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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 5

Special Topic: In Israel / Building a Future on Ancient Roots

ASCD's goal of building relationships worldwide reflects Israel's efforts to build relationships among the many groups that make up its population.

In October 1999, the Executive Council of ASCD traveled to Israel, where our newest affiliate, Israel ASCD, hosted the fall council meeting. The meeting took place in a land that has much historical and religious significance. Indeed, our visit to the Holy Land inspired spiritual feelings in all of us.
The meeting's guiding theme was "building dynamic relationships." One goal of ASCD's Strategic Plan is to engage in collaborative relationships that improve teaching and learning worldwide. Educators around the world share common problems and potential solutions. ASCD, therefore, is committed to international collaborations for mutual benefits.


Israel is a land of contrasts and confluence. The entire country is the size of New Jersey and shares borders with Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. Its diverse population comprises many ethnic, religious, cultural, and social backgrounds. In addition, many languages are spoken in Israel. The most prominent are Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
Since becoming a state, Israel has worked hard to deal with this diversity. Israel is not a melting pot; it is a mosaic made up of different population groups co-existing in the framework of a democratic state. The Israelis are trying to learn to live next to one another in peace and to understand and accept one another's cultures.

The School System in Israel

The most striking aspect of Israeli schools is their diversity, which reflects Israel's immigrant population. Israel faces the challenge of absorbing large numbers of immigrant children from more than 70 countries. Schools have developed innovative programs and special methods to teach students from many cultural backgrounds. The multicultural nature of Israel's society is accommodated within the framework of the education system, and the schools reflect this complex mosaic. Accordingly, schools are divided into four groups: state schools, attended by the majority of pupils; state religious schools, which emphasize Jewish studies, tradition, and observance; Arab schools and Druze schools, with instruction in Arabic and a special focus on Arab and Druze history, religion, and culture; and private schools, which operate under various religious and international auspices.
School attendance is mandatory from ages 6 to 16 and voluntary and free to age 18. Preschool education is available, but formal education starts in primary school (grades 1–6) and continues with intermediate school (grades 7–9) and secondary school (grades 10–12).

People as Resources

As a country with limited natural resources, Israel recognizes that its most important resource is its people. Its citizens are the best hope for prosperity, and education is the key to its future. At one school that the council visited, the children sang the Hebrew translation of Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" as a tribute to the fallen Yitzak Rabin. The council members were moved by the children's soaring voices, and they realized that the children indeed were the hope of the nation. This Israeli orientation is stated beautifully in the Babylonian Talmud: "The very world rests on the breath of a child in the schoolhouse."


