Friday, June 10, 2005

Jews Without Books

Wherever there is education, there are calls for reform. When changes come, as they must, they are invariably criticized as inadequate or, worse yet, as making a bad situation even worse. There are then new calls for reform and the cycle of change regenerates. The good news is that, at times, there are improvements, which means that we have the capacity to make things better.

Apart from the usual suspects that impede reform such as inadequate funding and an inadequate pool of adequate teachers, schools are weakened by the imperative of standardization, by the inescapable requirement that curriculum and other educational patterns apply to nearly the entire student body. There are exceptions in resource rooms and special education, but in the main formal education is structured and standardized, while students are anything but. There are important differences in intellect, skills, interests and background that affect classroom performance. There is probably no way to devise mass education without heavy reliance on standardization, yet a high cost is being exacted.

In this country, educational reform is a highly developed enterprise, as is evident in the ongoing efforts to compel state governments to provide equitable funding, particularly to schools that carry the additional burden of educating children of the lower socio-economic strata. It is also evident in the education industry that consists of hundreds of non-profit agencies that have no responsibility for schools telling those who do have responsibility for schools how they can do a better job.

In Israel, there is a crying need for educational reform at the elementary and high school levels. As elsewhere, there are reform cycles consisting of commissions, reports and recommendations, most of which lead nowhere because the government is not willing to come even close to providing the needed funding and also because the Histadrut or labor federation strongly resists change, apparently preferring to maintain a system of low-paid teachers who are given mandatory costly privileges. The result is too many failing students, a condition that has existed for nearly all of Israel's history and which is a shanda or disgrace.

Within the year, there was the report of the Dovrat Task Force which recommended far-reaching changes, including the desperately needed expansion of the school day and the undoing of the well-intentioned but harmful coupling of junior high school to high school. My favorite recommendation is the curtailment of the expensive network of teacher training programs, half of whose graduates never end up in classrooms. The Task Force is also pressing for a substantial increase in faculty salaries.

Given Israel's budgetary realities, it is not likely that the recommendations with large shekel figures attached to them will be implemented. Sympathy for the hard choices facing Israel's policy makers should not becloud the dreadful attitude toward basic education. Despite the nearly constant need to integrate newcomers and evidence that too many youngsters are falling through the cracks, I have been told that the portion of the Israeli budget devoted to basic education has declined. There is no justification for this shabby treatment, particularly when great sums are expended on physical infrastructure. The amount of governmental spending on construction is phenomenal. In a different way, the neglect of education is also phenomenal.

Likely, there isn't much for American Jews to do to improve this situation. We aren't citizens and we do not have a voice in Israeli policies. But we contribute to a great number of causes, although except for Orthodox Jews we rarely contribute to schools that operate below the college level.

A few days ago I visited six public schools in Jerusalem, three that are designated as State Religious or Mamlachti Dati and three that are designated as State or Mamlachti. Two are high schools; four are elementary schools. The schools with something of a religious orientation were better run and more impressive. The primary purpose of these visits was to examine their libraries. Here, too, the religious-secular gap is wide, but the six schools share the common feature of having too few books and, of those in stock, too many are old and of little use. We ought to keep in mind that Jerusalem is not a development town, so that it's a good bet that the situation is worse elsewhere in Israel.

There was a time when Jewish homes contained mini-libraries. In the early 1960's, I was given access to data regarding entering freshmen at New York University, including the number of books in their homes. Jewish students had far more books in their homes than their non-Jewish peers. I believe that this is still true of religious as well as socio-economically advanced families. It is not true of many Israeli homes, specifically of those in the lower socio-economic strata and immigrant families. Children in these homes need good schools and easy access to libraries, preferably in their schools. They need to be able to enter the wonderful world of books, a world that provides the framework for educational and intellectual advancement and successful adulthood.

Providing help to school libraries is low on the philanthropic totem pole. Most who are capable of giving large sums to Israeli causes have an edifice complex, preferring to put their names on buildings, too many of which are not needed and scarcely used. There is little interest in the more ephemeral, yet also more enduring world of libraries and books. Israeli education has for too long short-changed children. Hopefully, there will be meaningful reform, including funds in school budgets for the purchase of books for school libraries. Hopefully, as well, there will be American philanthropic support for school libraries. A good and easy way of providing help is through the PEF Israel Endowment Funds (317 Madison Avenue, New York 10017) which has established a program to assist libraries in conjunction with the highly regarded Center for Educational Technology in Tel Aviv. Such gifts will go a long way to help Israeli children in a meaningful way.