Education reform - failed promises

Last January, Livnat announced the launch of wide-ranging administrative and educational changes.

dovrat open mouthed 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
dovrat open mouthed 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Two dozen children holding cellophane-wrapped roses greeted Ronit Tirosh, outgoing director-general of the Education Ministry, during her visit to an elementary school in Dimona last Tuesday. One day before announcing that she was leaving her position to join Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new party, Tirosh arrived there to evaluate what the ministry has branded as "phase one" of its controversial education reform. Yet, according to teacher union leaders, the Center for Local Government, some parents and teachers and data provided by the Education Ministry, the manner in which the reform has been implemented until now far from resembles the garden of roses promised earlier this year by Tirosh and Education Minister Limor Livnat. Last January, Livnat announced the launch of wide-ranging administrative and educational changes which, she claimed, would revolutionize the school system. By the beginning of the new school year in September, following a fierce eight-month battle with the country's two teachers' unions, the Dovrat Reform - named after businessman Shlomo Dovrat, who chaired the reform committee appointed by the Education Ministry in 2003 - had been whittled down to a pilot experiment in 35 municipalities, which Livnat and Tirosh presented as "the implementation of phase one of the reform." Three months later, however, it appears that even this limited series of changes - singled out for implementation from the long list of recommendations for a nationwide reform - is far from being implemented. One of the keystones of the Dovrat Reform, and one of the main points of contention between the Education Ministry and the teachers' unions, was the transition to a five-day school week and an eight-hour school day. This transition, which was one of the main principles of reform included in phase one, has been implemented. Yet few of the changes in school infrastructure necessary to accommodate this shift have actually taken place. The changes included building computerized workstations for the teachers so they can prepare classes and grade exams at school rather than at home. In addition, the reform called for building new rest rooms at schools to accommodate pupils for so many hours per day. According to data provided by the Education Ministry, however, only 11 of the 35 municipalities participating in the reform began making these structural changes. "None of the promises about renovations for the well-being of teachers and children have come true," a teacher at a school participating in the reform told The Jerusalem Post. "They talked about a computer for every two teachers, while what we have now is still one computer for 40 teachers." As for the lack of new rest rooms, the new, long school day means, according to one first-grade teacher, that 500 elementary school children use the same 10 bathroom stalls throughout the seven or eight-hour day. Aviram Cohen, spokesperson for the Center for Local Government, told the Post the Center estimated the building of these facilities would only start in January - four months after the beginning of the school year. Shmuel Har-Noy, who chairs the Education Ministry's reform implementation task force, told the Post he believed the situation was "satisfactory," despite what he described as "local problems." The progress of renovation plans was dependent upon the actions taken by individual municipalities, he added. Cohen, however, placed the responsibility back on the ministry's shoulders. The budget for the renovation of school infrastructures "has turned out to be too low to allow renovations according to 2005 standards," he said, adding that an adequate renovation budget would have to be nearly double the one allotted by the ministry. Regarding the structure of the new school day, parents and teachers have complained that children are too tired to concentrate after spending so much time in school, and children still were given homework despite the time allotted for its completion during the day. Another central feature of the reform's initial phase, as outlined by the ministry, is the division of science, arithmetic and Hebrew classes in the first and second grade into two study groups taught by two different teachers. While this promise has indeed been met, additional classrooms have not been provided to accommodate the new study arrangement. Ministry data reveals that in approximately half of first- and second-grade classes, the children are studying in separate groups but are still sitting together in the same classroom. These conditions, the first-grade teacher told the Post, made it difficult for the children to benefit from the presence of an additional teacher, since the presence of two ongoing classes in the same room was very distracting. In other cases, the teacher said, half of the class studied in the hallway. Warm lunches, another central feature of the reform's first phase, only appeared in most schools weeks, if not months, after the beginning of the school year. Currently, according to ministry data, they are served in full in only two-thirds of the municipalities participating in the reform. Other municipalities only operate a partial program, are still preparing to implement it, or have not yet decided if they will do so in the future. Teachers in different areas of the country related the same complaint to the Post - that the children eat at their desks. Especially in the lower grades, the teachers find themselves serving food, assisting the children as they eat and then cleaning up after them. "The children receive their trays and we circulate among them, cutting, spreading, making sure they eat," one teacher said. "Then we take out the garbage so that the classes won't stink of leftovers. Moreover, I am not satisfied with the quality of the food; much of it is processed, and it's not of a quality that I would want my own children to eat." "As I foresaw from day one," Teachers' Union chairman Yossi Wasserman told the Post, "Phase one of the reform has turned out to be one big bluff." "I've personally visited many of the municipalities participating in this phase of the reform and spoken to teachers and principals," he said. "I haven't visited one town where the teachers were content with the impact of the reform on the children." Tirosh, however, painted a very different picture. Speaking to the Post on Sunday, she blamed Wasserman for sticking to an agenda of opposing the reform without examining the facts on the ground and for no longer representing teachers' opinions. Concerning the structural renovations to the schools participating in the reform, Tirosh said, "This process usually takes a year, and we condensed it into a shorter time period and worked with utmost speed." "Within six months, you will see the infrastructure in place in every school," she added. Tirosh said her visits to schools participating in the reform left her "feeling elated. On every one of my visits, I've found happy parents and children." Having embarked on a political career of her own, with the hope of being named deputy education minister, Tirosh was also critical of several key aspects of the Dovrat Reform, agreeing with Cohen's assessment that the reform's budget was insufficient. "There are significant funds lacking for the implementation of such a large reform," she said. "The teachers' unions expected a significant increase to the education budget beyond the restoration of previously cut funds, and perhaps this is where the crisis of faith with the unions began." Tirosh said the teachers' unions and education professionals at the ministry were under-represented in the Dovrat Committee - one of the major grievances brought up by the unions following the publication of the Dovrat Report. "Everyone had a hard feeling that they hadn't been heard enough. This is true, and it created a certain schism and loss of faith," she said, referring to the teachers' unions' relationship with the ministry. "If I were elected education minister, the first thing I would do in my new role would be to send out an invitation to the teachers' unions - and that says it all," Tirosh added.