Over the weekend we attended a lecture about the Israeli education system. The speaker was Daphna Liel, the education reporter for channel 2 news, the most watched news channel in Israel. Just to be clear, when I say “Israeli education system” this does not include anything that happens across the green line, in Palestinian territories, Druze, or Bedouin villages. They have their own school systems and are not under the control of the Israeli government or education ministry.
She began by explaining to us the landscape of elementary schools in Israel. Students must attend school by the time they turn 5, but optional, free education is available to students starting at the age of 3. This was the first thing that struck me. They can offer free education to the early childhood education sector. This isn’t some Head Start crap, where it’s free with fine print (your child can only attend half day or it’s mostly free but depends on your income, or the quality of the education isn’t equal to that to the children who pay.) This is what has bothered me from day 1 of teaching in America. How can you say you want to eliminate inequality in the classrooms, that every child deserves a quality education no matter their socioeconomic status or zipcode, and then tell children and families that because they don’t make enough money they qualify for reduced fee (or free) preschool, but it will only be half day? So your child gets to go to preschool for less, but they also learn less. That’s inequality. My students know that “it’s not fair” that they have to go home at one when their friends get to stay, and it’s heartbreaking to have to explain why that inequality exists to a preschooler (“Well Jen’s mom makes more money then your mom, so she gets to stay all day, and you have to go home”). Don’t get me started on how only offering half day preschool to student in low SES situations severely limits the work hours the parents can take on because they’ll have to be off in time to pick up their child midday and then find a sitter for them.
Then Daphna started to explain what inequity in the Israeli education system looked like. It all seems to start with the segregation of schools. Schools in Israel are segregated for a variety of reasons including, religion, culture, curriculum, etc. But unfortunately, segregation doesn’t bring about a lot of tolerance for differences. Israel’s ministry of education creates the curriculum that is to be taught for all Jewish schools. So, obviously, the history of Israel, culture, religion, language, is told from Israel’s point of view. If you want your child to learn about Arab culture, religion, language and history, you send them to an Arab school. The catch is, that Arab schools get less funding and therefore have lower overall test scores. Some Arab parents feel forced to send their kids to Jewish schools because they want their children to have the best education, but feel shame for not being able to have their children learn about their own personal history.
Also, there’s an overcrowding issue in schools, all schools. My class size of 37 is a little above the national average which is about 34 students per class. The usual consequences of large class sizes apply here. Not everyone is learning. Not everyone is getting the necessary attention to help them succeed in the class. Everyone needs “private lessons” (essentially tutoring) after school. Private lessons are not free, they cost anywhere between $25-$45 a session (roughly an hour) and some students get private lessons up to 5 times a week. Sessions are also taught by teachers, but not the ones from the same school as the child (to eliminate bias?). An israeli teacher’s salary isn’t enough to live on. Some teachers we work with say it doesn’t even cover monthly rent. So most of them also teach private lessons to bring in more money. The most in demand private lessons are in English and Math and so they can also be the most expensive.
All of this information in less than an hour and a half was blowing my mind. At first I thought Israel had it right with their free ECE education. But there were so many issues, so similar, or even worse than issues we have back in Chicago. I wish that this educational struggle wasn’t becoming a worldwide epidemic, and that I could feel like I was doing more to help change that.