A school for ultra-Orthodox children.
A school for ultra-Orthodox children. Photo by Emil Salman
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A third of all elementary school-children in Israel are ultra-Orthodox. Among them, less than 60% study all the core education subjects required by the Education Ministry, the latest numbers show.

During the last school year, which wound up at the end of July, 193,448 children were enrolled in Haredi-run elementary schools, which is about some 30 percent of all schoolchildren of that age range in Israel, according to statistics presented in the Knesset earlier this week.

Just 57 percent of these Haredi school students were taught the entire material in core curriculum subjects assigned by the Education Ministry to be taught in Haredi schools.

The Education Ministry's core curriculum for Haredi elementary schools, unlike its lesson plan for non-Haredi elementary schools, doesn't include English-language instruction.

Haredi schools that do teach the entire core curriculum approved by the Education Ministry (that is, the core curriculum for the Haredi sector) receive full government funding.

The statistics mentioned above were just some of those bandied about in discussions held earlier this week by the Knesset's Education Committee, chaired by MK Einat Wilf (Atzmaut).

Altogether, 17 percent of Haredi elementary school pupils learn in Haredi schools that teach 75 percent of the government-approved core curriculum lesson plan. These schools are allocated 75 percent of the level of funding typically allocated to state-run public school students.

Another 26 percent of Haredi elementary school students learn only half the core curriculum lesson plan.

The annual budget allocated towards Haredi elementary schools by the government is roughly NIS 1.7 billion per year.

No English lessons, not much math

The basic lesson plan approved by the Education Ministry for use in the Haredi educational sector differs from the standard state-run school core curriculum in allocating less time for core subjects, such as mathematics and the sciences. It doesn't include any English-language instruction.

In practice, the core curriculum lesson plan the Education Ministry is to enforce among Haredi schools places a special emphasis on Bible and Talmud studies, which are allotted the most time out of all the subjects covered in the lesson plan. Such additional time for religious studies comes at the expense of secular subjects, such as mathematics, art, physical education and the sciences.

Among some Haredi educational institutions, teachers are instructed to dedicate only one per week of classroom instruction to nature and science studies.

The Education Ministry and representatives of the Haredi school systems assert that most Haredi schools teach core curriculum subjects. Still, a unique survey conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2008 at the special request of the Education Ministry revealed that Bible studies is the single core curriculum subject taught in all Haredi educational institutions.

 In contrast, mathematics is taught in 83 percent of Haredi elementary schools, while English is taught in just 53.6 percent of Haredi elementary schools. At the junior high and high school levels, the figures at Haredi schools are even worse.

Only 41 percent of Haredi secondary schools surveyed taught mathematics and just 38.5 percent provided English language instruction.

During the Knesset committee debate, one of the issues discussed was the greater degree of autonomy afforded to Haredi elementary schools as compared to their educational counterparts in other schools systems in Israel. Haredi schools have relatively more independence in terms of setting academic teaching standards and hiring teachers, who are employed directly by Haredi schools and not the Education Ministry, as is the case with state-run elementary schools.

In addition, not all teachers in Haredi schools are accredited to teach core curriculum subjects, yet they are allowed to teach every subject at whatever level of academic rigor and depth at their own discretion.

In schools they learn Gemara, and Jewish religious laws but they also learn arithmetic and Bible studies," said Union of Yeshivas Director Shlomo Brilant.  "My son finished the second grade this year and was tested orally on his knowledge of the Book of Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus. That's nothing to sneeze at."

According to Brilant, ultra-Orthodox high school students can focus entirely on learning religious studies. Afterwards they can supplement their studies in other subjects in pre-university preparatory programs. Every person can choose what to teach his children according to their own religious inclinations.

Recently, the Education Ministry broadened its supervision over the Haredi schools, and increased the number education inspectors for Haredi schools from 13 to 42. As part of this process, the ministry has prorated the budget allocations from a number of Haredi schools that don't allocate the minimum amount of time set by the ministry for teaching Haredi students core curriculum subjects.

In a similar vein, the Education Ministry has recently stated that it is weighing the possibility of levying economic penalties on Haredi schools that refuse to participate in the standardized Meitzav tests which examine students' achievement of nationwide academic proficiency goals.

Last year, the Shas party-affiliated Ma'ayan HaChinuch HaTorani school network assented to participating in the standardized tests, although only in two academic subjects – mathematics and Hebrew. The agreement of the Shas school network to participate in the exams comes after years of across the board refusal to participate in standardized testing from all the Haredi school networks.

No other Haredi school network has agreed to take part in the Meitzav tests. Nevertheless, the Education Ministry has refused to publicize students' results on these tests because, they claim, these students are an unrepresentative sample of the entire student population.