Learning from a Study Abroad Course in Israel

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Much of my recent research has focused on what students learn from field trips.  I’m inclined to believe that direct exposure to enriching activities conveys a significant amount of learning that cannot easily be obtained from abstract instruction in classrooms.

I don’t just see this as something that only K-12 schools should consider.  Graduate training in education policy may also significantly benefit from exposing doctoral students to more and varied school experiences.  It’s fine to learn how to manage large data bases or how to do the latest adjustment to standard errors, but too few education policy programs are teaching their students to think more deeply about our field, including asking bigger and more interesting questions or considering how policy may need to vary across context.

The doctoral program in education policy at the University of Arkansas, however, is making a concerted effort to give our Ph.D. students more and varied direct experiences in schools.  In particular, we prioritize having students work on randomized field experiments in which they collect their own data in a variety of schools.  Seeing first-hand how programs are operating and understanding the messiness involved in data collection teaches our students things about education policy that they could never learn by staring at numbers in a spreadsheet all day long.  Field trips may be just as important for doctoral training as K-12 education.

To further our commitment to this graduate level version of field trips, Bob Costrell and I developed and just completed leading a study abroad course for our doctoral students in Israel.  Two cohorts of our Ph.D. students were offered the opportunity to tour Israel for 10 days, following the completion of assigned readings and a few days of preparation.  Our tour included discussions with experts at Hebrew University, Shalem College, and the Shoresh Institution, as well as visits to school programs in Jerusalem, the Galil, and Tel Aviv.  Because our Department is in a very strong position financially, we were able to offer this course at basically no cost and all of the eligible students chose to participate.

Why did we take our graduate students to Israel and what did they learn from going there?  We went to Israel because it has many of the same educational challenges we face in the U.S.  Their test scores are lagging in international comparisons.  They have stubborn education gaps that have resisted efforts to close them.  They have centralized standards, curriculum, and test-based accountability along with decentralized school choice that struggle to balance individual freedom and national unity.

But if we just wanted to see educational challenges like our own, we could have visited schools in the U.S.  The real benefit of going to Israel was seeing similar challenges being addressed in very different contexts.  It became abundantly clear that many of the reforms we pursue in the U.S. do not work the same way in Israel and vice versa.

For example, the “tight-loose” approach favored by supporters of Common Core combines centralized standards with school autonomy over how best to teach those standards.  In the U.S. tight-loose tends to devolve quickly into tight-tight as schools are so eager to comply with central mandates that they focus narrowly on centrally determined objectives and exercise relatively little autonomy in selecting different paths for achieving those objectives.  In Israel, their “start-up” culture facilitates less slavish obedience to central-mandates and more school and teacher autonomy in how they achieve centrally determined objectives.  Of course, these are broad observations and there is considerable variability within both the U.S. and Israel.

But the point is that context matters.  The same policy with the same incentive system will work very differently in different places, across as well as within countries.  The dominant economic approach to education policy tends to think of schools and educators as inter-changeable widgets.  The same policy with the same incentives should produce the same results.  Then we are shocked each time we try at scale something that worked as a pilot program only to discover that we get very different results.  Rick Hess has been warning us about how much the context of policy implementation matters, but perhaps we can only really learn this lesson when we see those very different contexts for ourselves.

There are also problems associated with educational tourism.  There is a risk that people will select on the dependent variable and draw lessons about what “works” without relying on a reasonably rigorous research design.  While there are limits to what can be learned with confidence from direct experience, there are also limits to what can be learned from large data sets abstracted from context.  Education policy needs to do a better job of balancing rigorous methods with contextual understanding.  In the Department of Education Reform’s doctoral program we are striving to achieve that balance and are committing our resources to provide that balanced training to our students.

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people standing

Image may contain: 5 people, including Jon Mills, people sitting, table and indoor

Image may contain: 3 people, people standing

Image may contain: 11 people, including Ian Kingsbury, Heidi Holmes Erickson, Albert Cheng, Elise Swanson, Angela Robinson Watson, Bob Costrell, Jay P. Greene and Jon Mills, people smiling, people standing, sky and outdoor

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11 Responses to Learning from a Study Abroad Course in Israel

  1. Greg Forster says:

    The fact that the same policy can have different effects in different places because of cultural context is enormously important. It explains, for example, why large government bureaucracies work better in Europe than in America.

    • It is a common insight in political science that the same system works differently in different contexts. That’s why places like the Philippines, Argentina, and Brazil could adopt constitutions that were very similar to the US and yet have very different outcomes. Economists have been slower to learn this lesson.

