classroom - Daniel Bar-On - October 22 2010
Elementary school students in class at the ORT school in Givat Ram Oct. 22 2010 Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Fully 42 percent of high school math teachers with college degrees did not obtain their degree in math or any related field, according to an internal report by the Central Bureau of Statistics that was recently given to the Education Ministry.

A ministry official said that inadequate education, among both upper and lower school teachers, is a major reason why Israeli students do poorly on internationally scored math exams. The study, completed in October, examines various issues connected with math education in high schools.

It found that only 22 percent of college-educated math teachers aged 45 or younger have a degree in math. Another 18 percent have degrees in math education, and 18 percent have degrees in a scientific field closely related to math, such as engineering, computers, statistics, physics or chemistry. The remaining 42 percent have degrees totally unrelated to math.

The stipulation "college-educated" is necessary because a small number of teachers have no degrees at all.

The Education Ministry responded that they were not familiar with the statistics for high school teachers.

Among teachers in their first year of teaching high-school math, the picture was also grim: Of those with college educations, 46 percent obtained their degree in fields unrelated to math, including 10 percent who studied language and literature and 8 percent who studied Bible and Judaism.

"Officially, a teacher has to have a degree in math to teach the subject in high school," said the ministry official, one of several senior ministry officials who received copies of the report. "You have to remember that these teachers prepare the students for the bagrut [matriculation] exams. But in practice, it doesn't happen. There aren't enough teachers who meet this requirement, and the result is painful compromises over the level of teaching."

Another official added, "important as additional classroom hours and new curricula are, nothing will help if the level of the teachers doesn't improve. But for this, you have to raise salaries."

The report also found that a third of teachers with bachelor's degrees did not study in universities, which offer teaching certificates specially geared toward high-school teachers, but in either teachers colleges - which specialize in training teachers for lower grades - or regular colleges.

The problem of poorly-trained math teachers is not unique to high schools.

Another Central Bureau of Statistics report, written two years ago, found that only 40 percent of junior high school teachers had any advanced education in math before they started teaching it.

"There's a connection between the teachers' level of knowledge and the students' level of achievement," said Prof. Anat Zohar, head of the ministry's pedagogical unit, after the report was issued. "The fact that there are teachers teaching in the schools whose principal formal education was not in math unquestionably harms students' achievements."

The Program for International Student Assessment released the results of its latest international exam this week, and in math, Israeli 15-year-olds ranked 41 out of 46 participating countries. On the last Meitzav exam, a national achievement test for eighth-graders, the average math score was 47 out of 100 points.

The Education Ministry responded that they were not familiar with the statistics for high school teachers.