The council members observed that in general, education and educators are more alike than different around the world. The Israeli educators were concerned with finding the best ways to ensure that all children, regardless of their circumstances, have the opportunity to learn. They wrestle with the same issues that educators in the United States and other countries face.
During a visit to the Ministry of Education, Executive Council members engaged in small-group sessions with the directors of curriculum development, elementary school division, in-service training, and special education and with the superintendent of extended-day education. Daniel Bar-Eli of the Ministry of Education spoke about the specific objectives of Israeli education: to foster the principles of freedom, equality, tolerance, and democracy; love of the land; loyalty to the state; remembrance of the Holocaust; and Jewish values. The issues shaping education in Israel include the juxtaposition of Jewish values and secular values, reshaping the role of the superintendent, the role of the parents in education, and the place of arts in education. The future issues, which are quite familiar in the United States and in other countries, include centralization versus decentralization, choice, accountability, assessment, and violence.
Our visit culminated with a roundtable event cosponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Education and Israel ASCD, at which five educators representing a cross section of Israeli educational professionals discussed the future of education in Israel.
The trip's highlight was visiting 20 schools where the council members could interact with students, teachers, parents, and administrators. Council members were impressed by how much authority the principals have to shape their own schools. They have significant control of how the centralized curriculum is taught, how time is used, and how funding is allocated. In most cases, the budget is insufficient, and financial help from parents and the community is common. Large classes are the norm. Also, schools teach multiple languages.
Despite these circumstances, the Israeli educators are excited about their profession. The smiles on the teachers' and the students' faces told it all. The students were there to learn and to become productive members of Israel.
To accommodate its unique needs, Israel has opened 12 experimental schools, such as Keshet ("Rainbow") School in Jerusalem, the only school that jointly educates both religious and secular Jewish children. Keshet is truly experimental because the traditional Israeli education system is divided into secular and religious streams. The school strives to give all students an education consonant with their parents' worldview, while developing respect for different beliefs in an atmosphere of openess and pluralism.
At Neve Shalom, another experimental school, students from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian populations meet in the same educational environment. This school is a precedent-setting program for educating these students together as well as for being a model of bilingual education. The school administrators hope that schools in other parts of Israel will replicate this model. Because the program has implications for peace worldwide, the school has received a peace funding award from a Japanese foundation.
The council also had the opportunity to visit Tel Aviv University, Levinsky-Teacher's College, Mofet-Intercollegiate Professional Training, and Matach-Center for Technology. Our visit to Tel Aviv University was exciting because the university is looking for ways to change the college system to include more cooperative learning, methods of effective instruction, and technology in the curriculum. It is also teaching teachers how to meet the needs of students as well as how to teach the curriculum.
Professor David Chen, Dean of Faculty at Tel Aviv University, indicated that Israel has not taken up the standards movement, which is so prevalent in the United States. However, he added that it usually takes about six years before trends in the United States hit Israel. He was very concerned and said, "We all know that students are not standard. You cannot standardize people." His plea: We all know much theory about the nature of human beings, and we know a great deal about the practice of teaching. Now we need to bring this theory into the practice of teaching—essentially, to make the practice of teaching more humane and less mechanical.

Reaching ASCD's Goals

The major issues in the Israeli educational system, such as diversity, multiple languages, religious education, technology, and teacher education, transcend national borders. The council members observed the Israeli educational community experiencing and struggling with curricular and assessment issues that the United States educational community is also addressing. Specifically, the Israeli educators recognize the need for accountability, but, thus far, they are not harnessed with the restrictive, and often inappropriate, accountability mechanisms gaining momentum in the United States.
In Israel, these education issues have a sense of urgency and a heightened dimension given the context. At Levinsky-Teacher's College, Michal Zellermayer reached out to ASCD for assistance. She is an educator who knows that change is essential but does not have the resources to make it happen on her own. Her message to ASCD educators: Work with us and help us build the relationships that we need to bring about necessary reform.
As Daniel Bar-Eli pointed out, ASCD has a special international niche because of its status as a nonpolitical educational association. A key to realizing the internationalization goals is forming collaborative relationships around the world. Established relationships can facilitate our mutual learning. Sharing what we have learned is also an important aspect of collaboration.
The value and the benefits of international collaboration are many. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different systems, being exposed to different perspectives and ideas, and facilitating the cross-fertilization of ideas will advance ASCD's continuing efforts to support teaching and learning worldwide.
Although council members spent only four days in Israel, they had the educational experience of a lifetime. My personal highlight was one magical evening when the full moon illuminated the religious landmarks in Jerusalem: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western (Wailing) Wall, and the Dome of the Rock. To be in this holy place was truly a spiritual experience.
Israel is a state that has ancient roots but firmly embraces the future. We walked the streets of Jerusalem, awed by the history that we encountered with each step. Looking to the future, educators throughout Israel seek to improve education at all levels to better prepare their students for the new millennium.
We were impressed with the enthusiasm and optimism of the educators in Israel even in the face of many difficult problems. The atmosphere of experimentation, flexibility, and interconnectedness throughout Israel's educational system was apparent. The nation's passion permeated all that we saw and heard on our school visits. We could sense this passion even in the people's voices. When responding to a question or explaining a concept, Israeli educators conveyed in their tone a sense of urgency—an urgency based on their nationalism, their experiences of struggle, and their mission to create a unified nation. The common vision to educate all students for productive citizenship has united the entire educational community.
We have learned much to bring home with us; perhaps the most important quality we felt was the spirit of the Israeli educators, a spirit that the French would call élan—or in Hebrew, Ruach Tova.

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