Populism and Elitism Will Not Mix

By: 
Hadas Lahav

IN THE MIDDLE of May, Education Minister Limor Livnat announced a major overhaul in Israeli Education. She published a preliminary "National Program for Education," an ambitious 123-page proposal developed in a committee headed by high-tech executive Shlomo Dovrat. This "Dovrat Report," to be completed in October, has all the earmarks of a recovery plan designed by the World Bank for a third-world country: the unknown outweighs the known.

The reform is intended to solve what the committee calls the "deep crisis" in education – a term that all find appropriate, whether those on the Thatcherist Right or the socially minded Left. We read in the Report (p. 28), "The educational system is in a deep crisis, which may have worrisome effects on the future of Israeli society and on the economy of the state." Among the more significant failures the committee lists these: big academic gaps between pupils, overall low achievement, administrative deficiencies and waste of public money. Concerning the gaps, we read: "Israel is among the world's leaders in academic gaps, on the basis of socio-economic background, national background (Arabs/Jews), origin (West/East), time in the country (immigrants/veteran Israelis), and place of residence (rich towns versus poor). These gaps are blatantly evident in academic achievement, drop-out rates, and matriculation examinations." (Dovrat Report, p. 28)

Danni Peter, an expert on Israeli education, worked as a teacher and a superintendent in the system for 40 years. We interviewed him at his home in Tel Aviv. "International comparisons," he said, "have exposed a twofold failure: among 41 developed and developing countries, Israel is ranked 31, 30 and 32 respectively in reading comprehension, mathematics and science." Even the outstanding pupils, he says, are far behind their counterparts in other lands. "We have first place among these states, however, in the socio-educational gap between the children of the top deciles and the rest."

In a globalized, highly technological world, education is a vital resource. Israel, until now, has had an advantage in the educational level of its citizens, which it now fears to lose. Given the competition between Israel and its neighbors, the issue has taken on major strategic importance:

"As a highly educated society, Israel will be able to maintain a smart, efficient economy with an improving competitive edge, which will promise it a relative advantage in global economic competition and will raise the living standard of all the state's inhabitants. Israel has a strong economy, and a technological advantage is also the basis for defensive and strategic power in the face of external threats." (Dovrat Report, p. 24)

Yet the country faces a dilemma. The laws of the global market are compelling Israel to slim down its governmental apparatus and budgets, including that of education. On the other hand, if it wants to remain a technological power, it will have to invest huge resources.

In the face of this dilemma, the recent trend has been toward elitism. In contrast with the 1970's and 80's, when attempts were made to integrate the schools, the 1990's witnessed the mushrooming of private institutions, including so-called "progressive" or "open" schools (where the pupil has a greater role in determining her curriculum and standards). The wealthier parents helped to establish such special schools for their children. A tutoring industry also developed. These trends enabled a minority to advance, while leaving the rest behind.

The dilemma has found its incarnation in the person of committee head, Shlomo Dovrat. Ruth Klinov, one of 18 experts who drafted the Report, tells about the origin of the curious match between Dovrat and Education Minister Livnat. "In actuality, the initiative came from several high-tech people… All, by the way, were from the political Center and Left, active fighters against the Occupation. They began as all philanthropists do, taking computer programs and 5-point [the most advanced – HM] classes in mathematics and English to pupils in the development towns. On this micro-level they achieved success, but they concluded that such an approach would not bring salvation. They then created a presentation which they brought to everyone who was ready to listen." (The Left Bank, August 4, 2004.)

Limor Livnat heard it from the mouth of Shlomo Dovrat. She fell in love with the program, then persuaded PM Ariel Sharon and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to back the man. One of Dovrat's preconditions, by the way, was that the Teachers' Union (Histadrut) must be barred from his committee room. As for the Arab sector, of the 18 members only one is an Arab: Ismail Abu Sa'ad, founder of the Center for Research into Beduin Society and Professor in the Educational Department of Ben Gurion University, Beersheba. This amounts to very limited representation for the most problematic sector in Israeli education. Among primary-school pupils, for example, more than a third are Arabs.

