Analysis from Israel
The central educational issue is what children learn and how.

The blueprint for educational reform that Education Minister Yuli Tamir presented this week was a major disappointment: It eliminated the best elements of the previous government’s proposed reform, the Dovrat Plan, and replaced them with little beyond an NIS 8 billion annual increase in government spending. Worst of all, however, it failed to address one of the key problems facing the education system: Its systematic discouragement of excellence and initiative.

Most talk about education reform in recent years has focused on reducing educational gaps between rich and poor. This is indeed important: For a country like Israel, whose only natural resource is its people, a well-educated workforce able to support sophisticated industries is not a luxury, but an economic necessity.

However, it is equally necessary to encourage excellence and initiative among the best and brightest – those who will provide the country’s motive power by becoming hi-tech entrepreneurs, prize-winning scientists, devisers of innovative social programs and leaders in other walks of life. Yet far from encouraging such traits, Israel’s school system systematically discourages them.

Consider the following sadly typical incidents, from three different high schools, all with excellent reputations.

• R. wanted to do a senior-year research project. The school discouraged her, arguing that research projects are meant mainly to enable students to raise their grade point averages, and R., a top student, had no need of this. R. persisted: She had a topic that interested her and thought she would learn and grow from the experience. The school replied that it had nobody to serve as her adviser. R. found an instructor at a local college who agreed to advise her. The school then said it had nobody to grade her project. R. gave up and abandoned the idea.

• L., a senior at an arts school, wanted to take the five-point m a t r i c u l a t i o n exam in music. The school discouraged her, saying she was unlikely to get a top mark, and should therefore stick to the three-point exam, where she would do well. L. insisted: She understood that she might not do as well, but she would learn more and stretch her own abilities further by preparing for the five-point exam. Her parents backed her decision. But the school denied her permission, apparently afraid that she might lower the school-wide average.

• A. and T., two sisters, wanted to start a school newspaper. They found a donor to cover the printing costs, so the project would not require school funding. They found a printer who agreed to print the paper. They recruited staff, prepared a sample issue and took it to the school administration. The administration refused them permission to start the paper. The main reason: The sisters viewed the newspaper as a forum for public debate, and therefore included opinion pieces on various topics. The school insisted that any paper be confined strictly to reporting school news.

WHAT ALL these very different incidents have in common is that in each case the school squelched students’ desire to go beyond the required minimum, thereby sending the message that initiative and the pursuit of excellence do not pay. That, needless to say, is the opposite of what our school system should be teaching.

And while some students ignore such discouragement and go on to become high achievers after graduation, overall it seems to be having an effect. As Dr. Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University noted in Haaretz on Tuesday, Israel’s students do not just score dismally on international tests on average – something that could be partially excused by factors such as the high proportion of new immigrants. Rather, even its best students do poorly. In the 1995 and 1999 TIMSS international math and science tests, for instance, Israel’s average rank was 39th out of 53 countries. But even the top 5 percent of Israeli eighth-graders averaged only 35th place.

TAMIR’S NEW plan not only fails to address the excellence issue; it would actually make the problem worse. Its main elements are a long school day, free preschool education, an expanded school lunch program and the construction of new classrooms. Some of these are worthy initiatives, but they are all peripheral to the central issue of what and how Israeli children learn. And until that central issue is addressed, a longer school day will actually be counterproductive, because children will be spending even more hours in what is essentially a non-learning environment. That would indeed reduce social gaps, but by reducing achievement to the lowest common denominator: Even parents with the means and desire to provide their children with extracurricular education would no longer be able to do so, because after-school hours would no longer exist.

Moreover, Tamir’s plan eliminates the Dovrat Plan’s best ideas for improving the system: giving principals more autonomy, so that at least those who want to encourage excellence would be able to do so; giving local authorities more control over the schools, thereby making it easier for concerned parents to press for improvement in their own districts (something that is virtually impossible when it requires taking on a centralized, nationwide behemoth); and reducing the Education Ministry’s enormous bureaucracy, which not only wastes money that could be spent on actual education, but also invests great effort in squelching innovation by concerned principals and parents.

What makes Tamir’s non-program particularly depressing is that there were grounds for expecting better. Last year, as an MK, she presented an impressive, well-thought-out plan for a student loan program that would make college affordable to everyone while also bolstering university budgets through a modest tuition hike – all with virtually no increase in government expenditure. One might therefore have anticipated similar creativity with regard to our primary and secondary school systems.

Instead, she has offered a program that will significantly increase government spending without providing any real improvement, and will even exacerbate the systemic discouragement of excellence and initiative. One can therefore only hope that either the cabinet or the Knesset will have the sense to send her back to the drawing board.

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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