Requiem for a Mathematician, and for an Education System

Oded Schramm was an awe-inspiring mathematician. His death at the age of 46, in a climbing accident in Washington State, is sad in all the ways a normal life cut short is sad. The discoveries he would have made and never got to are only a small piece of the sadness. The mathematician, after all, was also a person, a husband and a father. As a small comfort, the last 26 years of his life were apparently a miracle: According to the Ha’aretz obit, in 1982, during the war in Lebanon, his tank took a direct hit. Somehow he survived.

Reading Schramm’s foreshortened biography made me think about Israeli education. He was born in Jerusalem, went to school here, got his BA and MA from Hebrew U. Given the condition of Israeli schools today, will they produce more Schramms?

As reported last week, Israel’s underfunded school system gets terrible marks from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development:

The number of students per-class in Israel is one of the highest in the world, with an average of 33 students in every junior-high calls room, as opposed to about 24 in other Western countries. Grade-school student fair only marginally better – 27 pupils per-class room, as opposed to 22 in other OECD countries… the student-teacher ration in Israel is one of the highest in the world, with 17 students per teacher. You could compare and contrast this is with the rest of the world through stats provided by websites similar to upskilled.edu.au.

As a result, Israeli students are slipping [in] the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings: In the last two PISA tests, assessing students in reading, math and sciences, Israel ranked 39 and 40 out of 57 nations. Israeli students in the top 5% still trail far behind their OECD counterparts.

Perhaps a Schramm can still surface – the same article notes that Israel “has the highest standard deviation within the OECD’s average results.” My reading: Israeli parents are still pouring in money to make up for bad schools. A Schramm born to middle-class parents in a well-off Tel Aviv suburb would still succeed. The same natural talent in a kid from the Katamonim slums in Jerusalem, or from a poor Negev town, would never get the chance to flower. Meanwhile the Treasury thinks that the way to build the country’s economy is to continue cutting income taxes, a bit more each year.

Schramm went to Princeton to get his PhD, came back here for a few years, then got a position at Microsoft Research in Redmond. I’m no Microsoft fan, but the for-profit corporation deserves credit for investing in basic research. By contrast, the Israeli Treasury continues to whittle away at the quality of universities, public institutions that should be devoted to investing in the country’s long-term future. How many brilliant Israelis have gone overseas to get the chance to study with the masters, or to do research on the level they want? How many would stay here if higher education were funded as it should be – as the source of Israel’s only natural resource? And perhaps if they stayed here, more scholars would come here instead of Princeton and Harvard to study under them. You don’t need to have Schramm’s genius with numbers to see that our educational policy doesn’t add up.

1 thought on “Requiem for a Mathematician, and for an Education System”

  1. “The same natural talent in a kid from the Katamonim slums in Jerusalem, or from a poor Negev town, would never get the chance to flower. ”

    I know people like this–people who should be doing research at Technion because they’re SO intelligent, but instead are driving cabs and working at moving companies because they had no education to speak of.

    The education system here is a joke. Parents PAY to register their children; parents PAY for the books. (Ashdod has instituted a more American system where the school system pays for the books and the children must return them in good shape every year).. The classes are hideously crowded, and the school day is a scant 4-5 hours (including lunch and break time).

    My best friend wants his kids to get the education he never got–and he and his wife pay for private tutoring in math and English and Arabic to make sure it happens. His children tell me they’ve learned “nothing” in their English classes at grade school, but the after-school tutoring is what has taught them English.

    There’s no reason we can’t have an educational system as good as Singapore’s. It takes money, commitment, better infrastructure (BTW–parents pay for A/C or heating if they want it in the school–the schools don’t come with such “luxuries”), smaller classes, and more professional teachers who teach longer days (for more money, natch).

    Unfortunately, no one of influence seems to share this vision except for one or two individuals who are uniquely qualified. However, they are hamstrung by party politics, union turf-protection, and a budget that treats education as an afterthought.

    Everyone in Jerusalem VOTE opn November 11th!!

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