Next Sunday 2.35 million students are expected to start the school year. In recent years the education system has been under attack. Complaints against it run the gamut: That it's old fashioned and hasn't adjusted itself to the 21st century, that the children are shallow and buried in their smartphones, that students come out of the system without basic knowledge, that the system does not challenge them or develop them to be better people and citizens, that the quality of teaching is poor, and so on and so forth.
Among those who are targeted by the criticism are also the colleges of education, which receive the teachers-to-be and prepare them to work in the schools. "In article after article, the media has turned the teachers and the education system into punching bags. Many of them are inaccurate, but even if they are partly true, there are also wonderful aspects. For instance, the OECD recently published that the Israeli education system is 'innovative' – no Israeli journalist published that," says Prof. Michal Beller, President of Levinsky College of Education to ‘Globes.’” “After all, we are not going to replace the teachers, we are not going to import teachers from China or Finland. We have who we have. Some of them do great work. We need such information to be known if we want to cause people to join the system."
Prof. Beller was speaking as part of an interview with “Globes,” which for the first time interviewed together the three presidents of the major education colleges in Israel: Prof. Tamar Ariav, President of the Beit Berl College; Prof. Zipi Liebman, President of Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts, and Prof. Beller. These three women head the most important education colleges in Israel and are responsible for the training of most of the students of education and teaching. In the joint interview ahead of the opening of the school year, the three presidents presented a series of problems and distortions in the education system, that shed a different light on at least part of the picture: from the Ministry of Education’s regulations and budgeting methods, through the effect of silencing teachers ‘from above,’ on the general effectiveness of the system. They reject the criticism of the low admission requirements to the colleges.
You claim that the system has become a punching bag. What do you think the most important measures are that the education system needs to take?
Ariav: "First of all, we must ask what measures succeeded in countries whose education systems have good results. There are very many commonalities between countries, and there are three or four things that are the main indexes: very massive investment in early childhood education, from birth to the first grade; teachers' policy – a coherent look at the entire process, where they are recruited from, how they are trained, how they are integrated in the job, employment and compensation terms, and promotion tracks.
“Another thing we need to do is to reduce the number of matriculation tests to only two or three. The current situation leads to the waste of the school years from tenth to twelfth grade, and dictates the contents. A change would allow for multidisciplinary work and the development of 21st-century skills. We would not be the first – other countries have given up matriculation tests. It allows openness and interesting work in high school, and increases access to higher education, which is currently very limited. This requires more money. The ministry has a great deal of money, but it needs to be used in the right places.”
Beller: “I agree, but you also have to remember that Israel has unique characteristics: it ‘excels’ at tremendous disparities that appear in every age group and indicator. The disparities are expressed in violence, educational attainments, and every single parameter. In Finland, every school looks the same. Israel is an immigration country and there is tremendous variance between schools and within schools. We must confront this. The key is in the ages 0-3, where education is neglected. To start narrowing gaps in the seventh grade is too late.
“Another thing that singles us out adversely is the status of the teacher in Israel. Education depends on teachers, they are the cornerstone, and the status of the teacher in Israel is low. We do an annual survey of the population, and find that teachers' status is low, however society does recognize that it is an important profession. Parents also think that their children's teachers are good."
Liebman: “Improving the status of the teacher should be the top priority, as a national objective. Last week the chairman of the central parents' committee said in the runup to the strike: ‘How will we manage without that babysitter called school, after suffering with our children for two months?’ He didn't say school educates, enriches, but only that it gave him a solution from 8 to 4. Another time I heard a parent tell their child: ‘If you don't study, you'll be a teacher,’ and he said it with his child's teacher standing right there. Therefore, when you say that education is perceived as important, I don't believe it."
Prof. Beller, you mentioned a survey you did of the public. What else did you discover?
Beller: “We asked the public what they think the system's challenges are. The answer was not knowledge, but reducing violence. The second thing was promoting physical health, and the third – imparting knowledge and improving achievements. Then came improving democratic values and creating a good relationship with the parents. I agree more or less with that order. If the level of violence in Israel is that high, that's the first thing that needs to be treated.”
Ariav: “I wouldn't pursue that course, treating the violence. You can't charge the education system with changing the social order. Violence at school is a reflection of what occurs at home and in society. Look at the elected officials, for example. And the classrooms are crowded and there are not enough adults who are in charge of the children. I don't think school can handle the violence alone.
