Israeli teachers ‘back to basics’ as international rankings fall

By Anshel Pfeffer, May 21, 2009

A new education minister in Israel almost always heralds a complete revolution in pedagogical priorities and teaching methods; until the next change at the top.

Likud’s Gidon Saar is no exception. His predecessor, Professor Yuli Tamir, promoted advanced learning theories. Now, Mr Saar is promising “back to basics” for Israeli schools.

To implement his new policies, the new minister has brought back to the ministry Dr Shimshon Shoshani, a veteran education administrator who served as the ministry’s director general twice in the past and until recently was the head of Taglit-birthright.

The two have already set ambitious targets: boosting Israel’s rankings in the international education assessments in four years by at least 10 places (Israel achieved only the 40th place in reading and maths in the last PISA exams, which test 15-year-olds in all of the world’s industrial democracies) and 55 per cent of school leavers qualifying for the national matriculation certificate.

One of the main changes they are planning is a limit on the numbers of extra subjects high school pupils can take, and a renewed emphasis on “core” subjects like mathematics, Hebrew, English, history, literature and biblical studies.

In previous years, schools have encouraged their pupils to study a range of “fashionable” subjects such as media, art history, psychology, law, economics, design and 50 other subjects which the new heads of the ministry believe are distractions. They are planning to abandon an emphasis on improving children’s thought processes in favour of a return to traditional, knowledge-based repetition tasks.

Dr Dan Gibton of Tel Aviv University, an expert on educational policy and a former member of governmental committees on school reform, is not surprised by the new policies. “It is the kind of pendulum swing we see every few years. The education ministry can’t see reforms through, because of the unstable political structure. The political clock isn’t synchronised with the pedagogical one.”

In his opinion, education ministers are unduly concerned with the international tests. “There is a correlation between wide access to higher education and low rankings in the tests. For example, Finland is at the top of the rankings but a relatively small number of school leavers there go on to university or college. In Israel, the proportion is much higher, so we shouldn’t try to be like Finland. Our models should be Britain and the US, who do better than we do in the international tests, though they are not at the top of the rankings either, and have wide access to higher education.”

Last updated: 12:01pm, May 21 2009