Gideon Saar was appointed Israel’s education minister in March, 2009. The Tel Aviv native, 45, received his bachelor’s and law degrees from Tel Aviv University and was elected to the Knesset as a member of Likud in 2003. Three years later, he was appointed deputy speaker.
The Jewish Week spoke to Saar about Israel’s disappointing international standings — scoring 36th out of 64 countries in reading in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Achievement tests — and about its brain drain, the effects of the military draft and other issues during a visit to New York earlier this year.
What are some of the challenges that are unique to Israel’s education system?
We are doing three things. One, improving significantly our educational achievements. The results we have seen in previous years in international tests were not satisfying. Basically, in every field — mother tongue [Hebrew and Arabic], math and sciences there is a big improvement.
My assumption is that since we saw a significant improvement [since the previous tests in 2006] we will see also improvements in results of the international tests we participated in last year that are going to be published at the end of this year, especially with teens and girls.
We for the first time put in measurable targets for the system to achieve in all fields, in all levels national and international, but also reducing violence in our schools and enforcing discipline. I have seen an improvement in participation in non-formal educational activities like youth movements.
The second thing is to return values to our education system, to strengthen Jewish Zionist democratic and social values. It is important when we define the aims or goals of our education system to not only give knowledge but also strengthen values that will afterwards influence the lives of adults in Israeli society.
The third target is a strategic one; I believe in what the McKinsey [consulting firm] reports from 2007 demonstrated, that the most important [factor] for the education system to be successful is the quality of the teachers.
The problem our system and other Western societies have seen during the last decade was significant reduction in the desire to be a teacher. First, we saw the males escape from the profession; after that to certain extent women going are now going to business, to law and other professions.
… We upgraded salaries of teachers, we changed hours of work, and we [implemented] elements of measurement and evaluation of teachers … we made it easier to fire failed teachers. We did some other things in our system that I think influence the will of people to be a teacher or to stay in the system: combating violence, adding discipline, digitalizing schools and adjusting the system to the 21st century.
You mentioned the low test scores, but at the same time Israel has gained a reputation as a world leader in high-tech startups. Is there a contradiction there?
It’s a good question. There are some elements you don’t check in international tests such as innovation; that’s one thing. The second thing is you have gaps in an education system. Just to give you one example, take the PISA tests of 2009: the main issue there was mother tongue. Israel was 37 among 64 countries, but if you take Hebrew speakers, we are 17 out of 64; if you take Arabic speakers we were 57 out of 64. So the average was 37, but it doesn’t tell you the whole story.
Of course we work hard in order to reduce gaps in our education system to improve the results of the Arabic students. As far as I can judge we did it significantly during the last term.
Looking to the situation in the United States, you have, speaking averagely, the [best] higher education system if you compare it to other countries but I’m not sure that it is the same if you are speaking about schools in previous education stages … these systems are more complicated and sometimes these results don’t tell you the whole story … I don’t want to reduce the significance of the results for us; it’s a red [flag] that demonstrates the necessity for us to improve our results.
What is the impact on schools in the north and south when they have to be closed because of rocket attacks?
In the north we have already had six years of quiet, so today we don’t have this problem. In the south we know during this year several times we lost some days. ... We know how to work through the [Internet] in order to have distance learning that compensates in a way on the losses of days of learning and we know how to give the psychological help, which is needed. Unfortunately it’s one of the things we learn to do in our country, but altogether it was short periods of time. I don’t think it had significant influence on the system, at least not in the years that I am in office.
Can you discuss the challenges of absorbing so many diverse students, from Ethiopians to people from the former Soviet Union, into your system?
When I meet European ministers they always want to learn from our experience … of course we have challenges [but] I think compared with other countries we know how to do it better.
For us, aliyah is something very important. It’s not a reality that is imposed on us; it’s our wish. We have in my ministry a department of absorption that builds and gives special programs for these students.
What is the main impact of students in Israel delaying university in order to serve in the army?
Next year we’re beginning a new pilot program in our schools called Academy in High School, trying to take very talented students mainly from the social and geographical periphery to give them lectures [on a university level] to start to gain points toward academic degree during high school. On one hand we want to develop talented students, and on the other we want to bridge this problem you just talked about.
When you look into data of higher education, at a glance, our country is very high in terms of youngsters going to higher education, No. 2 in the world, after Canada, but quite together with Canada. So it does not affect seriously the numbers that go to higher education. But in terms of our economy, it’s a problem because they are going later to the labor market.
The finance minister has supported shortening the military service [by six months], and it’s one of things that will be discussed during the coming year. Men right now are doing three years.
How does Israel financially assist veterans in getting an education?
We recently passed a law increasing subsidies for the first year for students if they served in the army, in colleges in the north and south and in Jerusalem, and we are looking for more and more ways to do that.
How do university costs compare to the U.S.?
Our tuitions are quite low; as a matter of fact we negotiated with the Students Union two years ago about making it a little higher but we didn’t have an agreement. Today they pay [the equivalent of] about $3,000 to $3,500 a year in the majority of our universities and colleges. Of course we have a few private colleges where you pay more … The majority of the university budgets are coming from state support. Only about 20 percent comes from tuition, the rest from the government and contributions.
Are you concerned about an academic brain drain?
We are of course No. 1 in the world in exporting brains. What happened in the past is we had so many severe cuts in our education system. Right now we have a six-year plan to add new jobs. We are also in the process of establishing Excellence Centers at 10 locations throughout the country; four are already open. What we found is, it is not necessary that [academics] earn the same amount they earned abroad, but it is necessary that they will have a job in their field and an environment of serious research in that field.