"We are building an education system that is preparing students for the 21st century,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett recently said.Sitting down with the Magazine ahead of the start of the school year, Bennett discussed the state of education in Israel, the reforms implemented during his tenure, and the challenges facing future generations of pupils.On Thursday, 2,232,172 pupils – among them 158,958 first graders and 123,497 12th graders – accompanied by 180,000 educators kicked off their first day of school.Overcrowding in classes, socioeconomic and sectorial gaps, low student performance are only a few of the many problems facing the education system at the start of the new academic year.Fully mindful of the challenges, Bennett said he is determined to push forward a multifaceted agenda to address these issues in the hopes of reshaping and improving the face of the Israeli education system.Drawing upon his experiences as a leader in the hi-tech industry, Bennett aims to place a stronger emphasis on the study of higher-level mathematics and English, while also incorporating a strong Jewish education.His agenda is comprised of four main goals: investing in early childhood education, enhancing the study of core curriculum subjects, minimizing educational gaps, and implementing Jewish values as a core subject within the education system. “All the education systems in the world were developed some 100 or 200 years ago, whereby a teacher lectures to the students.This model has reached its limits, it is no longer relevant,” Bennett said.“We must understand that a child who begins first grade this year will begin his life in about 16 years. Some of the occupations that exist today, such as drivers, will no longer exist and there will be new occupations that we haven’t even imagined yet,” he said. “We must somehow prepare for this unknown.”Bennett explained that the way to accomplish this endeavor is by imparting a set of basic tools and skills to pupils within the education system.“Today we need a new model – a model of innovation. We must teach children how to think, how to learn – to teach them curiosity and teamwork,” he explained.“Good education realizes the assets of each child and strengthens them, but as a system we must also equip students with the basics, which are math and English and other core subjects,” he said.Today, in this respect, Israeli students are greatly lagging behind their peers in other developed countries.
EARLIER THIS summer, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in collaboration with the Central Bureau of Statistics in Israel, released a report which found that Israelis aged 16-65 were scoring significantly lower than their counterparts in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.According to the findings, Israelis ranked among the bottom of the developed countries across all three subjects.The data also revealed that some 32.7 percent of adults did not have sufficient skills to solve problems in technology- rich environments and failed to possess basic computer skills.Since taking office, Bennett has placed great emphasis on reinvigorating higher- level mathematics and English studies in schools.“I expect an alumnus of the Israeli education system to know math and English, to be determined, to know to overcome difficulties and know how to solve problems,” he said.Earlier this year he announced a national reform for mathematics aimed to reverse the downward trend and encourage students to take the five-unit (the highest level) mathematics matriculation exam.The ministry announced its goal to double the number of students completing the five-unit mathematics exam in the next three years and improve Israel’s ranking compared to other OECD countries.With only 9.1% of high school students completing high-level mathematics studies, Israel is ranked in the lowest bracket along with countries such as Germany, Holland, Russia, Spain and England.The ministry has said its new target will move Israel up to the next bracket of 16-30%, to be ranked alongside countries such as Australia, Estonia, Finland, France, Hong Kong and Sweden.“We had experienced 10 years of deterioration in mathematics. [Now] our achievements have grown by about 35- 40%, and there is a change in the trend. This is a big announcement,” he said.Bennett said the ministry has allocated some NIS 100 million toward the effort, which focused primarily on the periphery and expanded the number of higher-level math classes.“What we discovered is that especially in weaker areas children didn’t even have the opportunity to take the five-unit math exam,” he explained.“In approximately 150 cities we provided students with the opportunity to take five units in math, and this in my mind is a dramatic move of equal opportunity.”Following the implementation of the reforms, the Education Ministry announced that there was an increase of some 6,000 students who took the high-level math exam in 2015/16.The ministry noted that in the periphery, where the number of students taking the five-unit mathematics matriculation exam is traditionally low, the academic year marked a 56% increase in Netivot, a 68% increase in Yeroham, a 104% increase in Rahat and a 96% increase in Shfaram in the number of students taking the exam.“In Ofakim, a girl who wanted to take the five-unit math matriculation exam wasn’t able to, in Shlomi, in Rahat. Why? How is this possible in 2016?” he asked.Bennett explained that in addition to improving student achievements in mathematics, the new reform also aims to minimize educational gaps among weaker population groups.“In Israel there is a direct link between the income of a child’s parents and the success of the child,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned this is unacceptable. My aim is that all students will leave school with the same opportunities.”According to the education minister, the largest gaps are forged due to math and English studies.“We discovered that if we minimize the gaps in these subjects, the overall ability to find quality employment is good, even if students are still lagging in other respects,” he said.
