Palestinian first-graders sit with their schoolbooks during class in the West Bank city of Ramallah February 4, 2013..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Back to school As more than two million pupils from pre-school through high school head back to school this week, it’s a fitting time to focus on a few high-profile reforms that Education Minister Naftali Bennett will attempt to implement – that is, if the present coalition lasts long enough to actually follow them through.
This week, Bennett, along with former president Shimon Peres, announced his “give me five” program aimed at doubling the number of high school students who take five units of mathematics, the highest level.
For a number of reasons, this is a very important program. A recently published study by the Taub Center in conjunction with the Trump Foundation found that completing five units of mathematics opens more doors, leads to higher wages, and lowers the income gap between men and women.
The researchers found that on average the Israeli high school student was better off taking the highest level of math even if he or she got a lower grade than taking a lower level and receiving a higher grade.
Completing five units of mathematics opens the door to university courses that enable graduates to earn the highest salaries – medicine, exact sciences, engineering, computer sciences, and natural sciences.
In contrast, many of these potentially lucrative courses of study are closed to students who complete only four units of mathematics or less.
In the past six years, the number of students completing five units of mathematics has dropped from 12,900 to 9,000. Bennett hopes to bring the number up to 18,000 within four years through of number of measures, such as reducing class sizes for those who embark on a course of five units; introducing perks for schools that increase the number of five-unit students; recruiting hi-tech workers to help teach math; and making it easier for schools to open up a track for five units of math.
If Bennett’s program is successful, it will lead to higher salaries for the next generation of workers – 40 percent higher on average according to the Taub-Trump study – will lead to greater gender equality and will also boost productivity and the standard of living for thousands of Israeli households.
However, not everyone is cut out to complete the highest level of math studies. And there are other problems with our education system, one of them being classroom size.
At the beginning of the month Bennett announced that, starting this year in first grade, class size would not exceed 32 pupils in the socioeconomically weakest cities and towns, 33 pupils in the middle-ranked areas, and 34 pupils in the strongest school jurisdictions.
The NIS 500 million program is to be implemented gradually over the next five years. Each year new first grade classes will be added to the program until all elementary schools have no more than 34 pupils.
However, the short notice given by Bennett might make implementation difficult. An estimated 300 new classrooms will have to be created in order to accommodate the overflow from thousands of overcrowded classes. Obviously, new classes cannot be built overnight, rather schools will have to utilize bomb shelters, labs, storage rooms and other spaces. New teachers cannot be hired at such as short notice, which means that the existing faculties will have to take on the extra workload of added classrooms.
And these new regulations still fall short of the demands made by parents associations that class size should not surpass 32 students. Indeed, the 32-student limit was set by a 2008 cabinet decision that was never implemented.
As can be expected, class size in Israel, a country with a high fertility rate in comparison to other Western countries, is high. According to a comparative study published in 2013 by the OECD, the average elementary school class size in Israel is 28, compared to an OECD average of 21.
In order to maintain its competitive edge, Israel must provide its students with the highest quality education.
Encouraging high level math education and reducing class sizes are both steps in the right direction. We hope the present government lasts long enough to implement them.