Monday, December 15, 2014

What Do The Coming Elections in Israel Mean in the Real World?

With the breakup of the government, the media is in a frenzy, ecstatic about the prospect of the coming elections in March for two reasons: it gives them something to talk about, but even more importantly, politicians will be spending gobs of money buying media in all its myriad forms for the foreseeable future. Now is a good time to own a newspaper. Or a radio stations. Or a PR firm. Or all three.
Many think that other than the unending chatter about who will run with whom and which place he or she gets in the party rankings, the elections have no real bearing on the lives of regular Israelis. Nothing can be farther from the truth. I'll give two small examples, both connected to the Ministry of Education.

Reform #1: Bagrut Exams 
Love him or hate him, it's a recognized fact that Rav Shai Peron took on the post of Minister of Education with great passion and energy. He decided that Israeli education is too test-based, connected to the rote memorization of information, and uninspiring. (If you ask me, he's right.) So, in less than two years, he introduced a series of sweeping reforms that literally altered the high school curriculum for students across the country. He made teachers lives' harder, giving them greater freedom (and responsibility) in the classroom, and removed entire swaths of required subjects, drastically reducing the number of Bagrut (matriculation) exams both in terms of subject matter and number of tests. Teachers complained (somewhat legitimately) that he imposed the program too quickly, without giving them time to adjust to the new system, properly explaining how it would work, or giving them the necessary training (all valid complaints). He responded by telling them, in so many words, to deal with it.

Reform #2: Getting into College
I work in the admissions office of a large college of education called Orot. Our state-sponsored, four-year, degree-granting college awards its graduates both an undergraduate degree as well as a teacher's certificate. Because we're a government recognized (and funded) college, the Ministry of Education determines the requirements for acceptance, which are universal for all teachers colleges. If you can get into one school, theoretically you should be able to get into any of them.
In the past, in order to get into pretty much any undergraduate program in Israel, you needed to take (and score relatively well on) a test called the Psychometry. (its pronounced psee-cho-me-tree in Hebrew). Israelis universally hate the exam, as it's a combination of Hebrew language, advanced math, and English language. Kind of an SAT on steroids. Students understandably hate it. And, like in the United States, an entire industry has sprung up around teaching how to study for and take the test. Also, like in the States, the connection between success in the Psychometry and in college is anecdotal at best. Remember also that for most Israelis, there's at least a three year break between the end of high school and the start of college. Think about how hard it must be to return to formal education by preparing for a mindnumbingly annoying, pointless exam. Welcome back!

Last year, the Ministry of Education changed the admission standards (at least for colleges of education), requiring far less students to have taken the exam to gain admission. It in fact left the choice of which students to admit up to the schools, leaving, to borrow a Hebrew term, a balagan. Like many government decisions, the exact details of the regulations were left somewhat opaque and would only be determined over the course of time. Now, with the fall of the current government, no one really knows how many students to admit, and what requirements to ask them for.

So, if you're a high school student, you really have no idea how many subjects you need to learn over the coming years to graduate high school. My tenth-grade son came home and told me that he and his classmates were planning on going on strike (yes, he really said that) to protest the fact that they didn't know what subjects they were supposed to learn. (His mean dad made him go to school. Apparently, so did every other parent in the country.) And if you've completed your army service or national service and want to gain admission to college, do you need to invest thousands of shekel and hundreds of hours to take a meaningless and essentially pointless test to get into college or don't you? No one really knows.

And truthfully, no one will really be able to answer these questions until well after March 17th, when the new government (and Minster of Education) is not only sworn in, but settles into his or her new job enough to be able to answer these very simple questions.

And, truth be told, these are relatively minor issues. How about the people running hospitals, or army divisions? Who answers their tough questions between now and March about future policy decisions that need to be made now?