DESPITE THE positive intentions and the registered improvements, Bennett has come under fire by students who launched a counter-campaign, citing too much emphasis on the achievements of one subject alone, while neglecting other subjects such as humanities and the arts.In response to this criticism, Bennett said, “I can’t reconcile with ‘mediocracy.’” “When I came into office, I was presented with a system that for a decade had deteriorated from 13,000 students completing five-unit math exam to 8,500 students and I am being attacked as to why I am obsessed with math and English,” he said.“I accept the blame – I am obsessive about math and English and I will continue to be,” he said.In fact, a chart outlining student achievements in mathematics over the course of the past decade jumps out as one of the few adornments hanging above his desk.“Somehow excellence has become a bad word, as if we cannot demand standards from our children and hard work,” he said.“If anything I think we should have done this 10 years earlier. Not only do I not intend to stop, but I intend to expand the investment in both math and English,” he said.Bennett explained that the ministry will expand on the plan that was already implemented, allocating more hours and placing a greater focus on mathematical thinking.The expansion of the plan also aims to incorporate younger pupils down to elementary school and even kindergartens to teach basic math thinking.“Mathematics is key to the 21st century,” he said. “Regarding English, this is even more important – to go out into life without knowing how to speak, read and write in English at a high level is a disability.”In English, the major change will be an emphasis on the spoken language, Bennett explained. “So we will see less Shakespeare but will practice more conversations between the students,” he said.ANOTHER MAJOR step to minimize gaps has been the establishment of the Biton Committee, tasked with empowering Mizrahi Jewish cultural studies within the general education curriculum.Bennett launched the committee earlier this year, and appointed as its head Erez Biton, the first poet of Mizrahi descent to win the Israel Prize in Literature (2015).Biton was tasked with empowering the identity of the Mizrahi Jewish community – including immigrants from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia and Libya – within the education system.“I traveled throughout the country and heard so many people telling me that they were only privy to half of the story,” he said.The committee released its recommendations in July, and Bennett has already announced that middle- and high-school curricula will be required to include the study of Jews in Islamic countries.“We will implement the reforms and enrich the curriculum with the history and contributions of Jews from Arab and North African countries,” he said.While the Education Ministry is pushing to minimize inequality and introduce higher-level core curriculum studies in secular and state-religious schools, massive educational gaps remain in regard to the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors.“The Arab and haredi sectors are lagging far behind,” Bennett acknowledged.He noted, however that there was a promising upward trend among students in the Arab sector and said the ministry was working on plans to further minimize gaps.In addition, this year pupils in the Arab sector from kindergarten through 12th grade will be required to learn Hebrew as part of their curriculum.Bennett also said he aimed to reduce educational gaps through the allocation of a differential budget.“Every pupil in Israel, no matter what his background is, receives an equal basic basket, but on top of it I am going to add more to [pupils in] weaker areas – I already implemented it last year and we are going to expand it this coming year,” he explained.In regard to the ultra-Orthodox sector, the past few months have seen the cancellation of the core curriculum bill, the law passed during the previous government by Yesh Atid and then education minister Shai Piron, conditioning the budget received by schools on the teaching of at least 11 hours per week of English, math and science.
