Israeli Schools Aren’t Teaching, So Tutors Are Doing It for Them

Teacher shortage and overcrowded classrooms leave parents no choice but to seek private help, even for young children

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Female student listening to private teacher reading book at table in home.
Student listening to private teacher reading book.Credit: Antonio_Diaz / iStockphoto / Get

Shira, a fifth-grade pupil at a central Tel Aviv high school, has two private lessons a week, in the subjects of Hebrew and English. Her mother Natalie says she’s a good student, but that what they teach in school is insufficient.

“I want more; it’s important for me that she succeeds” says Natalie. “My daughter is doing well compared to the school average, but I realized that if I don’t invest in my children they won’t get anywhere. It’s the same everywhere, all children have private tutors.”

Shira’s brother Shai, who’s in second grade, has had a private tutor since first grade. Natalie says he still doesn’t read or write well, but when she asked the school for individual help she was turned down. “I begged them, but the school said there were 400 pupils who needed help and there was no budget for that. My son was the 401st. Everyone’s in line.”

Indeed, Natalie is not alone. In contrast to past practice, parents are now finding tutors for their children already in elementary school. According to the Education Ministry, 41% of elementary school pupils take private lessons, as do 45% of pupils in junior high and high schools.

In an analysis done by the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2018 at the request of TheMarker, parents across the country paid a total of 860 million shekels ($250 million) for private lessons.

The statistics bureau says that parents pay an average of 275 shekels a month for extracurricular activities. Parents in the upper two income deciles pay 682 shekels a month, nine times more than parents in the lower two deciles.

Private lessons cost between 60 shekels an hour in ultra-Orthodox communities and 100-120 shekels an hour in peripheral areas. The going rate in Tel Aviv is 150-200 shekels an hour. The older the pupil the more tutoring costs.

The burden is not easy. A woman who asked not to be identified has a son in the fifth grade in a school in Israel’s central district. She pays for two lessons a week, in math and language arts. She pays 150 shekels for the former and 120 shekels for the latter. This works out to 1,000 shekels a month, with extra lessons before exams.

“In class he just passes the time, he doesn’t really learn anything there,” the woman says. “He’s a dreamer. His significant learning takes place through private tutors or with me.”

The system doesn’t oppose the idea of private lessons, it actually encourages them. Parents we talked with tell of teachers who recommended enriching their children privately. Officials in the education system confirm that this is the situation.

Pressure percolates down

“Parents have assumed responsibilities the schools have handed over,” says one principal in central Israel. “The ministry demands more achievement and exerts pressure, which percolates downwards to the last teacher, and from there to pupils and their parents. Parents are competitive and want their kids to do better,” he says.

“It’s the parents’ responsibility to complete covering the material.”

Sharing technology such as apps have added to the pressure placed on parents to seek supplemental tutoring for their children. The apps were supposed to increase trust between parents and schools and show the parents what happens in class and what progress their children have made. But in effect these apps have become an instrument for passing responsibility over to parents. They inform the parents of what homework needs to be done and what their children’s status is in every subject. The message they get is that they are the ones who need to see that their children integrate well into the system.

Education officials are aware of this: “Parents may believe this is a collaborative effort, but that’s not the case,”says one elementary school principal. “When I email parents every day what we did in class that day, I’m actually telling them that it’s their (the pupil’s) responsibility to complete the material. There’s more pressure before selection for junior high schools due to the competition over prestigious schools. Pupils use more tutors at that time.”

A report by the Ministry of Education from 2018-2019 shows that 45% of junior high and high school pupils had after-school tutors, similarly to previous years. In elementary schools the use of tutors has grown with 41% of fifth and sixth graders saying they used private tutors in math, English, science or language arts. In 2008, the rate was 36%.

Among Jewish pupils the rate was 42%, with 38% of Arab pupils availing themselves of this service. In junior high schools, the corresponding rates are 47% and 41%. In high schools, these rates are 49% and 37%, correspondingly.

“The education system should ask itself how is it that 40% of pupils take private lessons, thereby expressing a lack of trust in their schools,” says Prof. Yoram Harpaz, an expert in education and a lecturer at Beit Berl College. “When parents send their kids to tutors, they’re telling schools that they don’t trust teachers and their methods, and that they don’t think teachers see their children as individuals.”

Some lessons help pupils keep up with their classes but in other cases tutors strengthen children in areas in which parents feel the system is not doing enough. Thus, for example, one woman with three children has hired a private English tutor for them for lessons twice a week. Each child gets one hour with the tutor.

It started when her oldest child was in grade one, when the woman realized he’d only start learning English in grade three.

