Pandemic reveals weaknesses in Israel’s already battered education system

Socio-economic gaps, little room for creativity or flexibility have harmed students’ ability to learn and schools’ teaching ability, experts say

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Israel nearly two years ago, it almost immediately left its mark on every aspect of life in this small country.

For Israel’s education system, already lagging behind in many parameters of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, the crisis has exposed well-known existing problems that have not been addressed for decades. .

“Before the pandemic, the education system was in a dire situation. The problems were all there, COVID-19 has only increased their volume and intensified them,” Dr. Tammy Hoffman, researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and director of education policy, told The Media Line.

At the start of the crisis, it was hoped that the pandemic offered the system an opportunity for change. But, as time has passed and Israel is currently facing a massive wave of infections with the omicron variant, it is obvious that this opportunity has been missed.

Although the education system shifted to distance learning for many months and was subject to frequent change, the agility that Israelis are often known for was not evident in the schools.

“The system has lost its flexibility and expertise,” said Professor Yaacov Yablon, dean of the faculty of education at Bar-Ilan University.

Many underlying issues have come to the surface and new issues have emerged since the start of the pandemic.

Inequalities and gaps between students

One of the stated goals of the Israeli Ministry of Education is to provide “fair and equal opportunity in order to promote social mobility”.

Israeli society is heterogeneous with significant socio-economic gaps. This inequality is particularly evident in the education system. The lower the socio-economic level, the lower the performance and enrollment rates.

Israelis say education is a priority, but those words don’t seem to be backed by action.

For example, the average expenditure per student in Israel is relatively low compared to other OECD countries, well below the OECD average.

Despite the massive wave of infections with the omicron variant, many students remain in class, and so are the problems of the Israeli education system (Israeli Ministry of Education)

In addition, teachers receive low salaries, which prevents qualified professionals from entering the profession. At the same time, budgets are not large enough and overall policies are inadequate to deal with class diversity.

“We need a redefinition of national priorities, to make sense of the adage that education is most important,” Hoffman said. “Currently, the system perpetuates loopholes. Students today do not have access to the same quality of education. This was true before the pandemic and it is especially true throughout. »

The Ministry of Education’s response to the pandemic has often ignored Israel’s disparate society with a wide range of different needs. Plans have been centralized and uniform, ignoring gaps in particular in terms of access to digital equipment.

“What is needed is a major shift in thinking; different distance learning methods should be introduced and independent learning should be encouraged,” Yablon said. “This requires training, infrastructure and investment.”

The average fertility rate in Israel is three children, well above the OECD average. For ideal distance learning, several computers are needed, in addition to a stable and fast internet connection. In wealthier areas, where parents could afford private lessons and more computers with faster internet connection, the impact of school closures was minimized. But in low socioeconomic areas, families often didn’t have a back-up plan for closed schools.

In 1996, Israel set itself the goal of having a computer for every child. Fast forward to 2020 and the start of the pandemic: the goal has not been met.

“It shows different priorities, different approaches from various populations, from the periphery and from the Arabs. The result is the inferiority of certain groups and the lack of equal opportunity,” Hoffman said.

“Closing this gap is not just about spending more money, but about understanding that there are deep issues…that need to be addressed thoroughly,” she added.

There are students in Israel who don’t have computers at home. In such cases, an Internet connection is even rarer. Bedouin children, who live in tents, for example, went weeks without formal education. Already underperforming, the lockdown has set Bedouin children back even further. Already performing below average on enrollment rates, tuition-free months set these students back even further.

Although there is an extensive Hebrew educational portal for children run by the Ministry of Education, there is no such platform for Arabic-speaking children. Instead, there is Arabic content embedded in the Hebrew portal.

Now, at the start of 2022, with the appearance of a new wave of COVID-19, little progress has been made.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews also belong to lower socio-economic groups. The average ultra-Orthodox or Haredi family has six children, and many of them live in small, overcrowded apartments, without the ability to give each child enough space to study. Children are also prohibited from using the internet for religious reasons, requiring creative solutions for distance learning.

The pandemic has seen a surge in internet use among ultra-Orthodox households. Over time and prolonged closures, necessity has often trumped religious beliefs.

Centralization of the education system

These complexities accentuate the need for Israel to adopt a less centralized approach to the education of its young people.

For years, the Department of Education gave schools very little independence to decide on policies or curricula. From the curriculum to the size of the classrooms and the books used, the ministry dictates everything.

As the pandemic hit each region of the country differently, the response should have been tailored to schools in each community, and principals should have had the discretion to make decisions based on their demographics, access to computers and Internet, and other factors, say many experts.

“Local initiatives have been unlucky,” Yablon said. “There is no room for the professional opinion of teachers or principals.”

Hoffmann agrees. “Most of the decisions were made with the people on the ground fully or minimally involved,” she said.

There is little room for flexibility or creativity.

“Remote learning wasn’t creative, it was copy-and-paste what was done in the classroom,” Hoffman said.

The public and politicians have criticized the ministry for resisting change.

Often referred to as a start-up nation, Israel’s education system is mired in a rut and far from innovative. Some programs have remained intact for years, they say.

The increase in the education budget in recent years has not led to the needed improvement in the system, leading to the conclusion that money is not necessarily the problem, critics say. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the need for a localized approach taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of each area. Proponents of the centralized approach often say it will help close the gaps, but the result has not confirmed this.

The Ministry of Education is the only body in Israel that licenses teachers and it is the largest employer and trainer of teachers, which has had the effect of stifling creativity in teaching methods and approaches.

The fact that every decision concerning education is made within the ministry also subjects it to political fluctuations. As with other aspects of the pandemic response, education decisions have also been tainted by politics.

The psychological impact of distance learning

One of the biggest problems facing schools are children who have suffered a number of setbacks in the many weeks they have been sitting, largely in isolation, at home.

The affects differ depending on the age of the children, but no one, it seems, has been spared during the pandemic. The country’s mental health professionals are now overwhelmed with patients, and mental health hospitals – which treat extreme cases – are also reporting a shortage of beds for new patients.

In addition to academic setbacks for many children, there has also been regression in mental health and developmental damage for some children.

Meanwhile, children of working parents were often left alone for hours without supervision.

A Department of Education survey of healthcare professionals showed that many children seek treatment for feelings of loneliness and sadness. Anxiety and despair also increased. According to data from Clalit, Israel’s largest health maintenance organization, there was a significant increase in the onset of antidepressant use among minors during this period.

“Brains develop and mature through social context and interactions,” said Professor Nilly Mor, from the Department of Psychology and School of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “With distance learning, this whole aspect of learning through interaction is missing and those skills are more difficult to fill than academic skills.”

When classrooms reopened, there were reports of increased violence and aggression from students.

“Students came back with a sense of alienation,” Hoffman said, adding that existing issues that were difficult to manage before the pandemic are now even more difficult to manage. “This leaves teachers front and center without enough support, tools or assistance,” she added.

The response of a struggling education system to children’s difficulties once again highlights the complexity of the issue.

“Schools are not well equipped to deal with these issues,” Mor said, adding that “schools are overcrowded, understaffed and there are not always enough well-trained staff to deal with the challenges. social and emotional issues Israel still struggles to lead the way in terms of inclusion and care for children in difficulty.

Yablon says the current crisis could lead to changes.

“As negative as it is, the crisis is an opportunity that helps us understand the change needed,” he said.

Hoffman also prefers to look forward. “We don’t want to go back to how the system was before the pandemic, we want to change the system, the way it thinks, the way it teaches, the way it learns. We wanted it before, the pandemic just proved how important it is,” she said.