Flunking PISA

PISA was introduced here three years ago, with somewhat disastrous results: Israel ranked 33 out of 41.

pisa test 88 (photo credit: )
pisa test 88
(photo credit: )
Thousands of Israeli tenth-graders won't take the worldwide Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test on Sunday, as initially scheduled. They might be tested five weeks later - if their teachers cooperate. PISA was introduced here three years ago, with somewhat disastrous results: Israel ranked 33rd among 41 participating countries. The shock this generated led to the formation of the Dovrat Committee, charged with reforming our obviously wanting school system. Its proposals have now been effectively laid to rest. The teachers unions scuttled them, as this paper warned they would. These unions have obstructed most every attempted reform in the history of Israeli education. Now the Secondary School Teachers Association refuses to permit pupils to face the PISA challenge again. It has threatened either not to hand out exam forms, send their charges out of the classrooms or even strike on the crucial day. A labor dispute has been declared for this purpose, sufficiently in advance to allow a legal walkout. Formally the PISA test is being postponed by five weeks. The hope is that by then, after the elections, the teachers will have less leverage and may be more amenable to compromise. The teachers unions are among the country's largest; there are currently some 50,000 teachers in our system. That's too many potential voters to rile. The teachers demand extra pay for preparing their pupils for PISA, and they argue that the Israeli school curriculum covers different ground from what is standard abroad. PISA, however, evaluates the mastery of basic skills in reading comprehension, math and scientific literacy - at levels considered necessary for normative functioning in today's world. This is an assessment of what years of elementary education should have imparted and should not mandate extra tuition, apart from test-taking techniques. The demand for extra pay is extortionist, especially as the exam also measures teaching quality. When Israel's pupils did so badly in 2003, the primary failure was that of their teachers. Now the latter demand additional compensation for doing what they should have done in the first place: make sure their students have achieved fundamental proficiencies. Such an attitude isn't unique to the PISA issue. Pupils are encouraged to turn to private tutors after school to receive the help they are entitled to in the classroom. This is not a localized phenomenon but is so endemic and widespread that it even earned the semi-official moniker of "gray education." Few are the children who can get by without private tutors in this country. The better off their circumstances, the more they resort to this alternative to what the inadequate school system offers. Yet while they get a leg-up, children from less prosperous and larger families are put at a distinct disadvantage, marked for failure. Indeed Israel's first PISA indicated that we have one of widest gaps among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. "Gray education" was one the most glaring educational wrongs that the Dovrat reform set out to eradicate. Its recommendations obliged teachers to spend a full work day in school (until 4 p.m.) and devote afternoon periods to individual homework help and remedial study. This was one of the key Dovrat components that triggered the unions' onslaught against the reform, along with dismissals of inferior teachers and rewards for merit. The no-holds-barred anti-Dovrat campaign, on which millions were spent in the name of underpaid teachers, succeeded. Dovrat is doomed. Kadima's education minister-designate Uriel Reichman has already announced his intention to cancel Dovrat and replace it with something else in the works, which the unions might not balk at as belligerently. This may make electoral sense, but is not necessarily good news for our society. Dovrat stirred opposition partly because it heralded true and exhaustive change. The losers, as ever, are Israel's children. A very recent survey showed that 71.4% of Israelis are dissatisfied with the educational system - clearly not without reason, which is perhaps why teachers dread PISA.