After prolonged, crisis-prone negotiations, the government and the Secondary School Teachers Union agreed to reform the nation's high schools yesterday. The reform will be fully implemented next year in fifty high schools; and other secondary school institutions will undertake partial implementation of the plan next year.

"We have been waiting twelve years for the signing of this agreement," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared yesterday at a ceremony staged to mark the accord. "We are initiating a powerful change in education."

Education Ministry officials expressed concern yesterday that teacher responses to the reform, which will cost NIS 4 billion, could stall its implementation. Another possible obstacle could be opposition articulated by the Union of Local Authorities, which announced last night that it will not sign the accord.

Speaking yesterday at the ceremony in Jerusalem, Netanyahu insisted that this reform, together with new policies in higher education, "encompass all parts of the educational system. Simply investing money, without upgrading the quality of teachers and principals, and without keeping track of performance and achievements, would not move the educational system forward."

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said "we are talking about a historic turning point in the education system. The reform points to a new era in the school system, and in relations between teacher organizations, and high schools will reach an entirely new level." Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz added that the signed accord constitutes "the sort of reform which the Finance Ministry loves."

"I'm sorry that Israeli school pupils lost a decade, but better late than never," teachers union chairman Ran Erez declared at the ceremony, referring to an attempt a decade ago to institute secondary school reform. "Since the establishment of the state, we have worked on a particular, formulaic basis; we've waited year after year to survive and move forward; now the professional union has initiated a change in routines and work patterns," Erez said.

Netanyahu referred in passing to attempts to institute secondary school reform three years ago. These efforts failed largely due to cuts in allocations to the Education Ministry that occurred during Netanyahu's term as finance minister years earlier.

"You don't have to elaborate on that. He [Netanyahu] has been converted," said a source in the teachers union.

Under the reform plan, teacher salaries will rise by 42%. However, their work week will rise from 24 to 40 hours. The reform will be anchored in a new collective agreement which the sides are expected to complete soon, and whose aim is to guarantee a "working peace" until 2016. The full implementation of the plan should last four years.

The teachers new work week will be comprised of 24 teaching hours in the classroom, six hours of detailed instruction with small groups, and 10 hours of "teaching support," in which teachers will take part in staff meetings, correct exams and homework assignments, meet with parents and more.

Teachers will also sign in at work, using punch cards that will be in operation in all schools.

"The wage increase I'll receive will not be worth the additional hours that I'm forced to work; I will have to stay in school until 4:00 P.M.," complained one teacher.

Another teacher said that the new promotion process instituted by the reform will enable "each teacher to develop professionally, and also be compensated financially."

According to the reform, teachers will receive additional pay hikes, and be promoted to various posts in schools, on the basis of an evaluation system comparable to one in effect under the New Horizon plan for elementary schools. Teacher evaluations will be carried out by principals. Also, 50 percent of high school principals will receive performance-based bonuses of different levels - 20 percent of the principals will receive NIS 3,800, 10 percent will receive NIS 4,800, 10 percent 5,600 NIS and 10 percent NIS 8,000.

Under the reform, teacher dismissal processes will last just one year, in contrast to the current two year procedure.

Another component of the reform is change in teachers' work environments. Rooms for small group work will be built in schools, and so will rooms for teachers to meet and work. About a billion shekels are allocated for the physical improvement plan under the reform.