Segregation vs integration: Russian educational networks in Israel

Tamar Horowitz
Shmuel Shamai
Ilatov Zina

Between 1989 and 2000, 1.1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel, becoming the largest ethnic group in the country. Aside from its numerical strength, this group is rich in human capital; about 70 percent of its members have a post-secondary education. These immigrants, unlike earlier ones, pose a cultural and social challenge for Israeli society. They strive to integrate into Israeli society on their own terms, without giving up their cultural assets. These newcomers have created a linguistic-cultural community that, although not alienated from Israeli society, insists on preserving their original culture.

One manifestation of the emergence of the Russian community in Israel is the establishment of specialized educational networks, which are defined as “a number of schools organized on the basis of an ideological, pedagogical, or didactic principle, with the aim of improving the education offered.” Even before the arrival of the Russian immigrants, Israel had networks of community and vocational schools in both the State and the State-Religious systems, but they were part of the highly centralized Israeli educational system. The only networks independent of the centralized system were ultra-Orthodox ones, which have had the autonomy to develop their own curricula since the establishment of the state. Russian educational networks were initiated in the social periphery of Israel by an immigrant group, for newcomers. At least in the beginning, they offered an alternative kind of education. The Russian educational networks are very different from those established by other immigrant groups, as their goal is not merely to preserve their group’s cultural heritage but also to adopt the philosophy and strategies of Russian education, especially those of elite schools in Russia, such as the Fismat.

In order to understand the development of the Russian educational networks, we have to understand the reasons for their development. We can trace seven factors in their emergence:

  1. Teachers’ inability to find work in the Israeli schools: Of the 50,000 teachers who arrived in the past decade, only 6,000 (12 percent of the certified teachers) found work in the educational system, most of them without tenure. (In other occupations at least 20 percent of the immigrants found work in their former occupations.) The Ministry of Education in Israel claims that the teachers from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) are too rigid and do not understand the mindset of Israeli pupils. Interestingly, teachers who came from the Soviet Union in the 1970s when it was a Communist country, with an even more rigid educational system, fit in well and in large numbers. Furthermore, even engineers who retrained as teachers in the 1970s became successful teachers. In particular, the Russian teachers in the 1970s improved the vocational education system and solved the problem of a shortage of science teachers in academic schools. At the time their work was greatly appreciated. Of the recently arrived teachers, however, only a minority managed to find work in schools; those who did were usually the younger ones from the big cities in the FSU.

    In many respects, the recent-immigrant teachers had internalized the importance attached to education in Soviet society, and they continue to adhere to this value in Israel. They viewed teaching the young generation as a contribution to society and were therefore persistent in searching for teaching jobs that would enable them to actualize their values.

  2. Russian families were disappointed with Israeli education, both from an academic standpoint (the teaching of science and art) and in terms of values (discipline, respect for others, and patriotism). The percentage of students who did not function well in the system was relatively high for a middle-class population; about 18 percent of the Russian students dropped out, as opposed to 10 percent of native Israeli students. The percentage of Russian youths involved in crime today is almost double that of native Israeli youngsters. This disappointment is particularly striking when we analyze the immigrants’ motivation in coming to Israel: Their top priority was a better future for their children. But their experience in Israel did not lead to expectations of a rosy academic and professional future, and some parents are even sending their children back to Russia to complete high school.
  3. The Russian-speaking community has strength in numbers and is rich in human capital. The hallmark of this community, unlike all other groups of immigrants, is the desire to take its fate into its own hands. Russian-speaking immigrants have founded nonprofit, self-help and mutual-aid organizations, political parties, cultural centers, theaters, and orchestras. As long as the state provided them with a school system they considered reasonable, they did not compete with it or set up an alternative. But as soon as their expectations were dashed, they started looking for other solutions.
  4. Despite espousing the ideology of multiculturalism in Israeli schools, the educational system did not show respect for Russian culture. Any Russian content introduced into the curriculum was part of an “ethnic additive” approach and was not based on genuine respect for Russian culture. In a sense, the educational system has been more conservative than other social and cultural institutions; community centers and theaters, for instance, showed greater readiness to incorporate Russian culture than did schools.
  5. Immigrants did not hold key positions in educational policymaking bodies. Despite their knowledge and experience, they were not welcome to advise the educational authorities. For example, many of them have spent their lives interpreting Vigotzky, whose theories are now recognized all over the world, but no expert on Vigotzky was called upon to give advice, except at teachers’ colleges. Only after achieving success in municipal elections and obtaining positions of power in the welfare and education fields did immigrants become able to create new educational policies.
  6. The existence of a highly motivated group of elite teachers (most of whom taught in the Fismat schools), both theoreticians and practitioners, who were willing to pioneer the implementation of their ideas, and who were able to mobilize other immigrant teachers, was an important factor in the development of Russian educational networks.
  7. The Israeli public sector in general and the educational system in particular have been undergoing increasing privatization. Parental choice is one of the main issues in the public debate over privatization. Therefore, the founding of Russian educational networks, although not welcomed, is nevertheless perceived as part of a general trend.

