Failing the grade

The bottom line of a research on "how the world's best-performing school systems come out on top," is that nothing Tamir recommends has worked or will work.

Tamir 224.88 (photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks)
Tamir 224.88
(photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks)
Education Minister Yuli Tamir has good news for the nation: NIS 2.3 billion will be added to the education budget and class sizes will be reduced to no more than 32 pupils in each. The new policy, moreover, will be selectively applied. Schools deemed to cater to students from lower socioeconomic strata "will get more assistance first and faster, thereby granting more time and personal quality attention to all pupils to prevent gaps, raise achievement levels and offer new hope," Tamir explained at the recent Herzliya Conference. It sounds promising, except for the fact that this approach has been tried and has failed numerous times, in numerous places. The more that is invested in our school system and the more effort expended on improving its standards, the lower do the scores of Israeli students slip on such international gauges as the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Tamir could find consolation in the fact that this is not a predicament unique to Israel. The same experiences frustrate educators in Britain, Australia, the US, Germany, Switzerland and indeed most of Europe. But had Tamir paid adequate attention and done her homework more conscientiously, she would have noted that half an hour before she delivered her upbeat address in Herzliya, a McKinsey study presented there refuted all her assumptions. McKinsey&Company, an international consulting firm, strove to discover "how the world's best-performing school systems come out on top." Its bottom line is that nothing Tamir recommends has worked or will work. McKinsey's researchers set out to discover just what time and again puts countries like Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore and South Korea ahead of all the others. They found that higher spending and streamlined class sizes have little or no relationship to improved results. Singapore spends less per student than many other states yet produces superior PISA scores. Israel spends as much per capita as Holland and Australia, with results on par with Turkey and Mexico. Time is not a decisive factor either. Finnish youngsters, whose system has been among the most successful, spend fewer hours in school than children in most developed countries. What all high-achieving countries do is recruit quality teachers, get more out of teachers, and intervene at the first hint that a student lags behind. The McKinsey study also refutes another popular myth, about higher pay. This is not necessarily the key factor, it finds, in recruiting, training and retaining great teachers. Countries with the highest teachers' salaries - Switzerland, Germany and Spain - do not produce corresponding scholastic excellence. Singapore maintains excellence by screening candidates before training and accepts only limited numbers. South Korea does the same for elementary, but not secondary, schools. The result is that teaching lower grades is of higher status and desirability. Teacher training needs to be hard to get into, McKinsey concludes. Teacher training, moreover, never ends, and teachers cooperate on and share lesson plans. Most importantly, top performers intervene at the first sign of failure; students who fall behind enjoy special remedial education. From Finland to Singapore, it is unheard of to send pupils to private tutors - the knee-jerk response of Israeli teachers. Tamir should have paid particular attention to all the above, precisely because it goes against her oft-stated postulates, such as that it's impossible to get the best teachers without commensurate salaries. She should have come away from Herzliya with McKinsey's more original perceptions: that top graduates can be attracted to teaching without top salaries and that with common sense and inexpensive policies schools and students are not doomed to fall behind. Yet she persists in echoing the fashionable slogans which have failed our schools and others the world over. Tamir need not even have listened to the McKinsey findings. She need merely have pondered why education was incomparably better in the state's earliest years, when classes were most crowded and acute austerity meant severe shortages of such indispensable items as notebooks. Money is not everything, and size does not always matter. One wonders what sort of grade Tamir, as a former professor, would give a student who made a presentation on how to fix the school system without bothering to check what easily available studies have to say about real-world comparisons. Our dismal record shows education spending going up as educational outcomes have gone down. When looking for solutions, why reinvent the wheel? We don't have the luxury of ignoring the experience of successful educational systems while repeating our own and others' failures.