The answer to Israel’s education gap is in its own back yard

By Marcelo Weksler (translated from Hebrew by Rachel Beitarie)

Instead of importing American experts, we need to listen to those who are already doing the work right here in Israel. And we need the establishment to start taking full and long-term responsibility for our society.

On November 17 an article was published in Haaretz that ran with the headline: “American lab for narrowing education gaps is coming to Israel”. The story dealt with a new initiative to build a school in Kiryat Bialik (a town in Northern Israel). The new school, the report tells us, will be built after the model of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) education institutions in the United States.

extraordinary teachers

KIPP’s expertise is building a program consisting of long learning hours – 67 percent more than the average in U.S. schools, designed to achieve academic success for children from disenfranchised communities. KIPP’s data is indeed very impressive and should be celebrated. Unfortunately the news story is misleading. In the U.S., when a public school is part of a charter network like KIPP, that doesn’t mean teaching hours are funded by the state, but that the network raises funds from donors to finance the school. It should be clarified that belonging to a network of charter schools does not guarantee a significant addition of academic hours, but only guarantees fund raising by the network. Hence, when we speak of a “public school” in the U.S., we mean a school that does not apply selective acceptance and does not charge parents.

There are many networks like KIPP spread throughout the U.S. that all apply similar methods of educational work in disadvantaged communities with the objective of closing academic gaps. Such networks have been around since the 1980s. In this sense, KIPP’s founders – who are American Jews – created nothing new: American educators had already led similarly important programs as far back as the 70s. One of them was Jamie Escalante, the great math teacher who was the inspiration for the movie “Stand and Deliver.”

Nor are these programs American inventions. Since the late 80s, many projects were started — and are still in place today — in Israel that were based on a holistic approach to students, challenging, ardent learning and a significant addition of teaching hours. I myself have participated in such projects for more than two decades. Many educators have tried this approach in various communities in the Israeli geographical and social periphery from Eilat in the south to Kiryat Shmona in the north, and with Arab and Jewish students in secular, religious and even ultra-orthodox schools. Thousands of Israeli students in hundreds of primary and secondary schools have achieved academic success through such projects. There is a lot of added experience inside Israel and many examples from which to learn. There is no need for American experts if you’re looking for knowledge and successful experience in narrowing educational gaps.

Why then are we talking with such awe about the KIPP program as if here in Israel it was a hitherto, unheard-of idea? The answer can be found in two cultural phenomena: on one hand there is the Israeli tendency to embrace anything done in the U.S., while on the other hand we see an equally strong tendency to play down the experience of local educators. This is nothing new. The Education Ministry is persistent in ignoring the field experience gained by local educators on the issue of closing educational gaps and in working with children from disenfranchised backgrounds. From time to time we hear about widening gaps, troubled public schools and a loss of public faith in the system, but the ministry chooses to close its eyes and shut its ears to those voices and the experience of people in the field. That’s because accepting their input would mean being forced to expand the budget and to redistribute resources for affirmative action. There is no way around it: good education requires budgets. The education system does not produce financial profit. It is designed to spend money that is collected elsewhere (taxes) in order to provide education services; in other words, to produce an educated society.

At the same time, the ministry produces fig-leaf programs, i.e.: programs with scaled down, partial budgets that can provide only a fraction of what is needed. Those programs are based on the logic of economists and accountants in the Finance Ministry. Their logic always points towards giving very little to the majority (of students) and a little bit more to a select few, to achieve the main goal of “not breaking the budget.”

In a similar spirit, since the 90s there has been a process of privatizing programs for poor students. One method that is a favorite of the Education Ministry is the so-called ‘matching funds’ method – based on both philanthropists and the distribution of budgetary responsibility between private donors and the government on a “shekel to shekel” basis. For every shekel donated, the Education Ministry (or, in some cases, other government bodies or municipal authorities), give another shekel. Supposedly, using this method doubles the budget available for closing educational gaps.

In practice, though, this method does not take into account that a donor can go back on his or her pledge at any time, especially during times of economic volatility. Whenever this happen, the Education Ministry also sees itself as relieved of its own commitments and programs are shut down.

But the responsibility for educating Israeli children is not philanthropists’. It is the government’s and its ministry’s responsibility. After all, that is what they were elected or appointed to do. In less worse cases, the ministry does continue a given program, but with serious budget cuts. In other words, the Education Ministry carries out Finance Ministry policies, does not take any long-term responsibility for national education and routinely hampers good educational initiatives and peripheral areas.

One recent example is a drastic cut in the city of Bat Yam’s education budget following many years of programs funded by donors (such as the RASHI foundation), who recently decided to cut funding.

