Givatayim classroom Dan Keinan
A Givatayim classroom. Photo by Dan Keinan
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The Education Ministry is considering changing the math curriculum in high schools, due to harsh criticism leveled by academics and ministry officials at both the method of study and the extent to which it is dictated by the bagrut (matriculation ) exams.

A recently appointed committee is now formulating new study programs to replace the current ones.

"The exam policy dictated by education ministers of every stripe does not enable an orderly study program to be carried out," said an internal ministry position paper obtained by Haaretz.

Students' performance "on international exams, matriculation exams and in universities shows this policy's destructive effects on the understanding of mathematics at every level," continued the paper, written by the ministry's division for curriculum planning and development and its professional advisory committee on mathematics. "Students' preparation for higher education in math-related subjects is extremely deficient and has been deteriorating in recent years."

The new committee, headed by Prof. Ron Livne of the Einstein Institute of Mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was appointed a few weeks ago to formulate four new programs of math study - applied, general, scientific and mathematical.

The applied program is designed for students who will need very little math in their work or the rest of their high-school career. It will focus on mathematics in everyday life.

The general program is for students who will go on to study the humanities and social sciences in college. It is designed for students enrolled in what is today the three-unit program, on a scale that ranges from one to five units.

The scientific program is for students who will need a considerable amount of math in their future studies, such as for economics or statistics courses.

The final program is for students who intend to major in a math-related field at university, such as physics or engineering.

Until now, math classes in Israel have mainly taught techniques for solving problems, by having students solve countless equations. The new system will emphasize relationships among various areas of math and seek to increase understanding of the subject and make it more relevant.

"The program today emphasizes technical skills, mainly due to its convenience for preparing students for exams and giving them a grade," the paper said.

Prof. Azriel Levy of Hebrew University, who heads the ministry's mathematics advisory committee, said "the present level of study is completely different from what it was in the past. Today the 'Bible' of preparing for the math matriculation exam is an exercise book like Benny Goren's. That is very bad ... We would like study books that teach children to think, not only to solve exercises."

The position paper noted that the last math curriculum "was written more than 30 years ago, and neither the textbooks nor the teachers pay any attention to it. The structure of the exams determines what is actually taught - and not the other way around ... The exams determine not only the content of the studies, but their character and substance: a massive amount of technical drilling, division into numerous subtopics whose relationship with each other is never explained ... The students are drilled in solving exercises that are by and large far-fetched."

According to Levy, the sorry state of mathematics studies stems from the changes made in the matriculation exams by previous education ministers, mainly in a bid to achieve a higher pass rate.

"For the past 15 years, most of the professional staff's energy has been devoted to reducing the damage caused by the higher-ranking officials," he said.

But the biggest problem, perhaps even worse than the matriculation exams' devastating effect, is the deteriorating standard of the teachers, Levy said. "Teachers are not compensated adequately, so young people don't go into teaching."

The Education Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces are currently working on a plan to defer military service for 150 to 200 18-year old women if they study mathematics and education at an institute of higher education, Levy noted. The women would then spend their army service teaching math as soldier-teachers.