Russian Education Network Features

The Russian educational system thus developed in response to the needs of the immigrant community, its ability to mobilize human resources, the beginning of the development of a multicultural philosophy, and processes of privatization of the educational sector. Despite the different interactions among these factors, the networks share some features. The student body in most of the networks is very similar. These are highly motivated students who believe that education is the key to success. At first the students were almost all Russian, but every year more native Israelis are joining their networks, as they offer something better than their schools.

Teachers have a university education, with broad academic training in their profession and extensive professional knowledge in the field they are teaching. In both the sciences and humanities, they teach only the subject in which they were trained (and not additional similar subjects, such as biology teachers who teach physics or mathematics). Many of the teachers have experience teaching in prestigious schools in the former Soviet Union (Fismat). The teachers regard their work as a mission; they are respected in their community and therefore feel that they have to justify themselves by investing and giving extensively. A teacher’s success is measured by student success. Teachers devote a lot of time to routine work and provide individual assistance to children who are experiencing difficulty. Internal evaluation of the teachers’ work is continual and ongoing. External monitoring, on the level of school or the network as a whole, is carried out through exams and checks by professional inspectors.

The main message conveyed by the network is an emphasis on intellectual achievement. The core teachers, subject teachers, coordinators, and even the maintenance staff in the schools are interested in student progress. The curriculum is marked by continuity from year to year in every subject. All classes cover mandatory basic material so as to prevent disparities. Teachers are not allowed to deviate from this curriculum and teach other material. The pace of progress can be adapted to the level of the class.

Parents make extensive efforts to send their children to school and consistently reinforce their motivation, and parents are updated regarding strength and difficulties. The children are surrounded by an atmosphere both at school and home that pushes them to focus on their school-work and helps them to succeed. The home and the school convey the same message. Parents are highly aware of what is happening at school. As the student body has changed, so have the parents, for they share a similar profile despite coming from different ethnic groups; what unites them is high expectations for their children.

These are the similarities among the various networks. There are also differences; we have identified three models of networks: (1) Supplement the curriculum of the regular Israeli system, (2) Change the Israeli school system from the inside, and (3) Offer alternatives to the Israeli educational system. Networks that supplement the regular Israeli Education System include Mofet, Key Mofet, Igum learning centers, summer camps, and chess and Math Olympiads. There are at least three national networks that supplement the regular system. Each has approximately eight schools, usually in small towns in central Israel. About 100 teachers are involved; the number of students is fluid and can reach a few thousand. There are also many local schools that are not affiliated with any national network. Nearly every town with a large community of Russian immigrants has afternoon and evening schools.

One manifestation of the emergence of the Russian community in Israel is the establishment of specialized educational networks, which are defined as �a number of schools organized on the basis of an ideological, pedagogical, or didactic principle, with the aim of improving the education offered.�

These networks did not antagonize the central Israeli educational system, because the Ministry of Education favored extracurricular activities, especially those that strengthen the weak population. Nevertheless, they sometimes stirred up antagonism on the local level. For years community centers had a monopoly on extracurricular activities, and the Russian extracurricular schools were competing with them. In many cases municipalities refused to support the Russian schools, not letting them operate in public buildings.

The money to run the schools came mainly from parents, sometimes at the expense of their basic needs. Eventually, one of the networks formed an association with community centers, as the immigrants found it difficult to operate without support. Schools developed a similar structure, and now provide enrichment classes in sciences, the humanities (especially languages), music, and dance. To a lesser extent there were classes to cultivate Russian heritage, especially the Russian language. Some places provided classes to help children pass the matriculation exams. These extracurricular schools sometimes served as a mechanism preventing students from dropping out by developing study habits.

