Teachers are accusing the "Extracting Excellence" program, initiated by the Education Ministry to improve the mathematic skills of both gifted and underachieving students, of leaving the weakest students in the lurch, Haaretz had learned.

The program aims to place weaker students in a separate class, using advanced pedagogical methods. However, teachers told Haaretz that the lower-performing students, about 16 percent of every class, are not included in the scheme, and go on studying with their peers without the extra lessons.

"The ministry gave up on the weakest students and gave up the possibility of pushing them forward. This is both an educational and a moral failure," a veteran math teacher from central Israel told Haaretz.

"Extracting Excellence" is one of the ministry's main projects, and it was developed in cooperation with higher learning institutions. The Technion created the part of the program dealing with promoting excelling students, and Hebrew University was charged with supporting the weaker ones.

The program began its pilot phase five years ago in a number of schools, and was expanded to the entire junior high school system this year.

Top students study five weekly hours of math with the rest of the class, but get two extra hours on their own. The weaker students study all of the program on their own, with a specially designed study plan and books.

An official Education Ministry document that has reached Haaretz instructs the schools to select the second-weakest group of students in every class, stressing it was important to ensure the weakest group is not targeted with the special program.

"The program's rationale and past experience suggest that the target group are students between the 12-15 to 22-27 percent ranking in the class" the document reads. It goes on to say school staff should be involved in the vetting process "and must make sure the very low group of the grade ... doesn't become the target group of the program."

"These students end up studying with the rest of the class, together with all the average, good and excelling students," a teacher said. "It's a sad joke. Without special assistance this group has nothing to do in class but to grow more and more frustrated."

"The message the Education Ministry sends to the students is that they're hopeless," she said. "The desire to up the grades at any cost led them to give up on the weakest students, who are seen as getting in the way."

Another teacher, from Tel Aviv, said that this message was made explicit by the ministry. "At teacher training sessions over the summer we were told that the weakest group is pretty much doomed from the outset, so we should concentrate on trying to get the slightly stronger students to make it to the matriculation exams," she said. "Many teachers were appalled by these statements, which contradict the very idea of education. The instructors had trouble rationalizing it as well. It's inconceivable how such a plan can meet the policy of reducing education gaps."

Another criticism voiced by teachers concerned the vetting process for the program. The exams used by the schools to vet the students are held one or two months into the 7th grade school year.

"Kids come to junior high from several different elementary schools," one math teacher said. "There can be all kinds of reasons for gaps - some kids didn't get along with their math teachers in the year before, others are busy coping with the new school and for some studies are not at a top priority. Vetting them in the very first months of junior high is far too early."