Is your child’s school in Israel a good one? What are the kids learning in school all day? How does one school compare to another one in the same city or in a different region of Israel?
The Israel Department of Education has publicized important data on schools at shkifut.education.gov.il. When I visited the website, I saw amazing data about how students in schools throughout Israel have performed on standardized tests. Also, included in this picture of the schools were answers to questions about how students themselves evaluated their learning environment.
Of course, I knew that the best way to examine a school is not by looking at standardized tests or students’ reviews of their learning environment. Rather, the best way to learn about a school is to meet with the principal and the teachers and see if they foster a good learning environment. Still, I wanted to look at the numbers to see how my son’s school performed most recently. What other information is out there? I was amazed to see this incredible picture of the schools in Israel. Here’s what I discovered about some religious schools in Modiin.
Students and Teachers
Many of my English-speaking neighbors in Modiin send their primary school children to three Mamlachti Dati (MAMAD, government religious) schools. They are Avnei Hachoshen (AH) school, the Torani Ariel (TA) school, and Darkei Yehuda (DY). All three schools are MAMAD. All have about a 10 percent population of olim (i.e., new immigrant) students.
When we arrived in Israel, our son was placed in one school (AH) because it had an ulpan (Hebrew language learning) class. There was another MAMAD school (DY) only a short walk away. The third MAMAD school was even further away but it was in high demand among olim, with a wait-list for entry. The third school (TA) separates boys and girls from first grade, which may be one reason why it is popular among religious immigrants. Another big attraction of the Torani school is that it has classes that go until 3:30 in the afternoon; in comparison, my son’s school ends at 1:30 and his classes are mixed gender (although with a preference to split in fifth grade).
I always had these lingering doubts about my son’s placement in a school that was far away from our house that wasn’t in high demand. Were we getting a bad deal? I didn’t know how I could tell. With time, I saw that the principal was terrific as were some of the teachers, so I was grateful for his placement there. The education ministry data confirmed my general feeling. The class size at AH is small relative to other schools in the city and the country, so the teacher had more time for my son. In addition, teachers devote private hours for a student each week (sha’ot partaniyot). My son has benefited from these private hours with the teacher in a learning environment with fewer students. In contrast, in some schools, the administration asks teachers to spend additional time lecturing in the classroom, at the expense of private time (partani) with students.
Overall Picture of Inclusion
What I found really amazing in the data was the information about the “educational picture” (התמונה החינוכית ). The category is about the learning and social environment at the school. Here, my oldest son’s school really stood out. I cared more about looking at the data on this than about the scores on math and literacy, because it reflects wider educational aims that I value greatly.
91% of students in AH said that the school encourages them to show tolerance toward other students; i.e., for students with learning problems or of different races or religions. In contrast, only about 60% of students at the other schools said that. Regarding the integration of all the students into the community, 84% of students at AH felt that students were being integrated regardless of race or learning problems, and again these numbers were significantly higher than those at other schools.
Two of the three MAMAD schools I looked at have classes for kita ketana, that is, students with special needs. The data showed a 5% integration of special needs students at two of the schools, compared with only a 1.2% integration of these students at the other school.
I wonder if the inclusion of these students in two of the schools may impact the overall climate in the school so that students report that they all feel like everyone is being included in the community. When I asked the principal at AH about the kita ketana, she told me: “We feel so blessed to have these children at our school.”
Gender and Violence
The Shkifut website showed an important gender difference between the schools that I looked at. The boys and girls in the Torani school are divided into separate classrooms starting from first grade, but in the other Mamad schools the genders are separated only in the fifth or sixth grade.
As it turns out, only 7% of students at my son’s school said they experienced violence, but 16% of students at the Torani school said they experienced violence. 1% of students at AH said that in the last month a student convinced others not to speak with him or her; but students at other schools reported much higher numbers for that. 27% of students at AH and 32% of students at DY said that they were pushed by another student in the last month, but at the TA school 50% of students reported the same treatment.
I had felt that my son benefited from having girls in the classroom and that this gender inclusion may moderate the level of physicality and violence at the school. The shkifut data shows a contrast between the schools in our area. This adds to my sense that separate gender classrooms do not work for children at the start of primary school. Boys and girls studying together in the same classroom leads to a more pacific and productive learning environment.
Hide the Data! Don’t Publicize the Scores!
Whereas in the past I had no way of comparing one school to another, the data provided some useful information to go on,. In the past, I thought my son’s school was no good, because everyone was trying to get into the other schools. The data showed that AH looked terrific in both teaching core subjects and also in helping children learn how to be caring, compassionate, and tolerant people.
If I had seen this data about his MAMAD school a couple of years ago, I might not have chosen to send my other children to a fourth school in the area, the Yachad School. (That’s another story for a different day.)
Alas, after finally learning about this wonderful education ministry website, I then sadly learned that the teachers union wants to keep all this information secret. The teachers union does not want run the tests because they say it provides an inaccurate picture of the schools. They say that the test results are unfair. Some schools, in fact, may be cheating on the test scores in one way or another. The Israel Education Ministry recently has decided to comply with the union demands and has agreed not to run some of the tests and not publicize all the information about the schools.
This is very unfortunate. We need more information, not less! We parents are smart enough to know that even though 50% of students in fifth grade at one school reported violence, of course that doesn’t mean that that’s the whole story. However, it’s a useful start-off point for beginning a conversation about all sorts of subjects, such as gender integration in different schools, or integration of students with special learning needs. Without any information available, we just end up making decisions by following what our group of friends may be doing.
Who knows what will happen in the future with regard to the testing of students (known as meitzav, in Hebrew), and the publication of those tests. In answer to the question about how to choose a school, regardless of the test results, parents should meet with the principal and the teachers and choose a school that values the most important principles of Torah Judaism. The school should welcome students regardless of race or gender. The school should teach all the pleasant ways of Torah in an inclusive way, so that of course students with special learning needs will be welcome in the school.
All three schools in Modiin that I wrote about here are MAMAD schools with some government oversight. All three schools have wonderful reputations. Inasmuch as they are MAMAD schools, they honor these principals of inclusion. The problem is when parents go outside of the government system and try to find an elite school that is not inclusive. I don’t really need to see test scores from the government to know that an exclusive primary school like that would not be the right place for my children.