Report Card: Yuli Tamir's proposals and how they fared

By ABE SELIG
March 31, 2009 22:42

Proposal: Educational Reform Result: When Yuli Tamir became the Kadima-led government's education minister in May 2006, she faced two related issues: sinking standardized test scores amongst the country's pupils and poor salaries for the teachers tasked with bringing those scores back up. Already prepared to scrap predecessor Limor Livnat's Dovrat reform package, Tamir unveiled the Ofek Hadash (New Horizon) program, which aimed to boost the amount of one-on-one time between teacher and pupil, while padding the teachers' paychecks with additional hourly wages, among other things. In the first school semester under Tamir, New Horizon was implemented at around 200 schools, rising to nearly 500 the following year - an impressive feat considering that the Education Ministry has to get approval from the teachers union for each school before the reform could be introduced. While critics of New Horizon still abound, Tamir's reform is now in place at about 800 schools nationwide, and affects a quarter of a million pupils. As such, the Education Ministry boasted the addition of one million private lessons under the reform, lowered classroom sizes, a rise in student performance and a doubling of teaching hours as some of New Horizon's successes. But critics of the program have called it less of a reform and more of a reshuffling of resources, in which pupils are taken out of their regularly scheduled classes to make time for private lessons. Teachers, too, remain skeptical about the degree the program has actually boosted their paychecks. In addition, the program - and Tamir's leadership - were dealt a serious blow in 2008, when two different standardized test scores released within months of each other ranked Israeli pupils even lower than in previous years, especially in the realms of math and science - areas in which Israel once excelled. In September 2008, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) placed Israel near the bottom of its report on the state of education systems around the world. Then, in December, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) exams placed Israel 24th out of 49 nations, five places lower than its ranking in 2003. In an additional round of science exams, Israel was placed 25th, two spots lower than it had been ranked previously. "This is really the bottom line," said one university professor with extensive knowledge of the country's education system. "All other questions about the country's educational system are minute compared to this issue. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of toolbox are we giving our kids before they go out and try and compete in a modern economy? "If they are to succeed, the system needs real reform, which includes teachers' salaries and class hours and sizes, but also the actual courses the pupils are given - like basic math and science." Therefore, it is questionable whether New Horizon can be labeled a success, certainly not yet. Tamir defended the reform on her final day as education minister, telling The Jerusalem Post on Monday that, "No reform is perfect, and yes, there were problems. But many of the areas in which I promised an improvement saw an improvement, and I believe that the incoming education minister will pick up New Horizon where I left off." Proposal: End Secondary School Teachers Organization strikes and gain better wages for teachers Result: Tamir's tenure as education minister saw the longest strike by high school teachers in the country's history. Students were out of class for 55 days during the fall of 2007, as the Education Ministry, Finance Ministry and SSTO tussled with one another over a pay increase. In the end, Tamir helped maneuver an end to the strike, in which teachers received an 8.5 percent pay raise, paid over two terms, in addition to the 5 percent guaranteed pay raise that had been granted the previous summer to all workers in the public sector. "This is a good agreement, the teachers have accomplished a great deal," Tamir said when the strike ended in December 2007. "At the end of the day we are all very satisfied." The relationship between Tamir and SSTO head Ran Erez remained at a low boil, however. It flared up again last October, when Tamir accused Erez of extortion, after the SSTO took out full-page advertisements in various newspapers decrying the minister as "one big disappointment" and blaming her for a slew of problems facing the education system. While those tensions did not lead to another SSTO strike, the fear was certainly there. Nonetheless, the agreements worked out in 2007 have continued to hold. Tamir remained defiant on Monday, criticizing the 2007 strike as "unnecessary." "There are other ways to go about getting what you want," she said. "Ways that don't involve using force." Proposal: Update outdated curriculum Result: When Tamir was designated education minister, a shudder went through right-wing circles. Tamir was one of the founders of Peace Now, and her longstanding affiliation with the liberal arm of the Labor Party struck fear into the hearts of many right-wingers with children enrolled in state schools. After multiple statements about a need to update the country's educational curriculum, Tamir sparked outrage when she announced in July 2007 that her ministry had okayed a history book for Israeli Arab schools that used the word "Nakba" (Arabic for "catastrophe") in reference to the 1948 War of Independence. The move drew immediate criticisms from the Likud and and National Religious Party, both of whom demanded that Tamir be fired. Months later, Tamir drew renewed fire from the right, when a Channel 10 news report suggested that the minister had approved the removal of Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky from the high school curriculum. That report came under question after Tamir filed a slander suit against Channel 10 for the report, but it led then-opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu to make an impassioned speech to the Knesset, declaring that Tamir had "replaced Jabotinsky with the Nakba" in the country's schools. The next education minister will have to find an immediate solution for a NIS 400 million budget cut left over from Tamir's promise that the Education Ministry would shoulder some of the costs of the New Horizon reforms. Tamir also delayed the implementation of several budget cuts during her tenure while committing to forgo NIS 1 billion over several years to pay for the reform. While she defended those delays as crucial to moving New Horizon forward, it means that for the next several years, the ministry will have to find approximately NIS 140m. annually to cover the missing funds. In the proposed 2009 budget, the Education Ministry already faces about NIS 250m. in cuts. The new education minister will also have to subtract the NIS 140m. for the New Horizon program, without laying off teachers or cutting back on school hours - the prime gains made by New Horizon. It remains unclear where that money will come from.


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