Journalist Hadar Horesh claims that the Dovrat Report "is very different from others that have emerged from public commissions. While decorated here and there with educational phraseology, the report is a managerial outline that is very reminiscent of a business plan." (Ha'aretz May 30, 2004)

Although this comparison may be overly simple, Horesh puts her finger on an essential feature in the viewpoint of the report: it constructs the educational system in such a way that the drive for achievement, measured in grades, will be the main motive. Although the program is intended to strengthen public education as a whole, it creates grounds for concern that only the success-oriented will survive. In this respect, the Report assumes the common capitalist notion that the tide which raises the fancy yachts will lift the smaller boats too. Within those limitations, however, it must be acknowledged that the Report does stand the present system on its head, killing many sacred cows. We present some of the salient recommendations:

An Organizational Revolution

If the Dovrat program becomes a reality – and that, we shall see, is a very big "if" – for the first time in Israel's history, compulsory education will begin in day-care at age 3 (instead of 5) and extend to age 18. The committee believes that by starting younger, all pupils will arrive in elementary school at age 6 with more similar levels of preparation. Nationwide achievement tests will be administered in second grade (not in fourth, as today), and in this way pupils with special problems will be identified sooner for extra support. This recommendation is of great importance for the Arab sector. Today 95% of Jewish 3-year-olds are in day-care, compared to 44% of Arab children.

The Dovrat Committee recommends a longer school day (from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) while omitting Friday altogether. This measure could have a major effect on economic structure, because it would enable women to work full time. Budget-wise, however, it is extremely expensive. The omission of Friday will not come near to covering the additional outlays. Apart from the extra pay to teachers and other personnel, the educational system would have to adapt itself both in its physical plant (space, computers, food services) and in its pedagogy (development of enrichment programs, tutoring programs, and group activities). In the absence of sufficient budgets, the presence of pupils with nothing to do, after regular hours, could lead to disaster. If present levels of violence are anything to go by, the schools might easily turn into jungles. And what will the kids do on Fridays? Roam the streets?

The Committee also recommends canceling the intermediate level (grades 7-9) as a separate unit. This level was created in the 1970's with the objective of preparing the pupils for high school and reducing gaps. It was thought that enabling change of schools would enhance integration. The intermediate level has proved to be expensive – and given the meager results in closing gaps, it has not been cost-effective.

The Report's biggest reform concerns the structure and budget of education. Until now education has stood, in budget and pedagogy, on two legs: the Education Ministry and the local councils. Dovrat sweeps this structure aside and adopts a system like that in the US: three institutions will preside over education in Israel. Let us start with the basis: the school. A full 90% of the education budget will go directly into the hands of the school principals. The budget for each school will be reckoned according to the number of pupils (and not, as till now, the number of classes). Each school and day-care center will be under a "regional educational administration," a new body. These regional units will get about 6% of the budget. Each such administration will be responsible for "the general management of all the educational institutions in its area, covering all its pedagogical, physical and administrative aspects …. The school principals will be subject to one factor only, the regional educational administration, whose functions will include inspection, supervision, and evaluation of the procedures and the products [sic] of the work of the schools." The Report also establishes a "National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation." (Dovrat Report, p. 16.)

What will remain of the Educational Ministry's empire, left with only 4% of the budget? It will be responsible for developing the curriculum, and it will have ministerial responsibility for the entire system.

As for the Arab sector, the projected structure has advantages, despite the fact that the Committee did not relate specifically to it. (It remains unclear whether the Arab schools will each belong to a separate Arab "regional administration" or whether they will be included with the Jewish schools in each region.) Until now, Arab schools have suffered from budgetary discrimination. The Interior Ministry gives the Arab village councils smaller budgets than their Jewish counterparts. The councils have tended to use the money to solve immediate problems; schools received low priority. With this background in mind, Nabih Abu Salah, the new head of the Monitoring Committee on Issues of Arab Education, finds positive sides to the Report's recommendations. He hangs his hopes especially on the call for equality in the distribution of resources with regard to the allocation of teaching hours, the employment of specialists, personnel and school budgets. He believes that the re-organization – especially the transfer of authority from the local village councils to regional educational administrations and to the principals – might help education in the Arab sector. Such a step, he says, "will neutralize the politics today dictated by the council heads that administer the educational system."

