Israel’s education system has a “twin challenge,” suffering from lower-than-average achievements and less-than-average equity in the system, Pasi Sahlberg, an educator and renowned expert on education systems from around the world, said just days before Naftali Bennett is to be sworn is as education minister.
“If you come from a less-advantaged family, the likelihood that those children would benefit from going to school are very thin here,” said Sahlberg, who has worked as a policy adviser in Finland – generally regarded as the top education system in the world – and researched and written about the success of that system.
The Finnish educator who is currently a visiting Professor of Practice in Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education Sahlberg visited Israel Thursday to attend the Tel Aviv Conference on Progressive Education, hosted by the Kibbutzim College of Education and the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
He sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss the Israeli school system, its shortcomings and suggestions on how it can be improved to ensure a better future for our children.
“There’s no way that this country can significantly improve performance without radically doing more with equity.
That’s what the evidence says,” Sahlberg claimed.
The system has been designed, he said, so it helps some children but not others.
The funding mechanism, which allows for richer municipalities to invest more in its schools than poorer municipalities “is working against any efforts to make the system more equal. The funding is actually increasing the inequity of the system,” he said.
Ensuring that poorer municipalities receive more resources, such as smaller class sizes, more teachers and more support staff, will lead to a stronger education system overall, he claimed.
As a right-wing minister, it might be difficult for Bennett to sell the idea to his party members, Sahlberg said but indicated that other conservative education ministers from around the world have managed to set politics aside to prioritize their dedication to the students affected by the school system.
Bennett, he said, Sahlberg has a unique advantage over past ministers.
“He is in a much better position to make evidence-based policy decisions for Israel than anyone before him,” he said, referring to the amount of research that has been done in the field of education over the past decade.
Sahlberg maintains that while it is very easy and all too common for politicians to cherry-pick evidence based on their politics, it is a recipe for disaster and Bennett should focus on the research in the field.
Looking to the much talked about student- to-teacher ratio in the early-childcare system, Sahlberg said “it depends on what you are trying to accomplish.” If the purpose is to babysit the children, he said that perhaps 35 children with one teacher and one assistant is ok, but, “if you are seriously trying to help these young people to grow and develop, then the class sizes have to be reasonable.”
Sahlberg talked about 12-15 students in a class as a social group size appropriate for three- and four- year-olds, explaining that smaller class sizes is a better investment than simply adding an assistant since “social groups become complicated and difficult when there are too many people there.”
“The early years, from zero to six, are by far the best time to get more return on your investment,” Sahlberg maintained, saying he finds it unfortunate that so many people don’t believe this research and invest so much more in secondary and higher education rather than early childcare education.
One of the problems with this kind of investment, he said, is the amount of time it takes before seeing a return and politicians have a difficult time waiting 20 years to see the results of their actions.
Looking at the Finnish school system, Sahlberg said there has been much talk about the new thematic way of teaching, but he called it really old news, noting that that method of teaching has been used in many schools in Finland since the 1980s.
When done properly, he said, it’s a very useful way of teaching, but indicated that what excites him is that beginning with the upcoming school year, every school in Finland will be required, not only to have at least one thematic period, but to have student involvement in the planning and evaluating of those lessons.
Finland, he claimed, is the only country, that is implementing as a legal requirement that students – as young as elementary school age – must be listened to.
Sahlberg maintained that more democracy must into the school system to “give students more possibilities to influence what’s going on there.”
This, he said, engages students in the learning process and gives them more responsibility for their own learning. It’s a far more valuable system than one based on competitiveness, standardized testing and remembering the right answers, he said.
He brings, as an example, the school cafeterias in Finland. Despite the fact that most of the children could afford to bring or buy their own lunches, Sahlberg said every school provides healthy meals, which have become part of the curriculum.
The cafeterias are run by the children who prepare the food, serve it and clean up after the meal so they learn to respect the food and work involved with serving it, he said.
Healthy food, he stressed, is “critical” for school children and he considers it a human right.
Likening the Israeli education system to a used car that tends to break down often, Sahlberg said it is up to Bennett to turn to top policy advisers from Israel and around the world and ask “Should we try to fix this old system?” as one would take a car into the garage to fix individual parts, “Or is this now the time to create anew and redesign the program?” Sahlberg said he recognizes the risk in this but said it is an important part of education.
One element Sahlberg said he finds it difficult to reconcile is the country’s strong innovative economy and the school system that has none of the risk-taking elements so necessary in innovation.
“I would say that there is room for more risk-taking overall and part of this risk-taking could be something that brings parents and communities closer to planning what they want to do,” he said.
Failure, Sahlberg claimed, needs to be approached more positively in the school system, saying the organization should decentralize and allow parents and individual schools to have more of a hand in influencing decisions.
Despite the challenges, Sahlberg said Israel has the professionals necessary to lead the change, citing Dr. Yael Sharan and Prof. Emeritus Shlomo Sharan, two experts in the field of cooperative education who were frequent visitors and contributors to the Finnish school system.
“For about a decade, Finland has been seen as an educational powerhouse,” said Prof. Nimrod Aloni, director and chairman of the Institute for Progressive Education at the Kibbutzim College of Education.
“The change that Finland made in the field was systemic rather than localized.
Finnish education offers no gimmicks when it comes to content or teaching methods, rather a holistic educational and cultural approach, leading to higher quality of life and a fairer and more civilized society.
“Through the use of systemic and longterm reform, while consciously resisting the prevailing global trends of competitiveness and standardization, Finland has succeeded to extract its education system from stagnating in mediocrity and to turn it into the object of admiration and envy around the world.”
The Kibbutzim College of Education is part of an effort to implement an educational pilot program in the upcoming school year, applying the principals of the Finnish school system to two schools in Israel – one Hebrew state school and one Arabic state school.