The real cause of Israel's teacher crisis is the teachers' union - opinion

The teachers union is supposed to represent all the teachers, but Yaffa Ben-David sees her role as representing the interests of the minority of teachers with high seniority.

 Yaffa Ben-David, head of the Teacher's Union at a protest of Israeli teachers demanding better pay and working conditions in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022 (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG)
Yaffa Ben-David, head of the Teacher's Union at a protest of Israeli teachers demanding better pay and working conditions in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG)

A Jerusalem Post editorial on Tuesday argued correctly that teachers’ pay needs to be changed so as to attract better-qualified people to the teaching profession. However, your statement that the head of the elementary school teachers union Yaffa Ben-David’s “current battle with the Treasury for higher pay... is justified” couldn’t be more mistaken. Ben-David and the union she heads are the worst enemies of qualified teachers in the school system, of young teachers near the start of their careers who are paid a pittance, of the children the system is supposed to teach and of the country’s economic future.

On average – a term that, in this case, conceals more than it discloses – teachers in Israel are paid quite well. Their average wage is higher, compared to the national average, than in other OECD countries. Teachers with seniority are paid very well, many of them earning over NIS 20,000 a month (sometimes more than the principals they work for). That’s because teachers’ pay in Israel chiefly depends on seniority. To a lesser degree, the pay system also rewards paper credentials.

It offers no reward for competence, dedication or the quality of a teacher’s work. Over the last two decades the teachers unions have forced the state to provide ever higher compensation for seniority, at the expense of younger teachers who make up the bulk of the profession. Today, the component of teachers’ salaries determined by seniority is the highest in the OECD.

The nominal salary for a full-time position for a starting teacher is about NIS 7,500 a month, but few starting teachers can actually obtain a full-time position. That’s because a teacher obtains tenure after two years of teaching. Bad teachers cannot be fired, with only three to four a year fired for incompetence out of a work force of over 100,000. Principals are afraid of being stuck forever with a bad teacher, so they offer starting teachers only part-time positions. 

In the future, if the teacher proves a dud, they can minimize the teaching hours they are required to provide him. The average salary of a starting teacher is closer to NIS 5,000 than NIS 7,500 – a quarter the salary of teacher with 30 years’ seniority and a full-time position.

 Israeli teachers protest as they demand better pay and working conditions in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Israeli teachers protest as they demand better pay and working conditions in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2022. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Who wants to work for that?

There are limited ways to increase the salary of a teacher. The most common is to give the teacher a special task, like serving as a home-room teacher or head teacher of a particular subject. These extras will give a teacher a bonus of 5-10% on her salary. But that means a teacher with five years’ experience may get NIS 450 a month extra, whereas a teacher with seniority can get over NIS 1,000 extra for the same work. That, too, is mandated by the teachers’ union.

ISRAEL’S EDUCATION system has some smart and dedicated teachers and principals, but they are not common. Because the compensation for starting teachers is comparatively low, and has been for decades, the quality of Israeli teachers is also low. An analysis by Dr. Nathan Gutmann, formerly of the Bank of Israel research department, shows that the math and reading skills of Israeli teachers are among the lowest in the OECD.

What Israel’s education system needs right now is not simply to pay teachers more across the board – the minority of teachers with high seniority are already paid very well – but to concentrate pay where it will do the most to promote quality. The lion’s share of any pay increase should go to younger and starting teachers. At the same time, the academic standards required of teacher trainees should be tightened considerably. The annual percentage rise in pay for pure seniority should be reduced. 

Compensation for special tasks should be a fixed amount, not a percentage of salary and increased substantially. Principals should be able to offer good teachers large individual bonuses for excellence.

The education system has a dire shortage of teachers in math, science and English. Israel needs to move some highly qualified people from the high-tech sector to teaching, but this will only happen if appropriately qualified people are offered individual contracts with high-tech salary figures.

Tenure should be abolished or curtailed. Principals should be allowed to fire dud teachers for incompetence.

The education system has a dire shortage of qualified principals. Many advertisements to fill principals’ positions attract no applicants. Principals need to be treated as managers of complex enterprises, not just as glorified teachers, and paid substantially more than the teachers they manage.

To all these points, put forward by the Treasury, Yaffa Ben-David’s response is a resounding “No.” The teachers union is supposed to represent all the teachers, but Ben-David sees her role as representing the interests of the minority of teachers with high seniority.

Your editorial was accompanied by a photograph of a demonstration organized by the teachers’ union. Most of the teachers in the photo appeared young. I wonder how many of them realize they are demonstrating not only against the children’s and the country’s best interests, but against their own.

The writer is director of policy research at Kohelet Policy Forum.