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Israeli Teachers Find Shared Ground in Scarsdale

SCARSDALE, N.Y. – Scarsdale and Jerusalem are almost 5,000 air miles apart, but, when it comes to school systems, they might as well be neighbors. The schools share many of the same struggles and frustrations despite their cultural and geographical separation.

Scarsdale Assistant Superintendent Joan Weber and Susan Taylor, director of the Scarsdale Teachers Institute, met with a delegation of 10 teachers from Jerusalem who were in Scarsdale as part of a countywide cultural exchange paid for with a grant from UJA-Federation of New York under the title of "The Jewish Mosaic – Expanding Horizons," administered by the JCC on the Hudson in Tarrytown.

There have been many exchanges over the past 12 years," said program director Lois Green of JCC on the Hudson . "Westchester partners have visited Israel on several occasions. ... The best way to understand someone else's culture is to be immersed in it for a while and to be exposed to all of the nuances."

Green said the delegation asked to see and spend time in an American secular school system to see for themselves how it works and what children learn there as opposed to the state-run schools in Israel. They spent some time Wednesday at Fox Meadow Elementary School, touring and answering questions from the pupils. Then they headed for the high school to meet with Weber and Taylor.

After giving a brief overview of the school system, Weber asked the group how its schools have contributed to Israel's reputation for technical innovation, and the answer, from history and English teacher Gilad Shoham of Tali Beit Hanuch middle and high school, was that maybe they haven't done so much.

"Through elementary and middle schools, we seem to achieve at the same levels as other countries" in Europe and the region, "somewhere in the middle," he said. "It's after high school that we seem to become a high-tech nation, at the college level and university level."

Shoham acknowledged that Israel's mandatory military service might have something to do with it, and said much of the innovation comes during postsecondary education.

"Imagine if we prepared them better," he said.

Weber discussed New York's teacher performance assessment program and standardized testing, as well as the new tax levy cap, which has caused most school systems to make cuts in their planned 2012-13 budgets.

"In our reductive environment right now, we're told we have to prepare our young people for college," Weber said. "We live in a rarified area where we have great resources and parents who are supportive of education, and students who are, for the most part, very capable."

But, she said, in the cities things are different, and that is what seems to be driving the "reductiveness."

"So it's one size fits all," she said, instead of letting schools with demonstrated success go their own way.

Shoham said he feels the system in Israel, like the system here, needs to change. He said ninth-graders have to take 58 tests each year, with a test in each of 12 to 14 subjects every quarter.

The national program of testing and teacher and school evaluation conflicts with what teachers have been trained to do and want to do in the classroom, said Etty Rosen, a computer teacher at a school named Yehuda Halevi.

"I taught science last year, and I thought I had success," she said. "... But you couldn't see it in the standard tests. It was depressing."

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