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The first time middle-class parents from Jerusalem contacted the Wellspring for Democratic Education and asked for help with private tutoring for their son, Wellspring staff thought it was an individual problem. But as the flow of requests from such parents steadily increased, they realized the problem was widespread. The Wellspring for Democratic Education is a volunteer organization that currently operates in 16 locations in distressed neighborhoods in Jerusalem and provides private lessons to some 800 students all over the city. In exchange for the tutoring, the students do "one good deed a month for the community" and the parents are asked to pay the symbolic sum of NIS 20 per month.

Guy Ehrlich, one of the founders of the organization, says that "in the last year, the number of parents from better neighborhoods approaching us has increased, which means there's a real problem. As of the beginning of the 21st century, the Israeli education system is not providing the tools needed to cope with the challenges of the times. There are too few teachers, too many students per class; the system lacks resources and is incapable of handling the load. Against this background, it's only natural that a gray market for education would surface. The problem has gotten worse lately because of the economic situation."

Mastering the matric

Ehrlich says unequivocally: "The average student who isn't taking private lessons cannot complete the requirements for a matriculation certificate, or at least not with good grades." A survey conducted about a year ago by Larcom, a company that provides private instruction services, found a mild to strong correlation between doing well on the matriculation exams in language and grammar, mathematics and English and taking private lessons.

Many students truly do need tutoring. Nonetheless, it seems that private lessons are not just a tool for filling in gaps; in many cases they are intended to provide future educational, social and professional advantages. E Teacher, a company that offers private lessons, says that quite a number of parents are pushing their children into taking private lessons. "As our society becomes increasingly more achievement-oriented and competitive, the demand for private advancement grows," says the company's director general, Yariv Bin Nun.

Lior Cohen, of Larcom, agrees that the phenomenon of private lessons is indicative of competitiveness and social prosperity, but not only that: "If so many students are being helped by a private teacher, there's a problem here and it's not just a byproduct of the parents' pampering and financial ability. It seems that the teaching method being used isn't the best." Ehrlich explains that "a teacher with a heterogeneous class of 40 students can't reach all of them - not because of unwillingness to do so, but because of the very limited resources."

And the resources are indeed limited. Since 1996, the education budget has been slashed by over NIS 2.25 billion and of that, some NIS 820 million has been cut since the Sharon government took office. A further budget cut of NIS 450 million is in the offing for 2003. Tenth through twelfth grade students will study two hours less per week this year than they did last year. A total of 737 teachers have been fired and the teaching positions of over 3,000 teachers were cut back by as much as 50 percent.

Teachers recommend

Private lessons are an expensive business: prices range from NIS 50 to NIS 120 per lesson, depending on the subject and the area. In the center of the country, it is hard to find a tutor for less than NIS 80 per lesson. But despite the prices, it is a very common practice. According to data from the education committee of the Union of Local Authorities, some 40 percent of students in secondary schools in the Jewish sector get help from private teachers. The same data also indicates that the private lesson industry has a turnover of at least NIS 700 million annually. (The Ministry of Education, however, reports that less than 20 percent of students get help from a private teacher.)

The education committee's data also showed that mathematics is the most sought-after subject for private lessons (31.1 percent of those taking private lessons). Next is English (19.6 percent) followed by language and grammar (4.1 percent) and physics (2 percent). The data also showed that the tendency to hire private teachers is more common in secular families of good economic standing. "The idea of getting help from a private teacher is very acceptable," says Dana, a ninth-grader at the Givatayim Tichon. "I, for example, have trouble with algebra. The class is big and the teacher rushes through the material and I don't always manage to understand everything during class. The teacher herself advised me and some of my friends to get private lessons."

The Givatayim teacher's recommendation is not unusual: around 60 percent of teachers advise students to get a private tutor that the parents pay for, according to a report by the Ministry of Education on "The Education System as Reflected in the Evaluation of 5752-5756" released in 1997. The phenomenon is so widespread that sometimes the schools themselves take part. During the summer, the Thelma Yellin School of the Arts offers a 10-day mathematics course for ninth-graders, for a fee. Tamar Alper, the school's vice-principal, explains: "It's a national school and naturally ninth-grade students arrive with different levels of mathematics skills. Based on the orientation exams, it is advisable for some of the students to fill in the gaps. It's clear that the course is not a requirement."

