Students are pleased with the change; their teachers are not so impressed
Although she describes working with smaller groups of pupils as "a dream come true," and despite her recent raise in pay, Einat Amar from Hameuhad Elementary School in Yeruham says she still feels shortchanged.
The raise, which she received in the framework of the Education Ministry's reform plan for elementary schools, does not cover the added work hours she is now required to put in, Amar, a mother of three, complains.
Some 315 different schools have so far adopted the reform plan, which is based on 36 weekly hours for teachers - an addition of six hours compared to the previous work program. The teachers received a 26-percent salary raise for the extra hours.
Next year, an additional 700 schools are scheduled to be included in the reform, whose implementation is expected to last six years. In addition to adding teaching hours, the reform also revolutionizes how teachers convey the material.
Twenty-six hours of the 36 are devoted to frontal classroom teaching. Five hours are devoted to working in small groups of around five pupils. Five more hours are meant for meetings, preparation of lessons and checking tests.
But for teachers who are mothers, like Amar, the deal is not so rosy. They receive a special concession from the ministry, which allows them to work fewer hours.
Except the reform made mothers exempt not from the frontal class hours, but from the preparatory hours. Yet, they still have to go over homework assignments, grade tests and prepare lessons. And so, in effect, many teachers who are mothers complain the reform has cost them their special status - which used to mean less work for the same pay.
It is in work sessions for small groups of pupils that Amar is able to teach the children how to search the Internet for information, and how to properly use it as a reference. "It's much easier to do [that] in small groups," says Tal Berko from the fifth grade, echoing his teacher's feelings.
The advantages attached to working with small groups seemed to have had something to do with allaying the initial fears and resistance that many teachers felt toward the reform, whose cost is estimated at NIS 5 billion.
Schools are able to autonomously decide how to use the five hours that are dedicated for teaching small groups of students. They can, for example, devote that time to groups of advanced students, focus on the mediocre or direct the teachers toward improving the condition of pupils with poor scores.
The school at Yeruham opted for the latter option. Hameuhad is now able to assign one of its first-grade teachers to sit with a group of three pupils who are having trouble with reading. Before the reform, any help such student received would have had to come during the regular class.
The degree of attention such pupils would receive was in direct proportion to the overall number of pupils in class. "It used to be that I was able to give each pupil five minutes," recalls Amar. "The good pupils can manage on their own, but they need encouragement, too. So that means that the pupils who suffer the most from this are the mediocre pupils and the ones with the lowest scores."
One of the pupils in the small-group program, Amar says, has recently received a score of 78 out of a 100 in math, after consistently failing every test before entering the special program. "That's a direct result of the study group format, which allows us to address specific learning deficiencies that some of the pupils have," Amar says.
Another component that helps improve pupils' ability to cope with material pertains to orderly management. As part of the work hours devoted to teacher preparation, the teachers are achieving closer supervision over how their pupils are doing. They are getting paid to review progress reports and prepare an individually-tailored work program for each pupil, Rachel Sivoni, Amar's principal, explains.
Instead of focusing on the pupils with the lowest test scores, most teachers at Weizmann Elementary in Herzliya opted to spend the small-group hours on the mediocre pupils, as the ones with lower test scores were already receiving additional lessons.
Sivoni describes the reform as an exercise in "goal-oriented education," adding that "in essence, every homeroom teacher is the principal for her or his own class."