Don't rest, reform

While it's true that teachers' wages are embarrassingly low, with most starting their careers earning below minimum wage, raising salaries is not reform.

shake end strike 224 88 (photo credit: Amos Ozan - Treasury Spokesperson)
shake end strike 224 88
(photo credit: Amos Ozan - Treasury Spokesperson)
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here? The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to… Alice: I don't much care where. The Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go. The deal signed Thursday between the secondary school teachers and the government is such a small step in the right direction that it only brings into sharp, maddening focus just how sick the education system - the "old man" of our public institutions - really is. Anecdotes about the system's dysfunction are commonplace: IDF generals complain in testimony before the Knesset that they find fewer qualified high school graduates for technological units than in the past; the IDF's entrance exams are unchanged but the percentage of 18-year-olds who pass them is falling. Tel Aviv University recently introduced a dumbed-down introductory course for economics majors because the original course demanded a level of mathematics that high school graduates are no longer equipped to handle. In response to this collapsing system, and after 65 days of strike and rhetoric about "just struggles" and "the value of education," we now have a reform plan that amounts to a laughably small administrative correction rather than a real change to a system that is now producing children measurably the least-educated in the West. While it's true that teachers' wages are embarrassingly low, with most starting their careers earning below minimum wage, raising salaries is not reform. Neither is cutting huge classrooms by perhaps one-eighth over an indeterminate period of time. Rather, these are distractions from the deeper troubles. In 1953, the Knesset passed the State Education Law, which sought to dismantle the party-affiliated education systems present at the founding of the state. At the time, political parties were used to running their own villages, sports teams and banks, and saw their private education systems as a tool for maintaining a future electoral base. The law was "a rare example… that lays the groundwork for a great revolution…. Its primary significance is in its release from the legacy of the Diaspora, in the liberation of education from the dependence on the [political] parties… and in offering an education based on shared principles for the nation as a whole," said Shoshana Parsitz, the Sorbonne-educated chairwoman of the Education Committee in the first, second and third Knessets. The fear that ideological streams in education could cause the fragmentation of Israeli society brought the country's leaders to their senses, and the multiple streams were integrated - almost. The religious parties managed to bring about a consolidation into two, not one, "formal" state systems - the "state" and the "state-religious" streams. Haredi schools were granted an official status as "recognized" rather than "formal" education systems, and the Arab schools were hardly discussed at all. Today, vast funds are wasted on duplicate teachers, principals, overseers and buildings to support four separate systems, each with a different ideological commitment and, at least in the case of the haredim, a radically different curriculum. Half of Israel's kindergarteners now study in the Arab and haredi systems, and, to put it mildly, do not learn about the Zionist dream or the justice and importance of Jewish self-reliance and self-determination. In addition, Israel does not have a serious policy-planning body for education. Nobody asks the interdisciplinary questions, such as how a teacher's training might influence the curriculum, or whether teacher empowerment works in dysfunctional schools. Thus, reform plans, such as the one signed on Thursday, focus on the needs of those who develop them - economists on wage schemes, education professors on pedagogic ethics and Treasury officials on flexible hiring practices. Perhaps this is why, in almost 55 years, nobody has asked how the country might implement a program that will serve to unite, rather than divide, Israelis based on the principles already codified in law. There is nothing illegitimate about a labor dispute that creates a new wage scheme. But its resolution is no cause for "celebration" and does not promise "a better future," whatever the finance minister may say. We are thankful that teachers and students are back at school. But now is not the time to rest, it is for our political and educational leaders to hammer out meaningful changes that will generate a concrete result - a world-class education for our children.