Many people were shocked last summer when the Program for International Student Assessment survey of 41 industrialized states ranked Israeli students in the bottom third in reading skills. This followed several years of reports that Israeli schools are unusually violent, with high levels of rowdyism and bullying.
At a question period following her address at the Hudson Institute Friday, Livnat was asked if the two trends are related and if Israeli students are not learning because they are afraid.
Livnat said when she became Education Minister in 2001 she discovered that segments of the Israeli student population had been doing poorly for more than 10 years.
Her first step was to institute curriculum reforms in mathematics and reading, which went into effect this year.
"We need to make structural reforms. The education system is the biggest system in Israel -- even bigger than defense," she said.
A government task force -- headed by industrialist Shlomo Dovrat, chairman of ECI Telecom -- began its work last month. Recommendations are expected during the first quarter of 2004. The first phases of the task force's reform will be put into effect in September.
"I believe that this will be a real revolution that the Israeli education system needs, and I am determined to go on despite that fact that I will have to confront most probably the teachers' unions. But we need to do it," Livnat said.
(In her talk Livnat had said Israel is a small country with no resources other than the minds of its citizens.)
"In 2003 we adopted the first core curriculum for all elementary schools in the country: Jewish schools, Orthodox schools, Arabs -- everybody." The curriculum will be implemented in phases over five years.
"Israeli children are afraid," Livnat said. "This is true." Israeli children take public buses to school. "When children have to watch the news of terror attacks every night, they are terrified. This is like children in America, especially in New York and New Jersey, were terrified after Sept. 11. You can imagine what it's like when this goes on on a daily basis. We're trying to give them all the help we can."
The questioner pointed out that rowdyism and bullying in Israeli schools can't be blamed completely on terrorism.
"I'm not saying that," Livnat replied. "There are many problems we have to face, and we have many challenges."
Livnat, 53, is sometimes called the "Iron Lady" of the ruling Likud Party. She was asked if she would compete to become party leader, a step toward becoming prime minister. She replied that she would do so "in due time."
In a 1999 interview with the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, Livnat said: "Women in politics need to be better than men." At the time the Israeli Knesset had 120 members, 14 of whom were women. Livnat noted that most of those 14 held their seats only because of recently implemented affirmative action programs.
"Keep in mind that I got elected without affirmative action," Livnat told the Bulletin. "That's important to remember."