Israeli parents aren’t having the usual trouble rousting their teenagers out of bed for school these days: Hundreds of thousands of secondary school students haven’t seen the inside of a classroom for more than a month as their teachers strike.
The walkout reflects the profound problems sweeping the Israeli educational system. Slipping achievements threaten to erode Israel’s reputation as a global center of scientific innovation and could jeopardize its economic and social future, observers say.
“You need equal educational opportunities and a high level of education to create social cohesion and economic security,” said lawmaker Ronit Tirosh, a former Education Ministry director. “If the current situation continues, we will be at the bottom of the scale of developed countries.”
Students who ordinarily would be preparing history and math lessons are spending mornings in bed, and afternoons and nights at the computer, in the mall, or on the beach.
“This sort of thing wouldn’t be tolerated in any other country, that children sit at home for five weeks and nobody does anything to return them to school immediately with a solution for the entire system,” said Ariela Rejwan. She and other parents are pushing for Israeli President Shimon Peres to mediate an end to the strike.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hasn’t intervened personally to try to end the walkout, and he was heckled by teachers at a recent public appearance. His spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said he is trying to resolve the standoff.
“He’s very involved from behind the scenes,” she said. “It doesn’t mean he has to be in the forefront.”
Low pay, outsized classes, a system loaded with bureaucracy and uneven levels of scholastic achievement have been identified by both teachers and the government as major issues.
“We’re teaching classes of 40 or more students,” said Ran Erez, head of the secondary school teachers union. “In a single week, a teacher sees 400 students. Children are packed like sardines inside classrooms. Senior high school students learn 8 1/2 fewer hours a week than they did five years ago.”
The Israeli school system, Erez said, “is a complete wreck.”
A government-appointed reform task force submitted sweeping recommendations three years ago, but only a few elements have been applied in a limited number of schools.
In the meantime, scholastic achievements are slipping. The latest comparison of 15-year-olds across 43 developed countries placed Israel in the bottom third in reading comprehension, mathematics and science.
“Israel is doing very poorly on various international assessments of achievement, and that’s been the case for several years, and one can assume that’s going to get worse,” said Ruth Butler, a professor of education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Israel prides itself on its brain power. The rapidly growing technology sector accounts for nearly 10 percent of the country’s economic activity and nearly half of its exports.
Critics of government policy want more money put into the education budget, which Tirosh says now stands at nearly $7 billion, but has been cut by nearly $900 million over the past six years.
The profession has a tough time attracting bright candidates because pay is poor. Teachers earn about $1,500 a month in a country where the average monthly wage is close to $2,000, according to government statistics.
But the school system isn’t vastly underfunded as some government detractors would suggest. Even with the cuts, spending levels per pupil remain comparable with many developed countries such as Canada, Ireland, South Korea, Portugal and New Zealand.
Still, money is drained by a bloated bureaucracy, critics say. And because the system is centralized and unionized, there’s little teacher accountability, they add.
Some, like retired Hebrew University political science professor Ira Sharkansky, think quality students at Israeli universities will keep the country’s economy on track.
But others, like former Education Ministry director Tirosh, warn that with school standards dropping, Israel must act to protect what she calls its “economic security.”
Schools are supposed to be the great levelers, but in Israel, the rich can buy better education.
“People who have more resources can provide more educational resources for their children,” said Butler, the education professor, pointing to the widening network of private tutoring and parent-subsidized schools. “So you are going to get increasing disparities in the kinds of educational opportunities to which different social groups have access.”
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