Experts: Don't Rush Reading, Math

"There is tremendous pressure by parents to begin formal education as early as possible," says Mirit Cohen, a kindergarten teacher from Tel Aviv. "They ask that the kids learn quickly to write, that we conduct a preparatory course for first grade and that everyone be ready for school. At every parent-teacher gathering I say that we should cool it a little - that 12 more years of school await the children. They should be allowed to be children."

Cohen's account is representative of many kindergartens in Israel. Other teachers tell, for example, of English studies and math clubs for 4-year-olds. The achievement race starts ever-earlier, with the Education Ministry getting drawn along. Two years ago it published a "core curriculum" for kindergartens in literacy, arithmetic, arts and "life skills." The ministry said at the time that the plan was not intended to turn kindergarten into an early version of school, but that is exactly how it was interpreted at times.

Recently, a committee of experts on early education, appointed by The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, submitted a report to the Education Ministry. The report seeks to redraw the fundamental differences between kindergarten and school, and concludes that the goal to aspire to at kindergarten age is methodical exposure to different worlds of knowledge, in contrast to methodical study.

"It is recommended that kindergartens begin preparing the groundwork for fostering literacy in the areas of reading, writing and arithmetic, with their formal instruction taking place in school," the report states.

The experts said that preschoolers ought to be encouraged to express themselves graphically, but not made to practice standard writing in kindergarten. However, they should be taught the principle of the alphabet, and be familiarized with the names, shapes and sounds of the letters.

In math, the experts emphasized the ability to recognize and grasp mathematical processes in everyday life, for instance through playing a game of "store," in which the children buy and sell products.

Cohen concurs: "At this age, the appropriate way to study is through play," adding that such a game also teaches the life skill of standing in line.

The committee, chaired by Professor Pnina Klein of Bar-Ilan University, also recommends drastically reducing class size. According to Education Ministry data, official kindergartens average 30 children. The maximum number allowed is 35. The report calls for restricting enrollment to 14-16 children in a class for 3-4 year olds, 16-20 children in a class for 5-6 year olds and a cap of 25 first graders.

The committee further recommends that a teacher and aide team staff every class. "We mustn't delude ourselves - you cannot provide quality education when there are 31 kids in a kindergarten," Klein says.