Close the language gap

Israel should tap talents of Diaspora volunteers willing to teach English.

school children teacher  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
school children teacher
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
One of the major issues discussed at Shimon Peres's recent Presidential Conference on the future of Israel was this country's need to be competitive in an increasingly global economy. As the event clearly showed, knowledge of English is a vital element in such competition. Indeed, the Presidential Conference was conducted more in English than in Hebrew - the major plenary session speakers and the majority of panel speakers addressed their audiences in English. Announcements were made in English before being repeated in Hebrew, and at times it was easy to forget that the event was taking place in Jerusalem and not Manhattan or London. WHY, THEN, are Israel's leaders allowing English education in Israeli schools to suffer, and what can be done about it? Last week's Comptroller's Report cited significant gaps in English education between different sectors of society. In particular, students in state secular schools scored higher than those in state religious schools. Even within the secular school system, however, English education faces major obstacles. As a volunteer English teacher in schools and after-school programs in Haifa with the OTZMA post-graduate volunteer program, I saw firsthand the shortcomings in the Israeli approach to English education. I volunteered at the prestigious Chugim School in Haifa, working with both junior-high and high school students, where I was impressed with the students I tutored. Of course, this was because the school's administration chose to send me the best of their English students, those who could benefit the most from continued interaction with a native speaker. Many of my students were engaged, lively - and motivated to improve their English by an all-consuming fear of their matriculation exams. It was the students I rarely worked with who worried me. Occasionally I would be sent students from the lower-level English classes, to work on basic reading and pronunciation skills. Despite being in the same grade as my best students and facing the same crucial matriculation exams, these students, incapable of comprehending even simple passages without a great deal of help, were not even passably conversant in English. Frankly, they will have little hope of passing even the lowest level of English on their matriculation exams when the time comes. It would be unreasonable to expect all students to excel in English. But when Israeli students in secular schools start learning English in first, second or third grade, the fact that there are many high-school students with little to no knowledge of English is indicative of a system-wide failure. In fact, a system-wide failure is exactly what the English teachers at the Chugim School described to me in personal conversations. They are doing their best to prepare their students for their matriculation exams, but when they receive students who are already hopelessly behind in English studies, they simply cannot make up for lost time. I RECENTLY spoke about the root causes of this deficiency with a native English-speaker who has been teaching English in Israeli schools for 25 years. She told me that elementary and junior-high English teachers are sub-par due to poor starting salaries and a general lack of respect for the teaching profession. Additionally, these teachers lack the resources to address learning disabilities and behavioral problems, resulting in a group of students who go on to high school without the basic English skills they need to progress in their studies. I found that the teachers at the high school (who were, by the way, clearly above-par) were frustrated - the worst students were so far behind, why bother wasting already stretched teaching resources on them? It made more sense, they told me, to work closely with the students who were certain to pass their exams. The social background of many of these poorly performing English students is also significant. In addition to teaching at the high school, I worked as an English tutor in a community center in Neveh Yosef, a heavily Ethiopian neighborhood of Haifa. A great number of the Ethiopian students I encountered and worked with, while clearly bright and enthusiastic kids, were far behind their non-Ethiopian counterparts at the Chugim School, which was located in Mercaz Hacarmel, a predominantly affluent area. If Israeli leaders do not address the state of English education soon, they risk widening the already vast economic gaps that exist between different ethnic sections of society, creating an underclass unable to enjoy the economic benefits of the global job market. ANY DISCUSSION of a global economy seems to eventually end up on the topic of the rise of China. As a volunteer English teacher at an English-education summer camp at a leading private school in Beijing two summers ago, I can attest to the fact that the Chinese economic elite take English proficiency and the discipline needed to achieve it with the utmost seriousness, to the point of sending their children to English camp against their will. The international media is filled with reports of Chinese efforts to improve English proficiency ahead of this summer's Olympic Games, and it is a safe bet that the Chinese will only continue to improve English education as their economy powers ahead. Israel, of course, will never compete in the global economy on the Chinese scale. But if Israel is to continue being a dynamic hub of hi-tech, medical, and environmental technology in the coming years, it will need a workforce capable of competing in the most widely used international language. To this end, Israelis have one major advantage over China and similar developing nations (in addition to a population that is many magnitudes smaller): the Diaspora community of English-speaking Jews. There are easily over six million Jews living in English-speaking countries around the world. If Israel could improve its ability to tap into Diaspora communities' enthusiasm for serving Israel, it would find a host of Anglo-Jews willing to volunteer as English teachers and tutors who could help expand schools' English-teaching resources, ensuring, from a young age, that students are not left behind. Although the trend of pre- and post-college volunteering is growing thanks to the efforts of government initiatives such as MASA and programs like my own, it is not only young Jews who can help Israel improve its English-speaking capability. In Haifa, I was privileged to work with a group of American Jewish retirees who had come to the Chugim School to work as English tutors. These highly educated, successful and comfortable Americans exhibited just as much enthusiasm for improving Israeli society as my younger, post-college peers on OTZMA. To me, this indicates that Diaspora Jews are more than willing to help close Israel's English gap when provided with the proper channels. It is up to Israel's leaders in education to make those channels available and take advantage of the vast English-speaking Diaspora's love of Israel to prepare Israel for a more competitive tomorrow. The writer, an intern reporter at The Jerusalem Post, has spent the past nine months volunteering across Israel with the OTZMA volunteer service program. He hails from Newton, Massachusetts, and is a graduate of the University of Toronto.