Another aspect is consistent harm to schools in the social periphery because of unequal government investment. The result of basing a school’s budget on donations is the development of a sometimes cut-throat competition between localities and schools over who can raise more money and who can maintain success when budgets are impermanent.

This is exactly the story of the KIPP network. The network has plans for building one school in Kiryat Bialik with funds apparently donated by American philanthropists. How much will KIPP be able to expand in Israel? To how many schools? Obviously they can’t take responsibility for all the stress and difficulties of the Israeli education system, just as they do not take responsibility for the whole education system in America. There will always be schools left outside the network due to a lack of funding.

And so, the Education Ministry dodges it’s national responsibility and private entrepreneurs serve as fig leaves spread all over the country. This is particularly destructive method as it changes the public perception about who bears full responsibility for our national education system in the long term, and whose responsibility it is to narrow the education gap. The state alone can do this job. Other initiatives, important as they may be, do not solve the underlying problem but are actually an inherent part of the logic that calls for privatization of a public utility.

At this point I wish to briefly suggest few key points on the issue of narrowing educational gaps. These points and suggestions require changes in the Education Ministry’s budget, but at the same time also call for the establishment of a pedagogy that bases itself on trust: trust in teaching staff and trust in children in our social periphery.

1. The majority of academic gaps stem from teachers’ inability to deal with overcrowded classes, the average being 35 pupils per class. Because of his or her inability to invest in each student, the average teacher’s choice is to focus on average students – those students whose achievements are in the mid range, compared to the whole class, and to give up on the strongest and weakest kids. The result is an ever widening gap between the class and the weakest students on one hand, and boredom by the strongest students, which often turns into “non-normative” behavior. If we really wanted to close the gaps, the most logical, simple and efficient way would be to build more classrooms, recruit more teachers, have fewer students in each class and turn the classroom and school into a place where the most important factor in good education is achieved: an atmosphere of care, responsibility, trust and attention to each child.

2. Extreme competition for academic achievements that can bring schools – and later their districts and the Education Ministry — a good reputation, creates a wild chase to teach the “required material” instead of walking hand-in-hand with students. There is a huge divide between students’ ability to digest material and the pace required from teachers by the ministry. Standard exams – like Israel’s matriculation exams – are an expression of this divide. Real care for and protection of children, as well as gap-closing, would only be made possible in a system that puts the student in the center. To achieve this, the ministry must give up the free-market ideology it has adopted, an ideology that demands enhancing competition between students, teachers and schools. Many studies around the world, as well as added experience here in Israel, categorically show that the more cooperation there is in the process of learning, the better the results, and the fewer resources required to achieve good results.

3. It is absolutely impossible to talk about gap-closing in the social periphery without affirmative action. That is, the redistribution of resources — including human resources — in a fairer way to communities that have suffered for decades from those gaps. Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities are systematically discriminated against when it comes to education budgets. Budgets for small communities in the periphery have gone down over the years. In the name of equality, the Education Ministry regularly budgets formerly public schools that have turned private or semi-private with public funds based on national budget calculations. The budget should be distributed in such manner, that those who have been discriminated against get more, at the expense of those who have thus far benefited from the existing situation.

4. To reduce the gaps we need not just budget resources but also education and pedagogy that are based on constant drive toward justice and equality, and that are focused on closing the divide between children from underprivileged communities and those from the social ‘center.’ This drive can be realized by giving methodical tools to, and by strengthening the self-esteem of teachers working with those children. That is, the methodology in use should be one that is directed towards the benefits of all parties involved: children would enjoy a new-found self-esteem following their success; teachers would also benefit because they get positive feedback from children and parents alike; teachers change their attitude towards their students because the students’ new-found success allows them to enjoy their own new branding as successful teachers. In a reality of wide gaps, the more a certain teacher’s students excel the better feedback he or she gets, and is seen as successful. In contrast, the system sees teachers working with weak students as losers.

5. Turning this equation on it’s head will allow us to build a healthier school system. The engine should be located at the end of the train, behind the cars, so it can push the whole train forward from the rear. Such pedagogy changes teachers’ consciousness and it results in benefits for many, not just the few — an important social goal. Such pedagogy has been in action here in Israel for many years and has proven itself. There are many experienced educators in the field and we don’t need “experts” from the U.S. to achieve these goals. We need to listen to those who are already doing the work, right here in Israel. And we need the establishment – mainly the education establishment – to start taking full and long-term responsibility for our society.

Marcelo Weksler is a lecturer at Seminar Hakibutzim and Beit Berl Colleges, and a longtime pedagogic counselor of large scale projects dealing with underprivileged children.

This post originally appeared in Hebrew on Haokets.

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