“The main role of the education system is to prepare you to be a functioning citizen in society. School is actually a socialization agent. It takes you and gives you tools, skills, abilities and knowledge, including how you cope in society, how you do not act violently, and how you solve problems and conflicts in other ways. Within the role of preparing yourself to be a functioning citizen, you must develop the students' abilities and skills and cultivate them. Not everyone has to do five units in math, and I'm saying that as a math teacher."
So what should they do?
Ariav: “It's much more important that they study art and sport, things that have to do with culture, and for there not to be a lot of things that exist in schools today and undermine your ability to function as a productive citizen in a postmodern society. It's not something an education college can change, not even three very good education colleges. Still, there is something systemic around it that is not happening. There is a lack of strategic, global, systemic thinking about how to improve the system."
Politics: new minister, new ideas
Is it not the role of the educator and the schools to lead to social change?
Ariav: “I do think that you are first an educator and only then a teacher of a specific subject. Part of the job is to teach values, but the educator cannot swim against the stream. If society at large is violent, demeaning, slanderous, you cannot expect the educator to make the change alone. It is a lost war from the outset. I'm not saying there's nothing to do, but I don't want to put the whole weight on the shoulders of the education system. It plays a part, but the failure outside does not belong to it. It does what it can under the existing constraints."
You talk a lot about long-term planning.
Ariav: "Right, there should be a strategy for 12-15 years, which doesn't change with the change of government, no matter who the minister of education is or which political parties are in the coalition. Instead, we have new education ministers who erase what was done before them and transfer budgets to causes close to their hearts. We are in a kind of yo-yo. Just when we started to understand what the former minister meant by ‘significant learning,’ we were hit by ‘five units in math.’ Next will come things that have to do with religification. These things exhaust the system and draw strength out of the schools. People bow their heads until it passes, there is a lot of cynicism in the system.”
Beller: “It took Finland 19 years of reform to get where they are today, it didn't happen from one day to the next. In Ontario, Canada they revolutionized education at a moment of government change, in cooperation with the teachers' organizations. Here it isn't even clear what the role of teachers’ organizations is today. They can't even manage to raise their salaries. They have power and we should cooperate with them, but we’re not there."
Was there ever an education minister who saw his role less as a political function, and had a more comprehensive educational outlook?
Ariav: “Yuli Tamir and Shai Piron were like that. Because they both came from education and teaching. They are people whose heart is in it, and for whom the Ministry of Education was not a compensation prize, instead of the Ministry of Defense or foreign affairs. They came with progressive educational philosophies. They both tried during their brief tenures to make a mark and change. For example, Shai Piron tried to introduce ‘significant learning’ – which has to do with the personalization of learning processes. Yuli Tamir tried to lead the subject of education for citizenship. Nothing remains of it. The new ministers delete everything that came before and transfer huge budgets to their new programs, while the previous ones disappear.”
The status of teachers: no money, no reason to join the profession
Do your colleges have no responsibility for the fact that the status of teachers is at a low point?
Ariav: “There is an OECD report from 2015 that found that in just a few years there will be a shortage of 69 million teachers in the world. The profession is in a global slump. The problem is not only in Israel but in the whole world, except for countries like Finland and Singapore, which managed to improve the status of teachers in those countries. The profession is going extinct and it is very concerning. Now the teachers' organizations are justifiably protesting that teachers did not receive what they were supposed to. Do you think such publicity attracts more people to the profession?”
Liebman: “I just visited several areas in Germany, and they too are suffering from this problem. Education systems are seen as very conservative, as transmitting knowledge, as a babysitter. And sure enough, schools are conservative bodies and it is hard to make changes in them.
How do you suggest solving that?
Beller: "There are no two ways about it, teachers’ wages in Israel are significantly lower than the OECD average, especially beginner teachers. That's important, because the status of the profession in Israel is, among other things, a function of the level of compensation. Another issue is the level of autonomy given to teachers in Israel. Good teachers should be given responsibility and autonomy within the system. It will give them a sense of efficacy and motivation to move forward."