Virtual lessons

It seems that the era of the private tutor who lives across the street is coming to an end and is gradually being replaced by an organized industry. A simple Internet search found a long list of companies offering private instruction all over the country. E Teacher employs around 100 teachers who tutor thousands of students. The company uses the traditional method of studying in the student's home and also offer a unique technological interface for giving lessons over the Internet. Virtual lessons are less expensive: "A monthly subscription for help in mathematics on the Internet is only NIS 180 and the services is available every day from 4 to 9 P.M."

Virtual lessons may also be a solution for parents who find it hard to afford the cost of regular private lessons, but the use of computers and the Internet is actually more common among the middle and upper classes. It seems that for students who are really having trouble, this is not a good solution, however. Bin Nun agrees: "Most students who seek help on the Internet are good students who want to be even better. Nonetheless, I think that the Internet is a wonderful tool that certainly can solve a problem for average and outstanding students."

Ministry of Education officials say they are aware that math and English are two subjects in which students often take private lessons. "The professionals are working to strengthen these two subjects," it was reported. The ministry further said that different programs aimed at reducing the phenomenon would be implemented, among them summer school courses in English and math that would provide students with an inexpensive option in comparison to private lessons (the course would cost NIS 450).

There are also some effective local initiatives. At the Herzliya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv, for example, summer courses to shore up math and language and grammar skills are offered to students in the higher grades. There is no charge for the courses. The Gymnasium also pays for tutoring for students who need it.

"The budget comes from donations and from the municipality," says the school's principal, Arye Barnea, who adds: "When I ran the Denmark school in Jerusalem, we managed to collect enough donations to enable all of the students to have private tutoring."

According to Barnea, the phenomenon of private lessons is not indicative of a system-wide failure in providing instruction, but a sign of ethical failure. "It isn't the school's job to provide private lessons. However, it's obvious and natural that students will occasionally need personalized help. The creation of a situation wherein only wealthy families are able to get their children the help they need cannot be allowed. Therefore, if a family can't afford the extra help, the system has to do it. It's the correct and most ethical thing to do. As long as it's not being done on a national level, it has to be done on a local school level."

The Herzliya municipality also feels that it is possible to deal with the need for private lessons on the local level. Last year, the municipality set up a virtual math tutoring hotline, operated by E Teacher, to help all local high school students, and covered the expenses. A similar project was set up in Ra'anana as well. Michal Geller, the supervisor of post-secondary education in the Herzliya municipality, speculates that the demand for private lessons has dropped since the project began and she says the municipality plans to continue the programs this year too. "However," she argues, "the program is not intended for students who need massive help to reduce the gaps, but mainly for good students who want to improve."

Another experimental program, which if expanded could meet the needs of many students, is the Oz Le'tmura program that is now in practice in five high schools in Gedera, Ashdod, Kiryat Malachi and Ariel. Teachers involved in the project work a full day (from 8:00 A.M. to 4 P.M.) and get a bonus of 60 percent of their salary for their effort.

"Of the 16 additional weekly hours worked by the teachers in the project, six hours are allocated for private lessons for to help strengthen students at the school," says Ruhama Katzir, the program coordinator. According to her, the private lesson phenomenon has practically disappeared in the schools where the project is being tried. The chairman of the high school teachers association, Ran Erez, initiated this project, now in its third year as a pilot program.

There were plans to expand the program to other places this year, but in the end it remained in its limited format. "It's a reform that contributes not only to reducing the need for private lessons, but also substantially improves the learning atmosphere in the school," says Katzir, "it is also likely to change the way the teacher is perceived in Israeli society. It is a propitious moment when a professional association initiates a program that benefits not only its members, but also the population of students and parents. The way I see it, the Ministry of Education should have embraced this initiative and wholeheartedly promoted it."