Teachers who were mostly Russian immigrants were paid by the hour, far below the average wages of experienced teachers. Most of them have stayed in the system due to their professional commitment. At first the language of instruction was Russian, but due to criticism from local people who saw the schools as creating Russian enclaves. Because many of the Russian youth prefer to study in Hebrew, and because few native Israelis wanted to enroll in these schools, the language of instruction became Hebrew. One of the networks organizes a Math Olympiad, supported by a telephone company. Each year about 7,000 children participate in this Olympiad, after preparing in their regular schools throughout the year. Although many of them are Russian, recently native Israelis have joined them.

Type 1: Networks that attempt to change the school system from within: Unlike the extracurricular networks, Mofet Schools, an acronym for Math, Physics, and Culture, seeks to change schools from within. It began in the Tel Aviv area when the policy of school choice was first implemented. In a rundown school called Shevah, in the commercial section of Tel Aviv, a group of Russian teachers and some students who were dropouts or potential dropouts set up shop. At first they called themselves “Mofet College” and were a separate unit. Later special Mofet classes were formed as a separate unit within the school. Finally, the two systems (the regular Israeli school system and the new Mofet system) were combined in Shevah Mofet. In this remodeled institution, Russian teachers teach math, physics, and Russian. Many English teachers who taught English as a second language in Russia started to teach in this school. The introduction of Mofet was an impetus for changing both the teaching methods and strategies, and for helping individual students who have difficulty learning and adjusting to school as a system of learning. In six years the proportion of students who earned matriculation certificates qualifying them to go on to institutions of higher education rose from 47% to 97%. In other words, students from disadvantaged backgrounds made it, and not just the Russian newcomers.

The successful Shevah Mofet gave one of its partners the idea of creating a network modeled after Shevah. This would be achieved mainly by starting special science and math classes for motivated students taught by immigrant teachers who had specialized in teaching science and math in Russian elementary schools. The network was created in 1997 with three schools that accepted the idea and established Mofet classes. Five years later 49 schools and 160 classes in 28 towns, including schools in the Arab sector, had adopted the ideas. The network concentrated on enhancing instruction in academic subjects (math, physics, and computers) by increasing the number of hours, raising the level of teaching, and encouraging some sort of tracking.

Principles of Mofet schools, as defined by Orna Shniederman, emerged as follows:

  • Teachers should be qualified to teach math and science and have at least a master’s degree.
  • Teachers should teach a class for six consecutive years.
  • It is important that teachers be knowledgeable about the structure of their academic discipline.
  • Teachers should receive ongoing, intensive in-service training.
  • A variety of teaching methods should be used.
  • The results of the instruction should be subjected to monitoring and regular evaluation.
  • Heterogeneity of classes should be reduced, so that both weak and strong students can progress at their own pace. In other words, Mofet encouraged some sort of tracking.
  • Every student should be reinforced in his or her best subjects.
  • Children in preschool should acquire skills in mathematics.

Although the change model was not revolutionary, it evoked opposition for several reasons, First, administrators at the Ministry of Education were loyal to the concept of heterogeneous classes, which they believed are the basis for equality among students from different social classes and ethnic groups. This principle of heterogeneity has been at the forefront of the social and educational debate on integration versus segregation in Israel in the last thirty years. The Russian immigrants challenged this principle by showing that homogeneity can benefit both the strong and the weak students.

Second, the Israel Teachers’ Union (ITU) also supported the integration policies, but teachers felt helpless because they could not teach students on four different levels. Some of them even argued that violence at school is the product of heterogeneous classes. Third, public opinion was opposed to Mofet for fear that the combination of Russian teachers and Russian students would create a Russian enclave in the schools. Fourth, teachers who had been in the system for a long time felt threatened by teachers from outside the system who had a different worldview and sometimes better academic knowledge.

The Ministry of Education and ITU went to court to stop the introduction of Mofet, but they failed because “integration” is not a legal term. Despite resentment from various agencies, the Mofet model was a success, especially where the principals believed in the idea and were prepared to push for it, where the local government believed that this type of intervention could improve student achievement in the locality, and where public opinion was concerned about the poor performance of Israeli students on international math and science tests and was looking for solutions. A structural factor that facilitated the spread of this model was the decentralization of the educational system. The Education Ministry lost some of its centralized power, which encouraged more school-level autonomy, with principals taking more initiative.