      BTW, the link seems broken. Can you fix that?

  2. The idea sounds terrific. But I missed seeing/reading about an example of a “reform” that works well in Israel but not here in the USA. Can you give us some examples? Sandra

    • As I mentioned, my impression is that centralized standards, curriculum, and test-based accountability may work better in Israel than in the US, largely because schools and educators are not overly attentive to those centralized mandates and preserve a large amount of autonomy and focus on their varied missions. Another example is national service. The IDF is an important educational institutions that I suspect works far better than if we had national service in the US.

      • Greg Forster says:

        In fact we did have mandatory national service in the US and it was a disaster for military preparedness. Milton was among the most effective voices arguing for its abolition.

        Update: Note to self, autocorrect thinks “its” means “it’s.” (Of course, autocorrect hates me, too.)

      • Conscription in the US was also probably largely unsuccessful in achieving its educational goals.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Almost as if coercion is a lousy way to get people to do things. Even your theory about standards in Israel is basically “people are so used to ignoring centralized rules that you can make centralized rules and they’re not genuinely coercive.”

  3. Barry Stern says:

    In 1976 the Education Staff Seminar (ESS) took some 30 federal and state education staff to Israel for a couple weeks to study their educational system. Sam Halperin, former assistant secretary of education in the LBJ administration and leading fundraiser for Israeli and Jewish causes, led our tour. Thanks to Sam’s stellar reputation Israel gave us the red-carpet treatment. We were able to visit a ton of institutions and historical sites, as well as top Israeli officials from not only education but defense, labor, social services, foreign affairs, agriculture and statistical agencies.

    It would be interesting for Jay’s grad students who visited Israel to compare what they discovered about its current educational system with what we observed 42 years ago. Fortunately, the ERIC clearinghouse made an electronic record of our lengthy report (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED133791.pdf), which I discovered after reading Jay’s post. (hardcopy is still buried in my basement.)

    Israel’s overriding issues in 1976 were national defense, assimilation of immigrants from 70 countries speaking 100 different languages, and how to rapidly grow the economy. Given its severe security issues, Israel was a nervous country with many chain smokers and a drug abuse problem. Like the U.S. Israel had a propensity for living beyond its means. Inflation was skyrocketing and dependence on government was inhibiting growth of the private sector.

    To deal with such issues and reduce its massive kill shortages, Israel gave great priority to education and training and pioneered several areas:
    • Compensatory education – more resources for low income learners who were usually Jewish immigrants from the Middle East with low literacy
    • Rehab (physical therapy) for adults with disabilities – many wounded warriors and disabled veterans from wars with Arab neighbors
    • Language learning – how to accelerate learning Hebrew while creating a unified national culture that did not discriminate against particular ethnic groups
    • Agricultural education and water management – making the desert bloom and achieving food independence, a national priority
    • Vocational education – highly regarded vocational schools that received generous state subsidies and philanthropy (much from the U.S.). Vocational graduates were snapped up by the military and defense industry, oftentimes earning more than university grads.

    The military played a vital role in developing the country. Military service was required of all 18 yr-olds including women. With this common experience the army became the primary integrator of different cultures. The military was tasked with placing all who completed their service into a job or further education, providing tools and resources to ensure that veterans (all young adults) could support themselves.

    Despite declining numbers in agriculture, the kibbutzim (agricultural collectives) played a vital role in Israeli life. An unusually high proportion of fighter pilots and military officers came from the rural kibbutzim, where survival depended on high-level teamwork and mutual help among the residents. One interesting research finding was that kibbutz secondary school students taught early primary students to read about as well as teachers trained in college.

    Israeli leaders fought vigorously among themselves yet pulled together when it came to thinking strategically about the country’s long-term security. When we asked the chairman of the Knesset committee on foreign affairs on what single U.S. policy could best align with Israel’s long-term interests he replied, “Become energy independent.”

    • Thanks for sharing these observations, Barry! Many of these same issues remain, but some of the context has changed. The Israeli economy is now booming following reforms in the 70s and 80s that shifted the country more toward a market economy. Security concerns still dominate and the successful absorption of a very diverse set of immigrants remains a priority. The military continues to play a central role in the education system, providing more training and networking than most other educational institutions.

      I look forward to reading your report. Thanks again!

      • matthewladner says:

        USA energy independence is basically achieved if you think of Canada and Mexico as “around here” rather than “from a foreign source.”

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