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About half the Hebrew teachers and 44 percent of math teachers in the elementary school system were not qualified to teach those subjects in the 2005-6 school year, according to a recent Central Bureau of Statistics report submitted to the Education Ministry.

English fared better, with only 28 percent of English teachers found unqualified to teach the subject, according to the report.

The data reflect a "painful reality, in which we were forced to compromise in the quality of instruction in various subjects for many years," the Education Ministry said.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir said the teachers now entering the system would be placed in positions appropriate to their specialization, but noted: "It's impossible to complete the process of professionalization in one day." As part of that process, some 3,000 teachers have undergone additional training.

A ministry official said such changes, in addition to making sure that graduates of teacher-training colleges study the subject they will be teaching during their internship, "will make it possible that ultimately, all elementary school teachers are trained to teach their specialties."

As dire as the numbers are, the report does not reflect the entire picture, since it refers only to those teachers whose specialization is recorded - between 67 percent and 72 percent of all teachers responsible for covering specific subjects. Neither the CBS nor, apparently, the Education Ministry has any information on the nature of the training received by the rest of the teachers.

The report indicates serious gaps between the different school systems. Thirty-five percent of the Hebrew teachers in the secular public schools are not qualified to teach the subject, compared to 69 percent in the religious system and 83 percent in the ultra-Orthodox schools. In the Arab sector, 68 percent of math teachers were not qualified to teach the subject, though the high rate of qualified English teachers is almost identical in the Hebrew-speaking schools and the Arabic-speaking ones.

The amount of middle school teachers who taught math, Hebrew or English in 2004-05 even though they were trained to teach other subjects was even higher, reaching 75 percent for Hebrew teachers. However, the data on middle school teachers refer only to between 45 percent and 60 percent of the teachers.

"The heads of the Education Ministry have known for many years already that a large percentage of elementary school teachers are teaching subjects they are not qualified for," a ministry official said. "But no one wants to raise a fuss, and the debates on the matter have remained internal. For a long time the belief prevailed that in elementary education, the same teacher could teach several subjects."

Another ministry official said: "It's hard to believe that the public was prepared to accept professionals working in their fields without being qualified for it or who received very minimal training, but that is precisely the reality in the schools."

Some of the data on math teachers were submitted at the Knesset's education committee last week. "There is an ongoing crisis in math instruction in the schools, and if it is not fixed quickly we will pay a very heavy price," said MK Ze'ev Elkin (Kadima).

"Our job is to ask the questions that the Education Ministry doesn't like, and push them to carry out comprehensive reforms, in the curricula and the level being demanded from the teachers."

Liat Limor, a math teacher at Merhavim school in Kfar Yehoshua, specialized in the field during her studies at Oranim College. "There is no doubt that from third grade onward you need to have a professional teachers," she said.