Israel’s Crisis in Education

Too many bureaucrats and all-powerful unions. These are just some of the problems Israel’s education system suffers from, as Dr. Tzvi Tzameret explains.

A behemoth, convoluted, expensive and simply unnecessary inspectorate • A rigid teacher’s union that makes it impossible even to fire teachers who break the law • And ministers who try to revolutionize everything in three years • Dr. Tzvi Tzameret, former Head of Pedagogic Affairs in the Israeli Education Ministry, in a trenchant interview for ‘Mida’

Dr. Tzvi Tzameret, veteran of the system and trenchant critic. Photo: Flash90

Dr. Tzvi Tzameret knows the Israeli educational system well. As a veteran teacher and principal, Tzameret’s experience comes straight from the field. His experience as Head of Pedagogic Affairs acquainted him with the goings on at the higher levels of the educational bureaucracy. With the beginning of the new school year, Tzameret opens up about everything: Education Minister Piron, the crisis in the sciences in Israel and the huge challenges Israel faces – but has yet to properly confront.

“My disappointment from the Minister is not just personal,” Tzameret begins,  “My problem is more general and it has to do with the fact that Ministers who get the Education portfolio immediately start enacting radical pedagogic changes – what subject will be cut, which one will be expanded and what new subjects will be learned. Because Ministers change so fast in Israel, this causes enormous damage to the system.”

Piron is no different that the others on this score: “Suddenly he decided that there’s a subject called ‘general education’ – something which was never learned as a separate subject and which the system has no pedagogic capability to deal with right now. The same is true of the subject of Jewish culture – every Minister made it into something else and now Piron has chucked the work done before and put in his own version. You can’t work like this.”

But it seems like the problem is indeed especially severe with Minister Piron: “For instance, he decided that there should only be four optional subjects for the matriculation exams [as we covered in Mida in the past – A.W.]. Because that was a Lapid [head of Piron’s political party – A.W.] campaign promise. But when you get down to it, you see that the number is baseless. So Piron plans to combine some of the subjects, but it’s impossible. For instance, he wants to combine history and civics – even though these are two entirely different disciplines with different teaching methods and different purposes. The same is true of the attempt to combine language and literature. This will cause profound harm to all of the subjects and will make the material even shallower and superficial.

“The same is true of the statement that now students will start ‘meaningful learning’, as though everything up until now wasn’t meaningful,” Tzameret continues. “This is a statement that is both harmful and impossible.  He wants to operate what he calls ‘alternative evaluation’ – students’ papers instead of tests. In principle, I’m very much in favor. But if an Israeli teacher needs to teach in 12 separate classes, there’s no chance he’ll hold up. How can he manage to achieve ‘meaningful’ work, checking and advising 400 students?”

How do you think we can best make the system more efficient?

“Contrary to what everyone says, we don’t need to add more personnel. Quite the opposite. What we need to do is reduce the number of inspectors. There are a lot of resources in the pipeline which ended getting ‘eaten’ on the way and don’t reach the student in the classroom.

“When I was a principal in Kiryat Shemoneh, no less than 36 inspectors visited from different directions and fields. Everyone came from a different location – Jerusalem, Nazareth, Tel Aviv. And each one drove for 4 hours roundtrip and sat by me for a couple of hours […] this load didn’t add to the system, it just made things harder. In addition, there are redundancies among the local authorities, the educational networks and the Ministry.

“In the Galilee Panhandle, for instance, there are 50,000 residents – but more than 10 local authorities, each of which has its own educational system dealing separately with absorbing its teachers and running its schools. And of course – they all have their own separate inspectorate which shuttles between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. What we spend on peripherals to the system is simply outrageous.”

Anyone know exactly how much money is spent on the peripherals?

“Embarrassingly, no-one has any idea how much money actually reaches the students and how much gets ‘eaten’ up by the bureaucracy. No-one’s dealt with it. No-one has any concrete assessment of future shortages of math and physics teachers. The system is very deficient in terms of planning and the broader perspective. It invests too much in responding to today’s or yesterday’s newspaper headline. It’s not just Piron – everyone’s like that. All of the Ministers act for the short term. They want to prove that they achieved something significant and prominent in their short tenure. But education works precisely the opposite: it requires long-term perspectives both backwards and forwards in time.”

