The current plan to shorten the summer vacation by a week has some powerful
advocates, and some equally serious opposition. But I believe that the entire
discussion, well-intentioned as it is, may altogether miss the most important
points about educational reform.
The most famous proponent of keeping
students in school longer is social commentator Malcolm Gladwell, who devoted an
entire section of his book Outliers to examining the disadvantages that American
students have over Asian students, building on the presumed connection between
student rankings in math and the number of hours they spend in school. Gladwell
advances the idea that mastery is a direct function of hours in practice. His
famous “10,000 hours” theory, according to which genius is not a function of
genetics, but rather a result of 10,000 hours of practice at key moments in
one’s life – a theory that he applies to the Beatles and Bill Gates with equal
trouncing – has received an inordinate amount of attention.
He proposes a
series of actions, including more homework, longer school days, and of course
shorter vacations (which he deems mostly wasteful and meaningless). He also
argues that math is easier in Chinese than in English because the Chinese words
for numbers are shorter, but he thankfully stops short of suggesting that all
schools study math in Chinese.
AT THE other end of the spectrum are the
growing parent movements that oppose the impositions made by schools. The
no-homework movement, for example, basically says that family time free of
school (e.g., August) has tremendous value – at least as much as school, if not
Indeed, they say schools are already overly interfering with
Cutting short the summer holiday is a horrifying imposition on
the already limited time for family bonding.
For the anti-homework crowd,
schools already have enough time with children to be able to accomplish whatever
learning needs to get done in the time allotted. If they are incapable of doing
that, it’s because of bureaucratic and educational incompetence, not because
they need more hours with the children.
Homeschoolers take this idea even
further. The homeschool claim is that the amount of learning that takes a
classroom teacher a week to transmit can be accomplished in a fraction of the
time with effective teaching, as is done at home.
“unschoolers” see schools as wasteful industries, where children are pushed
through an assembly-line of artificial structures, like busy-work, mindless
assignments, quizzes and tests – not to mention the extortionate amount of
resources and energy spent on “discipline” – a euphemism for convincing active
little bodies to be quiet and motionless and listen attentively.
homeschoolers, who often find themselves in the school system because, in
Israel, homeschooling is pretty much illegal, this feeling of children’s natural
development being invaded by the school system will only be exacerbated by the
knowledge that the freedom of August is about to be overrun by more
Still, the Gladwellers are armed with study after study decrying
the decline in Israeli students’ test scores in math and science – studies that
foresee a future economic catastrophe due to an improperly trained workforce.
They see homeschoolers as anything from annoying to delusional to bad parents.
The job of the school, the Israeli version of this goes, is to extinguish the
kind of selfserving, spoiled pampering that comes from parents who think their
children’s lives are supposed to be interesting and fun. Schools are there to
produce citizens who can master math, science and English – oh, and okay, a few
values as well; sure, that’s very nice. Parents who fail to instill the proper
discipline in their children are the bane of the schools’ existence. Schools are
there to transmit knowledge, and the more hours they have for that, the more
effective they are.
WITH ALL due respect to Gladwell and the Ministry of
Education, I think they are missing the point. There are many reasons why
Israeli schools are becoming less and less effective at educating – not only in
math and science, but also in morality and social consciousness – and I don’t
really think that one more week in August is going to miraculously fix the
The primary reason is that most schools spend a disproportionate
amount of time doing discipline instead of education. Ask any high-school
teacher how much of his or her energies are spent on “controlling” the
classroom, on telling students to be quiet, on punishments, on disciplinary
meetings and phone calls to parents, and the answer will be astonishing. Walk
through the halls of any school any day of the week, and the amount of yelling
going on will be shocking. The Israeli school system is dominated by teachers
screaming at students. This is the great truth that everyone dances around.
Teachers blame parents for this, parents blame teachers, and administrators
smile and sweep it all under the rug. But the school system, for all its hours
with children, does very little educating; it’s mostly power struggles between
teachers and students.
The real reform that Israeli schools need is not
in bureaucratic structures and decisions, but in teaching methods. The Israeli
school system is easily 20 years behind the rest of the western world, if not
more, when it comes to pedagogy. Israeli teachers have not even begun to think
about many of the issues that were in vogue when I received my teaching
certificate in New York State over 20 years ago. Issues such as teacherstudent
relationships, promoting mutual respect, active listening, differentiated
instruction, effective discussions and more – not to mention more recent
thinking about using technology to advance learning rather than fight over
cellphones and Wikipedia; these have not even begun to enter Israeli educational
discussions. Israeli schools still think that sitting up in straight rows is the
correct way to learn, when that idea has been dispelled ages
Teachers themselves barely know how to have a discussion that
involves listening – an unfortunate fact that I learned from five years of
teaching Israeli teachers. To talk about learning styles and learning stations
with Israeli educators is about as effective as teaching math in Chinese.
Israeli educators give close to zero thought to educational methodology and
pedagogy. They tend to think that if they can “control” the students, then
students will listen, and they equate listening with learning. These are
fundamental mistakes, and overwhelm the school system.
The Ministry of
Education should be less focused on how many hours of teaching take place, when
and where, and more focused on what actually happens during those
There is more to education than knowing when to ring the
The writer is a researcher and consultant specializing in
education, gender and organizational development.She holds a doctorate
in education from Hebrew University.