An educated opinion

Prof. Dan Ben-David, recently appointed head of the Taub Center, talks about politics, education and the welfare state.

Why do so many high-school students get such low marks in national math and science exams? Why, despite the huge amounts of money invested in the education system, do we find ourselves year after year academically behind countries that are less developed than ours? And can Jerusalem, the capital yet the poorest city in the country, bring about a change to this situation? Can the current situation, in which two large segments of its residents - haredim and Arabs - do not seek employment, be remedied or are we doomed to continue our downward spiral? Professor Dan Ben-David, one of Israel's most prominent academic researchers and recently appointed head of the Taub Center, is well acquainted with the problems of the capital. According to him, "What happened to the city in terms of poverty and non-employment and its results - it's becoming a place that is not attracting newcomers - are an indication of what is going to happen to the whole country." Located in Rehavia, the Taub Center is an independent social economic think tank that analyzes and develops macro-level policy alternatives. Specializing in macroeconomics, economic growth, international economics and the Israeli economy at Tel Aviv University, Ben-David received the university's Outstanding Teacher Award in Social Sciences. In addition to his career in academia, Ben-David has advised Israel's prime ministers, cabinet ministers, Knesset members, National Security advisers and other leading policymakers on issues in economic and social policy. He received his BA from Tel Aviv University and his MA and PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. Ben-David is also a Research Fellow at the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) in London and has served as an adviser to the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. His assessment of Israel's position in the Western world is rather disturbing. You've become head of the Taub Center, though until recently you were on the Kadima list for the Knesset. Have you lost faith in politics? Not at all. I still believe it is an effective way to promote change. But in my case, I presented a detailed program to deal with the problems I had pointed out to prime minister [Ariel] Sharon, and after a while he suggested that I register with the Kadima party in order to implement my plans. But then he left the political scene, and when Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert prepared the list for the elections, he apparently preferred other candidates and I was relegated to 34th place. It's not that I couldn't wait, but I think that heading the Taub Center is the right way for me to continue my work and disseminate my ideas, although I still believe that more academics should enter the political arena. How would you describe our situation? I have been witnessing for years the decline of the academic advantage of Israel, which I believe began in the 1970s. Since then, we have been spiraling toward what I see as a non-sustainable situation in the near future for Israel and its population. How did it happen? Israel is falling behind the Western developed countries, and we're reaching a non-sustainable point, where not only well-off Israelis will seek other places for themselves and their families, but even olim will not choose to stay here. Some of the people are already leaving. As for the rest - if they are not given the tools to succeed, they will never make it. But Israel has a well-developed welfare network; people are not abandoned in the streets. Poverty is not only a matter of giving enough or not (through welfare budgets and allocations) - that is not the issue. The problem is where would so many people be without welfare at all. Yes, we have a system of welfare and a safety net, but nobody wants to be dependent forever on a safety net. That is not a solution, and we can't go on like that. And who's going to support all these people in the future? What are the causes that led us to this? The figures on non-employed adults - male and female alike - are a key tool to estimating the situation of Israeli society and its ability to attain Western levels. The figures on non-employed in the OECD countries in the West (i.e., people who do not seek employment, not people who cannot find jobs) stands at 13 percent. The local figures are way behind these: 30% of non-employed among Arab men and 79.5% among Arab women. As for haredim, the figures are 73% among men and 49% among women. The general figure for non-employed Israelis, compared to the Western figure, is 16.3%, and that is a very high [figure] and dangerous statistic. How does it look in Jerusalem? What has happened to the city in terms of poverty and non-employment and its results - it's becoming a place that is not attracting newcomers - is an indication of what is going to happen to the whole country. Since Jerusalem is the city that has the two lowest-employed sectors - haredim and Arabs - the situation here is even worse. But many young haredi couples move to the satellite cities surrounding Jerusalem, and there most of them do work. Also many of them who live in Jerusalem work, although it is not officially declared. I am well aware of that, but I don't see any improvement caused by it: It's still a lifestyle of not working and, above all, it does not alleviate the burden - these people do not pay taxes, so the burden on the other residents' shoulders remains the same, and that is harmful. And their birth rate is so high that it is far from being enough to change the situation. Would you describe the situation as a lost cause? I describe myself as an optimist. That being said, I believe that everything can be amended. That is one of the main reasons I came to the Taub Center - I want to develop and propose the results of my knowledge and research in light of the gravity of the current situation. We have a window of opportunity to make the necessary changes. There is not a lot of time, but we can do it. Decisions have to be made and changes implemented. Can you give an example of what needs to be done in terms of the education system? We need to give our children the tools required to work in a modern world, the Western world. The first thing to look at is the curriculum. We have a lot of fancy-shmantzy courses proposed in our schools. I'm not saying it's bad to study biotechnology already in junior high, but what about the basics? What about maths, reading abilities? They are neglected, and thus we are below the majority in the Western world. There are three main reasons behind this terrible situation. One is that a large proportion of the teachers do not meet the requirements of [being accepted to] university - so how can someone who wouldn't be accepted to university be capable of preparing a student for university? It doesn't make sense. I'm not saying these teachers are not devoted, I'm sure they are; but it's obviously not enough. The second reason is the curriculum: I'm asking, what are they studying there? I can tell you, there's not enough maths, science, reading - we don't teach them the basics. Students reach high school and they find they are not able to read a book and present a decent book report - that is unacceptable. And third, the system. It discourages initiative; it is very difficult to reward those who are deserving. No one is accountable, the principals cannot reward the best teachers, and so on. The plans of Mayor Nir Barkat include an ambitious program to improve the education system, working on a partnership with philanthropy. What do you think about that? I totally agree with him on including philanthropy in the partnership for improving the local education system. If we want to close the gap, there is no other way. The idea is not to exploit the well off but to raise the less well off to a higher level, to encourage them and to deter students from dropping out of school. I hope he will succeed in introducing a system of checks and balances in the management of the municipality and, above all, in the education system. It's about leadership - you need a leadership to help you to reach out. We need to go back to basic management - like what I hear he's doing with the department heads: telling them to present programs and plans, not just renew the same budgets adapted every year. You have to do quality control, to check what's been successful and what hasn't been. But all that is also a matter of atmosphere, not only money and budgets. Go back to basics - send the students to read and to learn the multiplication table, and apply real leadership: give the managers some leeway so they won't have to come back to you for every staple they want to buy; but be sure you also conduct tests at the end to evaluate the progress of things. Otherwise, how would we know where we stand? What else should be done to improve the situation? What you're doing now is one good example. The media is an excellent tool to spread the word.