Results from the latest round of international educational exams have led to much soul-searching in Israel. Scores of Israeli students in reading comprehension, math and science are among the lowest of the world’s developed countries.
One-third of Israeli students lack basic reading skills after 9-10 years of study, and Israeli students ranked 33 out of 41 nations participating in math and science.
"The people of the book" are producing a generation of illiterates in Israel. Not only is the gap between "good" schools and "failing"schools the largest in the world, but even the top is mediocre. Only 4% of Israeli students rank in the top quintile internationally on reading comprehension exams. The average math score for all eighth-grade students on international exams declined by a full ten points between 1997 and 2002, and the decline in reading comprehension was nearly the same.
Expressions of shock at similarly abysmal performances have become something of an annual ritual. Israel is the only country in the industrialized world whose students have ranked in the bottom third on international math exams for the last four years straight.
What is new, however, this year is the first glimmer of recognition that the failures of the educational system reflect those of the larger society. Dan Margalit, writing in Maariv, attributed the crisis in the educational system to a lack of traditional values.
But it was left to Amnon Dankner, editor of Maariv, to launch the most thoroughgoing indictment of Israeli society in an article entitled "Without Culture." Dankner took the lead in drawing the "connection between the breakdown in discipline [in the general society] and the meagerness of educational achievements." He attributed both the breakdown of all societal discipline and the failures in learning to a certain "terrifying cultural vacuum that increases decade by decade in the school system just as it grows in society in general."
None of the familiar panaceas – increased budgets, new pedagogical methods, improving the status of teachers – will help, Dankner wrote, as long as the underlying societal problem goes unaddressed. It is impossible to create an atmosphere of stricter discipline within the educational system, he writes, when such discipline is antithetical to everything that Israeli youth, who recognize no authority, experience at home, on the street, or view on television.
Dankner’s critique of general Israeli society was but the sharpest of many similar criticisms made in the wake of the latest findings of educational failure. What was truly shocking, at least from the point of view of Ma’ariv readers, was the root cause to which he attributed a society without culture: the break with the magnificent Jewish heritage that produced generations of people of the book and men of culture who enriched the culture of surrounding societies. "
If Dankner needed any confirmation of his thesis, he need look no further than the success of the SHUVU network of Torah schools for children from Russian-speaking families in teaching precisely those subjects in which the state system has failed so miserably.
Given the wide gap found in the state system between students from homes with a high socio-economic level and those at the lower end, the SHUVU network would not seem a first glance a promising one for outstanding educational achievement. Nearly half the students come from single-parent homes, and 40% are from the Moslem Republics of the former Soviet Union. In addition, immigrant students generally test even below the level of their Israeli contemporaries on international math exams.
Nevertheless SHUVU has succeeded in adding 20-25% to the mathematical material recommended by the Educational Ministry every year. On a visit to a SHUVU school in Ashdod last year, Education Ministry Director-General Ronit Tirosh was shocked to find second-graders at the beginning of the school year multiplying single-digit numbers in their heads. She remarked that the SHUVU curriculum should become a model for all Israeli schools.
Dov Kaplan, a doctoral researcher in science education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who has headed the math departments in both secular and SHUVU schools, attests to the significantly higher level of the SHUVU schools.
To some extent, the success of the SHUVU math program compared to the state system can be explained by objective factors and superior pedagogy. SHUVU students receive considerably more hours of math instruction than do their counterparts in the state system. All teachers receive classroom supervision two or three times a year, there are thrice yearly training seminars, and every teacher has a hot-line to SHUVU’s pedagogical center in Jerusalem if problems arise in teaching the material.
In addition, according to Professor Tamar Horowitz of Ben-Gurion University, SHUVU schools have the highest level of teacher accountability of any Israeli schools. Three times a year, the students are tested on all the material learned, and the results forwarded to SHUVU’s national pedagogical center. Each exam is broken down by subject area allowing the supervisors to note immediately if there are subject areas in which the students are weak. If there are, the pedagogical center contacts the classroom teacher to discuss ways to improve the presentation of that particular material.
Yet after all the objective factors have been listed, Dr. Shmuel Lazinkin, head of SHUVU’s pedagogical center, remains convinced that intangible factors such as the atmosphere in the schools and the dedication of the teachers have at least as much to do with SHUVU’s success. Most of the teachers in the SHUVU network are graduates of Bais Yaakov seminaries, who lack the university degree of their counterparts in the state system.
Yet the relationship that they establish with their talmidim and talmidot and their dedication to their students has proven far more important than the degree. Teacher strikes are unknown in the SHUVU systems, even though teacher salaries are often delayed because of the unpredictability of the private donations upon which the system depends. And even though the salaries of SHUVU teachers are lower than those in the state system, almost all SHUVU teachers spend many additional hours tutoring weaker students and making home visits for which they are not paid at all.
This level of dedication results in a learning environment that contrasts starkly to prevailing norms in the secular system, in which rampant violence and lack of discipline make learning difficult, if not impossible.
Israeli students in the state school system expressed the lowest levels of satisfaction of any students in a recent comparative study of 28 industrial nations. By contrast, 84% of SHUVU parents say that their children are very satisfied or extremely satisfied. And the reason is not hard to find. Overwhelmingly, the parents attribute that satisfaction to less violence, better decorum, and a higher cultural level than in the state system.
In short, even the majority of SHUVU parents who are not religious, appreciate the superiority of a system run according to Torah values. Dankner is right.