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The bad news in the report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development assessing the educational systems of developed nations has understandably raised concern, given its findings on the high number of students per class and the low proportion who continue their education beyond age 16.
Fortunately, we're talking here about the United Kingdom: "OECD education report: British classes among biggest in developed world," ran the headline in the Daily Telegraph; "Britain fares poorly in international schools league table" announced the Times.
Unfortunately, there's "poorly" and just plain poor - and Israel, which is currently applying for membership in the OECD, fared even worse in this survey. The students-per-class average in primary schools that has the UK worried is 26; here it's 27, in comparison to an OECD average of 22. But in UK secondary schools that number drops to reasonable 24, while here it shoots up to the alarming figure of almost 33 students per class.
What's more, while Britain does have, for the developed world, a relatively low percentage of students who continue their education beyond age 16, lagging behind it are OECD wannabe states Turkey, Mexico - and Israel.
With all due respect, though, to this nation's admirable (if inflated) ambitions, Israel is not the UK, and there is a major problem with drawing simple comparisons between the figures in the OECD report, as the media and relevant public figures are wont to do.
Still, no matter how you slice it, the relative picture it paints of our educational system isn't good. Yet understanding where the real problems lie requires looking deeper into certain unique aspects of the Israeli social situation, rather than just making surface observations about the very different set of states on the OECD charts.
To be sure, some of the disturbing numbers on Israel can be taken at face value. We don't need the OECD to note that teachers' salaries are too low here, because not only are they roughly half the average of the Western world, they're meager by local standards as well.
There are also no extenuating factors that can make one more comfortable with our declining scores in basic math and science exams, given that over the long term this trend (if it continues) can be viewed as a strategic threat to this nation's security no less than declining motivation to serve in the military.
Education Minister Yuli Tamir is not unjustified in claiming these problems are now being addressed to some degree by the Ofek Hadash (New Horizon) school-reforms program, even given the difficulties implementing the watered-down version that was finally approved. And our politicians are at least giving noticeably more lip-service to the education issue, for example Labor leader Ehud Barak's current campaign line that his dream if elected prime minister is to also serve as education minister (to which Tzipi Livni tartly replied she might consider making the latter part of his dream come true).
Yet some of the comparative observations in the OECD report are misleading, or certainly not the full picture, if simply taken at face value - including the problem of over-crowded classrooms.
Is the latter, along with the low teacher salaries, simply an issue of the state not investing enough in the educational system?
Not quite. As Globes noted in quoting the response by the Central Bureau of Statistics to the OECD report, Israel actually tops its list of education spending as a percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), with 8.5% as compared to the OECD average of 5.8%. That's a big difference; yet the average expenditure per student here was still lower than the OECD average.
Why's that? Simple: A much higher percentage of the Israel population is of school age (26%), compared to that of almost every other developed country, thanks to an equally higher-than-average birthrate than in the OECD states.
It's actually a good thing, considering the concern over declining demographics in Europe. The problem, of course, especially when it comes to relatively low education levels - and the poverty that eventually results from them - is that this young population bump is caused largely by the high haredi birthrate.
Advocates of yeshiva education may well be right that Talmud study is one of the best mental training tools ever developed. But that's irrelevant if haredi students never get that basic learning in general studies. Unfortunately, just last month the Knesset bowed to pressure from the haredi parties to legalize state funding for ultra-Orthodox schools, without them having to meet the condition that was mandated by a Supreme Court ruling of instituting a core curriculum in secular studies.
Tamir, serving in a government that approved the bill on the grounds that if backed into a corner, the haredi community might simply refuse state funding for its schools rather than accept the core curriculum, referred to this problem only obliquely Wednesday in her observation that unlike the OECD nations, Israel has a "heterogeneous" educational system with four tracks - state secular, Arab, state religious and haredi - "working side by side."
That certainly isn't a problem the UK has to deal with, either in dealing with class size, or with general student knowledge of math and science. But unless Israel can find a way to get that haredi track to comfortably intersect at some point with secular studies, a genuine better day for the quality of education in this country is going to remain somewhere over the horizon.
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