Israel needs an urgent education reform

Education is suffering because Israel has not recognized that due to teachers' dire employment conditions, potentially gifted educators prefer to take their talents elsewhere.

Kids in Class 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Kids in Class 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The barrage of recent headlines about the dismal state of Israel’s education system - from the country’s poor showing in the latest international PISA exam to professors lamenting the woeful ignorance of incoming college freshmen - has produced a lot of nostalgia for the early years of the state, when Israeli students topped the international rankings instead of falling into the bottom third. But this nostalgia tends to overlook the elephant in the room: the revolution in job opportunities for women that has occurred in recent decades.
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Fifty years ago, schools worldwide benefited from a captive labor pool consisting of the best and brightest of half the population - the female half. With most professions open only to men, many bright, talented, well-educated women ended up as teachers simply because the main alternatives, being secretaries or nurses, looked even less appealing. I vividly remember my superb high-school French and Spanish teacher telling me that had she had the career opportunities I would have upon graduation, she would never have become a teacher. But because she didn’t, thousands of students benefited from her talents.
Today, in contrast, schools seeking talented employees must compete head-to-head with hundreds of other interesting, challenging professions. But our education system has yet to come to terms with this reality: It still behaves as if it had a broad pool of captive talent available to it.
The Finance Ministry’s latest report on public-sector wages offered stunning proof of this. It showed that 54 percent of teachers earned less than the average wage for the economy as a whole.    Good people have always been willing to accept less than top dollar in exchange for the feeling that they are doing interesting, important work. But it’s hard to convince people they are doing important work when the offered salary is not merely modest, but downright humiliating - which is the case with teachers’ current pay. When most teachers earn less than the average wage, this sends a message that their profession is not in the same category as other jobs requiring a college degree, but is in fact closer in status to that of waitress or street sweeper. And that is not a message likely to attract talented new recruits.
This same message is sent by the profession’s appalling lack of standards. For instance, an internal Central Bureau of Statistics study recently found that only 48 percent of high-school math teachers have a degree in math or some closely related field. The remainder are liberal arts majors who most likely never took a single college-level math course. Clearly, this affects the quality of their teaching. But it also affects the profession’s ability to recruit talent.
A law firm would never dream of hiring someone who hadn’t passed the bar to serve as an attorney, nor would a hospital hire someone without a medical degree to work as a doctor. All skilled professions have standards. If the teaching profession doesn’t, that sends the message that it is not skilled profession, but unskilled labor - which in turn makes it unappealing to bright, talented people.
The union pay scale, which severs pay from performance, also repels talent. Good people want to know that their efforts will be rewarded. And lawyers, doctors or engineers who produce above-average results can all expect to be compensated accordingly. But a teacher’s pay depends solely on seniority and how many degrees he has, not on how successful he is at educating his students. That’s a strong incentive for talented people to choose a different profession, where their talents will be rewarded.
To their credit, the last two governments have at least tried to address the first issue: The previous government signed a deal giving elementary school teachers a 26 percent raise in exchange for more hours, and the current government just signed a deal giving high school teachers a 50 percent raise in exchange for more hours.
But clearly, the state will never be able to afford to pay teachers salaries equivalent to, say, private-sector lawyers or engineers. Thus raises alone cannot solve the problem of making teaching an attractive profession capable of competing with other skilled professions for the best talent. Indeed, while pay is important, many of the steps needed to raise the profession’s status have nothing to do with money - the issue of standards being just one example.
But the first step toward any solution is recognizing the problem: that schools must compete for talented workers. And therefore, like any other business, they need a business model that allows them to do so.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.