12-graders taking the matriculation exam in math last year.
12-graders taking the matriculation exam in math last year. Photo by Alon Ron
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In the spirit of these days, we can say that the figures now coming out indicating the ongoing decline in math education are the foundation for the next state comptroller's report. Such a report, imaginary at the moment, will show how successive education ministers, without reference to their political affiliation, ignored the deepening shortfall of teachers, not only in mathematics but in all the other sciences. This future report will also describe the expected outcome, first and foremost the loss of the ability to interact in the modern, constantly changing world in which knowledge of mathematics and other sciences is key. A whole generation is becoming lost.

Unfortunately for education ministers and their senior cadre of officials, they will not be able to claim that they did not know how serious the situation was. But the early signs are already amply evident. In the last OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development ) student assessments, known as the PISA tests, held in 2009 Israel came in 41st out of 64 countries according to its students' academic achievements.

That is very disturbing, but it is even more disturbing that only six percent of students were able to reach the two highest levels of math achievement, in comparison with 13 percent of students internationally. The percentage of Israeli students at the two bottom rungs of the ladder is also far from encouraging - 39 percent compared to 22 percent internationally.

Concerning the lowest level of proficiency in math, which 20 percent of Israeli students attained, the PISA report stated that this level places students at a severe disadvantage in their ability to integrate fully in society and the economy.

Make no mistake, the situation in the other sciences is no less grave. The problem of the lack of teachers who are experts in their fields has been well known to the Education Ministry's senior officials since the middle of the last decade. They knew it from, among other sources, Central Bureau of Statistics reports that showed even back then that the number of relatively old teachers was increasing. The Education Ministry's response at the time was mainly to deny that there was a problem. If we ignore the problem, perhaps it will go away, or at least it will become the problem of the next education minister.

But in recent years it has become impossible to ignore a reality in which school principals search in vain for science teachers, and are ready to compromise on the quality of those they eventually do find. The ministry's remedy has been a series of programs to expedite the retraining of teachers, who were then tossed, with relatively little preparation, straight into the overcrowded classrooms. The opening in the upcoming school year of the "virtual classrooms" - another invention intended to cover up the lack of teachers - is an indication that the "instant teacher" programs have failed to fill the void.

Instead of gimmicks to deal with the issue, perhaps, for a change, we might expect a policy, for example one that defines the lack of math and science teachers as a problem of national proportions.