The law was supposed to reduce the funding of what are known as “exempt institutions,” which many haredi boys attend for their elementary education.While the bill was never properly enforced and only affected some 50,000 haredim, United Torah Judaism insisted in its coalition agreement with the Likud that the law be repealed, for fear that it could be enforced in the future.The controversy over the annulment of the bill once again thrust into the spotlight the state of haredi education in Israel.“Providing tools to the ultra-Orthodox to integrate into the workforce is, as far as I am concerned, a central goal for the future of the State of Israel,” Bennett said.“Contrary to what has been published, the majority of haredim study math and English. The problem is not whether they study or not but rather that the level of study is very low,” he explained.As such, Bennett said the ministry was “going school by school” to customize higher quality programs for haredi schools. In addition, he said, the ministry was recruiting and training teachers to provide basic tools for the haredi population to better integrate into society.“I find that the method of working in collaboration is more successful than working with them through conflict,” he said.Bennett conceded that there was still a small percentage of some 8% who are still not interested in studying the core curriculum.When asked if the ministry was throwing up its hands regarding these pupils, Bennett replied that “with them we are proceeding at a slower rate.”“For the first time there is oversight. Now we know what is going on in the schools. There will be progress, but it will take time,” he added.THE MINISTER also addressed the issue of overcrowding in classrooms and said that for the first time, under his tenure, class sizes were reduced from 40 pupils per class to an average of 28.Despite the reduction of class size, an OECD report on the subject found that the average class size in Israel stands at 27 pupils in primary education and 28 in lower secondary education – still larger than the OECD average of 21 and 24 pupils respectively.This past year Bennett has also placed an emphasis on early childhood education, adding a second caregiver for every preschool class with over 30 children.“All of the research shows that a child’s persona is developed from birth until six years old, and despite this, all of the resources were always allocated towards matriculation exams,” he said. “My first act as education minister was to add a second caregiver for preschools.”While Bennett has certainly implemented a number of successful reforms, his tenure to date has not been without controversy.One of his main goals has been to implement Jewish and Zionist values within the education system – a move that has prompted his critics to claim that he is indoctrinating a new generation of pupils with his worldview.The education minister first came under fire earlier this year for approving the new high-school civics textbook, which replaced the version published in 2000.The new textbook has been at the center of controversy since even before its release, over what content to include in a civics book geared toward students in the state and state-religious school system.Critics of the book have charged that it does not adequately address shared citizenship in a Jewish and democratic state, downplaying key issues and providing minimal coverage of Arab Israelis, while placing an emphasis on Jewish nationalism above all.When asked about the civics textbook, Bennett dismissed the criticism and simply said he approved the book based on the recommendations of civics and Education Ministry experts.PERHAPS ONE of Bennett’s largest changes has been the establishment of a new Judaism curriculum for first through ninth grades that will expose students to basic Jewish elements, such as kiddush, the Bible, and holidays.“There are people that the last time they learned about Succot was in third grade,” he said. The new curriculum will see each grade learn about Jewish customs and holidays, delving more in depth as the students get older.When asked if the new curriculum would isolate certain population groups within the education system, Bennett noted that each sector will learn about its own heritage and holidays. “We don’t want to convert anyone. That is not the goal, but rather we will pass on to our children the wonderful present that the Jewish people possess,” he said.When further pressed on the claim that the new curriculum is enhancing Zionist and national sentiments, Bennett responded: “I want to strengthen the ties of every Israeli student to the Bible, to the land, to the people, to our history – I am proud of this.”So too, has Bennett’s announcement of this year’s school theme – “United Jerusalem” – stirred controversy this past year.“I am proud that Jerusalem is united and I think every child in Israel should visit Jerusalem this year, experience Jerusalem and love Jerusalem like I love Jerusalem,” Bennett said.He explained that the IDF conducted a survey a few years ago and found that 50% of Israeli children had never visited the Western Wall by the time they enlisted.“This is something that is inconceivable. I want every Israeli child to visit the Kotel, to visit Jerusalem, regardless of politics,” he said.As part of this year’s theme, Bennett announced that pupils will take field trips to visit Jerusalem and tour numerous sites including the Old City, the Knesset, the High Court, and memorial sites.The program will incorporate curricula on Jerusalem in various subjects: history, language, geography, civics, literature, and Bible and Israel studies.Bennett has been harshly criticized by opposition MKs who said the theme is provocative and controversial, and accused him of further politicizing the education system.When asked about these allegations, Bennett shrugged them off.“The State of Israel gained sovereignty over Jerusalem 1967. I don’t recognize any other law in this regard and the Western Wall and the Mount of Olives, I think, is in the heart of the Israeli consensus,” he said.“I don’t intend to create an argument,” he continued. “I think it is a basic thing to love our capital. We have a treasure – maybe the biggest treasure in the universe. No other country has the city of Jerusalem, and I don’t intend to give up on this treasure.”Bennett said the curriculum would recognize that Jerusalem is sacred to other religions. “We respect this,” he said, “but first and foremost we will teach that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”“For every American child it is obvious that he will visit Washington DC, and in Israel we need to walk on our tiptoes when we speak about Israel? No way. Jerusalem is ours,” he said.Bennett entered office with a clear set of goals and in looking back at his first year and a half he has already implemented a number of successful reforms in early childhood education, core curriculum studies, the Biton committee, and in introducing values and Zionism to the curriculum – his top achievements.When asked about the future of the education system, Bennett said that despite all its challenges he sees a “positive trend.”“We still have a long way to go and I am cognizant of the gaps, but I see an education system that provides much better conditions in class, inscribes excellence on its flag, and together with this provides equal opportunities also to children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and in the end equips the children with tools that are suitable for the 21st century,” he said.