legitimate research (not the silly stuff) and implemented it to change entire schools, programs, school districts, systems... the whole national picture. This area of expertise doesn't exist here. It can't, because part of what led to its development was rejecting the old, non-educational approach to higher education." WHAT, EXACTLY, is that approach? And why is it so problematic? "My father was also a professor of education," Ersoff explains. "When folks would say, 'Those who can't do, teach,' my father would reflect that 'those who cannot teach become professors.' This was true in the US and it still is true here. You see, we've got people doing research - in all fields, but what is important here is education - people doing research without any idea how to translate it into effective implementation for educational improvement. In fact, under the old paradigm, like what currently exists in Israel, most professors of education have little, if any, experience actually doing education; it isn't valued for being able to break into higher education - instead, research and publication are valued." Changing that paradigm, bringing education research into the real, measurable world of the education system, will fix what's broken here? First, Ersoff says, the Israeli system is much smaller and simpler than Israelis understand. "This is a small place. We're talking about basically one of the large school districts in the United States, a New York or a Miami or a Los Angeles or a Chicago - not significantly bigger. So this is trying to fix a very small [national] school system. It's not that it's simple; it's very complex. But it's doable." Second, the example of deep reform out of an interdisciplinary approach to education policy exists from pre-Carnegie America. Ersoff relates a historical example in which education law and policy came together to effect a dramatic change - the desegregation of American schools in the 1950s. "Even Americans aren't so aware of how this happened," he says. "There was a problem in the US. It didn't bother a lot of people, but it was a problem: If you were white, you went to one school, and if you were black, you went to another school. And the Supreme Court had already decided years and years earlier, on the issue of segregated train cars in Louisiana, that it's fine to be separate as long as it's equal. "So how did desegregation happen? It was a combination of law and politics. A number of lawyers and students, including Thurgood Marshall [later a Supreme Court justice], asked themselves how they were going to deal with segregation. They addressed it in a way that I think represents what Israel needs." After defining their goal - desegregating the public schools - they embarked on a legal battle to prove that "separate is inherently unequal. They gathered all the information needed to make a convincing case that 'separate but equal' would be okay, but it couldn't exist in reality, since separate was inherently unequal." How did they do this? "They measured the schoolchildren. So they turned to psychologists and educators. And they based themselves on the reality that classrooms were not equal, materials were not equal, the level of the teachers was not equal. They talked about the educational reality, the psychological ramifications on minority students of consistently being separated from the white students. These students were learning to occupy an inferior [social] class in the US. In [1954's] Brown v. Board of Education, they won their case." But, for all their interdisciplinary wisdom, the reformers didn't succeed as much as they could have, Ersoff believes. "They didn't have the educators, the economists, the infrastructure people who would talk about how to implement it. So you ended up with three decades of painful implementation. "This is an excellent example of the need to combine expertise. It's the same story for disability education in the US, and any major reform. You have to combine education law and education policy, and you need experts from all of the necessary fields." BUT PERHAPS Israel's structural troubles are deeper even than segregation. In the West, more than 90 percent of teaching hours are devoted to core curriculum; in Israel it's around 50% because of religious content and other topics. The four different streams - the Arab, haredi, state religious and state systems - can't share teachers or buildings and this leads to enormous redundancy. But politically no reformer can take those systems away from the electorates who use them. "Now we're talking about philosophy," he says. "I draw a very important line between philosophy and opinion on one side, and actual scientific research-based models on the other. Once you have an answer to 'what we should teach,' you can move on to how to do it. "This is a philosophical question - what do we want as a nation? Israelis are somewhat religion-challenged. They think of 'religious' as either haredi or dati - something much more elementary than what religion should be in a Jewish country. And I have to say to the religious side, and to the secular: How much patience do you think God has? Read Ezekiel. If you believe in God, and I do, then what basis do we have that we're going to continue? We can either repeat the Noah story or the Moses story. Either God wipes the slate clean or we continue to exist. Let's hope we don't start over with a bunch of animals on a boat." Ersoff believes proper planning of the education system "is going to consist of a certain curriculum, and if any given segment of Israeli society doesn't like it, that's too bad. Some things we have to know to remain a free society." How does Ersoff propose to go about reforming the education system? In fact, "reform" isn't the right word, "because it implies we're taking something and building on it, that there is a form we're going to reform. In fact, Israel needs to create something completely new. It needs a think tank, a center, that would design an education system, think about all of the particulars - what would be taught, and where, and what the structure would look like. This center would be a place where education and law can be combined. Education is in large part a legislative animal. Then there are the rest of the pieces, the management, the economics, security, which includes everything from a terrorist threat to medical issues and epidemics. Unfortunately, school violence has become an issue as well." The process for developing such an education system must be completely independent from external pressures. "It's not about politicking, prestige or maintaining tradition," Ersoff insists, "but about the interests of the nation." To that end, "only two things are sacred: success and the people in the system. It has to be a successful system. And the people who are part of the education system are necessary, but need them doing the right things." Ersoff does not believe there are many people in Israel today who could run such a center, and he's looking to establish it himself. "I would want to pull the relative component experts and provide them with leadership and direction from the position of expertise in educational law and policy. Such a team would alleviate the current problem, which is that educational policy is being made by people who don't know what they are doing. Israel has a brilliant law and policy elite, but this elite doesn't have real expertise in education. Israel has brilliant scholars of education, but they know little or nothing about law and policy and are also inexperienced regarding implementation of educational improvement and reform. And, of course, Israeli politicians - well, you tell me if they know anything about education, about law or about policy." Of the current habit of appointing prestigious committees to develop education reform, Ersoff tells a fable. "There a story about Rabbi Hillel who comes to the 21st century in a time machine. He sees a .357 magnum pistol, but he doesn't know what it is. As he's looking at it, he puts the barrel up to his eye and his thumb on the trigger. Imagine what your reaction would be if you watched him doing something that insane, because he just doesn't know better. He's brilliant, but he doesn't know what this is. He doesn't see the danger. "That's how I felt with Dovrat. It's bringing business solutions to education. I thought, 'My God, you're not really going to do this, are you?' We've been through this [in the US]. But Israel hasn't, so it's going to continue pouring money down the drain, taking people who know nothing about an issue and charging them with developing a reform. "The US Supreme Court repeatedly has taken the view that it lacks the expertise to make educational decisions. It can address equality, constitutionality and other legal and social issues, but when it comes to curriculum, educational methodology, assessment and so on, it declines to impose its own judgment, deferring instead to professional educators. So with all due respect to Israel's legal, political and policy elite, if the US Supreme Court defers to the professionals on matters of education, I suggest that Israel should do likewise." Instead of doing that, Ersoff notes in frustration, experts regularly discuss the limits of reform, what they can't achieve and what should not be expected of them. "Do you know what it means when someone like the education minister says that we can't do this or that because of 'the situation' with Arabs, or immigrants, or secular vs religious, or whatever? It means that they don't know how to do it. So they assume that it cannot be done. They are wrong."

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