'Shalom kita aleph'

Unfortunately, the "horizon" keeps receding.

August 31, 2008 21:13
3 minute read.
classroom 88 224

classroom 88 224. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The summer vacation is over and Israel's 1,466,000 pupils are headed back to school this morning. Yesterday's cabinet meeting was dedicated to the start of the new school year, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert saying that Israel's "existence" was dependent "foremost" on education. He said the government was devoting NIS 30 billion to schools and had opened 91 new facilities. Little was said about the 2,000 fewer staffers around this year compared to last. Olmert then turned the floor over to Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who briefed the cabinet on the much-touted Ofek Hadash (New Horizon) school reforms. The reforms are meant, among other things, to enable teachers to spend more time with individual students. The ministry has undertaken a saturation advertising campaign to promote Ofek Hadash. PROMISES TO reform the school system are nothing new. In 1968 there was talk of integrating children from different social and economic backgrounds into the then newly-minted junior high schools. That has yet to fully happen. Another reform was introduced in 2004 by Limor Livnat during her tenure as education minister. Called the Dovrat Plan, after the committee that conceived it, its major innovation was to evaluate and reward teachers by merit. Teachers who failed to produce results were to be removed from the system by newly empowered principals. This newspaper strongly championed Dovrat. Alas, the teachers' unions launched a concerted campaign against Livnat. Her successor, Tamir, was quick to bury Dovrat and replace it with Ofek Hadash, which borrowed some ideas from Dovrat - though mostly after watering them down. For instance, like Dovrat, Ofek demands a minimum number of at-school hours from teachers, but fewer than Dovrat. Ofek won the Histadrut Teachers Union's blessing but is still opposed by the Secondary School Teachers Association. Aspects of Ofek were implemented in 313 schools last year, and the promotional ad campaign is claiming glowing successes. Unfortunately, the "horizon" keeps receding. Though Tamir has embarked on a cross-country tour using a specially hired bus bedecked with signs announcing: "Education's Time has Come," the reality, uncooperatively, belies the hype. Ofek's most important component - the one particularly ballyhooed in the ministry ads - is smaller class sizes. Relative to other advanced countries, Israel has the distinction of cramming far too many pupils into a classroom. Ofek was to reduce the maximum number of youngsters per classroom from 40 to 32. To facilitate this, 8,000 new classrooms were to be constructed, 40% of them in the Arab sector. The needs in the Druse sector remain particularly pressing. Tamir still talks about it, but in the budget just approved by the cabinet, the plan to shrink class sizes has been put off for another year. In essence, the postponement rips much of the guts out of Tamir's horizon, leaving little more than the façade of reform. Even the ministry's own rosy promotions spoke of adding only 400 new schools to Ofek's framework this year, meaning that the heavily hyped reforms were not to go nationwide - Tamir's advertising campaign notwithstanding. AN ADDITIONAL blow, however, is the Treasury's decision to decrease its contribution to local authorities' school outlays. Schools will now be financed according the socioeconomic status of the student body, which will be determined by the parents' education (40% of the assessment quotient); by whether pupils reside in the "periphery" (20%); by family income (20%); and by the parents' country of birth (20%). This inevitably means that middle-class schools, which most pupils attend, will be starved of funds. The Education Ministry's ad campaign is aimed at making Israelis feel good about their school system. Were the Finance Ministry to provide enough money, and the Education Ministry better management, we might see an actual - as well as a perceptual - improvement. The good news is that for most students in most localities, the school year will start on schedule. And first-graders will be greeted by the traditional: "Shalom kita aleph." The bad news, however, is that again this year, we will be seeing too little across-the-board improvement in the quality of our children's education.

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