Education Experts Slam Cuts in New School Culture Plan

Education experts have slammed an Education Ministry decision to teach a pluralistic Israeli culture program for just one hour a week in seventh and eighth grades.

The heads of the public committee that drafted the curriculum, Professor Avi Saguy of Bar-Ilan University and Dr. Ron Margolin of Tel Aviv University, say it is impossible to teach the material in so little time. "Have principals and teachers been told that the presented plan cannot be implemented because the ministry has given up in advance on making it practical?" the pair wrote recently in a letter to Education Minister Yuli Tamir, adding: "We will not be willing to cooperate with a failure foretold."

Two and half months ago, the ministry presented the new curriculum, which is slated to replace "100 concepts in heritage, Zionism and democracy" - a flagship project of Tamir's predecessor, Limor Livnat - next year. Tamir, like many teachers and academics, never concealed her criticism of the 100 concepts plan, in part because it focused on rote learning rather than deeper understanding. Thus about a year ago, the ministry appointed Saguy to head a public committee to create a new "Israeli culture" curriculum.

According to the committee's report, which the ministry adopted, schools were to choose a few major themes that would be examined via traditional Jewish texts, including biblical verses and commentaries, as well as via Hebrew literature, poetry, essays and journals. "Our point of departure is cultural and not religious, so we adopted an egalitarian approach to the texts," the report stated. "No particular canon was granted preferential status. Students in state schools will meet the entire Jewish cultural spectrum in order to create their own relationship with the totality of the sources."

When the plan was presented, Tamir said it would "bring the student closer to the Jewish library while creating meaningful discussion. Learning in an experiential, intriguing and challenging manner will create graduates who feel at home in Israeli culture and have tools for critical analysis. I am certain the curriculum will help students develop a Jewish identity from within the values of tolerance and pluralism."

However, Saguy and Margolin say the change the committee sought to implement is now in danger. "Our willingness to head the committee was based on a commitment to a two-hour study program over seventh and eighth grade," they wrote to Tamir. "We emphasize that had we known in advance of the reduction, for budgetary reasons, to a one-hour program, we would never have gotten involved in planning a curriculum that cannot be implemented."

They added: "Due to our acquaintance with you, we believed you planned to seriously implement this important turnaround. Due to our acquaintance with your academic work, we believed you were willing and able to bequeath a Jewish, Israeli and national culture to a generation whose cultural references are becoming more paltry."

Tamir stated in response that "the direction charted by the committee is proper and appropriate, and we are beginning to implement it in the existing classroom hours, with plans to add hours in the future." Tamir added that other efforts for educational change, like a failed reform of the elementary education system, shows that implementation in the field is critical. "It is impossible to create real infrastructure overnight. It is a slow process."