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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Israeli education is in trouble

Israeli education is in trouble, as Avirama Golan explains in Ha'aretz.
By Avirama Golan

The outrageous slap that Amnon de Hartog gave MK Yakov Cohen blurred the evil that gave birth to it: cancelation of the requirement that ultra-Orthodox schools teach a core curriculum. This cancelation, included in a bill that the Knesset has approved in preliminary reading, rests on an agreement between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the ultra-Orthodox, with Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak remaining enthusiastically silent.
The weaker the political system is, the weaker public education becomes; and the more the political system disintegrates into sectors, the more the education system does, too. Since there never was a uniform education system, and since political sectors (the national religious and the ultra-Orthodox) have been implanted in this system from the start, the conditions for implementing the core curriculum do not exist. The desire to rehabilitate public education on the basis of civic, democratic, humanistic and knowledge-seeking values has therefore now run into a high sectorial wall.
Enthusiasm for the multicultural fashion, which denigrates anything that looks like state involvement in education, has ruined public education, along with the desire of various groups for unique cultural expression (which is legitimate in itself), the state's abandonment (under the cover of a neoliberal ideology that widens social gaps) of its obligation to provide equal education to all, and the demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox and religious publics.

In less than a decade, every fourth child will be in the ultra-Orthodox education system. Even today, secular public education is the weakest and most neglected of the various Jewish school systems - only the Arab public education system is weaker. The Education Ministry and proponents of the core curriculum must therefore understand that the attempt to restore the public education of the 1950s and 1960s is a rearguard action that is destined for failure.
The old public education system has reached the end of the road. Anyone who wants to prevent its final collapse would do better to adopt realistic solutions. Professor Yitzhak Kashti of Tel Aviv University's School of Education, for instance, proposed new principles for dealing with the change in a recently published academic article.
Unlike other education experts, Kashti sees education not as a tool for shaping students' characters, but as part of a social policy. The uniform republican education of the state's early years could have succeeded, he says, had it been supported by a well-developed social safety net that would have strengthened the margins and integrated them with the center. But because Israel did not choose the model of a European welfare state, "and the new modernizers in Israel's education and welfare fields were strong-minded, on one hand, but blind to cultural needs and expressions, on the other," its momentum was cut short in its prime, and it produced only short-term results. The weaker sectors on the margins grew, and the state-oriented center was weakened.
In response to this reality, he recommends that the system recognize the existence of different cultural circles and set up "educational clusters" catering to them. These clusters would provide equal educational services to all, with their public funding anchored in law - no special allocations, no political intervention and no semi-private but state-supported education. The only difference among them would be their cultural content. Parents would be able to choose whichever cluster they preferred. This would not be means-influenced "parental choice," but a choice between alternatives that differ only in terms of content.
Each of the different clusters would be required to sample portions of the content offered by the others, in order to give them a deep familiarity with the culture, language and values of the others. This mutual transparency is a sophisticated solution that enlightened countries such as England and Sweden have begun to adopt. Like them, Israel, too, would let go of its centralization and move to a supervised federative system.
And what will connect these various clusters, fans of the core curriculum may ask? Beyond the obvious subjects like sciences, languages, etc., Kashti proposes the strongest collective asset in our possession "thanks to the vision and persistence of the previous generations": the Hebrew language.
Language, Kashti explains, "is not merely a tool and a gateway to a world of meaning; it is also a system via which meaning is shaped and interpreted." Indeed, the Hebrew language, with all the layers of its historic creation and modern revival, is an interesting and proper basis, the quintessential product of Israeliness, which could rescue public education from the bonds of its perplexing weakness. In the worst case, it will prevent total segregation. In the best case, it will discover a civic and cultural kernel at the heart of Israeliness that is far stronger than any "core curriculum."


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