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Wall Street Journal Market Watch

 

Making School Choice Work: A Lesson from Israel

January 31, 2014

By Diana Furchtgott-Roth

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It is National School Choice Week in America. On Wednesday, the American Federation for Children, a national organization promoting school choice, held a celebration at Friendship Chamberlain Elementary Charter School in Washington D.C. Other countries, such as Israel, are also experimenting with school choice and early education programs.

On a recent visit to Israel I met Dr. Shahaf Gal, founder and chief executive of Nomad Horizon, a company for educational innovation. Gal is one of the initiators of the Israel Ministry of Education’s school choice initiative.

Proponents of school choice in Israel are not concerned about whether some teachers are unionized and others are not. They see education as having far-reaching consequences, beyond whether the school is doing a good job of teaching. The common thread is that parents, rather than local officials, should have some choice over where their children are educated.

The Ministry of Education, together with the Ministry of Finance, has a pilot project where 25 municipalities, including Haifa, Netanya, and Rishon Le’Tzion are experimenting with school choice in elementary and middle schools. The Ministry is considering eventually expanding school choice to the entire country.

Gal told me that in the pilot projects about 20% of parents chose to move their children to other schools. The vast majority of parents — 95% — got their first-choice school.

The Israeli school-choice program has multiple benefits, according to Gal. Its major long-run goal is to raise academic standards. The Ministry is still collecting data on achievement levels. Another benefit is decentralization, which allows municipalities to be more responsive in their educational offerings to their communities.

Another object of the Israeli school-choice program is integrating diverse populations, such as native-born Jews with the new Ethiopian and Russian immigrants. Many of these families are low income. Unlike competitive New York City schools such as Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, Israeli schools cannot select students. When children apply to the schools, whatever their background, the school has to take them and accommodate them.

To ensure diversity, localities are required to set up an application process that maintains and improves social integration. In order to improve parents’ access to information, municipalities are given funds to provide information in several languages related to the diverse populations. For example, the websites to enable parents to select the schools may have to be in Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, and Russian.

A further advantage of school choice in Israel is that municipalities are provided with incentives to enhance parental choice by setting up more specialized schools, such as schools in the arts, technology, medicine and nursing, languages, and marine biology. This is similar to President Obama’s schools and education opportunity agenda proposed as part of his State of the Union Address, namely providing high school students with vocational education they need to work in industry. Read: The State of the Union I’d like to see.

“When you diversify, you create more opportunities and choice,” Gal told me.

Of course, not all the specialized schools work out. One attempt at an agricultural school foundered because parents looked on agriculture as a low-skill occupation. And a full evaluation of the program has yet to take place in order to measure the short- and long-term benefits.

School choice is not Israel’s only educational initiative. The Sifriyat Pijama program is trying to improve early education by encouraging excitement about books and reading among young children. In one nursery school I visited in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem, the children had just received a free book to take home, one of eight monthly picture books they will receive during the school year from Sifriyat Pijama. The program was founded by the U.S.-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation. It now operates in partnership with the Ministry of Education, which helps distribute the books.

When I entered the school, the three- and four-year-old children were sitting in a circle as the teacher read them the book about Tzafrir, a little boy who finally received his first pair of rainboots, and who could go for a walk with his brother and parents in the mud. At the end of the day, the children took the books home in special bags and read them with their parents.

Galina Vromen, who directs the program in Israel, told me, “Studies indicate that children who are exposed to books from a young age, particularly at home, develop an attachment to books and to reading that enhances academic success later in life.”

Sifriyat Pijama gives books to over 200,000 children in 85% of Hebrew-speaking government preschools. This month, they are expanding to give books to 45,000 Arab-speaking children with a program called Maktabat al-Fanoos (Lantern Library in English) in partnership with Price Family Charitable Fund.

The books are selected by a committee and reprinted, adding suggestions for parents in back pages on family-related activities and discussion related to each book. In a study led by education expert Dr. Hagit Hacohen Wolf in 2012, 96% of teachers reported that they conducted activities based on the books during the school year. Teachers reported that program exposed children to books they would not have seen before and strengthened the connection between children and parents.

Education should not be about partisan politics or supposed voting blocks of teachers. The average high school graduation rate in America is 75%, and in some urban areas it is 55%.

We must ensure that children can graduate and attend college, that they have the skills to be employed in a well-paying job. To accomplish this, we have to let them choose better schools, whether these schools are public, charter, or private. We also need to give them a love of books at an early age, and not allow them to succumb to the lure of tablets, smart phones, and computers.

The international appeal of school choice and early education reveals what every parent already knows: parents want to give their children the best education possible.

Original Source: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/making-school-choice-work-a-lesson-from-israel-2014-01-31

 

 
 
 

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