To us this assessment seems a bit optimistic. When Minister of Education Limor Livnat extends her aegis over a "national program for education," the word "national" means Jewish. The distributors of Israel's resources have always found ways to circumvent the Arabs, turning them into exceptions. To put this in numbers: Arabs make up 20% of Israel's population. In the primary grades (1 – 6), as of February 2003, Arab pupils made up 36% of the total (205,000 Arab pupils compared to 565,000 Jewish). "In 1991," according to a government report published three years ago, "the total investment in education per pupil in Arab municipalities was approximately one-third of the investment per pupil in Jewish municipalities. Government investment per Arab pupil was approximately 60% of the investment per Jewish pupil." (Ministry of Justice, Israel, Initial Periodic Report, 2001, p. 303.) There is no reason to assume that the Dovrat Report will change these statistics.

Educational Capitalism

There are worrisome questions about the Commission's worldview. We say "worldview," not "philosophy of education," because the Commission kept hands off pedagogy as such.

Recommendation 1.6 (Dovrat Report, p. 55) concerns academic and evaluative standards. The Commission speaks of a core program, which the Education Ministry will design and which will include the necessary minimum of basic subjects, as well as "political" subjects such as Homeland and Zionism.

The core program will be "a single required standard for all, and it will determine what each pupil is to know, understand and be able to implement." Beyond the core, there will be two further "standards." The first is the "additional standard," which will be more demanding than the core. The Report expects that a high proportion of pupils will achieve this level. Over and above that will be the "standard of excellence." The pupils will be sorted among these standards according to their grades, although the Report does not go into detail as to how study is to be conducted. Will classes be divided into subunits according to standards? Will each class be divided into levels? In the end, will the good pupils be trundled off to one set of schools and the bad to another? In an article entitled "The Dovrat Report: The Positive amid the Negative," Dani Peter raises such questions:

"It's easy to understand that when you divide 1.7 million pupils among three levels like these, you inevitably create three pedagogical 'classes,' which generally (and only generally) correspond to social classes. In such conditions, under the general slogan of the Dovrat Report that 'every child can do more' (and there is no doubt indeed that every child can), you perpetuate gaps instead of canceling them, and even their reduction, if any takes place, will not be significant. When 'every child can do more,' raising the whole ladder does not necessarily reduce the spaces between the rungs.

"Of course the existence of such levels within any educational institution, in varied proportions, necessarily results in three sorts of institutions: basic, middling and excellent. Into this, inevitably, is dragged competition, which receives far-reaching encouragement in the Dovrat Report. Outside the educational system a new 'objective' body arises, which unceasingly tests and evaluates the entire system: every day-care center and school, every class and teacher. This body will be subject to public transparency. The latter, if indeed the Report is implemented, will create enormous competition between and within schools. If we add to this the cancellation of registration areas [which provide that a pupil can only register for a school within her area of residence – H.L.], and the 'democratic' (albeit limited) option given to parents and pupils [by the Report – H.L.] concerning which schools they want to attend, it is very clear which school 'standards' will be chosen by which pupils. Nor is it difficult to infer which teachers will prefer which schools." (The Left Bank, May 31.)

The major change, however, has to do with the teachers, the principal and their relationships. The Report wants to attract quality teaching into the system. It provides that the salaries of the teachers (now ridiculously low) be raised to a point where they resemble those of other workers in the public sector. In view of the extra work load and the competitive stress that this program will place on the teachers, it is unlikely that the pay increase will suffice. In Great Britain, for instance, where similar reforms were attempted, teachers left the system in droves: "39% of the teachers quitting the primary schools in Britain gave as their reason the reforms in the educational system." (Ha'aretz July 23, 2004).

The teachers in primary and intermediate schools, says the Report, will have to go beyond the Bachelor of Education degree, which is based on four years of study. They will need a BA, supplemented by an Instructor's Certificate, a year of apprenticeship and a membership exam like the lawyers' Bar. In a land where the public universities are shut to many pupils because of high tuition costs, the question arises as to whether, within a few years, there won't be a chronic shortage of teachers who meet such qualifications.

We may note, in this connection, that the Report proposes to pay for the implementation of its ambitious plan by sending 15,000 teachers into early retirement. It is doubtful, to say the least, whether the Teachers' Union – excluded, as said, from the proceedings – would accept such a measure lying down. It is also doubtful whether the money thus saved would suffice.

