Monday, January 26, 2009

Choosing Your Kid's School בחירת ביה"ס לילדך

Advice for all parents-to-be: Pay attention to the name of the school where you’ll be enrolling your child. For example, our district’s school is named (appropriately) Ma’aleh Shaharut, which means “the heights of Shaharut [the mountain range to the west]”. What does this mean here on the ground? It means that every time we go to the school for a meeting or an event, we have to take our mountaineering equipment with us. No two parts of the school are built on the same level. We’re either climbing up or climbing down, panting and dehydrating all the while.

In my next life, I’m sending my kids to a school called Good Ol’ Baron de Rothschild. It will be a big, square retro building with three floors reached by indoor, built-in staircases, with a courtyard in the middle for lunch period. There will be uniforms, as well as a dress code for the teachers. The pupils will address the teachers as haMoreh / haMorah, the equivalent of “Mr. / Ms. Teacher”.

Getting serious now, I am certain that the above measures would add enormously to the atmosphere of learning in the school. How could they not? How can a teacher expect to earn the respect of pupils and be taken seriously by parents when she shows up in spaghetti straps and showing cleavage the size of the Suez Canal? The message sent by such dress is that school is, y’know, come-as-you-are, kinda cazh, no big deal. And then we wonder why our kids treat school as if it’s an optional activity.

Unlike many of us, I have few criticisms of my high school. It was strict (you had to have a hall pass, you couldn’t go out to lunch) and traditional (no open classrooms or alternative pedagogy), but I certainly didn’t suffer. On the contrary, Shawnee Mission South [hereinafter: “SMS”] and its ilk is looking real good to be right about now. Why? Because as my second daughter machetes her way through this bramble we call the Israeli school system, I see more and more of its shortcomings.

Let’s put aside for the moment the whole debate over the efficacy of matriculation exams. In my high school, the system went like this: There were seven class periods each day. These were filled by required subjects (math, science, English, history daily; phys ed on alternate days) and electives (on alternate days, so it allowed for four, if I recall). The electives included theater, visual arts, journalism, foreign languages, and various vocational arts. The electives branched off into various levels and specialties, for which foundation courses were prerequisites.

For instance, if I were talented at art, and passed the basic art course, I could then go on to take oils, pastels, ceramics, and sculpture. Ditto for foreign languages: I could successfully make my way through Spanish V, and possibly “test out” of lower levels of Spanish in university.

And here’s the nice part: You didn’t have to specialize to the exclusion of electives not in your “track”, i.e., let’s say I’m brilliant at Spanish, but just for the heck of it, I want to draw. I can’t take Oils and Pastels V, but I can enroll in a low-level art course and dabble away: As long as I pass the course, my transcripts are “kosher”.

In order to graduate, you had to pass all your subjects. Period. If you got straight A’s, you could get admitted to The College of Your Choice. If you got B’s, you could get into A Decent College. If you got C’s, you could go to a community college―or choose not to go to college at all. If you got D’s or failed, no college would admit you and / or you wouldn’t earn a high school diploma. No regents or matric exams, just grades in each individual subject. What could be simpler, or more logical?

Now I hear you asking: Yes, but can you prove that your system is superior to ours? No, and it would be difficult if not impossible to prove either way. Yet I feel certain that SMS is not inferior to our system, and it’s certainly more streamlined. No yamìm merukazìm or matkonót and their attendant “missed days” of classes; no tziyunèi magèn; no megamót that track you at the expense of breadth of exposure. I felt like my high school education was solid*.

In contrast, I feel like my kids’ high school education is, well…uneven. While they are taking what in SMS would be required classes, it seems to me that whatever knowledge is being transmitted could be just as well absorbed (and perhaps at less expense) without the major distraction of the infernal bagruyót. The t-shirt says it best: Simplify, Simplify, Simplify.

* With the exception of one weak spot: world history―don’t ask. 12 years of schooling passed without my ever hearing the words “French Revolution” or “Josef Stalin”.


  1. As a graduate of an Israeli high school and university who is currently doing a science PhD in the US, I feel like my education served me well. And I have to say that my general knowledge, especially in geography and world history, far surpasses that of my American peers.

  2. Hey FW, thanks for commenting. I have to admit, Americans' geography sux, and my own school was weak in history. The French Revolution was NOT MENTIONED, that I can recall, and neither was the name Stalin. Not kidding. Pretty appalling. Never heard of either 'til I moved to Israel. So there you go. Where are you in the US? Just curious...