Perhaps the most unexpected and thought-provoking aspect of yesterday's launching of a new school year is that - contrary to premature pronouncements of its demise - the Dovrat educational reform yet survives. In fact, effusive praise was heaped upon it after a year's trial in 34 locales countrywide.
The reform was so denigrated that, upon taking office, Education Minister Yuli Tamir declared the experiment over. Her primary objection was that the teachers unions vehemently opposed it - as they have consistently opposed reform since the founding of the state. Instead of censuring the unions for their obstructive conservatism, Tamir took their side.
"Reforms that were too great, too ambitious and too quick never worked. Needed are small changes, step after judicious step," she said when announcing the Dovrat project's official passing last May 10. It sounded good but Tamir's apparent prudence was also tempered by the might of the unions, the brunt of whose hostility was wielded against her predecessor, Dovrat promoter Limor Livnat.
Nevertheless, quite amazingly, the spirit of Dovrat hovered over preparations for the new school year's opening.
School districts chosen for last year's Dovrat trial-run petitioned to continue the program. "We are extremely gratified even with the preliminary results after such a short experience," reported Union of Local Authorities chairman Karmiel Mayor Adi Eldar.
"We conducted a comprehensive survey and found unequivocal satisfaction across the board - from heads of municipal education departments to principals, inspectors, teachers, parents and pupils. The highest tributes were accorded our experience with the Dovrat reform thus far. It cannot be that the entire system would be overhauled, everyone would emerge from the experiment quite enthusiastic, but that it would nevertheless then be called off," he said.
Eldar and fellow mayors lobbied hard and even appealed to the prime minister. Their efforts finally succeeded. The experiment will continue despite the fact that it was pronounced dead. Teachers will be compensated financially for participating in another trial-year - a fact which no doubt preempted further protests on their part. The only modification is that most locales, where the school-week was shortened to five days, requested to reinstate Friday as a regular school day. Their request was granted.
The short school week was not the reform's core and is easily dispensable. What the local authorities liked so much was closer to the heart of the reform. Where it was tried out, first- and second-grade classes were split into small learning groups, which received beefed-up, personalized tutoring in the three-Rs. The achievements of the students were greater than that of their counterparts elsewhere in the country.
This is where Tamir must be asked if she wasn't over-hasty in pouring scorn on the reform before it had been given a chance. If so limited a trial proved so popular and produced near-immediate results, perhaps the rest of the reform shouldn't have been abandoned, despite union bullying.
What most frightened the unions about Dovrat, but which potentially held the greatest promise, were plans to evaluate and reward teachers for merit, while concomitantly ridding the system of failing teachers. This goes hand in hand with the intensified and personalized tutoring. The system won't attract better professionals - regardless of what it pays - if it does not reward and insist on quality and does not vet staff already in the system.
Perhaps in view of the fact that the unjustly despised reform was accorded such flying marks by those who actually received a foretaste of what it offers, Tamir owes the nation an answer as to why the reform, which promised first and foremost to put our educational system on a more rational footing, should not be accelerated rather than scrapped.
Just a few days ago Tamir and the rest of us received another warning signal about Israel's alarming scholastic underachievement - yet another drop in high school matriculation statistics. A smaller proportion of secondary school grads than ever last year qualified for matriculation.
Perhaps Tamir has a less confrontational, more effective way of pushing through necessary reforms than her predecessor. We have yet to see it. The choice must be between Dovrat and a better idea, if Tamir has one. Doing nothing, in an attempt to buy "industrial quiet" with the coin of our children's education, must not be an option.