Middle Israel: What Israel's education debate is really about

The country increasingly realizes that this showdown is another round in mediocrity's war on excellence.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Having corresponded with several angry teachers following my attack on their strike last week, I was astonished to learn how frequently they either don't know, or don't want to know, the Dovrat Report's recommendations they detest so much. And so, as they repeatedly described pay slips of NIS 5,000 or less and complained about correcting papers after supper and taking parents' phone calls before midnight, some teachers complained that the Dovrat Committee included not even one teacher, others that it would have left teachers' pay unchanged and yet others insisted that what they want is that the best and brightest would come to teach, unlike this wicked columnist and committee he hails, whose aim is apparently that Israel's future be placed in the hands of perennially depressed, disgruntled and dishonored teachers. So first the facts: The Dovrat Committee was asked to treat a managerial crisis, one that teachers are not necessarily equipped to tackle, just like General Motors, when once faced with a major restructuring imperative, hired for that purpose the McKinsey management consultancy rather than a group of mechanical engineers. Having said this, the Dovrat Committee's 18 members actually did include teachers, like Ilana Bar, currently principal of the Lady Davis high school and formerly principal of the Alharizi elementary school; Rabbi Avi Gisser, the former principal of the girls' high school in Ofra; and the committee's spokesman, Rabbi Shai Piron, who headed the Yeshurun girls' high school in Petah Tikva. Coupled with six education management experts, including former education minister Amnon Rubinstein, as well as a battery of economists and businessmen, this was a top-notch panel whose expertise and impartiality were at least as high as any teachers union's. Similarly, unconventional work hours are not unique to teachers. Don't cabs, buses, trains and restaurants work well after dark; don't shop owners at the nearby mall close at 10 and leave at 11 p.m.; don't hospitals work around the clock; do hi-tech firms not work opposite California; don't investment houses time themselves to Wall Street and Tokyo; don't lawyers work well after midnight; and when do teachers complaining about late hours think journalism is done? Everybody works late these days, and they all deserve, but seldom get, added pay for that. How can teachers of all people, the very ones assigned with telling our children what life is all about, really think they are different in this from the rest of the labor market? Much more crucially, the Dovrat Report sure did present a model for raising teachers' pay, and sharply. Turn to the report's page 126 and you'll see that, should the report be implemented, an average teacher's wage would climb to NIS 9,400 according to December '04 prices, and a starting teacher's salary to NIS 5,500. Turn to the detailed charts on pages 129-131 and you'll see that veteran teachers' pay would exceed NIS 14,000 if they have a master's degree and NIS 18,000 if they have a doctorate. So all those who now wave at us their skimpy pay slips must attach to their complaints an asterisk that will at least mention, if not explain, their own rejection of a plan that would have redrawn those pay slips beyond recognition. Moreover, the striking teachers would do well to look in the mirror and ask themselves: Did I really reject that plan myself, or did someone else reject it for me, and when that someone else rejected it for me, did he consult me, let alone ask my permission? Did it ever occur to my union leader to hold a vote among our 44,000 members before spewing his barbaric comparison of this plan to Hitler's pact with Stalin? Did he, while inciting all of us against this report, really think about us and the education system's future, or was he thinking about his own fortunes, which indeed stood to dwindle in the wake of this reform because it would have shifted my destiny's control from him to the school principal? THE FACT is that many teachers actually support the Dovrat Report, but are afraid to say so publicly for fear of their unions, which did not ask the teachers, not to mention the parents, before leading all of us to the dead-end at which we have arrived. The fact is also that the Dovrat vision would reinvent schools as institutions and teachers as professionals. In its quest to dramatically raise the teachers' quality and status, the report says new teachers should pass accreditation exams, just like lawyers, doctors and engineers. That is also why teachers would punch clocks and be regularly evaluated, and schools would report to boards of directors, produce target plans and publish annual reports. Such measures, along with the principal's power to reward good teachers and fire bad ones, would create the meritocracy that the existing system so glaringly lacks. It would also attract many good people who currently shun teaching because it does not offer the income and prestige they can obtain elsewhere. Now, judging by the alarm with which some teachers responded to last week's column, the question arises: What makes serious adults oppose an impartial and professional plan that would treat the malaise they so emotionally decry? Well, beyond most teachers' evident failure to even read the report, and beyond their union's understandable refusal to part with the decay in which it thrives, there is a deeper factor: fear. Fear of change, fear of the unknown, and fear of what lies beyond the horizon. That is why the strikers' idea of "reform" is them giving nothing while obtaining shrunken classes and added teaching hours; this they can fathom. Yet real reforms are uncharted waters to them, and as such appeal to them as much as the Red Sea did to the Israelites as they approached it. And so, like a patient fearing urgent surgery, they say to themselves: Who knows what this may bring; an empowered principal might fire me; evaluation reports and punching clocks might expose me; and competitive salaries might bring here charismatic, energetic and better-educated youngsters who will overshadow me. Fear of change is natural. Even the persecuted Israelites initially preferred slavery to redemption; it was the devil they knew. That is why their idea of challenging the system boiled down to their lowlifes' complaint: "No straw is issued to your servants, yet they demand of us: 'Make bricks!'" Otherwise, they were fine with the system, just like the Secondary School Teachers Union, which wants us to think that all the system needs is more straw. Well, the teachers must understand that this is not about straw, and it is also not their private battle. The entire country is in it, and increasingly realizes that this showdown is but another round in mediocrity's timeless war on excellence. And the more they entrench, evade the issues and hold our kids hostage, the more they will find that their battle is not with the government, but with the people. www.MiddleIsrael.com