The Start of School

The school year starts tomorrow in Israel. This generally leads to a flurry of discussion about the ills of education here in Israel, though I’m sure it’s true of the rest of the world, too. This year, Bibi unsheathed a 5-point plan for reforming education. And at least two of the points are good points.

One of the first things you’ll always hear when discussing educational reform, and Netanyahu is no exception, is “pay the teachers more”. Good, but obvious, point. If teachers are paid as well as lawyers, more people will become teachers. Fair enough. But, and Bibi should know this better than most given his economic policies, this will only solve the issue indirectly as it will encourage more capable people to join the ranks of educators. It will also require a massive education budget.

What would work more immediately and efficiently is not to pay teachers more, but to reward good teachers. If good potential educators know that they can achieve separation from their peers and be rewarded accordingly, then they will have more incentive not only to become teachers, but to teach well. The system as it stands encourages mediocrity. Pay is based on college degrees and tenure, neither of which says whether a teacher can teach.

Bibi’s point about giving more power to administrators is a good one. This is also consistent with his fiscal policies: the less bureaucratic interference, the better. If Parent A needs to get Project P implemented in the school, the more direct access the parent has, the better. This makes schools more responsive to their constituents and puts the purse-strings in the hands of those with direct knowledge of the situation.

I disagree with his “no child left behind” rhetoric. The goal of educations systems is twofold: to develop ambition and ability amongst those who can, and to squelch it in those who can’t. School gives people an idea of how far they can go with school. Beyond that basic set of skills (the 3 Rs) and values (civics, national/ religious patriotism/ pride, menschlichkeit) that schools impart, there’s no reason to keep kids in the same classroom if they don’t belong in the same classroom.

This leads to what seems to be Bibi’s main point – a refocusing on a core curriculum. The Naqba vs. Jabotinsky think is a bit of a red herring, but only a bit. The Revisionist narrative of the founding of the State of Israel is not the same as the Labor Zionist narrative, which is not the same as the Palestinian narrative. And schools, as their core, at least attempt to impart its privileged narrative to its pupils.

The thing is, however, that there are a lot more than 3 narratives floating out there, which means that the gummint has 2 choices: it can try to mandate the teaching of all (or the most common) narratives, or it can try to choose the privileged one. I’m not comfortable with either, but I’m far more uncomfortable with the latter option. Let the textbooks include a basic familiarity with different narratives, and allow the school its choice of privileging one of the various Arab, Revisionist, Mapainik, National-Religious, or Chareidi narratives. Lord knows the kids’ attitudes will never be shaped by what’s in the textbooks. It’s the subtler “hidden curriculum” which will promote values. Thus, the kids who remember what’s in the texts more than 5 minutes after the test will maintain a semblance of well-roundedness, yet the pupils in general will identify with a particular narrative – one not legislated by the government.

This leads me to my final point about education in this country, and it’s really the elephant in the living room. Gone are the days of the double public school system (Mamlachti and Mamlachti-Dati). There are dozens of new school systems – independent and semi-independent, affiliated with all different movements and religious stripes, etc. Rather than trying to impose the government’s will (regarding class sizes, curriculum, teacher pay, etc.) on an unwieldy system that will never submit in its entirety (the chadarim will continue to be goreis NEITHER the Naqba NOR Jabotinsky), why not go with that and introduce the world’s best tried-and-true method for improving a product: opening it up to competition.

I had heard that Netanyahu would be unveiling a new educational plan and was hoping that Mr. Privatization would pick up on this very point. Why not deregulate everything but a core curriculum and then make funding contingent on vouchers, local funding, and tuition? Let schools compete for pupils and funding. Let the school decide to hire a better but more expensive teacher. Let a school teach the Naqba but skimp on Algebra at its own risk.

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