Israeli Innovator Eyes American Schools Hebrew Gets Hot at Universities

By Ethan Porter

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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Yaacov Hecht helped transform the school system in Israel. Now he has come to the United States to talk about the state of education in America.

As the director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for Democratic Education, Hecht has long been pushing the idea of “democratic education” — schools and classes that are more participatory and progressive than in traditional educational models.

In Israel, his message has caught on. Since he oversaw the creation of the Hadera Democratic School — the first of its kind in Israel — in 1987, more than two-dozen “democratic” schools have opened their doors in Israel, and another 200 are undergoing what Hecht calls the “democratization” process.

Earlier this month, Hecht brought his message to the United States, leading a weekend conference at Manhattan’s renowned Calhoun School. Several dozen teachers, parents and students came to hear Hecht speak about democratic education around the world.

Democratic education can be broadly understood as an educational philosophy that has as its central value respect for the individual. In every country and school where democratic education has been employed, this underlying philosophy manifests itself in different ways. No two democratic schools are alike.

But in each manifestation, democratic principles form the core of democratic education. Members of the school community form different bodies, similar to the American judicial, executive and legislative branches of government, which oversee the activities inside the school. In this system, students are treated as equals, and are granted great oversight in the direction of their education. They formulate its content to a degree that may seem unimaginable and unmanageable to those accustomed to the standard model of Western schooling. But Hecht asserts that, much to the surprise of the cynics, this approach often works. “We do not have anarchy,” he said.

Hecht’s philosophy has proven popular in Israel. The Hadera Democratic School was meant to hold 350 students, but it quickly developed such a strong reputation for offering a unique, world-class education that it soon had a waiting list of more then 3,500 students. Before his death, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin championed democratic education, and his Ministry of Education granted it high levels of financial support. After Rabin’s assassination, government support waned. When Benjamin Netanyahu took the reins of power, he cut the education budget, and those who supported a democratic education system left the government. The Institute for Democratic Education picked up the torch in the private sector and continues to spread the word within Israel and internationally. In Israel, public support for democratic education remains strong, Hecht reports.

In a truly democratic school, a peaceful, harmonious learning environment usually blooms, Hecht said. As an example, he pointed to a school in one of the most impoverished, crime-ridden areas of Tel Aviv that now follows the democratic philosophy: Violence, once an enormous problem, has been virtually eradicated, he said. The performance of the students has risen dramatically, and the school is looked upon with measured awe by the Israeli educational community.

According to Hecht, democratic education’s emphasis on nonviolence even benefits those schools in which violence has not reached crisis-like proportions. A culture of aggression, he said, is now a major scourge facing educational systems around the world. Students cannot think creatively in an environment plagued by behavior unconducive to creative thought, Hecht said, behavior that urges a sort of simplistic “anything to get ahead, me-first” mentality.

From his travels around the world observing numerous public and private schools, Hecht has come to the conclusion that educational systems have not responded adequately to the technological advances and seismic social shifts of recent decades, from the decline of the traditional nuclear family to heightened levels of aggression.

“The school system has changed,” Hecht said, “just not in the same direction” as the world. Proponents of democratic education demand immediate, relevant change, he said. They want a system that interacts with the world in a positive way, he said, rather than one that forms an insular cocoon of mediocrity.

Dana Bennis, the teacher who organized the conference at Calhoun, emphasized the potential benefits of democratic education to America. “Education is so strict right now, so limiting, that it detracts from learning,” he said. “We’re living in an information age, where there are more than factory-line jobs. New areas are opening every day. You need to know how to learn and how to be creative, and these skills are enforced by a democratic education.”

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