Science education in Israel is on the brink of collapse, the president of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology warned on Tuesday.
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Over the last 10 years, Prof. Peretz Lavie said there has been a clear decline in the knowledge level of students accepted to the Technion, especially in basic subjects like math, physics and chemistry. In addition, students are entering with very poor writing skills.
To be accepted to the Technion, students must score above a certain level on both the bagrut (matriculation) exams and the psychometric exam. But today, students who meet these requirements "aren't ready for university studies," he said.
Lavie's cri de coeur comes a week after the Program for International Student Assessment published the results of its latest exam, in which Israeli students ranked 41st out of 64 countries on both the math and the science tests. Equally troubling to Lavie, however, has been the multiyear decline in the number of students who even take the bagrut in scientific subjects.
"Eighty percent of the high-school students who take the bagrut didn't study physics or other sciences at all," he noted.
"Who would have believed that Israeli students would rank after Dubai and Croatia on a [PISA] exam in science and the education minister would be proud of this achievement, since we rose three places compared to the previous exam?" he added. "Science education is an existential issue for the State of Israel, and we're hiding our heads under the carpet."
Lavie attributed the decline in the number of students studying science to the fact that teens were "fleeing to marginal subjects," which are generally easier. The number of electives in which the bagrut can be taken has risen sharply over the years.
"Without forethought, we have neglected the core scientific subjects like¬ math, physics, chemistry and biology," he said.
What is particularly absurd, Lavie added, is that students can now take the bagrut in fields like environmental science, "which requires a deep knowledge of physics and chemistry, without studying those subjects at all."
On the last PISA exam, Israeli students scored an average of 447 points in math and 455 in science, whereas the international averages in those fields were 496 and 501, respectively.
Moreover, in both fields, the percentage of Israeli students who excelled was about half the international average, whereas the percentage who demonstrated the lowest level of knowledge far exceeded the international average.
"Even if there is seemingly no connection between the Carmel fire disaster and Israeli students' scores on the international PISA exam, both events reflect a similar reality, which stems from many years of neglect and Israel's warped order of priorities," Lavie said.
"Regrettably, the PISA exam results show that there is no high-level science education in our education system. We must not avert our eyes and refrain from trying to improve high-school education."
All the universities have seen a decline in the number of applicants who want to study science, Lavie continued, but "even worse [is] the huge decline in applicants' level of scientific knowledge."
"We invest enormous resources in the first year to fill in the students' [knowledge] gaps, at the expense of moving them ahead," he added. "Over the last decade, this problem has steadily worsened."
Last week, Haaretz reported that 42 percent of high-school math teachers with a college degree never studied math or any related field in college.
Moreover, 6 percent of high-school math teachers have no college degree at all. And according to Education Ministry officials, some of these teachers must nevertheless prepare students to take the math bagrut.
A few days later, Haaretz reported that 30 university math professors had signed a letter denouncing the new junior high math curriculum as "scandalously bad" and urging that it be replaced with "a saner curriculum."
The Education Ministry responded that it has worked hard for the last two years to improve math and science education in the schools, inter alia by adding classroom hours, giving teachers extra training and modernizing curricula. It has also striven to encourage outstanding students to study these fields, it said.