The seemingly interminable secondary school teachers' strike isn't the only measure of the sorry state of this country's education. A string of domestic and international exams highlight continuous deterioration in standards and endemic underachievement, though not of equal gravity in all sectors of society. This year fifth-graders averaged a shocking 56.9% in math, versus 67% last year in the standardized Meitzav (Hebrew acronym for school growth and efficiency indicators) test. While the average among Jewish pupils was 61.3, their Arab counterparts managed a mere 45%. Meitzav science scores dropped from last year's 72.5 to the current 68.8 and English from 73.5 to 72.5. In all cases Arab scores were very significantly lower. Israeli fourth-graders managed an unimpressive 31st slot among 45 states participating in the PIRLS test of literacy and reading-comprehension. A year ago Israel ranked 23rd. Here Jewish pupils on their own reached 11th place, while Israeli Arabs descended to 40th (still higher than all participating Arab countries). The next blow to the prestige of Israeli education will officially come from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) on December 4. It's already known that Israeli 15-year-olds placed 39th of 57 countries in math, science and reading. The 33rd position attained by Israeli youngsters five years ago engendered such uproar that new curricula were devised, but these apparently only made a bad situation worse. This isn't just an aggregate of unlucky coincidences. Such incontrovertibly poor results should ring every alarm bell among policy-makers. Teaching clearly cannot continue as usual. Both Education Ministry officials and educators must think out of the box and abandon the popular trends and accepted mantras of their professional milieu. The fashionable guidelines which underpin local teaching philosophy quite obviously don't work. We know Israel is capable of more because in past decades - significantly far leaner times in material terms - this country did incomparably better. Contrary to the teachers' slogans and conventional wisdom about government cash outlays, salaries and class size, the explanation resides to a great part elsewhere. Schools are lax on discipline and work ethic is not inculcated into pupils. For the younger ones, in fact, tasks are disguised as games - lest the required effort daunt the children. The three Rs are woefully neglected, especially spelling, basic arithmetical calculations and old-fashioned elementary reading skills. No progress is possible without a return to basics, without rigorous requirements that students actually apply themselves. Unless principals are granted clout to rid schools of bad teachers, nothing will change there either. School-wide gauges of each teacher's success or failure in meeting curriculum benchmarks are indispensable. Merely hiking teachers' pay doesn't amount to reform and won't attract more qualified personnel - unless financial incentive hinges on merit. If bad teachers, too, are rewarded, they won't be replaced and our children will continue to be failed. Yet the teachers' unions serially buck reform. Representing all teachers - including failed and mediocre ones - their interest isn't to encourage selection geared to producing excellence. The adamant refusal of Secondary School Teachers' Union boss Ran Erez to agree to so much as two more weekly work-hours (only one in the classroom) speaks volumes. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's standoffish attitude in this dispute hardly constitutes valiant resistance to pressure. His refusal to tackle one of Israeli society's most intractable challenges is a cop-out. The teachers' labor dispute is complex and nuanced; there are valid points being made by both sides and indefensible positions, too. The prime minister should have long since used his clout to ensure a resolution, rather than allowing the dispute to stagger scandalously along. In response to the last genuine attempt at a school-system overhaul, the unions launched vehement onslaughts on the 2004 Dovrat Reform scheme, replete with a massive (and expensive) PR campaign assailing then-education minister Limor Livnat personally. The praiseworthy Dovrat plan never took off mainly because it sought to introduce business-like managerial logic and accountability. Olmert insists he cares deeply about education. But if he cared enough, he wouldn't have avoided the fray. As things stand, we are heading toward a patchwork pretense of a strike solution wherein teachers will win higher pay, officialdom will lay claim to bogus reform, many vital teaching weeks will have been lost and nothing will have been done to slow the downward spiral of scholastic achievement. Next year, because of the missed opportunity to achieve true reform, we will doubtless be lamenting an even more abysmal educational performance.