Liebman: “The situation of a teacher with 15-20 years of experience is not bad in terms of salary. But if young people want to choose a profession, the supply is huge and the number of academic institutions in Israel is huge. If they don't get into law in one place, they can go somewhere else. You will get into whatever you want to study. But if you think that education is important, what will entice you to come and become a teacher? How much can a sense of mission account for, 20%? What about all the rest? The parents don't leave you alone, there are discipline problems, crowded classrooms, a lack of accepting authority, principals don't support the teachers because they are under pressure themselves.
“The young teachers don't stay, and they tell their friends, who in response don't come to begin with. And then people criticize the teachers’ training colleges and say: ‘Look who you’re admitting, it's horrible.’ We admit the best ones of those who apply, believe us. If young people don't want to be teachers, Israel has to ask itself why. You should admire and honor those who choose to be teachers despite it all."
Training: no demand? You compromising on quality
Our interview moves to the subject of the colleges' responsibility for the teacher training processes. The three presidents reject the criticism leveled at them.
Do you not have responsibility for it?
Liebman: “You can say we are a significant cog in the machine, but to turn us into the body responsible for everything?”
Ariav: “It's like if in the army there were a lot of problems, and they went to some regiment and told them they want to improve the level of the whole army. We are the regiments, we are not the general staff. I deal a lot with the question of teacher policy. I look also at nursing, medicine, social work. In all of those fields there is a process of shock when you finish your training and start the job. It doesn't mean you were not trained well, because when you encounter things in real life they look different.
“A beginning teacher should receive a salary for a full-time job, but work only a half or two thirds of a position, to leave them time to adjust. Also, a large part of the beginning teachers do not actually get jobs in the subjects for which they were trained. For example, a lot of people want to teach secondary school because the employment terms are better than for primary school. In the primary schools there is a big shortage, so they move from teaching history in secondary school to Bible in primary school. Or in the periphery they take a teacher to teach a different subject, simply because they are short of a trained teacher for that subject.
“When I was a beginning teacher I went into a class for youth at risk in the first year. Students pulled knives on me, whereas I had done my practical training at Ostrowski school in Raanana – a different world. Five years later I left teaching, and I do not view myself as a dropout. I got difficult classes, without support, students with special needs. And was I supposed to do the same thing for 20-30 years? In general, talented people don't want to be stuck in a place where everything falls on them. It's a matter of Ministry of Education policy: they keep handing down more things that you have to do.”
Beller: "We do what we can to train the teachers. Among other things we run simulations that simulate what they will go through on the job, like the relationship with parents. 50% of students doing academic retraining come to the teacher training colleges. When they get to the field they find out that the pay is low and that their tenure is hardly recognized.”
Beller: “They don't understand what that means. A student came in to talk to me who had graduated with honors and was hired quickly, but he left as soon as he saw his pay slip. He knew but didn't believe it."
Part of the teacher’s status has to do with the level of the students at the colleges.
Ariav: “When demand goes up we can be more selective and take the best of those who apply. As soon as demand drops you can see it. Among academics getting retraining there is also a drop in demand, partly because of the conversation and because their tenure is not recognized."
There is a claim that you take in more students because it increases your budget.
Ariav: "We receive a budget per student. I have fixed expenses, for buildings, lecturers and so on. To receive a budget that would allow me to survive, I compromise on the level – I have no choice. If the model were integrated, for instance if I were given 70% of the budget in any case, and the remaining 30% were according to the number of students, I would have more peace of mind to choose, and not to compromise in places where I don't want to. The current budgeting model encourages me to exceed standards. This model is a big problem but nobody wants to listen to us: the Council for Planning and Budgeting thinks they know everything and they won't touch the model without the director general, and the Ministry of Education uses the old system.”
It harms the level of teaching.
Ariav: "We wanted to expel unsuitable students, but the Ministry of Education forbade us to do so after the second year. In the past we asked if we could give such students a degree without a teaching certificate, but the Council of Higher Education and the Education Ministry said no. So what's the result? That we gave teaching certificates to people we knew were unsuitable. In addition, at Beit Berl College we receive a budget for each student that graduates, so expelling them during their studies is against my interests.
