Analysis: Too much zigzagging in education policy

There's no shortage of problems in our schools there just seem to be too many plans to deal with them.

olmert kids 298.88 (photo credit: ap)
olmert kids 298.88
(photo credit: ap)
The most telling moment in the dozens of festive "first day of school" interviews on television and radio yesterday was a school principal from the North who was asked how Education Minister Yuli Tamir compares with her predecessors. "I don't know," answered the principal, "I haven't yet had a chance to learn anything about her policies." Tamir has been on the job for almost four months, but the education system is such an unwieldy behemoth that change takes time to trickle down, and the way the political scene looks, she might noSchools need more reformst be around for too long. The last school year saw three education ministers. It was opened by Limor Livnat, who had lasted an almost unprecedented five years at the post. After the Likud split, she was replaced by Kadima's Meir Sheetrit for the election season until Tamir received the senior portfolio, her prize for being the only Labor MK to support Amir Peretz's unlikely campaign for the party leadership. But the change at the top of the ministry isn't only personal. Education ministers, whether or not they have the background, on assuming the responsibility automatically become national mentors and put into motion wide-ranging plans for reform of the school system. But before the reform gets very far, a new minister is making his or her own plan. Even Livnat, with her long term of office, only managed to implement a partial first stage of the ambitious Dovrat plan before her forced departure took the energy out of it. While Sheetrit was merely a caretaker, Tamir was quick to dump Dovrat and, in her short tenure, is already up to her second plan, a downscaled version of the first one, designed after the war to upgrade the schools in the North and Haifa regions. It's highly questionable that the Finance Ministry will allow even that, with all the budget cuts planned now to pay for the army's rearmament. And besides, it is still dedicated to the old Dovrat plan, with hundreds of schools receiving funding for the first stage. There's no shortage of problems in our schools: an outdated curriculum, crumbling buildings, a demoralized and underpaid teaching force, declining scores in national and international tests and rising rates of violence in the classrooms. There just seem to be too many plans to deal with them. At least one mother of four wasn't part of the general euphoria at the return to school yesterday - her two eldest had already graduated. "I didn't see that school really gave my boys anything," she said. "They wouldn't get up in the morning to get there on time, I had to pour water on them." But help was on the way. "I thought they would never survive their army service, but the IDF made human beings out of them. Suddenly, they were getting up at the crack of dawn, eating whatever was put in front of them and not answering back." Perhaps that was one of the most optimistic discoveries in this summer's war, seeing how underachieving and inarticulate high school pupils had been transformed into intelligent and responsible young men and women. But why does the IDF, with all its obvious problems highlighted over the recent campaign, remain basically stable, no matter who the defense minister is and how many times he is changed? How do the police continue fighting crime and directing traffic, the electricity flow at the same current and cars still drive on the right side of the road no matter who the ministers in charge of Internal Security, National Infrastructure and Transportation are, but the education system has been stuck for two decades because of the high turnover at the top? The IDF has a strong General Staff, most of the other ministries have a strong core of professional officials and experts, but every new education minister thinks he or she has a personal philosophy that should be passed on to every child in the land. Three years ago, a group of activists and experts, headed by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, unveiled a plan for educational reform. At its core was the recommendation to form a national education authority, with a degree of independence from the politicians, that would lay out the long-range plans for the nation's schools, while the minister would remain responsible for overall policy and daily management of the system. Livnat laughed off the idea and promised that her Dovrat Commission would issue a plan to end all plans. Yuli Tamir is a bona fide expert, a professor of education with a real philosophy, but she could also do with a dose of realism. Her plans might be wonderful, but the timetable for implementation is always political. If the coalition breaks up, she'll be out together with her plans. Perhaps she should look for Uzi Dayan's reform in some dusty archive and lay the groundwork that might allow someone to finally carry out some meaningful reform.