Educational Reforms, lunchtime and Equal Opportunity

Ministers of education have come and gone since the founding of the State of Israel. All have been worthy, intelligent, capable and well meaning. All have focused their energies on identifying the most significant reforms to launch, with great hope that their time in office will allow for the grandiose plans to materialize and prove effective thereby improving the entire educational system and impacting future generations.

Having begun my ‘school parent’ experience in Canada and after five years as one in Israel, it seems that the solution is much simpler than the hundreds of pages of reforms that have come and gone. Generally a supporter of quality rather than quantity in the age-old debate, perhaps this is a case in which the latter could improve an educational system in need of reform, as well as address deep inequalities in the Israeli work force and other societal ails.

In the ’50, Zionist founders of the nascent State created a rhythm that made perfect sense, taking into account the work schedules (in agriculture and construction), weather conditions (hot and scorching), as well as the well-being and productivity of individuals, family and society according to Socialist theory and practice. Men, women and children rose early, left for work and school and returned home for the hottest hours of the day to have lunch and a nice rest (siesta, nap or schlafstunde, depending on point of origin). They then emerged rested and refreshed, parents for afternoon tasks and children for afternoon play. It made perfect sense.

Here’s a news flash. In 2015, it no longer makes sense. Changing needs, industries, technology and conditions render this schedule irrelevant. It is simply not the best or most efficient way for schools to run or for children to learn. Worse yet, among its’ implications is the creation of an unequal society in which not only women but the entire family unit is suffering, ultimately impacting an entire society and harming its very fabric.

As we begin another year and before we dive into the exhausting routine that does not allow for clarity, it is important to highlight the absurd reality created by using yesterday’s schedule today. Officially, the six days of primary school in Israel end any time between 12:30-13:30, not necessarily at the same time every day. In most public schools, principals and educators end their day and dismiss their students in the early afternoon. By the way, so misaligned is the schedule that there is no official time for lunch in school. The kids are dismissed and expected to eat lunch after their dismissal, wherever they may be.

Rather than a holistic, systemic solution, each community, school or family creates patch-work solutions to address the reality in which, for better or worse, both parents are at work at least until 16:00. Lunch is served at home, school or not at all. Once the official school day ends, responsible adults in the form of informal educators, homework supervisors or babysitting services take over the building. The very place that in the morning inculcates values based on research and pedagogy created by the vision and mission of thoughtful principals and educators turns into something completely different in the afternoons. Depending on the municipality, parents or private business initiatives, the afternoon programs begin, for those that can pay. There is no consistent messaging with the morning routine, no taking into account of curriculum of that day or any other correlation to the mission and vision of the school that was there in the morning hours. The kids who cannot afford the activities or are not interested in participating in the activities offered finish school and are dismissed.

At the same time, the work week has significantly changed since those first years of the State of Israel. Parents are both working long days to meet demands of a fast changing global reality. The work week for the majority of the work force is a 5 day a week cycle as opposed to 6 days a week of school. Technology has not made us work less, but has in fact enslaved us to be available at all times, in all places. Parents are challenged to be present (physically and/or emotionally) even in the evening hours and it takes great awareness and determination to turn off our phones and look at our kids in the eye while asking about their day. Many return home only to begin driving kids to their afternoon activities that have replaced the 50’s ‘outdoor play with whoever is there’. The family often assembles only late in the evening. Family dinners (not to mention lunches) are few and far between. Like it or not, that is the reality.

The ‘black hole’ between 13:00 and 17:00 is managed differently in every home in the country. For some, it means only one working parent (guess who that is) at least for several years, rendering the re-entry of that parent into the work force challenging, with many implications among them: self-worth, salary, advancement in the workplace, etc. For some, it means relying on available older siblings, grandparents, other family members or friends. For others yet, it means hiring the relevant needed help and prioritizing this above other family needs and wants. There are as many variations of solutions to this problematic reality as there are families.

Common sense seems to have guided most Western democracies (and maybe others as well) to a clear and natural simple solution: sync the school day and work day; sync the school week and work week (as much as possible). Schools throughout the world, for five days of the week (pick which 5, though I too am a big proponent of Sundays) begin at 8:00 and end sometime around 16:00. Afternoon activities are indeed offered in the school in order to utilize the space and make the most of the day, but only after 16:00. Magically, kids are picked up by their own parents (who in this more manageable reality adjust their schedules accordingly) between 16:00 and 18:00 depending on their after school schedules. The family unit reconvenes at home at a reasonable hour, leaving time to connect, catch up, hang out and have meaningful exchanges. The 6th day (I’ll take Friday or Sunday at this point) becomes a day for the family to run errands, play competitive sports (apropos the current soccer on Shabbat debate in Israel) or utilize the day in whatever way they see fit.

A five day a week, extended school day allows educators to fill the extra time created with whatever relevant pedagogy and content that is lacking – math, art, music, sports – depending on what is currently not offered at the school for lack of time. Teachers no longer have to take work home but rather complete their tasks at school, in the hours that they are not teaching. They do not require a free day (a concept exclusive to Israel) for they too are on the same schedule as the rest of the country, as well as their own children.

Besides the immediate benefit of aligning everyone’s’ schedule in the best way possible, there are many added benefits that may be hidden from view but run extremely deep. A holistic approach to the learning day will maximize learning opportunities and resources in each school for each and every child. It avoids the inefficiency, waste of time, energy and resources involved in transitioning children from one place to another. Consistent messaging and the guiding hand and eye of the wonderful educators in the educational system will allow society to better inculcate future generations with values and behavior. It will minimize current unnecessary spending on the alternate systems created in patchwork form and result in improved extra-curricular programming. It will naturally weed out teachers that choose the profession for convenience or in order to align their schedules with their kids’ (makes perfect sense) and ensure that only those that are truly there for the love of the profession remain.

On the macro level, if properly planned and strategically implemented, a five day a week extended school day, has the potential of reducing violence on and off the sports field as the programming is viewed as a part of curriculum and not only an after school activity, accountable to nothing and nobody. It can ultimately reduce the growing extremely troubling gaps and opportunities between haves and have-nots, as all kids will receive the same basic education, integrated with what is now run ‘after school activities’ for only those that can pay. In a world of ‘friends’ on social media and virtual reality that has taken over, with kids spending the time in which they are home alone in a screen, it has the power to address the challenges of troubling virtual realities that at times destroy lives. At a time that science is telling us that we are raising a generation lacking social skills, additional time with real people every day will undoubtedly benefit future generations. Finally, it harbors the potential for addressing deep systemic gender and other inequalities, ultimately shattering the glass ceiling with one quantitative adjustment to reality, to the benefit of an entire society.

It is amazing what one can do with more time. This suggested reform can be likened to removing a Band-Aid. Though it may hurt a little more to rip it off quickly, it beats the alternative of one little bit a time. It is a reform that can hopefully result in profoundly strengthening the family unit, improving education, ameliorating lunchtime and advancing equal opportunity in Israel. Shana Tova!

About the Author
The writer is a lawyer, research fellow, and policy and strategy advisor. She served as an MK in Israel’s 23rd Knesset, co-founding the International Bi-Partisan Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism.