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Less bureaucracy, fewer tests, more studying

Six big ideas for an incoming education minister who wants to leave a mark
First grade students sit in a classroom on their first day of school at the Borohov school in Givatayim, September 1, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
First grade students sit in a classroom on their first day of school at the Borohov school in Givatayim, September 1, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Dear Education Minister,

Every new minister seeks to leave a mark and launch reforms that bear his or her name. As an academic who has been closely involved with Israel’s educational system for several decades, I would like to propose to you, the incoming education minister, six directions for action that could go a long way in truly advancing the educational system.

  1. Ask yourself if the idea you are considering to drop on the educational system has been tried before. If yes, ask yourself why it had failed and what have other countries with high educational achievements done in this area. The academic system can provide you with this important information quickly and reliably.
  2. Did you know that research shows that improved scores in international tests, such as PISA, depend mainly on the achievements scored by students from weak socioeconomic groups? In other words, educational investment should concentrate on the weaker pupils, as they are the ones who pull it down. An improvement of this type cannot be achieved in large classes of 40 pupils, under poor physical conditions, or unreasonable load and demands placed on teachers (e.g., the new integration and inclusion law) or small budgets, which are significantly smaller that OECD average.
  3. Cut down the number and types of measurements: while continued participation in PISA is important, it is not so important as to warrant national-scale committees. The MEITZAV tests should be a tool used internally by schools and the number of matriculation exams should be reduced so that at least 90% of the pupils will be entitled for a matriculation diploma. This is because in Israel, where matriculation diploma is a prerequisite for academic studies, as many people as possible should have access to higher education.
  4. Many good things can be done with the huge budget of the education ministry, second only to the defense budget. Nations that focus on budget optimization were shown to have improved their education: they provide complementary classes in the afternoons, meals to needy pupils, private tutorials, emotional and social support and more. It takes boldness to unlock resources in the education ministry, for example through consolidation of unnecessary departments, cutting down on bureaucracy to achieve a lean and efficient system, recover funds that are leaking out to NGO’s and commercial entities in various forms of outsourcing and special projects and increasing the pedagogical and budget autonomy of the schools.

To succeed with this kind of initiative, a minister should trust the educators in the field. Bear in mind that educators, not you, are the locomotive of the educational system.

  1. Evidence of teachers’ centrality to the success of the educational system is abundant. Hence, a comprehensive, generous and systematic teachers’ policy is required, as successfully implemented in many nations. Adequate pay, reasonable workload, free studies and time for professional development built into the job description, ample professional autonomy and a pleasant space in which to spend the work day. And yes, not forget hail the teachers as “the builders of the nation”, who are engaged in the most important profession (even more important than high tech). This is also a unique opportunity for you to pass the Teaching Profession Law that none of your predecessors have attempted or succeeded in passing in the Knesset.
  2. Your predecessor boasted in succeeding in doubling the number of students graduating with high level (5 units) math. What is necessary now is investing in the base, rather than the top of the pyramid, from childbirth to first grade. Research shows that literacy, not math, has the highest correlation with economic growth. Hence, investing in linguistic infrastructure from a very young age is crucial. You may have to argue about it with the incoming welfare minister and invest heavily in training professional staff for the very young ages, but budgets can be released for this task.

In conclusion, our education system is not bad off, but it is far from fulfilling its potential or advancing. Rather than dilute the efforts by spreading the budget over a series of standalone reforms that would only antagonize the teachers unions, principals, kindergarten and school teachers, pupils and parents, it is better to focus on the specific pain points addressed by these suggestions. Even if you accomplish only some of them, we are guaranteed to feel better about the education we provide to our children.

About the Author
Prof. Tamar Ariav is the President of Beit Berl College
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