Israel’s education reform harms successful schools

Many Israelis may not know it, but Israel’s Ministry of Education has initiated a major reform over the past few years to transform all elementary schools and high schools. Elementary schools will only include grades 1-6, middle schools 7-9, with high schools encompassing grades 10-12, though the ministry prefers that 7-12th grades be two divisions of one high school. This initiative, unfortunately, ignores the needs of students, the wishes of parents, and the expertise of many educators. In the process, numerous successful schools will be ruined in order to fit their rigid structure.

In a sense, a 1-6 and 7-12 school division seems quite neat and balanced. Principals have similar student ratios, grade sizes are more even, and budgeting will likely be easier. The uniformity makes their lives easier. But is it best education?

That question has plagued educators for decades. Research has been inconclusive and contradictory. Therefore, different communities create various models, and ideally, families should have multiple options to choose from. The most common division has elementary school run grades 1-8 and high schools begin at grade 9. Many Israeli schools follow this approach, though others follow the Ministry of Education’s endorsed model. Internationally, some middle schools begin in 6th grade, while others start in 7th. There are even high schools that begin in 8th grade or end with 11th.

No clear school division exists because the maturation process of children is uneven and imprecise. The physical and intellectual growth of puberty typically begins around 6th or 7th grade, but then proceeds at different rates for different students. It can be slow and then fast. Girls generally mature earlier than boys. When 7th and 8th grade are part of the elementary school, those students can grow into their own as the most mature on campus. Similarly, I know of parents who specifically chose elementary schools that went through 8th grade to prolong their child’s innocence. The individual needs of the child and the values of the family determine these choices.

A second issue that Israel’s education officials ignore is the differing academic goals of elementary school vs. high school. Younger grades almost exclusively focus on general knowledge, while high school, especially in its later years, promotes student specialization. Graduating 6th graders are not developed enough to know their particular interest during grade 11, and 7th grade academics remain too generalized. This is exactly why many elementary schools end at 8th grade. 

The student body of 7-12th grade high schools could see significant numbers of transfers and disruption as students realize that they are not aligned with their high school’s goals. Students in larger community based schools could transfer to specialized or elite schools, and some students that enrolled in a specialized school in 7th grade will realize that they do not want to focus on that discipline or might want a less intense academic environment. By forcing all schools to conform to their 1-6, 7-12 model, Israel’s Ministry of Education will cause more students to transfer schools.

If the Ministry of Education continued to allow for a local district to choose a 1-8, 9-12 school system (or any other effective model), it would indicate that it values the success of each community and its confidence that the local officials can make decisions appropriate for its constituents. These schools were organically nurtured over decades by parents and local educators. They looked at their children and students and continuously asked, “How can we improve our children’s education?” The schools were designed to best teach the values of the families. Instead, the Ministry of Education tells parents, schools, and local municipalities that their reform is happening whether they like it or not.

I am blessed to live in Gush Etzion, which is filled with professors, Torah scholars and master educators. It also has one of the largest educator colleges in the country. Many of its elementary schools include grades 1-8 and its high schools begin in 9th grade. More importantly, these schools have a long track record of educational excellence, including winning awards from the Ministry of Education. 

Regardless of these factors, the Ministry of Education has imposed its heavy hand to remove 7-8th grades from elementary schools. Soon the 9-12th grade high schools will need to decide whether to expand to 7th grade or begin in 10th.

Instead of forcing a rigid plan from above, Israel’s Ministry of Education should empower parents and local educational experts to come up with the best education for their children.

About the Author
Rabbi Rafi Eis is the Executive Director at the Herzl Institute.
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