Bully for the Teachers

by Brian on November 30, 2007

in In the News

Last Saturday night we went to a house concert performed by Laurie Ornstein, an English teacher turned folk singer who has taken to busking for a living during the protracted high school teachers strike. The concert was lovely – full of new and classic protest songs, some rewritten to focus attention on the teachers’ current plight.

For those of you who haven’t been following this wrenching Israeli development, the Secondary School Teacher’s Organization (SSTO) has been on strike for more money and better conditions for 45 days as of this writing. Kids from 7th through 12th grades have had no school, teachers haven’t been paid.

A second organization, the National Teacher’s Union (NTU), which mostly represents elementary school teachers, settled with the government earlier in the year, meaning that K-6 kids are continuing with their regular school routine (though the NTU has threatened to join the SSTO strike in solidarity next week).

But despite my sympathy for the teachers and the clearly deplorable conditions they must work in, I cannot fully support them in their current work action. This puts me at odds with many of my friends who are teachers or who work in education. The problem is: the teachers demands are justified, but they’re not willing to give back what’s really needed to reform the system once and for all.

Don’t get me wrong, the teachers have a legitimate beef and one that deserves our collective concern. With a starting salary for new teachers of just NIS 2800 ($700) a month and a maximum after 36 years of service of NIS 15,000 ($3,500), teachers in Israel are among the lowest paid workers in the country but have unquestionably one of our most important jobs. Attracting and retaining quality teachers simply cannot be done on the paltry wages teachers earn. Moonlighting is both expected and required just to get by.

In addition, teachers work in conditions that make it near impossible to educate a class. My younger son Aviv’s class has nearly 40 children. How can you do anything other than play policeperson in a class that size?

The teachers have also lost over 8 hours a week of teaching time due to budget cuts over the past several years but are still expected to cover the same amount of material. This, said performer Ornstein at her house concert, turns classrooms into bagrut factories. One student asked Ornstein, “are you going to be teaching us sections e, f, and g?” referring to what would be on the upcoming matriculation exams. Ornstein answered “I’m going to teach you how to read, write and speak English.”

The teachers are therefore demanding higher wages, lower class size and a return of the hours taken away. All worthy goals. So why the impasse between the teachers and the government?

The government wants the teachers to agree to a broader reform of the educational system. This reform started with the Dovrat Plan which was approved by the cabinet of then prime minister Ariel Sharon. The Dovrat Plan called for significantly higher wages but demanded that teachers work a full five day work week in a single school. It stipulated that teachers pass accreditation exams just like lawyers, doctors and engineers, and be regularly evaluated. Most importantly, it empowered principals to hire and fire based on merit, thereby weeding out ineffective teachers and rewarding rising stars.

The Dovrat Commission was headed by Shlomo Dovrat, a businessman from the hi-tech giant ECI Telecom who looked at the broken education system as something to be fixed by applying the kind of management and personnel expertise that built his own company.

Dovrat should have been the only game in town, but when Ehud Olmert assumed the prime minister’s office, he put in place a new education minister, Yuli Tamir, who unveiled her own watered down reform plan, one she said would place less emphasis on management and more on pedagogy. It still included the call to empower principals. The result nevertheless was that the impetus of the Dovrat Plan was lost and the teachers saw weakness which they translated into an opportunity to make their own demands without agreeing to the reform.

I shouldn’t say all the teachers. Many agreed with Dovrat and many agree with the new reform too. The problem is the head of the teachers union, Ran Erez, who Amotz Asa-El, writing in the Jerusalem Post, calls “coarse,” a “ruffian” and a “hoodlum.” To Erez, a school principal’s empowerment is his own disempowerment. His job is to keep as many teachers employed as possible, even if this isn’t in the best interests of the system.

Erez reportedly went so far as to liken the Dovrat plan to the “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact,” a reference to the deal Hitler struck with Stalin before setting his sites on the rest of Europe. Tough words from a tough guy who is known to hurl profanities in negotiations and never brought either reform plans up to a vote by the very teachers he claims to represent.

My friend Rafi Rottman, an English teacher and guidance counselor at Jerusalem’s Keshet School, disagrees with my analysis. Erez and the teachers union aren’t against the reform, he told me, but the salary increases proposed are not enough to cover the increased hours the reform demands. “Teachers will still need to run to another job” to make a decent living, Rafi explained.

And even though the government has offered to up salaries by 26%, this neglects to take into account that the teachers have been working since 1999 without a contract and were promised a 15% increase in 2002 which never came, Rafi went on. In addition, for the last 5 years, salaries have not been linked with inflation, eroding in real terms another 10%. Parents who can afford to pay “extra” do get smaller classes and more programs, but this only exacerbates the divide between haves and have nots. In this light, the government’s offer doesn’t look quite so enticing.

That’s not the way the government portrays it of course. Education Minister Tamir says she asked Ran Erez “why the teachers didn’t strike for years? Through 16 cutbacks, they didn’t strike. He (Erez) told me ‘we could prevent the reform without striking.’ Their objective now,” claims Tamir, “is to prevent the reform.” And implementing the reform remains the crux of the government’s position.

The bottom line is that 44,000 teachers have been on strike for 45 days while 600,000 teenagers grow increasingly disaffected and bored as they wander from shopping mall to street corner looking for something to do with their long and empty days.

How will it all end? I’m still backing the government on this one, but with reservations. Maybe the reforms need to be modified to address the teachers’ real needs. But to reject reform out of hand, as Erez is leading his union to do, is unnecessarily obtuse. One side ultimately has to back down.

Or maybe not. Perhaps the struggle will continue for another few months, at which point most of the school year will have been lost. It’s hard to even imagine what that will mean. Will students have to learn for another year, thereby delaying their entry into the army? Will they head off to college with only partial knowledge?

Any way you look at it, it spells disaster for the innocent teenagers and well meaning teachers who have to suffer from a bully’s intransigence.

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