Lower class size part of high school teachers' victory... Isreali strike ends after 60 days

In a dramatic ending worthy of an action film, the Israeli high school teachers strike, which lasted for 60 days, was finally settled on December 13, 2007, mere moments before a restraining order by the Israeli Labor Court would have forced the striking teachers back to the classroom.

The Agreement, between the Teachers Union (SSTO) and the Ministries of Finance and Education, was signed with only fifteen minutes to spare. Despite some last-minute on-again, off-again settlement drama and labor vs. management name calling, everyone finally returned to work, although many teachers remain unsatisfied with the terms of agreement.

In it, the teachers will receive a raise of 8.5 percent, payable over two terms, in addition to a 4 percent cost-of-living increase and the 5 percent raise guaranteed to all workers of the public sector. Teachers will be expected to spend extra time in the classroom, and government pledges to reduce class size remain just that at this time — promises, promises. If previously rejected school reforms are completed successfully, the teachers will ultimately get a 26 percent raise; if not, their 8.5 percent raise will be rescinded.

All teachers will be reimbursed in full for the strike, and are expected to help students make up for the lost classroom time.

What was so unusual about this strike, apart from its unheard-of duration, was the support it received from the general population of the country, including parents and students. Everything from sit-ins to huge public rallies occurred during the work stoppage, and even the affected middle- and high-school students agreed that classes needed to be smaller and that teachers should receive fair salaries.

In uncanny parallels with educational issues in the United States in general, and Chicago in particular, Israel is faced with a rapidly deteriorating public school system. There are problems with class size, special education, student discipline, immigration, poverty, and teacher recruitment and retention.

Many feel that the seeds of this current unrest were sown with the attempted implementation of educational reforms in 2005. The “National Education Plan” was devised by a committee of business leaders, headed by Shlomo Dovrat, an Israeli high-tech millionaire. Just as with “No Child Left Behind”, no teachers were asked for input by the committee, which consulted with various “experts” for fifteen months before presenting the Dovrat Reforms.

The essence of the plan by the Education Ministry was to privatize the school system, and to give unprecedented power to the school principals, who could decide matters of budget, curriculum, and the hiring and firing of teachers.

To their credit, both Israeli teachers unions (the Israeli Teachers Union and the High School Teachers Organization) refused to cooperate with the plan, and the reforms were temporarily put on hold. Nevertheless, the already festering issues of low pay and difficult working conditions were exacerbated by the attempted reforms, and strikes became a viable threat for the next few years.

Since the elementary and middle- and high-school teachers are represented by separate unions, it was relatively easy to drive a wedge between the two by providing the elementary teachers with a sizable raise (26 percent), which was readily accepted. It should be noted, however, that they will be working for several additional hours (30 percent) each week, and they can be fired more easily at the discretion of the principal.

Ran Erez, chairman of the SSTO, said that the ITU elementary-union Agreement “turned teachers into slaves”. Hourly wages were actually reduced, and funds for extra-curricular activities were canceled. While not a major concern at the elementary level, extra-curricular pay represents a “significant” portion of the high school teachers salary, according to the Jerusalem Post.

The general economy in Israel is very much on the upswing, creating several so-called “new billionaires”; many Israelis sympathize with the teachers, whose salaries remain very low in comparison to other professions. The median teacher age is 52, and most young teachers leave the profession after a few years in order to secure better paying jobs in other fields. Teacher recruitment is also a challenge, given the difficulties presented by overcrowded classrooms filled with students from many different ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds, with a wide range of academic levels.

In a country where rigid rules are not particularly important, classroom discipline is another problem, especially with 40 students per class. “It is hard to learn when everyone is making noise, and then the teachers have to shout to be heard, and everyone gets frustrated,” stated one high school senior, who remains supportive of the teachers, but is nonetheless concerned about final examinations. “Some students think school is like summer camp.”

For the time being, everything seems calm, but there are far too many loose ends and unanswered questions for anyone to assume that this story is concluded. The teachers should see some movement towards class size reduction within 45 days, according to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Only time will tell if Israel can save its faltering public schools and compete with the other developed nations on an equal basis.

It is a situation we will observe closely and report on here in Substance in the future. 

This article was first published in Substance in the print edition of January 2008.


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