We’re probably the only nation whose new year coincides with the opening of its
school year, fitting testimony to our reputation as the People of the Book. What
goes on inside our classrooms, however, would suggest that we are anything but.
An alarming range of statistics regarding our academic standing should leave us
feeling anxious and apprehensive about the future of this country.
take my word for it; take this exam instead.
1. RELATIVE TO their
counterparts in other countries, how do Israeli pupils perform in math and
A. Extremely well. How else to explain our incomparable achievements in
the hitech industry?
B. Terribly. Of 57 countries participating in the Program
for International Student Assessment, Israel placed 39th and 40th in math and
C. Statistics are meaningless. During the last decade, Israel
produced more Nobel laureates in the sciences per capita than any other country,
and last month, the Nobel equivalent in mathematics, the Fields Medal, was
awarded to a Hebrew University professor.
D. Not a fair question. Our
averages are lowered by the haredim, who don’t even study these
Answer: B. Prof. Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center for Social
Policy Studies in Israel, interviewed by this paper several months ago, reported
on a sophisticated study in which our own researchers further analyzed this data
and found that in math and the sciences “the average level in Israel was
consistently lower than every one of the 25 countries they compared it
And it is a fair question. Ben-David revealed that “None of the
results include haredim,” and added that “We exclude more kids out of these
samples than any other country.”
2. TO WHAT extent is the problem with
education attributable to the amount of money we invest in it?
A. It wouldn’t
matter how much we spend; we’re doing the wrong things with the funds at our
B. One thing has nothing to do with the other. The Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development determined that Israel was spending a
higher percentage of its GDP on education than all but one of 33 other countries
included in its study.
C. Sure we don’t spend enough on education, but
that’s only because we have to spend so much on defense and
Answer: A and B. Many share Ben- David’s assessment that not
enough instructional hours are dedicated to core disciplines. The problem is
particularly pronounced in the haredi schools where such subject matter is
devalued altogether. Legislation introduced this year that would mandate a core
curriculum for all children has yet to be passed.
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It needs to be for the
sake of the country’s future. In any case, spending more money without
redirecting it will not improve pupil performance.
3. IF MORE funds were
available, on what should they be spent?
A. Reducing class size
C. Increasing classroom hours
D. Revising the curriculum
BEFORE RESPONDING to question 3, indicate whether the following statements are
true or false:
A. The average class size is roughly the same as that in EU
B. Starting salaries of primary school teachers are higher
than the OECD average.
C. Typical 15 year olds spend fewer hours in the
classroom than their peers elsewhere.
D. Secondary schools tend to offer
less elective courses than in Europe.
Answer: All of the above statements
A. Our classrooms are notoriously overcrowded.
average, they accommodate 33 pupils, compared to 22 in the EU. Of 25 countries
surveyed, only four have schools more crowded than ours.
B. Teachers are
embarrassingly underpaid, making less than half the average of their colleagues
in OECD countries.
C. What will surely come as a surprise to any parent
is that our children actually spend more time in the classroom than their OECD
counterparts, logging 1,089 hours each year compared to an international average
D. Also counter to conventional wisdom, teenagers here often have
more course options than their contemporaries abroad, with high schools offering
more electives to draw pupils. Those same pupils, however, are spending less
time honing basic skills.
NOW GO back and answer question
Confused? For good reason.
Researchers are divided in their
opinions regarding the correlation between learning and a wide array of
variables – including many we haven’t even touched on: teacher training,
cultural milieu, gender issues, socioeconomic factors, role of the
even the definition of education itself. But in Israel, they are in
that the present situation is intolerable, and – if current trends go
– their prognosis for the future is even worse.
Not only are our absolute
scores lower than those of our neighbors in the OECD, which we joined
such fanfare a few months back, but even our brightest don’t match up to
At least as worrisome, is that the gap between our strongest pupils and
weakest is among the highest in the Western world. According to
“There are smaller gaps between Beverly Hills and Harlem pupils in the
States than there are between our best and worst achievers here in
The Education Ministry is aware of this. The most publicized
reform in the education system this year was the reintroduction of
uniforms, a policy presumably instituted by Minister Gideon Sa’ar for
right reasons: to foster a sense of equality among pupils regardless of
socioeconomic background, to alleviate social pressure, to shift the
appearance to achievement.
Interestingly, it also an initiative that
marks a return to fundamental Zionist values, making it an appropriate
Theodor Herzl on the occasion of his 150th birthday. In the utopian
describes in Altneuland, “All the pupils must wear the same kind of
We think it unethical to single out children according to
their parents’ wealth or social rank. That would be bad for all of them.
children from well-todo families would become lazy and arrogant, the
But equality in dress in and of itself is not going to bring
about equality in opportunity. That is only going to be achieved if we
to provide all of our children with the knowledge and skills they need
their way in an increasingly globalized economy.
In Herzl’s idyllic
dream, “We neither reward nor punish our children for their fathers’
Each generation is given a new start.”
We must do
the same in our own harsh reality.
Whether the current peace talks will
resolve the conflict with our neighbors remains to be seen. Ultimately,
our future is as dependent on what happens in the corridors of our
schools as in
the corridors of power. In this country, we are all experts on issues of
security and delight in pontificating on how best to secure it – though
words are unlikely to make much of a difference – if for no other reason
that there is another side here on whom we have little influence. Our
are another matter altogether. We can involve ourselves in our
We can insist that the social agenda not be ignored even as
the political agenda is being pursued.
In this season of heshbon nefesh
(accounting for the soul), we must account as well for how we teach
(mathematics). If we are unable to influence what is happening within
of our schoolyards, how realistic is it to imagine that we might have
at all on what happens within the gates of heaven? The writer has a
Jewish education from Hebrew University and serves as vice chairman of
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