School daze

Israel’s educational system is the backbone of our democracy, not just in rhetorical terms but in its impact on our very national security.

Israeli education (illustrative) (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israeli education (illustrative)
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
At the threshold of the new school year, many of the nation’s parents – especially those whose children are being welcomed to first grade – are unsure of what to expect.
Unfortunately, from core curricula to civics, the national educational system still lags behind the rest of the developed world in numerous standards of measurement.
Whether religious or secular, whether Jewish or Arab, Israel’s educational system is the backbone of our democracy, not just in rhetorical terms but in its impact on our very national security.
Our educational system is not of the A grade one might expect from the Start-Up Nation. This is a startling fact considering that the Education Ministry’s budget is second only to that of the Defense Ministry. Would anyone rate the achievements of such massive investment of national treasure equally? Can the superiority of our armed forces be compared to the mediocrity of our educational system?
The state of education in the State of Israel after seven decades of independence is starkly laid out in the recent report of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research. Its grim conclusion: Low education levels result in lower productivity and greater social disparity and inequality. In other words, these are existential socioeconomic issues that ultimately endanger the country’s ability to defend itself.
Because the quality of education in Israel is low, the poorly educated earn lower wages, thus contributing less than their potential to the economy. The Shoresh researchers make this dire situation abundantly clear.
“The quality of a year of schooling in Israel is below the quality of a year of schooling in nearly all developed countries,” the report states, citing the poor performance of Israeli pupils students on international exams.
“Major structural reform” is what Shoresh recommends if we are to get at the root of the problem. The issue is not overcrowded classrooms or a lack of teachers.
The problem is rather twofold: what is being taught and the quality of the teachers.
With the second highest budget in the government, we should be able to afford to pay for quality education.
How can we expect an educational system to be stable and productive if 40 to 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first four years, as Yaffa Ben-David, secretary- general of the Teachers Union, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Poor education results in children who grow up lacking adequate skills to enter the job market and to provide for themselves and their future families. The social class thus created by our negligence is commonly referred to as “the working poor.” This is a secular society’s lowest denomination, populated by people who live on credit and bank overdrafts and still cannot make it to the end of the month.
In addition to the state secular school system, the state religious and Arab school systems are dysfunctional each in its own way. The ultra-Orthodox who reject the necessity of learning core subjects produce generations of economically unproductive men, many of whom rely on a combination of their wives’ wages and government handouts to get by.
Perhaps the worst situation is that of our fellow Arab citizens, whose pupils have an international educational level that is far below.
According to the OECD, Israeli students lag behind their counterparts from around the world in reading, mathematics and science. Israel’s achievement in science, for example, stood last year at 467 points, compared to the OECD average of 493, ranking Israel in 40th place.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett has spent the last two years fighting to improve the quality of education in our schools. He has focused on math and science and on Wednesday he unveiled a new plan to improve scores in English.
More though needs to be done. The system needs to be able to rid itself of unqualified teachers and not be barred by ancient anachronistic union rules that keep bad educators in their positions. We need more competition, more independence and more creativity.
The first lesson of the new school year should be to understand that the security of our nation lies in education, and we have room for improvement.