Beyond the Olympics

Israeli athletes won medals only in the Paralympics, despite a budget of $5.6 million for training, travel and housing.

The Israeli delegation at the 2012 London Olympics 370 (R) (photo credit: Murad Sezer / Reuters)
The Israeli delegation at the 2012 London Olympics 370 (R)
(photo credit: Murad Sezer / Reuters)
The UK spent over $14 billion hosting this year’s Olympics, producing the most entertaining, majestic extravaganzas for the opening and closing sessions. Nations fielded exciting athletes with winning personalities that made the games fun to watch. The enthusiasm of the British teams performing beyond even their own expectations was infectious.
These weren’t the only Olympic games held this summer, however.
World championship games took place in other countries, that the media neglected to cover. They were worthy of worldwide attention but given short shrift. The UK games tell of the brawn of nations. The other games give us insight into their brains, education priorities and cultures.
Washington hosted the 44th International Chemistry Olympiad in July 2012. It is Israel’s seventh consecutive year fielding its best high-school chemistry students, competing against 71 other national teams.
Israeli athletes won medals only in the Paralympics, despite a budget of $5.6 million for training, travel and housing, and enormous personal effort and commitment from the athletes and their families. The Israeli chemistry team brought home three bronze medals and one silver, without much of a budget or fanfare.
The four students were finalists from a field of 3,000 applicants who trained with science teachers and volunteers including Haifa’s Technion. They were tested on three dozen chemistry concepts and skill sets; eight laboratory skills and procedures; and more than two dozen factual concepts about chemistry. The students were tested in a five-hour laboratory practical, and a five-hour theoretical written exam. They deserve a parade.
The 53rd International Mathematical Olympiad was held in Argentina, at which the Israel student team (the youngest of whom is 15 and the oldest 18) won three silver medals, one bronze, and one special citation. There were two five-hour sessions in which the competitors solved problems in algebra, geometry, analysis (real and complex) and combinatorics (whatever that is). A hundred teams competed (Canada has an Israeli living in Toronto on its team), and Israel placed 31st, tied with Germany and ahead of Switzerland and France.
The Israel high-school physics team won two silver and three bronze medals at the 43rd International Physics Olympiad held in Estonia this summer. Israel ranked 13th in the world last year, but dropped to 25th place this year despite the students’ stellar performance.
THE INVESTMENT by the Education Ministry in training programs is responsible for some of the firstclass showings, but it is not enough. This year’s Olympiads are a crucible for a school system in turmoil.
Math and science education need a long-term infusion of money to attract students, and must be taught by the best, well-paid teachers in an environment that encourages inquiry and research. Students captivated by science and math need support, and low achievers need help focusing with good teachers who are able to draw out their interests.
Debate rages in Israel about the need to upgrade the core curriculum of schools. Some want to scuttle the system and start over. Matriculation rates are haphazard and choppy. Prof. Shay Gueron of the University of Haifa, who heads the math team, points out this year’s team consisted of only five students, because a qualified sixth – out of 1,600 hopefuls from around the country – could not be found.
The intensity and breadth of study depends on parents demanding more from the schools. Arab, minority and ultra-Orthodox students are increasingly a larger percentage of the elementary and high-school student bodies. They receive little if any STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math), because of community and cultural biases, and a succession of governments making little or no effort with these children.
The result in years down the road will see STEM quality deteriorating, grades suffering, fewer matriculations, and fewer international competition achievements.
The “start-up nation’s” ability to compete economically and militarily without a flow of welltrained young people into jobs and careers in math and science will be adversely impacted, affecting defense, food and water science, bio-med and other cutting-edge technologies. The economy will sputter when Israelis cannot fill STEM jobs.
The cultural sea change that motivated America to heavily invest in public school STEM education after Russia launched Sputnik in 1957 is a good example for Israel. Sputnik did not, as some feared it would, blow up New York, but it did blow up the American educational system. Internationally renowned American scientists were relentless in their articles and interviews calling for a new culture of science and math education. Congress rushed to pass the National Defense Education Act earmarking more than a billion new dollars in 1958 for science and math education.
There was money to pay and train math and science teachers; special after-school programs and summer camps in science and math education; science labs were built in elementary and high schools; money for grants and student loans flowed to science and math majors; the federal government created many new science and technology agencies that kept up the momentum; and, on May 25, 1961, president John F.
Kennedy spoke before a joint session of Congress delivering a historic challenge for the advancement of science and math that lasted more than half a century when he said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind.”
AFTER THE 2012 Olympic Games closed, the Associated Press reported a spokesman for the Israeli government outlining plans to spend $1.5 billion in the next 10 years to upgrade athletic facilities. Some op-ed writers blame government niggardliness for the poor showing in London. They condemn inadequate government financial support for athletes in training, the need to subsidize modern training equipment, housing, training camps, and the best coaching money can buy. The dearth of organized sports programs in elementary and high schools leaves a black hole every aspiring star athlete must climb out of on his/her own to shine in international competition.
The impressive achievements of Israeli students are a testament to student initiative, their teachers, and the private sector, but commitments of more money will be welcome. Warning calls from senior math and science professors should be heeded. STEM education in Israeli schools needs to be reinforced and reinvigorated for our advantages to continue and the nation to prosper.
Prof. Dan Shechtman warns, “Israel is still producing world-class scientists. But unless changes are made, the output will dwindle over the years.”
Prof. Ehud Keinan believes STEM education is rapidly deteriorating in Israel, and the outstanding students thrive in spite of the schools, and because of special extracurricular programs enhanced by motivated parents.
“Mathematics instruction in Israeli schools is at a low level and is getting worse,” Prof. Gueron observed on Israel placing 53rd in the IMO.
We can start rebuilding the culture of science in our schools with more public attention to and acclaim for our young student stars competing in Olympiads around the world. We should also keep a close eye on the outcomes of a major event in December, at which staff and donors of philanthropies will gather under the auspices of The Rashi Foundation and Jewish Funders Network to “learn how philanthropy can kickstart educational innovation, and drive government R & D to improve outcomes” in STEM education that will create the future generation of Israeli scientists and inventors.
This might just well be the most important event of the decade for Israeli education. I hope they invite the student winners and teachers of this year’s Olympiads for advice and counsel. Let’s hope their conclusions are more challenging and that the Education Ministry pays attention.
The writer has a doctorate in education from Harvard where he was a Research and Teaching Fellow.