A study in one town, which introduced Mofet intensively, found that in most cases the introduction of Mofet was the initiative of school principals. At first teachers resented this move because they were committed to the integration policy; later they became advocates of the project. The introduction of Mofet created impetus for change in schools in terms of philosophy, methods, and culture. The mild homogenization helped strong students to progress at their own pace while the weak students bloomed in a noncompetitive environment. Students who previously could not have the teachers’ full attention now could because there were only three levels in a class rather than five.

One immediate result was an increase in the number of students who passed the matriculation exams with top marks. Though at first the students in Mofet classes were from Russian families, later native Israelis enrolled as well. Thus the classes did not turn into Russian enclaves as expected. The “elite” classes did not hold themselves apart from school life; friendships emerged across all classes.

In summary, we can say that Mofet is a project that attempts to change the philosophy of teachers, the structure of the schools, and the attitudes of the students towards math. Funding for the network came at first from private sources and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. When more than 25% of the students in Mofet classes were nonimmigrants, however, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption stopped funding them. Now Mofet receives its funding from school resources, local government, and private sources.

Type 2: Alternative Russian schools: An alternative Russian Israeli System emerged within the ultra Orthodox system, which is not controlled by the government but by the Independent System. The curriculum is determined by ultra-Orthodox educators, and bears very little resemblance to the Israeli State-Religious schools. Because Independent schools are not bound by mandatory registration districts, for they have the great advantage of a large potential “sectorial” target population coming from a broad area and extending over several registration districts. As a result, there are sometimes more applicants than spaces in schools. Consequently, schools are selective in their admissions policies; they are also not obligated to teach children with learning disabilities.

There are at least three major ultra-Orthodox Russian networks, not including local ones. The largest ultra-Orthodox Russian network started as an initiative of Rabbi Abraham Pam of New York, who was concerned that Russian young people had no basic knowledge of Judaism and that State schools were not systematically teaching them Jewish studies. He was also worried about the high dropout rate among Russian students in Israel and the number of students returning to Russia. In 1995 he established a Russian network called Shuvu, which means return from the Diaspora to Israel. In ten years the network has grown into 42 schools and preschools, with 12,000 students in 25 towns. Shuvu offers a curriculum that combines Jewish education and identity with a program of secular studies including math, physics, and language. An evaluation found that the math program is two years ahead of the regular schools. Students study math and English from the first year of school. They spend most of the day at school, where food is provided. The school curriculum takes into account the material covered by the State-Religious schools, but the studies are more intensive, especially in language and science classes.

The main religious demand made by the schools involves the acquisition of knowledge about Judaism and respect for the code of behavior of a religious school during school hours. There is no pressure to engage in religious behavior outside school hours and the school refrains from creating dissonance between the school and home on religious matters. The network organizes study groups for parents who want to learn about Judaism, and many parents take part willingly. Nineteen of the 20 graduates of the Jerusalem school last year were inducted into the Israeli army, whereas ultra-Orthodox society does not let its young people serve in the army.

The school hours are longer than standard Israeli school hours, enabling the teachers to meet with students one on one, help them with personal matters, and strengthen their motivation. The network has developed its own textbooks and materials based on Russian pedagogy. Teacher specialization includes: (1) Math teachers from the FSU, many of whom taught in the Fismat schools in Russia, (2) English-speaking teachers from the ultra-Orthodox community; and (3) Orthodox Israeli teachers. Quality control is employed on a regular basis in Shuva schools, not only to examine the students’ academic level but also to give teachers feedback and to diagnose the teachers’ strengths and weaknesses. From time to time the network organizes special events to salute teachers and show them respect.

The student body consists of Russian students who are uncomfortable in the regular Israeli schools, and others who already failed in that system. The atmosphere at school is relaxed, and a study found that there is no violence in the schools. Two-thirds of the funding needed to run the schools comes from private sources, and one-third comes from the Ministry of Education. In summary, Shuvu developed in a niche that was not under the control of the Ministry of Education and without the involvement of the teachers’ unions. It offers Russian students a sheltered environment and good teaching in subjects that the Russian students think are important for their future careers. Jewish content is introduced not by pressure but by stimulating their curiosity.

