Getting an F for Teaching Too Much

What happens when the Education Ministry curriculum clashes with the reality of too few classroom hours and a policy that values test scores above all else?

For Henya Winter, a longtime history teacher at the Heh Comprehensive High School in Rishon Letzion, the result has been repeated reprimands for teaching in accordance with the official curriculum rather than sticking to the material likely to show up on the matriculation exam.

Expanding students' knowledge and holding class discussions "are perceived as unimportant and irrelevant," says Winter. "The school has only one aim - to succeed as much as possible on the matriculation exams. This is indeed an important goal, but here it has become an obsession."

Winter's case is not unique. Schools are judged by their students' test scores, even as teachers have increasingly less time to teach. Education Ministry budget cuts have led to eight classroom hours a week being slashed in high schools, and many high school teacher no longer bother trying to cover all the material in the curriculum.

Sin of 17 lessons

Winter began teaching in 1972, and has been at Heh Comprehensive for nearly 20 years. But though her experience has shown her the importance of conveying historical context, she says she has been criticized for teaching topics like Hellenism - without which, she argues, "it is impossible to teach the Hasmonean revolt" - and spending too long on the Balfour Declaration and World War II.

"How is it possible to understand the charter of the British Mandate without teaching about the Balfour Declaration?" asks Winter. "How is it possible to teach about the death camps in Poland without talking about World War II? Instilling knowledge requires time, and my 'sin' is that I devote 17 lessons to these topics instead of making do with five."

"Winter is just doing her duty," says Secondary School Teachers Association chairman Ran Erez. "The role of teachers is not only to prepare for exams, but also to teach and to instill a broad education."

However, over the past two years, Kish has been pushing his teachers to adhere closely to the material likely to appear on that year's matriculation exam, says Winter. But though other teachers encourage rote memorization, her own students do no worse on the exam than those in other classes, she says.

Last year the principal examined the notes of one of Winter's students. He approved topics that appeared in the Education Ministry-issued Focus guidelines - which indicate the material on which the students will be tested that year, though they cover only about half the original ministry-authorized curriculum - while other subjects elicited negative comments.

"I hope that you are taking care to teach and test your students in accordance with the Education Ministry instructions and in accordance with the published Focus," Kish wrote in a note to Winter some three months ago.

But he told Haaretz he has not ordered the teachers to restrict lessons to the Focus guidelines, and denies reprimanding any teachers for covering subjects that do not appear in them.

Improving student scores is "indeed the primary aim of the school," says Kish, "but it is not the only aim."

"It is not possible to teach all of history in three years in high school or even in the 12 years of the education system, and therefore the ministry has determined which topics it's important to teach," he says. "Every teacher is required to suit the curriculum to the class, in accordance with the existing number of class hours, to help the students achieve."