Here and There: Towards a better tomorrow

The combination of overcrowded classrooms, low teacher salaries and a too-frequent change of education minister results in educational deterioration.

Children on the first day of school in Jerusalem, 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Children on the first day of school in Jerusalem, 2014.
While not usually agreeing with former MK Yossi Sarid, I was deeply impressed with an article he wrote recently in Haaretz in which he reminded us (and especially the incoming government) of the significance of having an education minister who cares deeply and recognizes the full significance of providing the best education possible for our children.
As a new government comes into being, what we have witnessed in the past two months has been a vying for what are considered the plum ministries – namely Foreign Affairs, Finance, Defense and Interior. We most certainly did not see much competition for either the Social Welfare or Education portfolios.
We witnessed candidates being prepared to accept the Education Ministry as a third- or fourth-best, following their first choice – a kind of consolation prize for not being given the favored position. This does not bode well for the future of our little state.
A major criticism of the education system is that it tends to focus on memorizing information – rote learning – while today’s more effective method is to develop teamwork, communication and negotiation skills. In other words, our curriculum is out of date. The level of mathematics reached by students has deteriorated considerably in recent years; it has to be a source of concern when only some 50 percent of Israeli students pass their matriculation exams.
See the latest opinion pieces on our page
In comparison to other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, Israel’s education investment per child is among the lowest.
For example, the Jewish state invests only $11,553 per student on tertiary education, while the OECD average is $13,957. One reason given is that Israel has a relatively young population, which means children form a high percentage of the population; this, however, is not an adequate excuse for failing our future.
The number of pupils per class is considerably higher here – an average of 28.4 children in an elementary school class (with some close to 40 per class), as opposed to an average of 21.3 children in an OECD elementary class. Classes in secondary schools average 30 pupils per class. Inevitably, this situation contributes to a lack of discipline in the classroom.
Teachers complain that it is virtually impossible to maintain an effective and orderly learning environment.
Moreover, a 2009 Tel Aviv University study found that Israel, being an immigrant society, faces additional challenges.
The diverse social and cultural factors affect civil obedience; pupils call teachers by their first name, and the class is a noisy place where talking is done not by raising a hand but by spontaneous outburst. In addition, the disciplinary sanctions teachers can legally employ are limited.
A few years ago a family member decided that instead of staying within her profession, that of a social worker, she would like to become a teacher.
She spent considerable time studying to convert to teaching, believing it was a profession she would find satisfying and fulfilling. At one point, she even thought it might be less challenging than the profession she had worked at for some years; she certainly enjoyed the teachers training course.
However, the practical experience of entering the classroom itself left her in shock, and after just one month she decided to return to social work.
She simply could not cope with the lack of discipline that pervaded the entire atmosphere. Perhaps this is because her country of origin is the US, where her own experience of being a pupil in a class and that of her mother – a teacher – proved to be entirely different from the reality of the Israeli classroom.
I could not help but think back to my own schooldays, when the students clearly recognized the teacher was in charge. While it is true that, in many cases (certainly mine), the respect given to the teacher came out of fear, the teacher was certainly boss and was addressed as “Sir” or “Miss” – and no one of my generation would have dreamed of calling the teacher by his or her first name.
To achieve the best results in education, there can be no doubt that the quality of the teaching plays an enormous role. I can recollect that the lessons I enjoyed most and did best at were those in which the teacher had me totally engrossed in the subject. Teaching is, without doubt, a vocation. Yet at the same time, a teacher must be able to live off the salary received.
Teachers’ salaries in Israel are abysmally low in comparison to other top-ranked nations. The OECD average income (from data released in September 2014) for secondary teachers is $32,000, while here teachers at the same level earn only $19,000. Salaries are kept low by employing over 25% of the teachers as part-timers, and 21% in a temporary capacity. Many teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to live off their meager salaries; the most dedicated and ideologically motivated simply cannot make ends meet.
The combination of overcrowded classrooms, low teacher salaries and a too-frequent change of education minister – together with the ministry’s civil servants – results in educational deterioration. It should be noted that in the UK, it is the civil servants who provide all that essential continuity.
All this in a country that has prided itself on its educational success – for how else shall we judge the disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners, especially in relation to our population? The 2013 list shows that Israel won 12 Nobel Prizes out of a population of 7,733,144 – the same number of winners as Australia, with a population of 23,342,553; and Poland, with a population of 38,216,635. This is particularly impressive, bearing in mind that we only came into existence in 1948 – somewhat later than these two other nations! We are a country whose hi-tech industry is on par with the US’s Silicone Valley, and whose research and development has produced medication to help the entire world in its fight against diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, with the Weizmann Institute of Science currently working on a vaccine for type 1 (child-onset) diabetes.
These incredible Israeli achievements are the ultimate result of a fine education.
The big question is: Where will we be tomorrow? Can we continue to ignore an education system that is increasingly lagging behind those of other developed countries? The hope is that the new education minister will recognize and address these challenging issues with the urgency it deserves. He would do well to take onboard the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.” 
The writer is chairwoman of ESRA, and has been active in public affairs and status- of-women issues.