Is opening schools the right decision? An Interview with Taub Center Education Policy Program Chair Nachum Blass published in The Marker
Author: Taub Center Staff

The Ministry of Education is pushing to open the school year. That would be a mistake. They need to extend the vacation through the High Holidays, split classrooms, reduce class hours and Fridays and cancel the bagrut exams.

נחום בלסNachum Blass, you have been researching education for 50 years. Is the Ministry of Education ready for the start of the school year on September 1st?

No, but the Ministry’s approach is to open the school year on September 1st at any price.

Minister of Education Yoav Galant also said that the school year would open.

And it is clear that the Ministry of Education’s plan for the opening of the school year is not implementable and also that the Minister of Education has admitted that there are not enough teachers and not enough computers. But by the time the parents understand that the new teachers are not really teachers and by the time the teachers understand that the new computers they were promised are not going to arrive, there will be new elections.

So what should be done?

This is a time for thinking out of the box. First of all, I suggest deferring the opening of the school year until after the High Holidays.

To extend the summer vacation until almost mid-October?

Yes, so that there will be enough time to get organized, renovate, hire workers, purchase equipment, and arrive at a consensus with the teacher unions. That is preferable to opening the school year unprepared.

What is currently the problem with opening the school year?

The Ministry of Education’s plan is a disaster. It is very expensive and not realistic.

But they have now been given an additional budget of NIS 4.2 billion.

The cost of the plan will be more than NIS 4 billion; otherwise it won’t be sustainable for very long.

And what do they want to do?

The Ministry of Education’s plan is for students in Grades 1 and 2 to learn as normal and for Grades 3 and 4 to learn in capsules. Pupils in Grades 5 to 12 will learn remotely and will come to school only twice a week where they will also learn in capsules.

That reminds me of the return to routine in April – a plan that lasted only two weeks.

We reopened the schools without a plan.

And everything went wrong.

The pupils became infected and infected others, and on top of that they didn’t learn and there were problems with the matriculation exams; we argued with the teachers and nothing was achieved.

So how is it that after so many months we are only managing to implement the same plan that didn’t work before?

I have no explanation. But like Albert Einstein once said: “Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” There is a hard and fast position in the Ministry of Education that you can’t defer the opening of the school year because that will be considered a failure. That you have to do the matriculation exams because otherwise the universities will object. That you have to learn on Fridays because that was the decision made once upon a time.

There shouldn’t be school on Fridays?

Preferably not. There is an approach according to which you shouldn’t fight against constraints. We are in a situation in which things that could not even be imagined before the coronavirus crisis are being implemented at record-breaking speed. The government has decided to close the schools for two months – did anyone ever think something like that could happen? The government decided to immediately allocate NIS 4.2 billion to the education budget – no one ever imagined that it was possible to obtain additional funding on that scale.

So this is the time for big changes.

This is the time, this is the moment. We need to get a foot in the door and make changes.

We are a country of high tech and innovation. Has no one in the government succeeded in thinking out of the box?

People are averse to uncertainty, but it also occurs because the Ministry of Education is highly centralized. My suggestion, and that of others, is to give more leeway to the local authorities. It is not in the DNA of the Ministry to do such a thing. Perhaps they are convinced they know better.

This time, the plan is limited to only some of the pupils. What is the logic behind that?

There is none. Are we certain that pupils in Grades 1 and 2 who will be learning without capsules are less likely to be infected than pupils in Grade 3? And why should pupils in Grades 3 and 4 have to come to school and students in Grades 5 and 6 not? The Ministry has so far not revealed the logic behind any of its decisions and in any case the plan means that, for a start, about 13,000 teachers need to be hired, just for Grades 3 and 4.

Is that possible?

Not really. Teachers without training will not manage to control the students. If before the coronavirus, the government had been prepared to invest one-tenth of what it is prepared to invest today in the schools and in the education system, hospitals, social services, and the quality of the environment, it may be that we would not have had to invest so much now in emergency budgets, without proper thought and when everything is urgent. That’s what drives me crazy – that they are investing without giving it proper thought.

So what do you suggest?

To invest the additional billions in the pupils and the teachers. The solution of the Ministry of Education makes it possible to open the school year in Grades 1 to 5. The solution I am proposing allows for all of the pupils in Grades 1 to 12 to come to school and learn in small groups of 18.

