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In an unusual step, 30 university mathematics teachers from around the country have issued an open letter to Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar criticizing the new curriculum introduced into the country's junior high schools. Its harshest words are reserved for the section on geometry, which the educators say is causing "enormous damage, even to the best students."

In the letter, they urge the Education Ministry to replace the new curriculum "with a saner program."

In its response, the ministry said that in the past year changes were introduced into the curriculum prompted by feedback from schools and universities. The new curriculum, it said, was developed by experts in mathematics and in mathematics instructions, and it was approved on a trial basis. The ministry also said that it maintains close contact with university-level mathematicians and with school math teachers and introduces changes to the program as needed.

The new math curriculum has been introduced gradually into junior-high classrooms, in a process that began last year. The program was drafted by a committee of experts appointed by the education minister, over a period of eight years, in an effort to reverse the decade-long decline in the performance of Israeli schoolchildren on international tests in math.

According to its critics, "The new curriculum is scandalously awful." While the decision to teach fairly complex geometric axioms to seventh- and eighth-graders is also a bad idea, in their view, the main problem with the new curriculum is "the sloppy way the program's authors approached the subject."

Professor Ron Aharoni, of the Haifa Technion, explained: "Since the time of Euclid, in the 3rd century B.C.E., the study of geometry has begun with simple, intuitively understood axioms, such as, 'Any two points can be connected by a straight line.'"

But in the new curriculum, he said, begins with rectangles, in order to get to the Pythagorean theorem as quickly as possible. "In this method, the basic axiom is buried deep in the middle of the material being taught," he said. "It's like starting to learn mountain climbing by ascending Mount Everest. Instead of beginning with simple things, like using a ruler and compass, the new program tries to jump ahead, and the result is that the students end up not knowing the basics."

Professor Azriel Levy of The Hebrew University, who heads the ministry's mathematics advisory committee, said in response: "Do the authors think the education minister will decide which axiom to use? He might understand from this critique that that is the main problem with junior-high mathematics instruction, and that's not the case. The main problem is the teachers."

A well-trained mathematics teacher, continued Levy, "will teach his students to think with any textbook and any curriculum. A bad teacher, who lacks mastery of the material, will turn the best textbooks and the best curriculum into meaningless rote memorization."