Israeli education is failing students, studies say

tel aviv | Israel’s schools are in dire straits, according to recent educational studies.

Students place near the bottom on international tests compared to their Western counterparts. They have to scramble for attention in large and crowded classes, and rates of school violence — mostly in the form of severe bullying — are high. Teachers are underpaid and, in some cases, considered underqualified.

“The kids from Israel, for them school is like camp. There is no discipline or regulations. You do what you want,” says Eitan Stoller, 30, a civics and history teacher at Lady Davis Amal High School, who was voted best teacher in Tel Aviv last year in a magazine poll. He has enforced a strict code of conduct in his classes that has proven successful.

But in many of Israel’s classrooms, an atmosphere of chaos reigns. Teachers struggle to control classes with as many as 40 students. Both parents and students complain that the school system has become a place less of intellectual stimulation than of boredom.

Zemira Mevarech, an education professor and vice rector of Bar Ilan University, and two colleagues recently completed a study that found Israeli teachers to be among the least demanding in the developed world.

“It’s amazing how little we demand,” Mevarech said of teachers’ expectations for students. Trying to ensure that students pass matriculation exams at the end of high school, teachers tend to spoon-feed information rather than challenge their students to think creatively and critically, she said.

Given the failure to push students, perhaps it’s not surprising that an international survey in 2003 ranked Israel 33rd out of the top 41 developed countries in science, 31st in math and 30th in reading.

Israel’s academic elite warn that if the education system doesn’t improve, it could have catastrophic consequences for the country’s ability to compete internationally. Technion professor Aaron Ciechanover, who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry with an Israeli and an American colleague, said the educational system is plunging Israel into a “quiet crisis” that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves.

“Unless rapidly corrected, this choking of brainpower will soon erase the admirable progress Israel has made in joining the First World,” Ciechanover wrote in a recent essay. “It will destroy the opportunities and the future that Israel’s people deserve. It will also decimate the great source of pride Israel has bestowed on Jewish communities around the world.”

Some educators say the Israeli school system has been on a downward slide for two decades, attributable to a range of factors from shrinking budgets to the challenges of teaching an especially diverse student body.

Low salaries make it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain qualified teachers. Furthermore, the structure of the Education Ministry — which oversees several distinct bureaucracies because of divisions among secular, religious, Arab and alternative schools — has made it difficult to streamline educational management.

Compounding the problems, Israel has one of the largest gaps in the Western world between wealthy and poor students. Poorer students consistently perform below those who come from wealthier homes, and the gap between what rich and poor students achieve in school is greater in Israel than almost anywhere else in the world, researchers said.

Poverty is at its most intense among Israeli Arabs, who make up about one-quarter of Israeli students but whose educational levels remain consistently below those of their Jewish counterparts. The Arab sector has higher dropout rates, and fewer Arab students complete matriculation exams.

Israel spends as much on education as many of the other developed countries do — about 8.6 percent of its Gross Domestic Product — but results continue to fall short.

One reason for the decline in education is the inability to attract enough top young people to teaching. Though salaries for teachers have never been high in Israel, the profession used to attract some of the brightest and most dynamic people. Especially during the early years of the state, there was an ideological focus on creating a well-educated younger generation.

Now, however, bright university graduates have promising horizons in high-tech and other industries, and relatively few choose to go into teaching.

Starting teachers receive about $666 a month. A committee headed by Shlomo Dovrat, a millionaire who made his fortune in high-tech, recommended raising starting salaries to $1,000 a month.

The Dovrat report is similar in some ways to President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” plan from 2001. That plan also tried to bring a businesslike approach to the classroom, holding teachers and principals accountable for students’ success and making the entire educational system more results-oriented.

In addition to seeking a raise in salaries to attract and retain quality teachers, the Dovrat report recommends extending the school day, a controversial issue in Israel. They recommend changing the school week from its current six-day week of five hours per day to a five-day week of eight-hour days, arguing that a longer school day produces more focused and intensive learning.

The reform program also seeks to develop a core curriculum, requires closer surveillance of student performance and aims to reduce bureaucracy by giving schools and principals more autonomy in budget and personnel decisions.