How exactly?

By cutting back frontal teaching hours and adding classrooms rather than teachers. If we reduce the scope of the curriculum by 15 to 30 percent, we can allow everyone to learn in school with the existing teachers. Under my plan, students in Grade 1 will learn for 10 fewer hours per week. That is more educational and more sensible.

Isn’t that problematic?

It is preferable that they learn for fewer hours than that they learn with poorly trained teachers and it is preferable to allow all the pupils to learn instead of only half of them.

They will learn fewer hours or fewer subjects?

I suggest that they learn fewer hours in each subject. In our primary schools, Israeli students learn 18 percent more hours than in the OECD countries and 50 percent more than in countries that excel in education, such as Finland, South Korea, and Estonia. So I don’t think that if we reduce the number of hours, the quality of learning will be harmed. It will certainly harm fewer pupils than the current solution.

But where will they all learn? If you split classes, there won’t be enough space for everyone in the schools.

The shortage of classrooms is discussed as if it is a foregone conclusion and therefore we need to leave most of the pupils at home doing distance learning. That is ridiculous. You can find enough classrooms.

There are spare classrooms that we didn’t know about?

Some of the needed classrooms have already been built and they exist in the schools. First of all, to the extent that a school was built according to the rules, there is an extra classroom of 30 square meters for every six classrooms.

Where are these classrooms?

In some schools, they are being used for learning in small groups and in others they are being used for temporary purposes. Sometimes as a library or even a storage room. Furthermore, there are security rooms and bomb shelters. Thus, there are empty spaces that can be turned into classrooms. And there are additional solutions.

Such as?

You can make two classrooms into three – if you move walls, you can build a new classroom at the end of the hall. Over the last five years, more than 400 schools have closed and in about 600 others at least two classrooms have been freed up, such that there are buildings and classrooms that can be converted for teaching. You can use community centers. There are also offices that can be converted – there is no shortage of empty office space right now. Every local authority can get organized and do this. Perhaps it is a bit inconvenient, but if we want all pupils to be able to come to school and all teachers to be able to teach and all parents to be able to go to work – it can be done. This is a better solution and provides an opportunity to make significant changes in the education system; even after a coronavirus vaccine is found, it will be possible to return to learning in smaller classes of up to 26 pupils instead of up to 40, as is the case today.

The Ministry of Education is proposing that students, unemployed college graduates, the self-employed, soldier-teachers, and retirees be hired. What is the problem with that?

Most retirees are in high-risk groups and some of them are burned out. In addition, there are teachers in the system who will themselves want to retire because they are afraid to resume teaching at this time. And the idea of recruiting unemployed college graduates is an idea that belittles the profession. If you can take teachers from off the street, then why train teachers for three years? In any case, even if they manage to hire all the teachers they are planning to hire, they will understand sooner or later that this is not enough for their plan because they will need additional teachers for Grades 7 to 12.

It is being said that they will be teaching assistants, rather than full teachers.

But if they actually work as teachers, and without the necessary skills, then all they can do is try to maintain order in the classroom. There is also a major shortage of computer infrastructure – only one-third of schools have a computer and internet connection in each classroom in order to maintain contact between distance learners and what is going on in the classroom, and about 150,000 students don’t have a computer at home.

Or they have one computer that they share with the rest of the family.

Or they have a computer but no quiet room in which to learn, or the parents have to work and can’t sit with the children to help them. And what about the ultra-Orthodox or the Bedouin communities which don’t have the appropriate infrastructure? The Ministry has no solution for them. Thus, since pupils in Grades 5 to 12 will engage in distance learning, the gaps will widen. According to this plan, the weakest groups in society will lose a full year of schooling.

But how can they manage in smaller classrooms without hiring new teachers?

Teachers need to be hired, but in much smaller numbers. Currently, every class in a primary school is allocated a full-time teacher and another two-thirds of a teacher position. According to the Ministry of Education figures, there is one teacher per 15 pupils in the primary schools. Therefore, you can get along with what there already is. The additional budgets can be invested in extracurricular activities and enrichment, to computerize all of the schools, to encourage the Karev enrichment program rather than closing it. Part of the money can be used to raise the salaries of the existing teachers and also to build new classrooms. The budget of the Ministry of Education designates NIS 2.6 billion to new teachers each year – with that money one could build 8,000 classrooms that will last for 50 years.