“He had started [extra-curricular] English in kindergarten and I didn’t want him to forget what he’d learned” she says. When they started English later, she was convinced she’d made the right decision. “They’re now in 6th grade, still learning the names of objects. It’s important to me that they learn English at a high level.”

Harpaz says the key lies in individually tailored teaching in which the teacher sees every child.

“Learning is an entire spiritual process, not a mechanical one. It can only succeed when a pupil is given individual attention. Doctors also treat patients on an individual basis, according to their specific needs. No department head would declare that ‘today, everyone gets an enema’ or ‘today, everyone gets an infusion.’

Tailored-learning model

“Schools should strive for a model of tailored learning, even though it’s an expensive model. You sometimes see pupils who’ve failed in math for 12 years all of a sudden getting top marks in math matriculation exams after 10 private lessons,” he says.

In 2008, the state signed a new wage agreement with elementary and junior high school teachers. In 2011, an agreement was signed with high school teachers as well. As part of this agreement, schools provide individual lessons to pupils with difficulties, given by their teachers in small groups. This program has not been implemented on a sufficiently large scale yet, which is why achievements are not improving yet.

“Individual learning is very effective, but only when done outside school” says Harpaz. “Paradoxically, it’s ineffective when done in school. In private lessons, pupils know their parents are paying, they choose the tutor and the entire hour is devoted to them. Motivation is therefore much higher. Moreover, in private lessons pupils don’t feel embarrassed and can admit to gaps they face.”

A former junior high school teacher in central Israel, swapped the overcrowded classrooms and the instant coffee in teacher lounges for private tutoring. Even though he makes a living off the system’s failings, he is unsparing in his criticism of parents.

“Parents are responsible for this dependency on private tutors,” he says. “They disparage teachers at school, as do the pupils, but they listen to tutors because they’re paying them,” he says. He gives an example: “When I worked in junior high, I invested in a group of weaker students, trying to push them forward. One pupil had a really tough time and I asked to meet her mother. I explained the situation in detail, but the mother said she wasn’t worried since her daughter had a calculator, and that, if required, she’d get a tutor in high school. I’ve never heard that or encountered such an attitude from private pupils. They take things seriously; they study at home and the results prove themselves.”

The Ministry of Education is confronting a growing shortage in high-quality teachers, mainly in math, English and science. Moreover, in recent years the standard of students in teacher colleges has dropped, so that less qualified teachers end up in the classroom. Due to the scarcity, principals make do with teachers who are not trained specifically in the subjects they teach, often having no background at all in that subject. According to a State Comptroller report from 2019, 60% of math teachers, 40% of English teachers and 88% of language arts teachers were not trained to teach the subjects they taught. The report noted failings in teacher training and said the ministry did not handle the crisis it faces.

Blow to student’s self-confidence

One high school principal says that “the high numbers turning to private tutors are disproportionate and can affect pupils’ self-confidence, since they rely on a tutor at home. I often encounter pupils saying they’re skipping school in order to take private lessons. The shortage in teachers, overcrowding and lack of individually-tailored teaching force pupils to seek private help”, he says.

One educator we spoke to tells of how many teachers give private lessons after hours to supplement their income, which raises questions about their functioning at school.

There are ethical issues when the children’s teacher is also their private tutor. One parent says it’s customary to take private math lessons over the summer in order to get into the specialty school of your choice. One senior official says that low wages drive teachers to supplement their income, making them devote less time to helping pupils at school and less committed to improving the system.

It’s hard to argue with the results. Despite the hefty dependence on private tutors, Israeli pupils get low marks in standardized national tests. In 2019, junior high school pupils got an average of 57 in the math test, 47 in science and technology, 63 in English and 60 in their Hebrew or Arabic mother tongue exam.

The big drama lies in pupils from weaker segments of society, whose parents can’t afford private tutors. A large portion of these pupils failed the standardized tests, and their achievements more truly reflect Israel’s education system, the one that does not rely on private tutors.

Yaron Yeger, a math lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the founder of Yegermaster, an online website providing math lessons, claims that private lessons are not the key to success in math.

“Unequivocally, you don’t need private lessons in order to succeed in math. On the contrary, when parents get children used to tutors, this can hurt them later in life. Parents support their children and help them study, but they detract from their ability to contend with difficulties independently, without private tutors. This weakens their ability to study independently, which is a major part of academic studies, especially in math,” he says.

Ornit, a mother of three – a high school student, a soldier and a science university student – says that she figured it out years ago. Even though her children were good students, she employed private tutors. Her oldest child was accepted at the Technion, and she was proud. But that wasn’t all.

“He needed to take the compulsory psychometric test twice. The first time he scored under 700, the second time over 730. He still has a tutor who helps him prepare for exams, since they do math at a very high level there. A private tutor helps him keep a finger on the pulse without falling behind.”