Monday, September 13, 2010

My problems with Ella's First Grade

My grand-daughter Ella entered first grade this month. It was a big deal. 97 new first-graders entered our regional grade school. 43 are from our community. Ella's first grade class is filled by 32 new little students.

I have a few misgivings about all this. For one: a single teacher with a bunch of 32 juvenile munchkins….How does she handle so many? For another: how can those miniature minors sit for hours (with a few very short breaks), in those typical rows of classroom desks after just recently leaving a kindergarten where knowledge and mores were taught through play and fun (Ella can read and write) without desks facing that unexciting blackboard. Ella was bored during her first week. I heard that another little girl complained to her mother "My tush is round, not square". How clever. I am also concerned that we have no alternative schooling available in our area without spending lots of road-time getting our little ones back and forth. Anyways, if we had an alternative close by, it would probably cost something far beyond the reasonable abilities of Ella's parents (or grand-parental aid). So we rely on Ella's innate ability to hold her own, overcome boring obstacles, and somehow learn how to continue enjoying to learn.

We are slipping. Every study shows it. Every comparative testing by international standards shows it. Our Ministry of Education knows it. Our own eyes can see it. The People of the Book are slipping. The level of our children's education is falling behind, plummeting at a rapid pace. Need an example ? O.K…. Recently each of 97 countries sent a group of their brightest high-school math students to an international test of abilities. Israel ranked below the mid-range. Turkey and Iran were some of those 50 odd countries who ranked ahead of us. Ten and more years ago we were somewhere so very much higher. Every year has seen another slippage. Should I worry………..?

My grand-daughter Ella is in a regular, normal (perhaps even better than many other), State-sponsored, non-religious first grade. An interesting newspaper item caught my eye and informed me that Ella's type of State-sponsored first grade is now an Israeli minority. It seems that 52% of all Jewish first-graders entering our school system this year, are enrolled in ultra-orthodox or (State-sponsored) orthodox first-grade classes. This too is a percentage that has grown with each new Rosh-Hashana. Today's first grade is tomorrow's second grade and so forth up the educational ladder.

So, yes, I'm worried. My entire schooling in New York, Washington and Baltimore, till my high-school graduation, was spent in orthodox Yeshivot. Were I offered a second chance, I would probably choose to do so again. I remained a secular Jew, but not one ignorant of our religious, cultural and historical roots. Here in Israel, though, for so many years I am in total conflict with the character of our exclusively solitary and powerful orthodox-religious establishment. I worry about the direction our education will follow under the influence of our multi-faceted (ultra, part ultra, nationalist) orthodox infiltration.

The (religious) Chief Science Advisor in the Education Ministry is ambiguous regarding the creation of our universe and insists that (in non-religious classes, of course) we should give equal prominence to the scientific and the biblical theories of creation. The (religious) Pedagogic Administrator in the Ministry wants more "Jewish" studies at the expense of "unnecessary" studies of civics, good citizenship and the meaning of democracy (this, in our troubled country where 50% of high school students already think Arab citizens should have fewer rights). The same Pedagogic Administrator instructed a revision of history schoolbooks that mentioned the Palestinian "Nakba", for fear of damaging the student's patriotism to his country. (The same Pedagogic Administration rejected an 8th grade history book as being too difficult. The unfortunate book demanded of students to "think" rather than memorize. But perhaps there were other more legitimate reasons.) The orthodox education system for those 52% of first graders is already influenced by the fundamentalist visions of either the anti-Israeli-Zionism of the ultra-orthodox or the Messianic All-is-Mine Zionism of the nationalist orthodox. Our religious establishment could find no need of "defrocking" well connected community rabbis ("teachers!) who wrote and applauded a book containing legal orthodox justification for killing Gentile (especially Arab) children. After all, "Thou shalt not Murder !" pertains (according to them) only to the killing(murder) of Jews, while those Arab children may one day grow up to be enemies. Our religious establishment (for that matter, also our government) meekly rose to the issue only after a great public (mainly leftist) outcry forced them to relate. These are only some of those writings on the wall warning of the influence seeping into our system.

My grand-daughter Ella entered first grade this month. All the above worries me. I know.....on the one hand it's all about budgets which have other priorities (Well then, change priorities!), and on the other it's about a creaping fundemantalism which is certainly getting budgets (again, a matter of priorities).  About six years from now, the ninth and tenth of my grandchildren (twins) will be entering first grade. Will I still be worried, by then?.... Or will I, by then, be utterly frustrated with the falling level of education (through priorities), and also tormented by the demise(again, because of priorities) of Jewish traditional/liberal secularism within my grandchildren's State-sponsored educational system…??


Philip Barnea said...

I read your blog whist watching a program about Israels educational system on the TV. I cannot but agree with you, 100%. The same problems also exist in our high schools and even the high school wher, up until a year ago, I worked. Large classes, more and more teachers who work "9 to 5" and parents who regardless of their childrens behaivior, will support them 150%, even to extent of violence.

Do I have a solution - after 30 years in the education system, unfortunately, I don't.

It's not just a queastion of money (or lack of it), it is rather the continuing deteriation of our society, our morals and ethics that is ignored (I hesitate to say encouraged) by the ruling elite. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the politician mouth wonderful phrases with no meaning or intention behind them.
There are times when I ask myself if the Israel of today is really the state that I dreamed of helping build 36 years ago when I came on Aliya from the UK. I don't have an answer to that queastion either, but it disturbs me that I even ask the queastion.

Sue Liberman said...

My grandson Max also entered the first grade and he can also read and write. And being a "boy" (I hate generalizations- but my experience has shown me this is true) --he has an amazingly strong individual spirit that challenges adults constantly not only in intellect, but in his strong will and personality! (He is, after all Dov's grandson too! :)could be "crushed" by the need of the typical American classroom...He is attending the Heschel school here in the Valley--getting a great Jewish education and where the teaching is pretty progressive. But Micha and Elyssa pay an outlandish price financially, and it horrifies me. The problem is, of course priorities, and the whole world is so messed up, Here in LA- the emphasis is on kids passing tests and not on education...not on "life" and learning...but on test scores. Teachers are fearful of losing their jobs (I don't know what teh number is now, but too many have been "pink-slipped) classes are larger and the kids are suffering. While children in Africa are getting free computers, children in America are slipping down into the gutter. Maybe this is a good thing because at some point, there will be a generation of uneducated drop-outs and no leadership ( which is happening now anyway)...Teachers need to be respected and financially paid what they are worth and until there is a universal revolution, it looks like weapons and political careers are more important to governments that the future of our children.

bdwass said...

aaron's lament: he regrets the fact that the ultra-orthodox are
gaining more and more influence in the israeli educational system as well as in politics; yet,
in the same breath he says that if he could do it all over again
he would take orthodox school education at least thru middle school.
aaron, what makes you think you could escape their clutches a second time?

education aside your blog and your thoughts in general are great. i just wish i could type using more than one finger

dave wasserman