How much does that cost?

The cost of building a classroom is about NIS 325,000. In other words, the cost of a new classroom is equal to the salary of a teacher for two years.

What about the proposals to learn in shifts – some of the classes will learn in the morning and some in the afternoon?

It at least allows all of the pupils to come to school, but it also requires that the number of teachers be doubled, as well as reducing the learning material by half, such that it is preferable to find a midway solution that allows all students to attend school, without hiring such a large number of teachers. I am also concerned about what will happen in the secondary schools. In the high schools, there is major concern with regard to the science and technology subjects. How will they learn in the specialization tracks and in the elective classes and how will pupils learn in labs or in computer rooms if they have to remain in the same capsule? There is currently no solution. In the middle schools, it will also not be possible to have lessons according to math and English groupings and I am worried that the principals will divide up the capsules to begin with according to the pupils’ math level.

Why are students in Israel studying longer but getting less?

That is another thing that has become entrenched in the system, and perhaps the time has come to change it. Every country decides on a different policy with regard to its education budget. It is a game with four parameters: number of pupils per class, number of teaching hours, number of teacher work hours, and teachers’ salaries. The goal is to arrive at the best outcome. In Israel, we have gone with the model of many teaching hours, crowded classrooms, and low teacher salaries. Other systems talk about small classes, high teacher salaries and fewer teaching hours.

Because we thought that if the pupils are in school more, they will know more?

But that doesn’t work. If you have a class of 40 pupils who are learning for 40 hours a week and on the other side of the corridor there is a class of 20 who are learning for 20 hours a week, do you think that the latter will know only half the material?

How do you propose that students learn in the high schools and middle schools during the corona crisis?

You can learn in groups of up to 18 students in the high schools and middle schools, rather than making do with distance learning.

What about bagrut exams?

The bagrut exams should be cancelled this year. And that would be a reason to celebrate.

Why cancel the bagrut exams?

Because we don’t know how many “red” cities there will be and in how many districts there will be lockdowns. There will be students who will learn more and those who will learn less. If there is no uniformity, then you can’t test everyone with the same exam. Instead, I suggest deciding that a student’s multi-year grade point average in each subject will be his grade on his high school graduation certificate. I would add an evaluation by the teacher of the student’s abilities, social activities, and whether s/he is a gifted athlete or contributes to the community. In the most prestigious universities in the US, they also ask about personality and don’t just give marks.

But the universities are opposed to canceling the bagrut exams.

They will have no choice. In the current situation, they will accept everyone. They will also be forced to hold external remote exams even though everyone knows they won’t be worth anything.

Why do they have no choice?

Because already today the universities are competing for every student and to the extent that students see that there are more possibilities for distance learning, the demand for higher education will drop even more. So they shouldn’t fool themselves. If they really want it badly, they will have entrance exams in each department separately. If the state insists on validating the marks of high school students, it can hold external exams in three subjects (Hebrew or Arabic, English, and Civics) in external locations outside the schools, such as in driving test centers, and allow every student to learn and be examined in his/her free time.

It may be that the high school students will understand that they can learn remotely instead of coming to school.

In the high schools, there is greater emphasis on social connections. Distance learning will change the structure of teaching in the schools but it can’t replace the personal contact between the teachers and the students and among the students themselves. It may be that the corona crisis in fact strengthens the schools. They will become safe places that promote the development of the students and contributes to their development.

And what if all of a sudden there is a lockdown again and everyone has to learn remotely?

In such a situation, the Ministry of Education will have to provide assistant teachers who will help both the teachers and the students. It is much more important to maintain contact with the students and to know where they are, what they are feeling, how they can be helped emotionally and socially and to ensure that they don’t drop out – and even to talk to them on the phone or on Zoom and also to assist them technologically. They need help in order to learn on their own. That is also the function of the teacher.

At the peak of the first wave in April, you suggested taking “summer” vacation rather than continuing teaching. That means that we would have been already starting the next school year now.

I suggested opening the next school year in July. Most of the parents were still at home during that period and the rest could have been provided with solutions such as summer camps operated in the schools. They shouldn’t have discussed a return to school without an organized plan.

What does that solve?

