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In the last stage of its battle against violence and for increased discipline in schools, the Education Ministry has decided to give students in grades 7-12 a mark for behavior in every subject. The mark will be given according to a "behavior index" determined by the ministry; its final version will determined by the schools.

The mark is not a verbal evaluation but a numerical grade that will appear beside academic scores on report cards. It will also be printed on high-school diplomas to serve as an added consideration in the admissions process at institutions of higher education.

The new directive will be published in one of the upcoming Education Ministry director-general bulletins, and will take effect this very school year. The "behavior index" will be used, for example, to determine how many points will be deducted for cursing, talking during class or drawing graffiti on the school walls.

"Students' achievements are assessed according to diverse tools and on the basis of defined criteria, and are reflected in educational accomplishments only," stated the plan submitted by the department for secondary-school education at the Education Ministry.

"Grades for behavior are occasionally given without clear and uniform criteria and usually as a general and verbal evaluation. Therefore, at the same time as the evaluation of educational accomplishments, the behavioral skills of each student should be evaluated, using a detailed and uniform scale," the plan stated furthermore.

According to the plan, teachers will give students two grades for every subject: one for educational accomplishments and another for behavior.

The report card will indicate the grade for behavior in class - an average of all the teachers' grades in all subjects - as well as a grade for student behavior outside of classes.

"The pedagogic council (of the school) must determine, to the fullest possible extent, guidelines to ensure maximum uniformity among teachers in giving behavior grades, while emphasizing appropriate categories, behavioral categories relating to each category and quantifying their value in a grade for each category. The council will set a grade scale for behavior that will be published and clarified in the school regulations," states the plan.

Encouraging positive actions

The plan also offers a proposal for behavior that should be checked during class time, recess and extracurricular activities: "The use of abusive language, insults, aggression, chattering, cursing, disrespect of adults, graffiti, vandalism and more."

In addition to the close monitoring and sanctions for negative behavior, the Education Ministry is also suggesting that schools address and encourage "positive actions," such as maintaining clean surroundings and being polite and willing to help friends.

The behavior grade will not be affected by student absences. These are already factored into the grade for academic achievements via the "portion system," according to which grades are lowered for unjustified absences. Here, too, stiff rules have been laid down: Students are entitled to be absent for one day to mourn the death of a close relative and for family celebrations.

"The issue of grades for behavior was until now completely unstructured," explains the director of the secondary education department, Yaffa Fass.

"Schools sometimes gave grades and sometimes an evaluation, but there was no standard approach to the matter. Our goal is to clearly define the behavioral demands of the students and to create as precise and reliable a behavioral measure as possible to ensure that the same behavior will prompt the same reaction from different teachers. Our deliberation at the moment is over how to quantify the negative actions."

"In the name of administrative principles of increasing order, they impose on us new directives every few years that are supposed to fortify the control and supervision of students, and in so doing also resolve all the problems of violence in the schools," says the principal of a large high school in the Tel Aviv area.

"It's a narrow-minded approach, which sees the students as enemies, and the only thing they want to do is basically destroy and disrupt. Talking in class is perhaps caused by the presence of a bad teacher, spraying graffiti can be an authentic form of expression, and even being disrespectful is sometimes a call for help. The new plan does not address educational values such as listening to or dialogue with students. Apparently, that is no coincidence."

Counter to the relative toughness toward students, it seems the senior Education Ministry officials know how to demonstrate organizational flexibility.

Over the summer, the ministry issued a booklet of goals to elementary and secondary schools. The booklet, dozens of pages long, lists, among other things, the number of class hours that should be taught in each subject.

However, in a letter to junior high-school principals, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and the former director general of the ministry, Shmuel Abuav, write, "unfortunately, at this stage the total allotment of hours does not allow for the full program to be implemented," and "we are aware of the difficulties caused by the gap between the desired program and the allocation of hours in practice. Therefore, we are making efforts to ensure that as early as the next school year, we will be able to implement the plan more fully."

Over the last seven years, the average number of study hours per student (a measure calculated by dividing the number of weekly study hours per class by the number of students in it) dropped in middle schools in the Jewish state-run schools from 1.51 to 1.43.

Like good household help

Against the backdrop of the secondary-school teachers strike that starts today (unless it's canceled or postponed at the last minute), and a moment before the Finance Ministry claims that high-school teachers work very little, as reflected in a "reasonable salary," it would be wise to review the international figures, published recently in the comprehensive report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

According to the 2007 Education at a Glance report, annual salaries for middle-school teachers with 15 years of seniority in dollar terms are $18,055 compared to an average of $40,332 in OECD-member states. Among the 30 countries for which comparative data is available, Israel ranked second from the bottom, slightly ahead of Hungary.

Concerning the average number of students per class, the figure in Israel for middle schools is 31.7 students, compared to an international average of 23.8.

The number of weeks per year that high-school teachers work stands at 42 (first among the countries surveyed, along with Denmark), and the number of classroom teaching hours in middle schools stands at 788 hours, compared to an average of 707 hours.

Finally: An annual investment per student in secondary education in Israel amounted to $6,066 compared to an average of $7,276 in OECD countries.

Back to the strike. According to Finance Ministry figures, the average salary of secondary-school teachers is estimated at NIS 7,800 per month.

The Teachers' Association, however, puts the average salary (after 20 years of seniority) at around NIS 7,000.

According to senior officials in the organization, each month a teacher teaches around 100 class hours and spends another 100 hours or so marking tests, preparing lessons, attending school meetings and performing other duties.

Recent surveys by the Teachers' Association found that a teacher earns around NIS 35 per hour - about the same as household help and babysitters.