Tzameret has a particularly bad experience when it comes to science instruction. One of the key points of friction between him and the previous Education Minister, Gideon Sa’ar, was a scathing report Tzameret prepared on the poor state of science instruction in the system, which exposed a sharp drop in the number of students learning science, especially among the Jewish population.

The party is happy, the educational system less so. Education Minister Piron and Treasury Minister Lapid of Yesh Atid. Photo: Flash90

A Matriculation Exam in Cosmetics – and 150 other options

How do you see the state of science instruction today?

“Nothing’s changed, and to some extent it’s even gotten worse. The new policy of only four optional choices of subjects for the matriculation exam seriously harms the subjects. For instance, in the National-Religious community, who also want to be tested in Bible and Gemara at a high level, anyone who prefers them will do so at the expense of the sciences.

“I am in favor of cutting back on the number of matriculation exams, but from a different perspective. Today, there are 150 subjects you can take for matriculation exams: form cosmetics to law, medicine to biotechnology. What we need to do is cancel dozens of these subjects, but not to reduce the possibilities for the gifted students.”

What about cultivating excellence? How does the system deal with that today?

“We are the most developed country in the world when it comes to dealing with special education and other students with disabilities such as the autistic, those suffering from intellectual disability, the blind and so on. But we are also getting steadily worse at handling the gifted students. We undoubtedly need to give the gifted more – the right to take more exams, for instance: the right to be tested in physics, chemistry and biology. These are things you can’t separate if you want to be a man of science.

“The same is true of university studies at a young age. The cultivation of gifted students is a field with very paltry budgets compared to the investment in other (weaker) students. I think Piron has an important and sympathetic attitude to the weaker students. But in the end, Israel’s future depends on the gifted.”

On the other hand, Israel has achieved impressive gains on the PISA exams and other metrics.

“Those tests have no real importance. There are countries with very high PISA rankings, but it has no effect on their economy or creativity. In the end, these are technical exams that one can do well on simply by working hard enough for them (as Israel has done). But it doesn’t say anything about the true potential of the country.

“The focus on metrics harms other fundamental issues. For me, it’s far more important that students know the geography of the Land of Israel or know how to read and write properly. The history of the State of Israel is barely taught and even the little that is has been reduced. Students don’t even get to learn of the history of the State and its foundations, which affect us to this day.

“For instance – ask Israeli teachers if they know the Hamas charter. 90 percent would not know what it is and why it’s important. The more I talk with teachers, the more I see how many don’t know – including civics and history teachers. It’s just not part of the curriculum.”

Piron declared an end to the psychometric exam. What’s your opinion on the matter?

“Words are one thing, actions another. He didn’t end the psychometric exam and in my opinion they [the universities – A.W.] won’t let him end it. Today, it’s common knowledge that the multiplicity of matriculation subjects as well as the distortion of school grades makes the Matriculation Certificate almost worthless. I recently looked into it and the problems I mentioned aren’t dealt with. The issue of cheating on matriculation exams causes all kinds of distortions. How bad is the situation? Recently there was a small but hidden news item on a school principal who did his daughter’s exam for her.

“Universities have already been burned on this issue. So I don’t see the psychometric exam being ended. Although even to me it’s not an ideal exam. I spoke with Minister Piron and suggested something else: a free year [of university] for anyone who wants, and acceptance based on the grades of that first year. Students come to university after 3-4 years of high school. They’re already more mature and adult. You know how many hundreds of millions are invested in checking and proctoring matriculation and psychometric exams? We need to think how to use those resources elsewhere.”

Students in Hebrew Middle School taking their matriculation exams
It’s value goes down from year to year. Students taking the matriculation exam. Photo: Flash90

Destructive Teachers’ Unions

What do you have to say about the system for training teachers?

“A disaster. What can I say? I also teach and I know what goes on in the [teachers’] colleges. Many of the students there are people who would not be accepted to a university. The acceptance bar has to be raised as well as the employment conditions of teachers improved, so that higher quality teachers are attracted to the field.”

How do the teachers’ unions, who are ostensibly supposed to improve the teacher’s condition, fit into all this?

