For the sin of neglecting to teach our children...

Keep dreaming: Requiring school uniforms may indeed foster a sense of equality. Providing our kids with equal opportunity, however, demands a great deal more than that.

311_first day of school (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
311_first day of school
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
We’re probably the only nation whose new year coincides with the opening of its school year, fitting testimony to our reputation as the People of the Book. What goes on inside our classrooms, however, would suggest that we are anything but. An alarming range of statistics regarding our academic standing should leave us feeling anxious and apprehensive about the future of this country.
Don’t take my word for it; take this exam instead.
1. RELATIVE TO their counterparts in other countries, how do Israeli pupils perform in math and science? A. Extremely well. How else to explain our incomparable achievements in the hitech industry? B. Terribly. Of 57 countries participating in the Program for International Student Assessment, Israel placed 39th and 40th in math and science.C. Statistics are meaningless. During the last decade, Israel produced more Nobel laureates in the sciences per capita than any other country, and last month, the Nobel equivalent in mathematics, the Fields Medal, was awarded to a Hebrew University professor.D. Not a fair question. Our averages are lowered by the haredim, who don’t even study these subjects.
Answer: B. Prof. Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, interviewed by this paper several months ago, reported on a sophisticated study in which our own researchers further analyzed this data and found that in math and the sciences “the average level in Israel was consistently lower than every one of the 25 countries they compared it with.”
And it is a fair question. Ben-David revealed that “None of the results include haredim,” and added that “We exclude more kids out of these samples than any other country.”
2. TO WHAT extent is the problem with education attributable to the amount of money we invest in it? A. It wouldn’t matter how much we spend; we’re doing the wrong things with the funds at our disposal.B. One thing has nothing to do with the other. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development determined that Israel was spending a higher percentage of its GDP on education than all but one of 33 other countries included in its study.C. Sure we don’t spend enough on education, but that’s only because we have to spend so much on defense and security.
Answer: A and B. Many share Ben- David’s assessment that not enough instructional hours are dedicated to core disciplines. The problem is particularly pronounced in the haredi schools where such subject matter is devalued altogether. Legislation introduced this year that would mandate a core curriculum for all children has yet to be passed.
It needs to be for the sake of the country’s future. In any case, spending more money without redirecting it will not improve pupil performance.
3. IF MORE funds were available, on what should they be spent? A. Reducing class size B. Increasing teachers’ salaries C. Increasing classroom hoursD. Revising the curriculum
4. BEFORE RESPONDING to question 3, indicate whether the following statements are true or false: A. The average class size is roughly the same as that in EU countries.B. Starting salaries of primary school teachers are higher than the OECD average.C. Typical 15 year olds spend fewer hours in the classroom than their peers elsewhere.D. Secondary schools tend to offer less elective courses than in Europe.
Answer: All of the above statements are false.
A. Our classrooms are notoriously overcrowded.
On average, they accommodate 33 pupils, compared to 22 in the EU. Of 25 countries surveyed, only four have schools more crowded than ours.
B. Teachers are embarrassingly underpaid, making less than half the average of their colleagues in OECD countries.
C. What will surely come as a surprise to any parent is that our children actually spend more time in the classroom than their OECD counterparts, logging 1,089 hours each year compared to an international average of 971.
D. Also counter to conventional wisdom, teenagers here often have more course options than their contemporaries abroad, with high schools offering more electives to draw pupils. Those same pupils, however, are spending less time honing basic skills.
NOW GO back and answer question 3.
Confused? For good reason.
Researchers are divided in their opinions regarding the correlation between learning and a wide array of variables – including many we haven’t even touched on: teacher training, cultural milieu, gender issues, socioeconomic factors, role of the principal and even the definition of education itself. But in Israel, they are in agreement that the present situation is intolerable, and – if current trends go unchecked – their prognosis for the future is even worse.
Not only are our absolute scores lower than those of our neighbors in the OECD, which we joined amidst such fanfare a few months back, but even our brightest don’t match up to theirs. At least as worrisome, is that the gap between our strongest pupils and our weakest is among the highest in the Western world. According to Ben-David, “There are smaller gaps between Beverly Hills and Harlem pupils in the United States than there are between our best and worst achievers here in Israel.”
The Education Ministry is aware of this. The most publicized reform in the education system this year was the reintroduction of school uniforms, a policy presumably instituted by Minister Gideon Sa’ar for all the right reasons: to foster a sense of equality among pupils regardless of socioeconomic background, to alleviate social pressure, to shift the focus from appearance to achievement.
Interestingly, it also an initiative that marks a return to fundamental Zionist values, making it an appropriate gift to Theodor Herzl on the occasion of his 150th birthday. In the utopian society he describes in Altneuland, “All the pupils must wear the same kind of simple clothing...
We think it unethical to single out children according to their parents’ wealth or social rank. That would be bad for all of them. The children from well-todo families would become lazy and arrogant, the others embittered.”
But equality in dress in and of itself is not going to bring about equality in opportunity. That is only going to be achieved if we are able to provide all of our children with the knowledge and skills they need to make their way in an increasingly globalized economy.
In Herzl’s idyllic dream, “We neither reward nor punish our children for their fathers’ business transactions.
Each generation is given a new start.”
We must do the same in our own harsh reality.
Whether the current peace talks will resolve the conflict with our neighbors remains to be seen. Ultimately, however, our future is as dependent on what happens in the corridors of our schools as in the corridors of power. In this country, we are all experts on issues of security and delight in pontificating on how best to secure it – though our words are unlikely to make much of a difference – if for no other reason than that there is another side here on whom we have little influence. Our schools are another matter altogether. We can involve ourselves in our children’s education.
We can insist that the social agenda not be ignored even as the political agenda is being pursued.
In this season of heshbon nefesh (accounting for the soul), we must account as well for how we teach heshbon (mathematics). If we are unable to influence what is happening within the gates of our schoolyards, how realistic is it to imagine that we might have any impact at all on what happens within the gates of heaven? The writer has a doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew University and serves as vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization.