Let’s not just return to normalcy: the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity for change
Author: Nachum Blass
In recent months, many studies have been published on the long-term consequences of the coronavirus crisis and subsequent school closures. The studies focus on the effects on students’ future academic achievements, on the state of the labor market over time, and on the economic growth of countries experiencing the pandemic. The two central and unequivocal conclusions that emerge from these studies can be formulated as follows:
A. The longer the shutdown period, the more severe the long-term consequences, which may be felt for decades to come.
B. The immediate effects are more severe for vulnerable populations and, as their rate of recovery is slower, the gaps between them and stronger populations will only deepen.
Alongside the worrisome predictions outlined in these studies, they all emphasize that the magnitude of the negative impact depends largely on countries’ ability to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to bring about much-needed fundamental changes in their education systems. There are also those who see the crisis as a singular opportunity, one unlikely to present itself again, to introduce improvements that will make graduates of the current education system more prepared for the future than past graduates. In my opinion, this can be applied to Israel’s education system as well. While I’ve written about this often in the past, I want to reiterate a few key points in this post.
A. The struggle against educational gaps – The corona crisis has emphasized the depth of educational gaps in the Israeli education system, and the extent to which they are related to the social, economic, and technological infrastructures that shape Israeli students’ learning environment. The current situation makes it clear that when a third of students are not able to connect to distance learning, and many others are unable to do so effectively because of the learning conditions at home, the result is devastating in all respects and should be addressed as soon as possible. This requires comprehensive action – preferably through legislation – to make the necessary technology accessible to all Israeli students, to implement differential budgeting at all stages of the education system from infancy to higher education, and to provide higher remuneration for teachers, especially those who teach in schools serving students from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Strengthening research and development – Research and development need to be strengthened in the areas of writing curricula and developing specific methods to assist students from weak socioeconomic backgrounds.
B. Distance learning – One consequence of the crisis is that distance instruction using technological tools will continue to be an integral part of school life in the near and distant future. It has also become exceedingly clear that distance learning cannot be used as a substitute for school and should be just one of the tools – even if an important one – at the disposal of the education system. It is even possible that distance instruction could be the most effective tool for imparting “21st century skills” such as self-learning, finding and choosing data in a digital environment, the ability to collaborate with close and distant peers, and more. To put it simply: it is important to examine in depth the pros and cons of distance learning compared to in-person instruction, and then to make the most of the pros while avoiding the cons.
C. The social aspect of the education system – The shutdown emphasized the importance of the social component of school life. In many cases, one of the main difficulties or even the most difficult aspect of the lockdown for students was the lack of social connection. It is therefore important to place greater emphasis on this aspect of the education system, which is not currently paid sufficient attention (as measured by its meager share of the Ministry of Education budget). This can be done by strengthening the social components of the informal parts of the school day or in alternative settings such as youth movements and after-school clubs run through community centers and other organizations. The Ministry of Education will therefore need to consider strengthening the social aspects of education by increasing budgets in this area, increasing awareness about this aspect in teacher training, and through dedicated training for informal education instructors.
D. The role and functioning of the Ministry of Education – The coronavirus crisis revealed several major failures in the functioning of the Ministry of Education.
- Preparedness for crisis – Although the coronavirus crisis was not expected, this is not the first time schools have been closed for an extended period of time. It became clear during the crisis that the Ministry of Education was not prepared with operational contingency plans for a situation in which the education system was forced to close, and in fact even today there is no set of instructions for what to do in such situations. What happens if only part of the system is shut down? In which situations should the whole system be shut down? Which classes should be closed first in crises of different kinds? These and many other questions still have no answer. In order to answer them, the strategy and policy planning department in the Ministry of Education must be strengthened, through means discussed later in the section on the National Council of Education.
- Over-centralization – During and after the shutdown it became clear that the Ministry of Education’s control over what was happening, and its ability to provide guidance and instruction to educational institutions were far from what was needed. It was local authorities, principals, and teachers who functioned better and provided quick and effective responses to the needs that arose. From this it can be concluded that the current roles in the education system should be redistributed: the Ministry of Education should be responsible for setting the system’s overarching goals, budgeting and operations, mandatory curricula, and employment rules for teachers, and the day-to-day operations should be transferred to local authorities, principals, and teachers to the degree to which they are able and willing.
- Lack of cooperation among the various players operating in the education system – The coronavirus crisis has once again highlighted how essential cooperation, that is rooted in mutual respect, is among the various players in the education system. It is important for the Ministry of Education to recognize the abilities and vital contribution of local authorities, teachers’ unions, parents, and even students in tackling the pandemic, and the ministry needs to find ways to bring about this cooperation. It is especially important to reach new employment agreements with teachers that take into account distance instruction as well as the extra effort required from teachers due to the novel and unexpected situation.
- The weakness of the support staff system – Over the years, the Ministry of Education gave in to various pressures to not extend, and in some instances even decrease, the presence of support staff for weaker students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (regular visiting officers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and nurses). The corona crisis has highlighted the need to strengthen the support staff system.
E. Reducing the number of students per class – The need to learn in small groups in order to maintain social distance has created a new reality in schools. It turns out that it is indeed possible, through various methods, to considerably reduce the number of students per class to a maximum of 18. The most efficient and cost-effective approach, in my opinion, is reducing the number of frontal teaching hours and using learning spaces both inside and outside of school more efficiently. However, other methods that have been proposed include teaching in shifts and expanding distance instruction. In any case, it is important not to return to the upper limit of 40 students per class (34 in the lower grades of elementary school) at the end of the crisis.
F. Cancelling matriculation exams – For a variety of reasons, most education researchers believe that the matriculation exams are a thorn in the foot of the education system. The prolonged general shutdown alongside partial closures in certain areas have led the Ministry of Education to significantly reduce matriculation exam requirements. The new requirements harm the education system in two ways: they both lower standards for the knowledge expected from the system’s graduates and lower the prestige of subjects that are not deemed to “require” external exams. In light of all this, it’s possible to adopt the ad hoc approach taken, at least temporarily, by a number of European countries that usually have external matriculation exams – to completely cancel matriculation exams and rely instead on students’ multi-year grade point average (while developing mechanisms to compare grades across schools and allowing students to appeal should they feel they are harmed by this).
G. Creating a National Council on Education – As stated above, the Ministry of Education has not been able to prepare for crises and its current behavior does not indicate a desire to take advantage of the current situation to create long-term reform. There is real concern that if an external body with a broad, long-term vision and practical ideas for capitalizing on the opportunities presented by the corona crisis is not created, the system will return to its old ways as soon as the crisis passes. There have been many proposals for the establishment of a “National Council on Education” – starting as a group operating under the auspices of the President and evolving into a body similar in format to the National Economic Council. The organizational framework is less important than the body being legally anchored, independent and professional, and minimally affected by political fluctuations.
The points above outline several steps that can already be taken – and are, in my opinion, important to take – to ensure that we seize the opportunities presented by the corona crisis to improve Israel’s education system. This list, however, is not exhaustive and there are certainly other steps that are not included here or have not yet been thought of that could help improve the system.
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