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Brand new school year – same old crisis

No salary raise will fix a situation in which society undervalues the teaching profession and those who choose it
A teacher at Ase Hail school in Efrat gets ready for this week's school year opening. August 23, 2022.(Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
A teacher at Ase Hail school in Efrat gets ready for this week's school year opening. August 23, 2022.(Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Yet another school year is set to begin under the cloud of a crisis in the education system. The story is all-too-familiar. The teachers are fighting for their pay and status and are threatening to strike, while the Ministry of Finance is irate at the conduct of the teachers and their representatives’ refusal to accept its offers for resolving the crisis and is threatening them with restraining orders. Public discourse is focused on the dangers of school shutdowns and the blow to the economy, to parents who are worn out after a long hot summer and, of course, to the students themselves. This comes after two years of chaos in the education system originating in the coronavirus pandemic, and ahead of the fifth round of Knesset elections, set to be held two months after the new school year begins.

The same old story leads to the same old solutions: Right up to the last moment, we won’t know whether the school year will open or not. Most likely, an agreement will be reached at the last minute, or after a day or two of strikes and strongarming with restraining orders. Past experience, as well as research on this issue in Israel and around the world, tells us that none of this will really solve the deep crisis in which Israeli education finds itself because the needed solutions are fundamentally different from those applied according to the usual script.

In order to make a fundamental change in the situation, we must stop treating teachers as lines in an Excel chart and begin treating teaching as a national-priority profession. This would mean not only higher salaries, for both new teachers and those with greater experience and expertise. Raising salaries without changing work conditions, including granting pedagogical autonomy and upgrading the level of trust given to professionals in schools and kindergartens will not bring about the desired change. In this sense, all of those currently around the negotiating table are ignoring the root cause of the problem facing Israel’s education system, which is the way in which society views the teaching profession and those who choose it.

To fix this situation, it is not enough to just declare that education is important and that teachers are important. What is needed is a multi-year strategic plan focused on improving teachers’ status and defining teaching as a national-priority profession. In addition, changes must be made in teacher education and training and in teachers’ employment conditions – steps that will build trust in teachers, beginning with giving them true pedagogical autonomy. The pedagogical management flexibility (PMF) processes currently being implemented in the education system are not the answer; in fact, they undermine the standing of teachers working in schools and clearly prioritize bringing external actors into schools to engage in educational work.

Everyone agrees that the education system in Israel is in deep crisis and has been for a while. Each new day brings with it the publication of depressing data on rising inequality in education, poor academic attainment, and, particularly, the lack of high-quality teachers. Yet the stark contrast between the way education professionals in the field experience these phenomena and the way the Ministry of Finance presents them in Excel tables and graphs must not be tolerated. This gap stems mainly from the fact that education policy in Israel does not view teachers as leading professionals, but rather as functionaries expected to carry out instructions. Teachers and principals are not real partners in shaping the education system and are not included in decision-making processes. As long as this remains the case, the past will continue to repeat itself.

The leaders of the parties seeking the public’s favor at the upcoming elections would do well to define this issue as a cornerstone of their political platforms. The time has come to recognize teachers and principals as educational leaders who have a deep understanding of the system’s needs, and the ability to drive it forward. Without a deep-seated change of this kind, the new school year will begin (with or without a strike); the teachers will get a new pay deal (better or worse than expected); and next year we will be back to square one.

About the Author
Dr. Tammy Hoffman is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer at the Kibbutzim College of Education.
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