Last May, then-New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein traveled to Jerusalem at the invitation of Mayor Nir Barkat. After several of Klein’s other overseas trips, school administrators in places like Australia and England had subsequently spun off some of his favored policies, particularly the controversial school grading system he had put in place in New York. In Israel, Klein again hammered home the values of accountability and bold, rather than incremental, change that he had pushed in seven years leading America’s largest school system. “Education reform requires big thinking and a willingness to challenge the status quo,” Klein told The Jerusalem Post.
Nearly a year later, Klein’s ideas have influenced Israeli Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar, who recently touted new ambitions to boost accountability and improve teacher quality in an address at February’s Herzilya Conference. Yet, so far, Sa’ar is getting dramatically different results from what Klein has seen in the U.S. or other countries he’s visited. While it’s not at all clear that the brand of aggressive reform promoted by Klein, among other school leaders, is leading to improved education in America, there’s no question that it has united a powerful group of leaders—President Obama among them. In Israel, however, no similar reform movement has coalesced. “I can’t think of anyone trying to unite forces for change,” said Josh Glazer, who works for Yad Hanadiv, an organization that incubates education start-ups. “In the context of a dysfunctional system, they all don’t add up to one big, good thing.”
Boasting a disproportionate number of Nobel laureates, patents, and high-tech start-ups, Israel is famous for its professional achievements in science, math, and engineering. Yet its students sit stubbornly near the bottom of developed nations on international exams. Hidden behind the national scores are wide achievement gaps—between Arab and Jewish students, between immigrants and those native-born, and between students in the cosmopolitan cities and those in developing regions of the country. What’s more, Israel’s robust early childhood enrollment—85 percent of children attend preschool—and low high-school dropout rate don’t appear to be correlated to academic gains. Class sizes are large, teachers are poorly educated and paid little, and discipline is considered a major problem. “Every time I see on the news the low scores [on international exams], I feel shame,” said Eti Yedidya, principal of Jerusalem’s well-regarded Geulim School. “It’s frustrating to know that you are doing everything you can do and it’s not enough.”
In a country known for innovation, why has desperately needed educational change moved so slowly? And why haven’t reformers coalesced around an agenda to improve schools in the way they have in the United States?
One explanation could be the chaos of Israel’s education establishment. What looks on paper to be a highly centralized system is in fact a sprawling network of parallel systems that all report to a single minister. There are state schools, which offer only a secular education; state-religious schools, which add Judaic studies courses; haredi schools for the ultra-orthodox population; and Arab schools. Each constituency has its own priorities, problems, and political allies. The central ministry sets out a core curriculum, but most ultra-orthodox schools do not follow it, even when faced with lost funding. And, while the country’s education budget has historically been quick to suffer when other priorities, especially defense, arise, the biggest budget issue concerns funds failing to get to their intended targets: Israel budgets for students to receive far more hours of instruction than they actually receive. Cities and schools expect reform to trickle down from above, but the flow is slow and sometimes nonexistent.
The chaos is amplified by Israel’s unstable parliamentary government, in which political priorities shift rapidly as coalitions are built and collapse. In 2005, then-Minister of Education Limor Livnat was on the verge of implementing an aggressive reform plan that would have, in part, closed several low-performing teachers’ colleges and eased the process for principals to fire weak teachers. Teachers’ unions and local officials protested mightily against the plan, called Dovrat. But what finished off the plan, ultimately, was the resignation of Livnat’s party, Likud, from the coalition government over the issue of disengagement from Gaza. Livnat’s replacement promptly scrapped Dovrat. “The ministry [of education] has a lot of power, but the power is constricted by politics, by the needs of coalition,” said Miriam Ben-Peretz, an education professor who has studied and shaped Israeli education policy for four decades. “If we didn’t have to be dependent on 10 different people, then many things could have happened.”
Several elements of the Dovrat reform package did eventually creep into public policy, including a hike in teachers’ salaries—to $1,500 a month for starting teachers, still just 25 percent higher than the minimum wage and barely enough to get by—in exchange for an increase in the amount of time they spend in school and the creation of a national assessment authority. But the case of the assessment authority, called RAMA, provides a view into another aspect of Israel’s education problems: the clash of cultures over the purpose of schooling.
The critical measure of schools and students is the high school matriculation exam, called the bagrut, but the results come too late to help individual students, and they tell schools nothing about what they are doing right and wrong—only whether students pass. Elementary school students take the Meitzav—national tests in Hebrew or Arabic, math, science, and English that are given every year in a subset of schools. Meitzav results are meant to remain internal to schools, although they are often leaked, and students never learn how they scored.
