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Failing Grade: Israel’s Teachers Don’t Deserve a Raise

As far Israel’s Elementary School Teachers’ Union is concerned, Israel’s second round of elections this year couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time: 16 days after the official start of the school year, amidst negotiations for a new contract. The union threatened to strike ahead of the new school year, and walked away with a significant trophy (and a dangerous precedent for the rest of Israel’s economy): The government agreed to fund pension contributions for an unprecedented portion of the teachers’ salaries, a benefit extended to no other workers in the civilian sector. Other elements of the teachers’ contract will be negotiated in January.

Israel’s next government will have to deal with a serious fiscal crisis: A huge deficit and slowing economic growth. It will no longer enjoy the privilege of showering gifts on public sector unions and special interests. The ground rules of public sector labor negotiations need to be changed. Nobody should be able to count any longer on automatic wage hikes. Every sector should be required to justify the demands it wishes to place upon the taxpayer’s pocket.

As to the teachers’ unions, the time has come to step back and take stock: What have the teachers done for Israeli society recently? What has society done for them? Has the exchange been fair?

Israel’s education budget has doubled since the start of the 21st century. Since 2007 the budget per pupil has risen by 46% in real terms. A very large proportion of that increase has gone into teachers’ salaries. Today, the average Israeli teacher’s salary is higher with respect to the Israeli median wage than teachers’ salaries are, on average, with respect to median wages in rest of the OECD. Class size has declined since the start of the century. Today teachers’ salaries are better on average than those of the parents who pay those salaries through their taxes.

What has Israeli society received in return? Not much. Since Israeli students began taking the OECD’s global Student Assessment exams (PISA) in 2003, their grades have stagnated somewhere below the international average. Israel’s own domestic school achievement exam (the “meitzav”) show large achievement gaps between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and the gaps haven’t been closing.
Israel’s public education system functions poorly. It’s too centralized, chokes off initiative, and dictates pedagogical methods that were current fifty years ago. This failure has many causes, but the teachers’ unions bear a large share of the blame.

The unions require all teachers to be paid the wages set in the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement. Better teachers cannot be compensated with better pay. The unions also set rigid terms for how teachers’ hours of work are to be utuilized in the schools. Pay levels are determined almost exclusively by formal criteria – paper credentials and the number of years on the job. The rewards to pure time spent on the job in Israel are proportionally the highest of any country in the OECD. Older, burnt-out teachers cling to their jobs because their pay is at a peak, while the pay of starting teachers is low. The most intelligent and enterprising of the latter abandon the profession for greener pastures after a few years. By contrast, firing a poor teacher is almost impossible; no more than 10 or 20 out of 180,000 teachers are fired for professional incompetence each year.

After two decades of granting wage hikes with little to show for them, the Israeli public has the right to make some demands of its own from the teachers’ unions, mainly regarding introducing flexibility into the way teachers are employed:
• Teaching in the schools (e.g. by a physics or chemistry grad.student) should no longer require teaching certificate.
• The government should be granted license to fire up to 1% of the teachers it employs every year.
• If any wage increases at all are paid, they should go exclusively to young teachers. Veteran teachers should receive no pay increase, “flattening” the teachers’ wage ladder.

The principle applied to teachers’ wage negotations should be the same as that adopted in a very different context [negotiations with the Palestinians]: “If they give something, they can get something; but they can’t get something for nothing.”

The article was first published in TheMarker (10/28/2019)

Author

  • ד"ר יצחק קליין הוא ראש מחלקת המדיניות בפורום קהלת. סיים תואר שלישי במדעי המדינה בחוג לממשל באונ' הרווארד שבארה"ב ועמד בעבר בראש המרכז המדיני לישראל, מכון למחקרי מדיניות העוסק בתחום החקיקה החוקתית וזכויות אדם בישראל, ושימש כיועץ לפרויקט החוקה של וועדת החוקה, חוק ומשפט של הכנסת.

Dr. Yitzhak Klein
Dr. Yitzhak Klein

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