Type 3: Igum: An alternative Russian preschool: Igum started as an organization of immigrant teachers looking for work in the regular system. In 1996 they came to the conclusion that it would be difficult for them to find jobs in the regular system and that they would have to come up with a creative solution to their unemployment problem. Some of the teachers developed extracurricular activities known as “learning centers”; in this sense they were doing nothing that Mofet Extra was not doing. Others, however, decided to concentrate on preschool education. In Israel compulsory education begins at age five; in poor areas the government subsidizes preschools for four-year-olds. Middle-class parents send their children to private preschools that are not controlled by the government, although they are supervised to some extent. The Igum teachers found this niche promising, even though most of them had never taught preschool.

The Igum idea is to add instruction in languages, science, and art to the regular preschool curriculum, and to concentrate in the morning on the regular Israeli curriculum and in the afternoons instruction would center on languages (English, Russian, and Hebrew) and literature, mathematics with logic, and art with art history. Children spend all day at the preschool and take naps at lunchtime, as in Russia. Every class has two teachers, an immigrant and a nonimmigrant, as well as other teachers who are involved in specific subjects.

Pre-schoolers are welcomed by recent Russian immigrants, as well as by those who came to Israel in the 1970s. They viewed the Igum schools as a solution to their dissatisfaction with the Israeli preschool system, which they believe does not teach enough, and were pleased with the long preschool day. Even some native Israelis, about ten percent, have enrolled in Ingum programs. Today, Igum runs 20 preschools in 20 towns, with more than 600 students. The idea of intensive instruction in preschool has evoked criticism in the Ministry of Education. The head superintendent argues that research has shown that children are not capable of learning more than one language. Local authorities are not supportive either, and in many towns they will not even provide empty public buildings for this purpose. Thus, although the immigrants have found their schooling niche, the only support has come from parents, who pay teacher salaries, and to some extent, the Ministry of Education.

Summary

The tables summarize the variations found among the different networks of Russian schooling in Israel, as well as funding patterns and the nature of the student body. One can see the variations among the networks of schools. All the extracurricular activities are aimed at supplementing the mainstream schools. They are student-oriented and knowledge-oriented, with the focus on science and art. They do not concentrate on teaching values, although they do try to cultivate an interest in the Jewish heritage.

The Mofet schools are teacher-oriented and knowledge-oriented, with the focus on science. They want to change the structure of the schools, they offer homogeneous classes, and they tend to introduce new methods. The Shuvu schools are an alternative to the mainstream. They are value-oriented, are both student- and teacher-oriented, and place strong emphasis on science. This is an alternative system in the sense that it caters to a specific segment of society, but it is not alternative in terms of strategies and methods. The Igum kindergartens are alternative in the sense that they offer a different kind of education. These are not play schools but academic schools for young children. They are is both child- and teacher-oriented, knowledge-oriented with the focus on science and art, and not values-oriented.

Tamar R. Horowitz
Ben Gurion University
Israel

Shmuel Shamai
Tel Hai College
Israel

Machon Golan
Haifa University
Israel

Table 1: Basic Orientation of the school

Supplementary Structural change Aternative
Extracurricular:
Mofet
Key Mofet
Igum learning centers

X
X
X
Special classes:
Mofet in school

X
Special schools:
Shuvu
Igum
Or Avner


X
X
X

Basic Orientation (b)

Teacher-
centered
Student-
centered
Knowledge-
centered
Values-
centered
Extracurricular:
Mofet X
Key Mofet X
Igum learning centers X
Special classes:
Mofet in school X X X
Special schools:
Shuvu X X X X
Igum X X X
Or Avner X X

Table 2: Funding

Central
government
Local
government
Private funding Fees School
resources
Extracurricular:
Mofet X
Key Mofet X X
Igum learning centers X
Special classes:
Mofet in school X X X X
Special schools:
Shuvu X X
Igum X X
Or Avner X

Table 3: Student Body

Russian Russian & Israeli Israeli
Extracurricular:
Mofet X
Key Mofet X
Igum learning centers
Special classes:
Mofet in school X X
Special schools:
Shuvu X
Igum X