Reshaping Israel’s testing program under the philosophy of “assessment for learning,” RAMA has aimed to help principals understand how they can improve instruction based on information gleaned from test scores without penalizing students and teachers who perform poorly, according to Ben-Peretz, who sits on RAMA’s advisory board. Yet one of RAMA’s early initiatives was to decrease the frequency of national tests given to elementary and middle school students in response to charges of teaching to the test, and it has fought to keep Meitzav results confidential, even as a freedom-of-information group has sued to get them released. These moves would be unthinkable in the United States, where the federal government mandates annual performance reporting about every school and where New York City has gone to court to release the rankings of individual teachers based on their students’ test scores. Rankings of Los Angeles teachers are already out in the open.
RAMA’s delicate balance between drawing more attention to test scores and also constraining how they are used reflects Israel’s unresolved debate about what the enterprise of schooling should accomplish. On the one hand, some say Israel would do well to adopt some of the emphasis on testing that has undergirded American education policy in recent years. “There is no accountability whatsoever,” said Yosi Ben-Dov, CEO of Time To Know, a classroom technology company that operates in 20 Israeli schools as well as in New York City and Texas. Indeed, when I asked the principal of an elementary school how he is evaluated, he looked at me blankly, then suggested parent satisfaction. On the other hand, however, there is a strong sentiment against such a change. “The Israeli public believes that education and not just learning is a very important part of schools—education about social values, how to be a good citizen,” said Anat Zohar, a professor and former ministry official who currently heads the Mandel Institute for School Leadership, which runs a fellowship program for forward-thinking Israeli educators.
Indeed, Israelis load onto their schools the varied and imposing duties of closing social gaps, assimilating immigrants, sustaining Zionist ideology, inculcating character traits, and inspiring students’ confidence. To be sure, Americans also see schools as tools to accomplish a host of non-academic goals. But suggesting, as Israeli educators often do, that it doesn’t matter whether students learn academic content, or what type they do learn, as long as they assimilate or are enthusiastic about the idea of learning would put most American educators far outside the mainstream. “In the U.S., you have a fairly broad consensus that improving teaching is the key lever” to boosting achievement, Glazer said. “You also have broad consensus that schools’ first and foremost responsibility is for teaching academic [content]. Those ideas are much more contested here.”
With so many educational goals competing for attention in Israel, it’s virtually impossible for efforts to accomplish a single one of them to galvanize widespread support. But that’s not to say no one’s trying. Hundreds if not thousands of non-governmental organizations operate in and around the country’s schools, offering support for everything from religious instruction to peace education to basic academics. Yad Hanadiv, for example, is investing in improving literacy instruction in middle schools. Teach First-Israel, which launched last year, aims to attract top college graduates to the classroom. A group led by Rabbi Shay Piron, who appeared on stage with Klein in Jerusalem last year, is pushing for a guaranteed minimum education budget. And education’s own high-tech field is unsurprisingly robust, with Time To Know challenging ideas about how computers can be integrated into instruction and the ministry’s Center for Educational Technology (CET) developing dynamic digital textbooks.
But the education ministry is largely incapable of implementing the large-scale innovations these organizations promote. “Unfortunately, in Israel, there’s no infrastructure whatsoever,” a CET executive said at a presentation in Jerusalem last month, lamenting the obstacles to disseminating his group’s technologies.
The stakes of radically revising that system are existential, according to Tel Aviv University economist Dan Ben-David, who also heads the Jerusalem-based Taub Center for Public Policy, where annually he compiles and analyzes statistics about the country’s progress. Those data have convinced him that the country will soon become unable to shoulder the burden of supporting the ultra-Orthodox who opt out of the workforce—and that education is the only sector that can help the country avert economic disaster.
For years, including time spent as a member of the commission behind the Dovrat recommendations, Ben-David has been advocating for massive changes to Israel’s curriculum, teaching corps, and central policies. Without those changes, he believes the country’s security is at risk. “Countries collapse with these trends. … We need a first-world economy,” he said. “Third-world doesn’t cut it with our neighbors. We physically are not going to be able to live here.”
Not everyone believes that Israel’s school system is so broken that it threatens the country’s very existence. Indeed, many see signs for hope in teachers’ increased hours and in the fact that Israeli schools have been able to incorporate waves of immigration that would stagger most school systems, as depicted in the Oscar-winning documentary Strangers No More, about a Tel Aviv school that serves students from 48 countries.
But those who want to drastically improve Israel’s schools feel that, for now, they can only tinker at the margins of a dysfunctional system, Ben-Dov said. Big political and cultural changes are needed for education reform to take hold—but it’s not clear when or even if they will happen. In a country whose only natural resources are, famously, its citizens, that’s a frightening prospect.
Philissa Cramer is the associate editor of GothamSchools. She is spending the academic year in Israel.