Teaching the future

Voters should take advantage of the opportunity to demand of politicians clear programs for action aimed at improving our education system.

Netanyahu at elementary school 521 (photo credit: Moshe milner/GPO)
Netanyahu at elementary school 521
(photo credit: Moshe milner/GPO)
Once again we have received a painful reminder of the dire need for educational reform in our primary and secondary schools.
On Monday the Education Ministry released the results for the 2012 school year’s “Meitzav,” a Hebrew acronym for School Efficiency and Growth Index. Like the Program for International Student Assessment and other scholastic evaluation indices, the Meitzav –administered to fifth and eighth graders in April and May – measures our students’ skills in their mother language (Hebrew or Arabic), mathematics, science and English.
The drop in eighth-graders’ math scores was the most dramatic. The average math score in 2012 was 501, down from 522 in 2011. (A perfect score is 800.) Though both Jewish and Arab eighth-graders scored lower, the drop in the Arab students’ scores was sharper. Scores in other subjects were also lower. And there continue to be significant gaps between rich and poor Jewish students.
Israel’s capacity to compete in a global economy that is driven increasingly by specialized knowledge and analytic skills depends on our school system’s ability to produce highly educated men and women.
So how do we improve our education system? A widespread myth is that increased spending on education and smaller classrooms translates into higher scholastic performance.
Singapore consistently scores very high in PISA and TIMSS exams, though the country spends less on each student in primary education than almost any other developed country in the world and has a high teacher to student ratio. In Finland, students do not even start school until they are seven years old, and they attend classes for only four or five hours each day during their first two years of schooling. Yet by age 15, they lead the world in math, science, reading and problem-solving exams.
Rather, there are a few common denominators shared by all countries in which primary and secondary school students excel in international exams or are in the process of rapidly improving students’ exam results: First and foremost, all the very best school systems in the world strive to get the right people to become teachers. Only the very finest undergraduate students – the top 5 percent of the class in South Korea (for primary school teachers), the top 10% in Finland, the top 30% in Singapore and Hong Kong – are accepted into teachers’ training programs. And because they are so selective, all graduates can be guaranteed a job. Entry level salaries are good – though not exceedingly high. As a result, teachers are respected and discipline is easier to maintain. Also, those few good men and women who are selected to become teachers receive the very best training. No long-term contracts are signed with teachers in their first years at work so that those who are found to be ineffective in the classroom can be fired.
Finally, all the best school systems make sure every child – whether a weak or a strong student – benefits from the excellent instruction provided by these outstanding teachers.
These were the uncontested findings of a study titled “How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top” carried out by McKinsey & Company, the international consulting firm, between May 2006 and March 2007.
And the findings, which state the obvious – one cannot give what one does not have – remain true to this day.
The question is how do we attract outstanding men and women to a profession that has suffered for so long from a justly deserved bad reputation? The first modest step should be to create programs patterned after initiatives such as the Boston Teacher Residency, the New York Teaching Fellows and the Chicago Teaching Fellows, which choose the very finest young men and women to become teachers and integrate them into schools while “branding” them in the eyes of students as special.
Implementing more far-reaching reforms will inevitably clash with the interests of our nation’s strong teachers’ union and the myriad teachers’ training programs that produce thousands of tuition-paying graduates every year who often make mediocre educators, if they manage to find a job.
But with election season upon us, voters should take advantage of the opportunity to demand of politicians clear programs for action aimed at improving our education system.
The future of the Jewish state depends on producing the next generation of men and women capable of competing in a global economy that has become increasingly more demanding.