The Jerusalem Post’s editorial “Back to School,” (August 27) failed to identify the chief challenges facing Israel’s public education system. The Rx it presented for the system’s weaknesses – throwing more money at them, hiring more teachers and creating smaller classes – have been tried in the past with limited results, and are unlikely to produce significant improvements in the future. The challenge for Israel’s education system is to produce better results with the same amount of money.   

First the facts. The performance of Israel’s education system is unimpressive, stuck for decades in the lower half of nations taking international achievement tests such as the OECD’s PISA. For a nation that must survive by innovation, this is a serious drawback. Educational results are strongly correlated with a students’ socioeconomic background. For generations, Israel’s education system has failed to lift its most needy populations, Jewish as well as Arab, out of a cycle of poor education, low wages and limited lifetime opportunities.

Israel’s hi-tech sector is flourishing, but it employs no more than 10% of the work force. Israeli workers overall exhibit low productivity compared to the leading OECD nations and the gap is not closing. This is despite the fact that the funds devoted to education per student have in fact been rising over the past two decades. Less centralization and more flexibility will do more for Israel’s education system than simply adding more money.

Israel’s disadvantaged children do not need more teachers, they need significantly better teachers and principals. This requires the flexibility to attract highly qualified individuals to consider going to Yeroham to teach math or English, rather than going to Herzliya to write computer code or technical manuals.  To draw such people to work in teaching, they must be paid what they’re worth. Equally important is the ability to get poor or burned-out teachers out of the classroom and into retirement. Flexibility in hiring, compensating and firing teachers is a must.

Being a school principal is one of the toughest jobs in the civilian labor market. Yet many principals earn little more than their teachers. Local education authorities we have spoken to regard the credentials the Education Ministry requires of principals to be largely irrelevant. Formal tenders for the job of principal go unanswered or produce only one or two inferior candidates. Principal selection needs to be devolved to local authorities, and principals serving the neediest populations need to be paid much more. 

WON’T ALL this cost more money? It will, unless one gives schools the freedom to focus their resources on their pupils’ most pressing needs. Principals need to be able to organize classes so as to derive the maximal benefit from their best teachers. They need to be able to prioritize so as to give children a sound education in the fields they need most – math, English, science and Hebrew. This is especially important in schools serving underprivileged populations. 

Today, the Education Ministry micro-manages the schools, dictating exactly what is taught, for how many hours a week, to and by whom. This makes it impossible for schools to tailor their efforts to their pupils’ needs. The proper role of the Education Ministry is to set demanding requirements for the skills and knowledge Israeli children need to master; to require regular (though not overly frequent) testing, with the results made public; and then to turn its funds over to the schools and let principals decide how to use them best. Past experience indicates that without this flexibility, spending more money is unlikely to produce better results.

One thing the Education Ministry has started to get right is how to distribute its budget among different cities and towns. Cities like Tel Aviv and Herzliya are very wealthy, and are able to lavish funds from their own resources on their schools. There is nothing wrong with this; residents have a right to demand that their elected representatives spend their tax money on the community’s children.

Poorer towns suffer from a double disadvantage: Economic disadvantage means parents can prepare their children less well to succeed in school. It also means that local authorities have only limited funds with which to help their schools. The Education Ministry has started redistributing its own funds from rich to poor communities. By our calculation, about 6%-7% of the school budget is distributed preferentially to Israel’s poorer communities. If this percentage is increased by half, or even doubled, it could do a lot of good in poorer communities without seriously hurting the children of wealthy cities.

Finally, Israeli education would be improved by allowing competition between schools. Parents should be able to choose the school their children attend, with publicly-funded schools (the vast majority of Israeli schools) required to admit a socioeconomic cross-section of the local population. Parents should be able to “fire” a school that isn’t serving their child properly. The education market should be open. Anybody should be allowed to open a school and receive public funding, as long as they commit to teaching the syllabus mandated by the Education Ministry and they are transparent about their finances and educational results. In a competitive education market good schools will thrive and bad ones will close.

None of this require significant additions to the Education Ministry budget. It does require much greater flexibility in how the education system is administered and how current budgets are used.

The writer is director of policy research at Kohelet Policy Forum and directed research for its study of Israeli education policy, ‘Autonomy and Choice in an Open Education System’ [Hebrew].