"The problem is that the Ministry of Education doesn't trust us. It makes our lives a living hell. It doesn't trust the education colleges and treats us as second-rate institutions. That's why it imposes heavy regulation on us. For instance, if there’s a student who studied nutrition at the faculty of agriculture, a very respectable institution, and enrolled in our academic track – in order to be a biology teacher she has to complete a number of courses, but she is told she can do so only at the university. But we train biology teachers and I have in my institution 15 masters programs with theses, so why can't I provide complementary studies? It's an example of the lack of trust in our system and our ability.
There is a lot of talk about the changing labor market. From what we hear from educators, the teachers who graduate from your institutions are not trained for that.
Beller: “We work very hard to change our teaching methods and our lecturers, to change the students so that they can help adjust the schools to the 21st century. Some of our lecturers change more, some less, and there are some who do not change at all."
Liebman: "The emphasis should be, including in our training, less on the material and more on skills, lifelong learning and so on. We try to do it but it's not easy. We are there in terms of planning and we have an enterprise center, an empathy center and simulations. We have changed some of the studies to self-learning and introduce principles of self problem-solving. But it's a process and the schools have to prepare for it as well. At any rate, it is important to say in this context that while knowledge may be available to every student today over there smartphone, they actually use them to play games and not to look up information about Napoleon on Wikipedia."
Ariav: “There are a lot of slogans about 21st century skills. A skill does not exist in a vacuum, it sits on contents, without which it has no value. A school does not rise and fall on skills, and we must not dismiss knowledge and contents. Critical thinking and creativity are important skills. But if the teachers themselves are in a kind of paralysis, in fear, of the ability to think critically, it's hard. What should you say in civics about the rule of law, about democracy? About the Nation Law? Israel is going down in flames in those areas, so as a teacher, should you encourage critical thinking or not?
No response was received from the Ministry of Education.
“The transfer from the Ministry of Education to the CHE gives the colleges more autonomy”
In recent years there has been a process of moving the responsibility for education colleges from the Ministry of Education to the Council for Higher Education, in order to raise the level of the colleges and treat them as bona fide institutions of higher education. The Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts and Beit Berl College finished the transition, Levinsky College of Education has not yet. “At some point it was decided that the number of colleges should be reduced, and those who had not yet transitioned to the responsibility of the CHE were forced to merge. We and the Wingate Institute have been waiting for eight months for the CHE to go over the documents we submitted for a merger between us and decide whether to approve it or not. In the meantime the Ministry of Education decided we have to transfer, and our budget is going down," says Prof. Michal Beller, President of the Levinsky College of Education.
As for the argument that the academization of the colleges has led the ministry to treat them as more marginal, says Prof. Tamar Ariav, President of Beit Berl College: “The Ministry of Education likes to have control of the institutions. It used to control the seminars as it did the schools. The CHE also treats us as teachers’ training colleges.”
Ariav adds: “I think some of the people at the CHE do not have experience in senior positions in academe that would help them understand the economic-organizational consequences of the decisions they make. I understood this only when I crossed the river to the other side. I do think the CHE deals too much with the micro and too little with strategy. In the last four years everything has become politicized. It weakens the body itself and the CHE has lost much of the prestige and power it had as part of this process and it's very dangerous.
"I don’t know what impact it's going to have on us, but if the body you belong to gets weak, it's concerning. But there is less intervention. The Ministry of Education used to intervene in appointments, which doesn't make any sense in the academic world. The transition definitely gives us more autonomy, budgetwise as well.”
President of the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts
Age: 70 (+2 children)
Positions: Rector of the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts; member of the Council of Higher Education; member of a professional committee with the chief scientist of the Ministry of Education; head of the research unit at the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts.
Area of specialization: Ph.D. in teaching statistics in higher education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with the department of statistics
President of the Beit Berl College
Age: 70 (+ 2 children)
Prominent positions: member of The Council of Higher Education, chair of the committee of new tracks in teachers’ training (2006), teacher at schools in Israel and abroad, member of different policy committees
Areas of specialization: curricula and evaluation, teacher policy, teacher training and professional development
President of the Levinsky College of Education
Age: 68 (+ 1 child)
Prominent positions: founding director of the National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education, senior director of research at the research and development department at the Educational Testing Service, the largest testing organization in the world; founder and director of the Shoham center for the integration of technologies in learning; headed the National Institute for Testing and Evaluation
Areas of specialization: measurement and evaluation in education