The claim that there is a shortage of teachers, amounting up to thousands of teachers a year, is being made more and more often in public discourse. Israel does indeed have a relatively high birth rate for a developed Western country, which means that a larger part of the workforce needs to be placed in the national education system, which also must recruit more teachers than those who retire on a yearly basis.
The discussions surrounding the shortage of teachers, however, focus on how to increase the number of young academicians in the national education system, and not on how to make better use of the existing teaching body. Evidence points to the fact that the existing teacher workforce as it stands today can make up the shortage and even reduce the number of students per class, if it were utilized in an optimal manner.
In fact, when examining the proportion between existing teaching positions and the number of students, one finds that despite the size of the national education system and the high density in classrooms, the teacher position-student proportion in elementary school is equal to the average proportion in the OECD countries and slightly lower than the average in secondary school. In other words, Israel designates more full time teaching positions per number of students than do other countries, at approximately 12 students per full time teaching job. Recent years have seen a downwards trend; the number of teachers has grown faster than the number of students or classrooms.
Despite the fact that the number of teaching positions is relatively high, in certain locations and in certain subjects there is a shortage of teachers on the ground, for a number of reasons. The focus of this essay is one easily and swiftly remediable reason: the irregular six-day school week practiced in most of the national education system and an excess of school hours.
Nearly all primary students in the Jewish education system learn six days a week, as do most of the middle and high school students. Other countries around the world hold classes only on the five days when parents work. Opening school in Israel on Fridays translates into four extra school hours per week, meaning an additional 14% of the teacher workforce.
The Bank of Israel’s research has shown that in nearly all households not both parents are employed. This means that while other countries invest in a five-day school week, Israel invests a large measure of the largest segment of its workforce in teaching positions on days when parents aren’t working.
The expanded number of school hours are not necessarily beneficial to the students or to their learning process. Research shows that in a “more is less” fashion, no additional scholastic benefit accrues above a fixed number of hours. Moreover, the more school hours there are in the system, the more teachers are required, and when demand for the profession is not high enough, entry standards are lowered and less qualified teachers are employed in the system. Long hours at the cost of the quality of teaching in those hours is not only not beneficial to students but actually harmful. Quality of teaching affects students’ success far more than the number of hours they sit in class.
Indeed, Israeli students learn longer hours than their Western counterparts. An Israeli primary student learns close to 16% more hours per school year than the average student from an OECD country, and 22.5% more than the average student from a European one. Middle school has a smaller but still significant disparity – Israel’s students learn 7% more than their counterparts in OECD countries, and 11.5% more than those from Europe. The more school hours there are, the more teaching jobs are required to fill those hours.
In addition to Fridays, about a quarter of the schools in Israel implement the “Long School Day” program, which adds afternoon school hours to their schedule. The rest of the schools give parents the option of signing up their children to subsidized after school programs (known as “tzaharonim”), run mostly by external bodies that provide various enrichment extracurricular activities rather than studies. The Long School Day program has been stuck in the pilot phase for more than twenty years. On the one hand, it hasn’t been expanded to the rest of the system due to high costs and low benefits, on the other hand, it hasn’t been canceled either. The Long School Day and Enrichment Studies Law of 1997 provided that “The purpose of this law is to add study and education hours to the existing hours in educational institutions, to broaden and deepen the students’ knowledge and edification” but it does not serve its purpose.
In summary: despite the extraordinary size of Israel’s education system, it seems there is no shortage of teachers, but rather a shortage of teachers of excellence and an inefficient use of the existing teacher workforce. Furthermore, the need for a substantial addition of teachers every year has lowered standards and harmed teaching quality, which is the most vital parameter to successful education. Teachers are a scarce resource, and the education system utilizes them for ineffective additional school hours on Fridays and for the Long School Day program. Canceling the Friday school day (which can be substituted, as the Bank of Israel suggested, by subsidized Friday programs of informal enrichment activities for those parents who are interested) alongside canceling the Long School Day program can free up close to 15% of the teacher workforce and move the country from a state of shortage to a state of healthy surplus that enables holding smaller classes, winnowing out unsuitable teachers, appropriately compensating teachers of excellence and the like.