Israel's English Teachers Quitting Over Changes in High School Curriculum

High-school teachers say addition of literature component to final assessments will impose unnecessary burden without necessarily improving English-language skills.

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Many English-language teachers are opting for early retirement because they object to recently instituted changes in the high school English curriculum, which they say impose an unnecessary burden on both themselves and their students while not necessarily improving English-language skills.

These teachers, who asked not to be identified by name so that they would feel freer to talk about their objections to the changes mandated by the Ministry of Education, say the phenomenon of early retirement is quite widespread and was prompted by the recent addition of a literature component to end-of-high-school English-language assessments – more specifically, the requirement that the English literature program serve as the main platform for teaching critical thinking skills in the Israeli school system.

Judy Steiner, the English inspectorate at the Ministry of Education, said she had no statistics available on early retirement among English-language teachers and that the initial feedback she had received on the new program was, in fact, quite positive. “Teaching literature is always a problem,” she said. “Initially, there was tremendous resistance to this program, and we did make quite a few changes based on requests from the teachers, but things are going incredibly well now. There’s a feeling that English reading and writing skills are improving.”

Many of the teachers who came forward anonymously, though, argue that the new program makes it more difficult than it was in the past for students to move up levels in English, that it results in unfair disparities in school rankings, that it exposes them to more pressure from parents to change grades, that it creates endless paperwork, and that it is overly challenging for students not placed in the highest level of English.

The changes, which affect roughly 10,000 English-language teachers in Israel, have been phased in gradually over the past few years, but this is the first year that students in five-point English classes, the highest level classes, are required to be tested on it. Students in four-point English classes, the next highest level, will be required to be tested on it in the upcoming school year. Only students who have completed one of these two levels of English are eligible for admission to universities in Israel.

“The program is driving excellent teachers out of the profession,” said one teacher from the north. “I have two friends who have already retired because of the program. I know several more who are considering early retirement. One of the younger teachers on our staff is planning to move over to another department because she doesn’t want to deal with literature. I lose sleep worrying that I am not doing enough to help my kids get through the program, and I know that I am not alone."

Death blow to literature

Another teacher from the south, who herself has opted for early retirement, had this to say: “I know quite a few other teachers who are also retiring early or not staying on as long as they had originally planned because they find these changes abhorrent.  I love English literature, and I love teaching it, but this program is killing literature for both the students and the teachers.”

For many years, literature was not a component of the English-language matriculation exams, which students typically take in 11th and 12th grade. These exams are composed of several modules, which are taken separately. Until now, the exam for five-point level students included a reading comprehension section and an essay, and the exam for four-point level students included a reading comprehension section and a listening comprehension section.

As part of the new literature program, high schools are given the choice of testing students by having them complete a new literature module on the matriculation exam or by having them complete a portfolio of assignments in literature (known as a “log”) in class and at home. Students in five-point English are tested on one play or novel, three short stories and four poems, while students in four-point English are tested on four short stories and three poems – all based on lists provided by the Ministry of Education that include literary works by Arthur Miller, W. Somerset Maugham, Bernard Malamud, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost.

Because students begin studying these works several years before the tests, it is much more difficult under the new system to move them up levels, teachers say. “If they want to move up from four to five points, they will have missed lots of work along the way, and it’s very hard now to catch up,” as one teacher noted. Steiner said she was not aware of any such problem.

English speakers to have tougher time

One group of students particularly affected by the new changes is native English speakers. In the past, these students generally performed considerably above average on the English matriculation exams, even if they entered the Israeli school system at a relatively late age as new immigrants. Under the new system, which requires considerable knowledge of specific literary works, native English speakers no longer necessarily sail through.

Teachers maintain that students at schools that choose the portfolio option over the matriculation exam option inevitably perform better because the portfolio option allows the students to complete assignments at home, often with the help of their parents. Because the teachers themselves grade the portfolios – rather than external assessors, as in the case of the matriculation exams – teachers say they are often subject to parental pressure to inflate grades on the assignments.

Indeed, the first assessments taken under the new system, this past summer, reveal a considerable disparity in grades between those schools that opted for the portfolio and those that opted for the matriculation exam module. According to Steiner, the difference was “less than 10 points” on average in favor of those who opted for the portfolio. “We knew the grades would be higher on the log because of the nature of the work involved,” she said. “But 10 points is not all that much.”

Another objection teachers have voiced is that the portfolios require immense amounts of paper work, and therefore, students are sometimes penalized on their final grade for not being organized despite having high-level English skills. “In some cases, completing the log can take up to three years,” as one teacher pointed out. “I have no room to store their stuff, and at this age, many kids simply don’t have the skills to hold onto this much paperwork in a neat and tidy fashion.”

Some of the literary works included in the new program are above the level of many four-point level students, teachers say, and these students show signs of growing frustration in class. “One piece of literature we were required to teach the four-unit kids contained a lot of African-American dialect,” said one teacher. “There’s no way they would be able to understand that. So I ended up translating it for them into English they understood.”

Most of teacher resistance to the new program stems from the requirement that the literature program be used as a key tool for developing critical thinking skills, known as Higher Order Thinking Skills or HOTS, in the Israeli school system. The new program requires teachers to emphasize, while teaching literary works, the following six thinking skills: comparing and contrasting; distinguishing different perspectives; explaining cause and effect; explaining patterns; inferring; and problem solving. On their assessments, students are required not only to answer questions that assess their language comprehension but also to cite the specific thinking skills they used to answer those questions.

“I love teaching literature, and I think literature is a fantastic way to expose children to language,” noted one teacher. “I also think it’s important for them to learn to articulate how they think, but not under conditions like this, when they’ve just only begun to learn what these HOTS are, when they’re articulating themselves in their second language, and when it’s under the pressure of a major exam.”

In response, Steiner from the Ministry of Education said that the new thinking skills requirements were, in fact, pushing students ahead. “What we’re seeing is that students are using the higher thinking skills they’re obtaining in English in other areas of life as well, and it’s been a very good thing for them,” she said.

Steiner added that the decision to require students to be tested in English literature came in response to complaints in previous years from teachers who said that it was difficult for them to teach literature in class because students knew they would not be tested on it, and therefore, did not invest time or effort in their studies.

“The whole teaching of English was turned upside down and inside out by this program, so teachers had to relearn how to teach the language, which explains a lot of the resistance,” said Fran Rubin Widerker, the literature counselor for the Jewish, Bedouin and Druze sectors in northern Israel. “I was also very opposed to it initially, but now I realize that it was an important move.”

The poll comes against the backdrop of Education Minister Shay Piron’s plan to drastically reduce the number of bagrut exams.Credit: Nir Kafri

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