Remarks for the Merage Forum on Education

27 Jun ’07
Merage Forum

“Past reforms have focused on asking for more money for education,” ICSEP President Daniel Doron noted in his speech to the Merage Forum on education.

“This despite the fact that Israel is already spending the highest proportion of GDP on education in the West.

“Yet, despite a steady growth in expenditures, standards and achievements have shown little improvement; in fact they have further deteriorated.”

My remarks are not based on expertise in business school organization or curriculum; though having served on the board of Tel Aviv U. Entrepreneurial Center I do appreciate the challenges facing them. My remarks are based on extensive efforts by The Israel Center For Social and Economic Progress to counteract the anti-enterprise teaching that dominates our high schools and our universities, especially the social sciences and the humanity faculties (details and facts are provided in my articles).

This anti-Capitalist mentality that assumes that all profit comes from exploitation and that business is basically dishonest and dishonorable is more debilitating than people usually realize. It makes commerce and all that is involved with it, especially the skills of selling, morally tainted. It propagates a cynicism that has very negative repercussions on Israeli business ethics.

I know this for a fact because my Center has taught basic economic thinking to over ten thousand young immigrants from the former Soviet Union, to close to five thousand Israeli high school kids and to about two thousand university students. We have had several studies done and seminars held on educational reform, and we now have a working group drawing a proposal for reform. We therefore have both field experience and theoretical knowledge in educational reform.

The Paul Merage Forum’s earlier conclusion that the problems afflicting business schools derive from problems plaguing our educational system as a whole, from kindergarten on, could serve as a solid foundation for a comprehensive educational reform; that is if it will be further pursued and serve as a basis for practical recommendations.

Past educational reforms have failed because they were based on wrong premises and faulty analysis. They addressed mostly questions of budgeting and curriculum and this in the narrowest technical sense. They did not consider the wider context, namely what is wrong with the type of education Israel provides, what is its ethos and in what fashion does the educational system try to educate, and through what agents.

The two crucial questions of what are the goals of education and what are the best means to reach these goals were seldom addressed. Few examined critically the contents of education and who determines how these contents are transmitted, namely who are the educators, the experts and faculty bodies that determine the Israeli curriculum in the government controlled elementary and high schools and what is their agenda; or who are the teachers, and more importantly the unions, that determine how and by whom this curriculum is actually taught.

Instead past reforms have focused on asking for more money for education; this despite the fact that Israel is already spending the highest proportion of GDP on education in the West. Yet, despite a steady growth in expenditures standards and achievements have shown little improvement; in fact they have further deteriorated.

Contrary to accepted wisdom serious studies have demonstrated that successful teaching does not require necessarily the raising of teachers salaries (though in Israel most teachers are very poorly paid, and better salaries could draw more qualified people to teaching) smaller classes or uniform national standards.

The major factor determining the quality of education, these studies showed is – surprise surprise – good management of schools and an atmosphere conducive to learning. Since our system encourages bureaucratization, lack of accountability, risk aversion and resistance to creativity and change no wonder that it performs so badly.

The good news is that the changes needed to improve the system do not require great extra costs in fact they may result in huge savings since a great part of the educational budget is spend not on teachers but on the educational bureaucracy. They will require however overcoming the resistance of politically powerful teachers unions that protect mediocrity at the expense of better teachers, and this is the very bad news. Union leaders do not care if education is destroyed as long as they can make political hay out of the crisis. They are supported by other public service monopolies, by the left-leaning faculty unions and media and this gives them great political clout. They are also supported by several students’ unions that are dominated by post Zionists, Marxists and Anarchists.

To achieve true reform elementary and high schools must be granted a measure of autonomy by the use of the voucher system, open enrollment and other competition creating arrangements. These will diminish the suffocating centralized power of the Ministry of Education’s huge bureaucracy. One cannot expect accountability without responsibility, nor can a centralized authority effectively respond to the varying needs of schools.

Some fear that autonomy will result in chaos and in falling standards. But when teachers, students and parents get involved they can do more to improve standards than a remote self-seeking bureaucracy, and they are far more motivated to succeed.

Schools should remain accountable, of course, to certain basic standards, but they ought to be encouraged to experiment and innovate. Successes can then serve as models for others as is proven by the success of the private schools that prepare high school dropouts or failing students for final matriculation in English, Mathematics and other subjects that high schools fail to teach.

As for our universities they should be subjected to a modicum of economic accountability, namely pricing their products differentially, paying differential salaries and cutting mismanagement and waste. They should not be exclusively governed by self seeking faculty unions in cahoots with their wasteful bureaucracies. While the dissemination of knowledge is different than, say, the sale of sausages, still, competition works also in education. Our sages already observed that ‘the envy of scrivener’s increases wisdom’.

Another major setback was dealt to our educational system when it was exploited in failed experiments in social engineering, such as affirmative action. Experience demonstrates that the best way to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds is by giving them good educational skills that enable them to advance. So why saddle the education system with an extremely costly mission that it cannot really accomplish? Why do so at the expense of what education can do well – provide all students with the skills that can best help them close gaps by themselves?

Unfortunately our schools do not teach students how to think and write clearly, or basic Math and languages. They do not even teach basic skills like how to organize a meeting, set an agenda and move motions, not even how to master basic office skills. Above all, our educational system fails in constructing for students intellectual scaffolding, a structure of basic knowledge that will enable students to continue assembling knowledge in a meaningful way. Instead students are brainwashed to uncritically accept all the dubious premises of post modernism and especially its nihilistic relativism, its contempt for accumulated knowledge and experience.

As crucially, from elementary school on, our educational system – staffed mostly by self-perpetuating leftist ideologues posing as scholars and teachers – is relentlessly inculcating in our students a destructive anti-enterprise, anti-capitalist, ethos, and contempt for economic considerations. It advocates reliance on government handouts and on redistributive policies, and the avoidance of individual responsibility and initiative, especially if it leads, Marx forbid, to money making which He considered evil or obscene because it always results from exploitation and cheating.

This infection with Marxian “pornography” inculcates a hard to overcome negative attitude towards money and success. Israeli education also instills in students opposition to other “bourgeois” virtues such as respect for tradition and for the authority of experience and learning, for hard work, discipline, punctuality, and certain social norms such as politeness and proper attire.

Educational reform must therefore start with basics, with the world view and the values it propagates, often unconsciously. It should make sure that the educational system will not be exploited to further any ideology and that pluralism and variety are respected.

True educational reform requires, however, much more. It cannot succeed without the cooperation of the family and the wider community, and without an economic system that rewards good education. In all these areas Israel is also in serious trouble. So profound educational changes will not happen overnight, they will take some time and a great effort to achieve. But now is the time to start, if we wish to avoid further decline and a danger to Israel’s one crucial relative advantage, its human capital.

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