The teachers would have had the “summer” vacation that they deserve and we would have been spared the arguments with the teacher unions. We wouldn’t have returned to school with the coronavirus and that would have provided time to think about how to open the school year.

Why didn’t they think of that in the Ministry of Education?

Either they are not willing to accept criticism there or they are unwilling to think out of the box. There are top professionals in the Ministry of Education with a lot of experience and I am convinced that they have good intentions, but I don’t understand the narrow thinking. We are in a crisis and we need new initiatives.

Distance learning is also something new.

In a survey that we carried out among 6,000 teachers, most of them said that they taught remotely even though they did not have any previous training in it.

You don’t believe that you can teach a full curriculum remotely, like in a virtual school?

It is an excellent supplement but not a substitute. It can’t be a substitute for the schools. The dropout rates from virtual schools in other countries is very high. The lower a student is on the socioeconomic scale, the less benefit they get from distance learning. Within the schools, the teachers can identify students who are having a hard time and can help them, but this is very difficult to do remotely. In some cases, the parent cannot help the student with the material, particularly in the higher grades, or they need to go to work and don’t have the time.

This will lead to more dropouts?

Absolutely, we will see a major increase in dropouts from the education system. Every day that poorly performing students do not attend school is a loss for them. Every day that students see that there are financial problems at home, they will feel the need to go out and work in order to help out. I believe in hybrid learning that combines learning in school with distance learning and putting an emphasis on the interaction among the students themselves and between them and the teachers. Distance learning is supplementary to what goes on in the classroom rather than a substitute.

If there’s already a foot in the door, what else do you propose?

To establish a National Education Council, like the National Security Council and the National Economic Council. This would be a body that challenges the Ministry of Education and that would make it possible to discuss several plans seriously. I run a forum of about 600 educators, including senior officials, both past and present, Israel Prize recipients, and former ministers of education. There is consensus among them regarding the need to establish a National Education Council.

On what else do you agree?

That the coronavirus will exacerbate socioeconomic gaps, that we need to grant more autonomy to the local authorities, and to the school principals. That changes are needed in the matriculation exams. There are no differences of opinion on these issues.

Are we in an awful situation with regard to education?

No. It may surprise you but I think that our education system is a good one. Much has been accomplished during the past decade. We have seen an increase in teachers’ salaries and a narrowing of gaps. We have scientists, authors, and engineers who are no less competent than in the most advanced countries in the world.

But our results on the PISA exams aren’t so great.

I don’t attribute a lot of weight to the PISA exams. I don’t think that an exam of three hours can give a full picture of an entire education system. I don’t have any doubt of their validity but this is just another data point among a set of data points for the system, which is overall in good shape. There have been major advances in the Arab schools, something that is not reported in the media.

The Arab students have made progress? During the coronavirus crisis, the gaps between Jews and Arabs have widened.

There are gaps and problems with infrastructure, but there are also indications that the Arab schools are a success story: class size has dropped; drop-out rates have fallen; rates of matriculation have increased. When you compare Arab pupils to Jewish pupils at the same socioeconomic level you see that they are managing to close the gap and sometimes they show even higher achievements. This didn’t happen only because of the Ministry of Education but also because of the drop in birthrates.

Nonetheless, there are large gaps in the system.

There is a need to deal with the gaps and the weaker groups. It is important that the government formulate and pass a law to reduce gaps in the schools. This is the most critical problem in the Israeli education system: the huge gaps between students, which the coronavirus has only exacerbated. There is a need for legislation that will establish differential budgeting for all age groups. Currently, there is a differential budget only in primary and middle schools, but not in pre-school or high school. There is no difference between budgets allocated to kindergarten students or high school pupils in Yeruham, Ra’anana, Rahat, and Kfar Vradim. They all get the same budget, but affirmative action is critical. If we do that, the education system will take a quantum leap. In addition, the programs that advance weaker students should not be canceled; their budgets should not be reduced. On the contrary, this is the time to increase investment in them.

What about the ultra-Orthodox?

It’s a black hole. Nobody knows what is happening there. We know that the dropout rate in ultra-Orthodox education is much higher than in the State education system and that the rate of matriculation is lower. Only a few pupils take the PISA or Meitzav exams. What do they learn? I have no idea.

This article was initially published in Hebrew in The Marker.

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