70% of Israelis believe education system is failing [p. 4]

MK Yuli Tamir, Labor's choice for education minister, is also the public's preferred candidate, according to a survey conducted for this week's Conference on the Future of Education in Israel. According to the survey, 71.4 percent of Israelis believe that the Israeli education system does not fulfill its role. Only 9.6% of those surveyed believed that former education minister Limor Livnat was right for the job. Interestingly, an even smaller percentage - 6.6% - preferred Professor Uriel Reichman, Kadima's candidate for the Education Ministry. The majority of the public also believes that improving the level of teachers, reducing the number of students in every class and raising the salaries of teachers are the central steps that must be taken in order to improve the state of the education system. "Everyone likes to talk about education in advance of elections because it's sexy," said Sapir Academic College President Zeev Zahor. "But not everyone means what they say." Almost without exception, all speakers at the conference stressed the importance of education to the country's national resilience and emphasized the importance of smaller classes and of helping socially and economically disadvantaged students. In addition, participants across the political spectrum stressed the importance of strengthening the status of teachers, raising their salaries and teaching standards, and reducing school violence. "We are experiencing tremendous scholastic and socioeconomic gaps," Reichman said. "Beyond our political differences, we must come together and create a joint lobby for the advancement of education." In contrast to Meretz MK Ran Cohen, who advocated the creation of a comprehensive, state-financed education system from age two through university, Reichman said that such a system was impossible due to economic constraints. "We need to prioritize," he said. "Kadima is committed to acting first in places with the most difficult economic conditions, and to changing the condition of no less than 250 schools during our first year in government. Within four years, we want to take care of a third of the country's schools." Reichman also called for giving more control to school principals and to making parents active members of the education system. "We must develop the critical and creative faculties of schoolchildren so that they can be players on the global market," he added. "Israel invests $1,000 dollars less in every student than other countries," noted Tamir. Nevertheless, she said, "I feel like this conversation about education is rather estranged. I hear people talking about structure, salaries, abstract values; I'm missing the most important thing in education - curiosity. If we aren't able to encourage schoolchildren to be curious, we won't be able to compete with the attractions they find in many other places outside school." Tamir also stressed two important actions she would take as education minister. She said she wanted to implement a law she has initiated for the nutrition of schoolchildren nationwide and create of a loan program that would enable university students to pay their tuition back after their salaries reach the national average. The conference, which took place Tuesday at Sapir, was organized by the college and by the Sderot Conference for Society. Speakers included NRP chairman Zevulun Orlev, Likud MK Michael Eitan, Tafnit chairman Uzi Dayan, Shas MK Meshulam Nahari, and MK Meli Polishook-Bloch of the Secular Zionist Party. Livnat came under heavy attack from participants at the conference for her harsh treatment of the teachers' unions. "Where is the education minister of the past five years?" asked Dayan, criticizing her absence from the conference. "After destroying the education system, one should at least have the courage to show up and defend one's position." The Dovrat reform launched last year by Livnat also came under attack. "Education is not a technical thing," Tamir said. "That is the biggest problem with the Dovrat reform - it was written by people that come from technology, not by people who believe education is the most important form of human interaction." "Dovrat ended up as a form of expensive babysitting for part of the country's schoolchildren," Dayan said, referring to the long school day implemented in schools participating in the initial phase of Dovrat. Eitan argued that the problem with the education system was not the budget but the dysfunctional organizational structure of the Ministry and of the teachers' unions. "The unions have to undergo serious change," he said. "Livnat may have failed, but at least she tried to cope with the problem of a centralized system that impedes progress on the ground," he added. He also stressed the importance of bringing the digital and technological standard of Israeli schools up to that of the 21st century. Polishook-Bloch, former chair of the Knesset's Education Committee, warned that the country had become divided into five sectors disconnected from one another - orthodox, national religious, Arab, secular, and Russian - and called for the creation of one unified education system. "The schisms between us just keep growing deeper," she said.