“They’re unbearable – especially the fact that they’re headed by people under criminal suspicion. It’s unacceptable. The personal example of the heads of teachers’ unions is a very bad one, ultimately harming the definition and image of the Israeli educator.

“You need to understand that even today, the teacher has more freedom and choice than one might think. The teacher has a lot of power, and because of the power of the unions, bad apples are not properly dealt with.”

Maybe the problem is tenure?

“I’m in favor of tenure, but it needs to come with a clause that allows taking out the nail when it’s bad. To fire a tenured teacher is torture. I had personal experience with this as a principal: there was a teacher who was had sexual crimes to his name and another one who stuttered and could barely express himself. It was very difficult to get rid of them. In one case, we continued to pay a teacher a salary years after he was fired. The teachers’ unions created a situation of illogical tenure, which ultimately harms the system.”

What do you think of local administration of schools, on the basis of communities and parents’ associations?

“That already exists. But there’s a problem with excessive administrative flexibility. The Dovrat Report spoke of establishing a regional educational administration, with each area determining its own educational system. I wrote very strongly against this. In a state like ours, it means that there will be Umm el-Fahm-style education, Bnei Brak-style education, leftist kibbutz-style education and so on. I don’t think we’re ready for regional and local autonomy on that scale. I know that in the Arab educational system, there are places that were taken over by the Islamist movement. Alongside the freedom granted, we need to think of the effects it has in terms of society and the state.”

What do you think of the state of education among Israeli Arabs and other minorities?

“I think the latest war proved what we’ve known for many years: one of the most important minority groups is the Druze. Despite this, they suffer from systematic discrimination in the educational system. There was even a point where they wanted to put them in the general Arab educational system – and some have already assimilated because they live in mixed towns. At some point, the Druze turned to me and asked for more teaching hours in Hebrew, on the grounds that they serve in the army and want to integrate into [Israeli] society. But Ministry officials said we can’t give them more than we give the Arab sector in general.

One of our tests here in the Middle East is our attitude to the Israeli Druze. Just recently we organized a delegation and traveled to the father of the Golani Brigade Commander [who is Druze], who has another three sons, all IDF officers. You have no idea how excited he was. He’s mostly attacked by Muslims and Christians. Jews who come and congratulate him and thank him was for him something very important and exceptional.”

Ran Erez, the association's director during protest in front of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert office against the strike in schools
A mafia mentality; Israeli teachers’ unions. Photo: Flash90

Civics: Last year’s headline

What about the Bedouin sector?

“There are serious problems there as well, and in my opinion polygamy is the most difficult. When a father has 20-30 children, there are serious educational problems as a result. Many Bedouin themselves have told me as much. In the past I proposed that a man can’t climb the ladder of the educational system if he’s a criminal, and although we turn a blind eye to it, polygamy is criminal. I did this at the request of Bedouin who told me that principals and inspectors are a personal example to everyone else and it’s important to give a good one in the educational system. I received no response from the Justice Ministry on the issue.”

One of the subjects Tzameret has been especially connected to is the issue of civics education, primarily a titanic struggle which he waged against the adoption of a civics textbook called “Going on the Path of Citizenship”, which was approved by the Ministry and which contained gross historical distortions and anti-Zionist propaganda. The dismissal of the inspector who approved the book, Adar Cohen, led to a public furor, during which Tzameret was the target of a negative campaign by media outlets such as Haaretz. When I ask him, now that a few years have passed since then, what his opinion is on the subject, his response is surprising:

“I’ll be very honest with you: this is a subject that in my opinion is grossly overestimated because civics education is not necessarily education for good citizenship. It’s mostly formal study. In my opinion, people learn to be good citizens in many ways which are not connected to frontal teaching so much as personal example. If I mentioned polygamy, a principal who cheats on a test or personal attention to students – that’s where the real citizenship education lies. I think civic education in Israel, like in many countries around the world, is a complex matter which includes geography, ecology, history, national heritage, knowledge of the legal system and so on. We’ve narrowed civics to yesterday’s Haaretz headline. Sadly, nothing has changed in that field either.”

We can only hope that Tzameret’s heartfelt and reasoned plea does not fall on deaf ears for long.

English translation by Avi Woolf.

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