There is a further problem with regard to Arab teachers. Each Arab candidate for a teaching job undergoes security checks by the Shin Bet (General Security Service). (An Education spokesperson has only now admitted this fact, as reported in Ha'aretz on August 25, 2004.) The Dovrat Report does not discuss the Shin Beth's role.

The main beneficiary of the Report is the school principal. Dani Peter tells Challenge: "Until now the principal was 'first among equals.' He was usually a teacher who had advanced and become the principal. He was also obligated to work as a teacher at least six hours per week, and his salary was not much larger than that of a teacher with lots of seniority. In the Dovrat Report, on the other hand, the principal gets pedagogic autonomy, organizationally and budget-wise, like someone who manages a private business. The principal can hire or dismiss teachers almost at his own discretion. He can also accept a certain number of teachers, still a limited number, on the basis of personal contracts. And one more thing, no less important. The salary of teachers will be determined by him, for better or worse, because he will be empowered to give bonuses to especially successful teachers. He will be limited only by the teachers' level of education and seniority, which will decline in importance (as a factor in determining salary, seniority will be limited to 10-15 years). On the other hand, he will distribute functions, exceptional job conditions, and merit points that influence salary. It isn't hard to imagine the kind of Teachers' Room to which the Dovrat Report is striding: competition that debases solidarity, with lots of 'buttering up.' Who will be able to endure this regime?"

A Structural Contradiction

The implementation of the reform will require an investment of billions. The $250 million that have been budgeted to this end are far from enough. Given the overall reduction in the public sector, the Dovrat Report stands out like a swan among ducklings. It goes against the current set by the Finance Ministry, despite Netanyahu's present support for it.

The Report's essential problem, however, is its strange mix of Likud-style populism and high-tech elitism. Livnat, Netanyahu and Sharon would all like to get credit for such a reform. The provisions for starting education at 3 and extending the school day will be pluses, no doubt, on Election Day. On the other hand, because of its ideologically-driven push for achievement, the program may easily wind up deepening the very social gaps it is supposed to reduce. Given Israel's economic limitations, one cannot both close the gaps at home and close the gap with other industrialized countries. The more one focuses on pushing the best pupils forward, the less one can focus on bringing up the weak. In other words, if one wants to reduce the gaps at home, one has to work on a broad base over an extended period. If one wants to achieve excellence and compete with Europe, one has to provide a deeper, more elitist education. The Dovrat Report seeks the best of both worlds, but this is not to be had.

Dr. Shlomo Svirsky, a founder of the Adva Center for research on issues of equality and social justice in Israel, claims that the system is in need of change, without question, but that the problem of academic gaps derives not from faulty administration, rather from structural inequality. He told us that "the crisis…is the result of two problems. One is the inequality between the center and the periphery. This terrible situation propels pupils into schools that are very different in their quality, according to the place of residence. The second problem is the low investment in education, mainly in the Arab schools." To close these gaps, he says, will require a change in conception, not merely in organization. And this has not occurred. "The Dovrat Commission recommends what are essentially organizational changes, such as those that a wealthy investor might make in an asset he has just bought, whose value has recently dropped, in order that the asset may begin to make profits – and on condition that he need not invest very much."

Professor Elia Leibowitz protests against the fact that Israel's political reality does not enter into the Report. In a piece entitled "The Crisis in Education as a Cosmic Process" (Ha'aretz May 19, 2004), he complains: "The Dovrat Report represents, in the final analysis, the Israeli consensus that comprehends the world as a mosaic of processes and events that have no connection with one another, and there is no one in a senior position who is in the least responsible for the whole picture. Palestinian terrorism, for instance, has no connection to the Occupation. The economic crisis of the last four years has no connection to the political and military situation. The Intifada has no connection to Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount…In this picture of the world, there is likewise no connection between the big yawns in school classes on Citizenship and Human Rights, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the unforgettable shout of an Israeli Foreign Minister a few years ago from the podium of the Knesset: 'Blood for blood, child for child!'"

Israel's educational system is caught in the same basic contradiction as the rest of the society: how to be an occupying power and at the same time to compete with wealthy nations that enjoy conditions of peace and development. The real reform that we need in the educational system is a reform in the way its leaders perceive the world. Educational processes are not disconnected from social and political reality. When one child is favored over another, even the best of teachers will fail to convey that 1 + 1 = 2. When it is permissible to starve one people in order to secure the good life for another, all the rules of reading comprehension go awry.