Barak Moore has been through the gauntlet. He initially moved to Israel when he was a young man, only moving back to the US to be closer to his son after being divorced. Twenty years later, he has returned a seasoned veteran of the education scene and with seven new additions to his family. Since settling in Neve Daniel in Gush Etzion, he has found out how important his professional background as an education consultant and professional tutor really is.
"I've run a couple educational committees and worked with the Princeton Review at the beginning," says Moore, who was the Princeton Review's Director for a number of years in New Jersey. "We crafted the system for how to take the most daunting tests and raise your scores."
He has applied his professional knowledge to special talks and courses for the corporate world, consulting for IBM and traveling around the planet to speak. But his primary concern now is taking his concepts and applying them to get his own kids around some of the dysfunctional elements of Israel's public schools.
"You could say the glass is half full because education is government-dominated and schools are plagued by dire shortages (of resources) when the government over-promises and under-delivers."
Moore also points to other pitfalls in the Israeli system. Regulations and unions might force a school principal to directly appeal to students' parents for help justifying the firing of an incompetent instructor - just one of several cases Moore describes that undermine the system's efficacy.
"It's like in socialized medicine when you get little more than the minimum from the government. Almost every Israeli knows you have to buy supplemental care - same thing applies with schools, which you have to supplement with private instruction."
But Moore points to something far less obvious to Israelis that actually segments the national student body into two separate classes.
"Israel has this rep as the 'Startup Nation,' but ever notice we come in almost nearly last place in standardized testing? How do those things square with each other?"
"The reason we do so well but so poorly at the same time is because Israel has long tradition of tracking the elite."
Moore is referring to the test for determining giftedness in 2nd grade in Israel, arranged by Machon Karni. The test, once administered, filters students into advanced and regular tracks. The advanced track is a completely different educational program for the most part says Moore, whose experience with gifted-and-talented programs is largely the product of his own kids' success with it. His twin sons have recently started a track which will earn them Bachelor's Degrees in Computer Science by age 19. Four of his other children have also passed the test and have been exposed to a far more eclectic curriculum than is standard.
"Instead of 40 kids per class, there are 8 or 10 kids per class; instead of letters from principals to schools, kids get film classes taught by a director or an astrophysicist teaching a 9-year-old.”
Israeli law mandates a maximum of 40 students per class, a far cry from what is typically recommended. In fact, Israel's average class size is 28.4, the highest in the OECD according to a 2011 report.
Moore explained that in addition to the sheer scarcity of government resources that holds back some schools, Israel has always utilized a special security strategy to develop an elite class that could be employed in the military and intelligence units.
“They identify the best talent and those select few we apply our resources to them and let them defend us through elite military units or elite intelligence units.”
While the tests are administered to Israelis in 2nd grade, new immigrants should be aware of a few things that they are, according to Moore, unfortunately out of the loop on.
“They have to know to request it after 2nd grade, to know that they can take it in English and that they will have to wait a few months.”
The English “actually provides a huge advantage” for new immigrants, but the problem is by the time some immigrants understand the impact this test might have on their kids’ education, the kids might have already integrated into the standard track or might have failed to score high enough on the test.
Moore says if you are fresh off the plane, you should inquire about the test immediately to take advantage of the English background of your kids. For his own daughter, she took the test in Hebrew and was lucky enough to be granted a retake in English after requesting it.
In Gush Etzion, the gifted-and-talented program is called Afikim, which is also geared to the predominantly Religious Zionist population of the Gush. The program also includes opportunities for advanced or niche topics in Judaic studies.
Moore’s work with the Princeton Review has turned this seemingly make-it-or-break-it test into an advantage for his kids. Their education track is now far from the standard and
“The cool thing is that some people are reticent to put their kids in this type of program because they think their kids wouldn’t be able to handle it. The truth is they have a philosophy to teach beyond or outside conventional subjects.”