Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Glimpse Into the Israeli Education System

A few incidents concerning writing and reading skills at various levels seem to illuminate a bigger problem in the education system and for once - it isn't money:

Several years ago, just as I was finishing my studies in the School of Education, a friend of mine, who was an assistant teacher, informed me that the faculty of the School had instituted a new, obligatory course for the freshman class called "ELEMENTARY SKILLS IN ACADEMIC READING & WRITING". Apparently, the students who were arriving at the university were so deficient in these skills that it was deemed necessary to invest in a new program to teach them what previous generations had known before ever arriving to study in the Hebrew University.

By coincidence I was teaching at the same time a similar class intended to prepare high school students for academic life. The skills involved were the same in both cases: how to summarize text, how to headline a block of text, how to recognize what is important in a text and what isn't, what is the difference between fact and speculation and opinion and how to differentiate between them and why this is important, how to write a foreword, a table of contents, a summary and so on. These high school students were seniors in their last year of school and they still did not possess most of these skills, not even at the level needed for high school.
The following year

I got a job at a teachers college and I was fortunate enough to be asked to grade students' seminary papers. These were important enough to be graded by a teacher not familiar with the student. The pay was excellent and I was very proficient in checking them quickly and writing down everything that was wrong or right about the paper. I am sad to say that I quickly noticed that most of the papers would not get a passing grade in any respectable university and some would not pass muster in a high school setting. I remarked upon this to the person responsible for these papers and she agreed that the level of the students' writing is terrible but, she added, " there is nothing we can do about it".
I did not dare suggest that actually teaching the students how to write a paper can and should be considered a worthy endeavor in a teacher's college and would actually constitute a fair return for their tuition. I did not do this first of all because I was happy to do this job. Second, I did not want to antagonize anybody before I quit, which I knew would be at the end of the year because of three - I had already realized how corrupt the system was.
One example will suffice: one day I was called into the principal's office for a talk. The issue was that my students had complained that I was giving them homework. I was asked to stop giving them homework. I was told clearly: "These are our students and they pay the rent. If they are unhappy they will leave and we will go out of business. It is your job to keep them happy."
I cannot not tell you what I said because I didn't say anything. I was shocked into complete silence. Afterwards I was depressed. I did not wish to continue teaching in such a corrupt atmosphere but I didn't want to leave in the middle of the year either. I stuck it out till the end and did not return the following year.
What is clear to me is that if the teachers-to-be do not know how to write a paper then they will not be able to teach the necessary skills to their pupils in elementary and high school. These students will then continue on to academia where the system will try to plug the holes in their education - as a friend told me recently:
ust last week I was back at the university for work with a client when I happened to meet an old friend, a fellow student, who had now become a mid-level administrator in the social sciences. While talking, it came out that they too had to institute a new course in academic reading and writing skills because the level of the students arriving had gotten so bad. He also said that this course was the one that students flunked the most – even more than the statistics course! He did admit that the lecturers, usually the youngest and most inexperienced ones, were too busy to teach properly, especially since the lesson combined their own subject matter with academic skills. Obviously they are more comfortable with their specialty than with teaching the academic skills which some of them, I am afraid, do not possess at a very high level.

I told him that I was both glad and sad to hear this.
I was sad because this reflects upon our culture which is raising an ignorant "educated" class, whose influence is growing and contributing to the dumbing down of public discourse in almost every field. These are people who finish college without the ability to think and articulate themselves clearly and what is worse – they have no idea that such a thing is possible because they had not been exposed to this standard. Very few lecturers retain this ability so the students do not have many good examples to learn from and also they are held to such low expectations that they really do not know any better. This situation is described clearly in the well known critique of the American educational system from the eighties, Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind". It seems to me that the same thing is happening in Israel.

On the other hand, I told my friend, I am glad to hear it because as editor many of these people come to me to help them so, in a way, I make a living off the failures of the system.
That isn't so nice perhaps, but I have a much cleaner conscience than the teachers who remained at the teachers college and continue to betray the trust of their students and the professional academics in the universities who are too busy climbing the steep, slippery slopes of academia to give their students the education they deserve.
Many times we hear that the problem of the education system is money. But none of this has to do with financial resources but rather with moral resources. All that is needed is the moral character to fulfill the teacher's mission: to educate. Do not lie, do not shirk from your duty even when it is unpleasant or when it conflicts with your own personal agenda. Set the proper standards and teach your students up to them – that is educating. Lowering or abolishing the standards to please the students and make it easy on yourself is a betrayal of the trust that exists between teachers and the students who pay to get an education and between the teachers and the tax-paying public who finance the system and expect the teachers to do their job, not pass the problems on to the next level.
It is as if the city garbage men would pick up the garbage from your street and throw it into the streets of another neighborhood. We would never allow it would we? So why should we allow it in the education system? I guess "Teachers" is alive and well in Israel.

My conclusion from this experience has been that morals, not money, is what we lack most in the education system.


mother in israel said...

Israel's spending on education, per capita, is on par or highter than that of other developed countries.

By the way, I noticed a few grammatical errors in your post (unusual for you). ;)

My kids definitely do not learn to write papers. In theory they are taught, but the teachers do not know how to teach them.

Lady-Light said...

Are you referring to the standard Israeli curriculum in Hebrew, or to the study of English as a language? If the former, then the wannabe American Israeli can congratulate him/herself: they've achieved what we here in the States began to do in the 60s, and that is reject the rules and requirements for social behavior and morality which filtered down into the universities, to the point that we are now raising a generation of skill-less, semi-literate future leaders.
As Janis Joplin sang in her famous song: freedom's just another word for nuthin' left to lose. . .

Jerusalem Joe said...

MIS - what mistakes? I'm shocked.
LL - I'm referring to Hebrew skills although obviously they are the same in both languages.

mother in israel said...

Your phrase "The following year" doesn't have any punctuation. Is it a subtitle? It looks like you left off a sentence or paragraph.

Reading it again, I see it's just a formatting problem!

"to grade student's" should be "students'"

Here you seem to have left off the end of the sentence:
Second, I did not want to antagonize anybody before I quit, which I knew would be at the end of the year because of three -

Anyway, you asked! I'm sure you could find errors in my blog too.

mother in israel said...

I was thinking about what you said about standards. Both students and employers (excluding of course misrad hachinuch) understand the value of a school teaching what needs to be taught, and not getting away with the minimum. Many schools offer a college degree, but Harvard still turns away thousands of applicants each year. I think the administrator's response is false and a copout.

Jerusalem Joe said...

Thanks for pointing out the mistakes.
I corrected them. I did not understand the your last remark about the incomplete sentence.
I agree about the administrators response.
But I can tell that I heard from other colleagues similar stories in colleges in the rest of the country.

mother in israel said...

Feel free to delete my comments with the corrections. I don't understand this sentence:
Second, I did not want to antagonize anybody before I quit, which I knew would be at the end of the year because of three - I had already realized how corrupt the system was.

I am sure you are right about all the colleges being similar; obviously the ed. ministry does not demand more so why should the colleges provide?

Karma said...

Issues with writing skills in universities is also an issue in the U.S. I have taught introductory writing skills classes at a university in the U.S. I also noticed this issue while at Hebrew U - in part because there were NO classes to teach us to write or even really given any decent feedback on our writing. It was all about taking tests, which doesn't really get at higher ways of learning.