A qualified success story

If it’s so good, why is it so bad?

Students eating lunch at school (illustrative) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Students eating lunch at school (illustrative)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel has much to be proud of.
We recently returned from a wonderful weekend of classical music in Eilat. Since the major aliya from the former Soviet Union that began toward the end of the 1980s, there is hardly a town in Israel that is unable to boast a first-class orchestra where a high proportion of members originate from the FSU.
In the hi-tech field, Israel’s industry is on par with America’s Silicon Valley. The smartphone would not be so smart without Israeli input – much mobile phone technology can be traced back to Israeli engineering. Waze would not direct us to our destination had it not been developed and popularized by Waze Mobile, an Israeli company founded by three Israelis.
In the medical realm, we excel in research and development, producing breakthroughs such as the robotic exoskeleton Rewalk providing paraplegic mobility – and even empowering paraplegic runners to successfully complete marathons.
Another medical success is Nano Retina’s Bio-Retina, a tiny implantable device that in a 30-minute procedure turns into an artificial retina. Activated by special glasses, the device transforms natural light into an electrical impulse that stimulates neurons to send images to the brain – a boon to those who might otherwise have severely impaired vision.
These are but a few of the numerous ongoing Israeli discoveries in multiple fields that are benefiting mankind.
Economically we are faring exceedingly well; we are ranked 26th out of 187 countries in GDP per capita. We are ahead of Italy and Spain, as well as a number of Eastern European countries. The combined GDP total of the European Union’s 28 countries is $39,240, while Israel’s is £37,270. The International Monetary Fund has raised Israel’s growth forecast for 2018 to 3.4% from 3.1% in 2017.
SOUNDS GOOD, but is it really? A November 2017 OECD report shows Israel with high levels of deprivation, falling in the bottom third of the OECD in 11 out of 15 available indicators. Income poverty has an incidence of 19.5% – the highest recorded among the countries considered.
How disturbing it is that, in our economically successful country, more than 880,000 children live in poverty, according to figures from the National Council for the Child 2016 annual report. Additionally alarming is the number of children who suffer sexual assault. Poverty contributes to malfunctioning families where violence and abuse can run riot.
One would hope that the social welfare structure is able to supply adequate support to families who fall into the category of deprivation of one type or another. Sadly, this is not the case.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Tzipi (not her real name), a social worker whose main responsibility is providing services to the courts dealing with both civil and religious family issues, highlighted the frustrating demands of the job, with too few social workers expected to address the volume of families requiring assistance.
“I am working 200% over the maximum,” she said. “A full-time court worker is supposed to provide 50 to 60 reports a year, but I am submitting 100 to 120 per year while being paid for only a 65% time position. I have had no assistance for 18 years because the system prevents me from obtaining help. I love my job, which is why I have continued in spite of the challenges.”
The government needs to pump money into social services. It introduces new laws that are supposed to bring reform and positive change, but funds are unavailable for meaningful application.
One new law awaiting implementation applies to a divorced couple where one partner influences a child against the other partner, frequently resulting in the child’s refusal to meet the other parent. Hitherto, these cases have been passed to the court social services, but even with sanctions applied, the laws often meet with failure. Tzipi sees little chance of a new law, devoid of a therapeutic framework, being successful. Where emotional pain is rife, the solution lies not in the creation of legislation but rather in providing the appropriate psychological support. Sadly, with a social worker’s inferior status, low salary and poor working conditions, there are too few qualified professionals to meet the demands of the numerous needy.
Israel relies heavily on its brain resources. The 2017 OECD report, comparing the education system within its member states, indicates that Israel remains at the bottom of the list. This should be of prime concern to our government. Israeli teachers’ salaries are significantly below the average of the equivalent in all other OECD countries. The biggest disparity is in high school teachers’ wages, where Israelis earn an annual $27,036 in comparison to $46,631 in developed countries.
The 2017 Shoresh Handbook report focuses on Israeli education and its socioeconomic impact on the Jewish state. It argues that crowded classrooms have a negative effect on the quality of learning. With a large number of classes reaching the 40-student limit, it suggests that a reduction to 20 students could substantially improve the learning environment.
The Magazine asked Elisheva (not her real name), a high-school teacher of 25 years’ standing, how teaching has evolved. She noted a change in attitude of both parents and children. Today’s parents expect their children to be given high grades and often become irate if this is not the case. Children and teachers do not know how to deal with failure, which places both under pressure to the detriment of the learning process.
When she first started teaching and asked the children how many would like to become doctors, a number of hands shot up, but today most pupils are keen to enter the hi-tech world and make money; few appear interested in professions geared to helping the individual. Elisheva believes the system needs changing, with more group teaching bringing different topics together. She is concerned that the curriculum does not allow space for sport, art, sewing and cooking – things that she herself positively experienced when at school.
Preparing students for the English matriculation examination, Elisheva spoke of a problematic new marking program for the oral examination. Whereas previously the teachers recorded the children’s score on a form, initially with pencil, completing in ink only after ensuring it was correct; now the teacher is expected to enter the examination room using cellphones to transfer the results live, identifying each student by ID number only.
“We [teachers] are terrified of giving an incorrect ID number and awarding a grade to the wrong student. Having to respond immediately, we fear we will pay less attention to the kids and their oral skills with the stress of having to enter grades in this way. It’s a nightmare.”
Another teacher with whom we spoke said the Education Ministry tends to follow a political agenda rather than what is good for the pupil. English will now be introduced at kindergarten level because this is a popular idea among the electorate. Educators feel this is not a good idea, but politicians believe it will bring in more votes, which becomes the deciding factor.
As a result of our electoral system, education ministers change frequently, resulting, unfortunately, in an inability to complete a policy. This has a negative effect on both teachers and students.
The Knesset recently passed the budget for 2017 and 2018. The good news is that the education budget has increased; the bad news is the allocation of funding will be in the hands of the politicians rather than the education professionals.
WHILE ISRAEL is a success story, in our quest to succeed, we seem to have forgotten that the future is in the hands of our children. There remain too many dysfunctional families that are not receiving the support that a prosperous country should be able to provide. Moreover, if we do not improve our education system, it will be impossible to maintain the high level of research and development that has become Israel’s hallmark and cutting edge.
Today is tomorrow – is anyone listening?
The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.