As Coronavirus Recedes, Israel Crafts a Plan to Send Its Schools Into the 21st Century

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Junior high students in Jerusalem last month.
Junior high students in Jerusalem last month. Credit: Emil Salman

Never let a crisis go to waste, the saying goes. Israeli educators are taking this to heart, crafting a plan that would give schools more autonomy while reducing the number and scope of subjects studied.

Shirley Rimon Bracha, the top education official in Tel Aviv, says Education Minister Yoav Gallant and his director general, Amit Edri, “have a historic opportunity to propel the school system into the 21st century. They must use this crisis for the benefit of the education system; it’s the disruption we were all waiting for.

“We mustn’t return to 15 subjects a week, six days a week in school inside four walls. That would take us all backward. The students and teachers need something else – and it’s in the outline of principles currently awaiting approval.”

People taking part in the discussions talk about a historic opportunity that’s facing pushback from conservatives. At issue is how middle schools – seventh through ninth grade in Israel – will operate, though 10th graders might also be thrown in the mix. The plan would take effect when the next school year starts on September 1.

Initiatives proposed by principals, teachers and education officials both locally and at the Education Ministry have merged into a plan under consideration at the ministry.

The main message is that there’s “no going back to February 2020” before the coronavirus crisis. Key questions include what and how to teach during a full or partial lockdown. And what social role does school play and how does it provide students with emotional support? What from the past year should be preserved to improve teaching?

In recent months, education officials, teachers and principals from around the country have hashed out their ideas. Certain points have been agreed on: Smaller groups up to 25 students should be maintained, the number of subjects should be reduced and there should be more flexibility for the time and place of learning – and for teachers’ professional development.

“The coronavirus revealed the system’s weaknesses: the difficulties of independent learning, the gaps in interpersonal skills, the lack of clear objectives for middle schools,” Rimon Bracha says. “But it also revealed the strong sides – the teachers and principals who showed resolve as well as creative and flexible thinking and saved kids. We have to use this crisis to advance a new vision.”

Protesters against distance learning in Jerusalem last November.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Four clusters

According to sources inside and outside the ministry, the plan calls for fewer subjects to be taught at middle school, while dividing them into four clusters: math and science; foreign languages; humanities and social sciences such as literature, Bible, history and geography; and “softer” subjects like gym, music and art.

Half the hours in each cluster would be part of a mandatory curriculum, while the other half would be up to each school to decide. This would give principals much greater latitude. An outline of the plan is currently on the desk of Edri, the Education Ministry director general. To be implemented on September 1, a decision must be made soon.

Under the plan, lessons needn’t last 45 minutes and could be attended by students of a number of ages. Lessons outside the classroom – in the neighborhood, a park or a local community center – could be a regular part of the schedule. And schools could also decide, based on the teachers’ abilities and the students’ needs, to hold some lessons online.

Under this thinking, schools must also teach students how to study independently. One possibility is that one day a week would go to studying outside of school.

The change requires the consent of the two teachers’ organizations. The new flexibility could be a boon for teachers, with more hours available to teach small groups, develop new material, complete continuing education programs and grade papers.

The proposal also focuses on social skills like decision-making and cooperation, seen as vital for adapting schools to 21st-century demands, as has been highlighted in a report by the state comptroller.

High school students in Tel Aviv in February.Credit: Moti Milrod

Broad consensus

For now the plan is only for middle schools, but its tenets could also be applied to grades five and six as well as 10th grade. It would affect nearly half a million students; if broadened, that number would double.

The grades in focus aren’t the lower elementary grades, where the emphasis is on acquiring basic skills, or on 11th and 12th graders, who are busy preparing for their matriculation exams. It’s widely assumed that the decision to reduce the number of matriculation exams because of the coronavirus will remain in place.

Aviv Keinan, the top education official in Jerusalem, says a survey of 5,000 local educators found that the emotional crisis for students during the pandemic is the biggest challenge. Keinan says changes needed to be made both by local authorities and the Education Ministry.

Local authorities could mandate emotional support centers at schools to help students at a high risk of dropping out or falling far behind. “The Education Ministry should focus on setting the pedagogic rules of the game and give schools the latitude to implement them,” he says.

Rimon Bracha, the top education official in Tel Aviv, says “there is a broad consensus – among the top ministry officials, local governments, parents’ committees and school principals – on the need for more flexibility and an individual approach, with an emphasis on emotional and social skills. This is especially appropriate for middle schoolers.”

A source at the Education Ministry says one focus is on ways to add skills “that the coronavirus showed us are lacking – like independent study, collaborative study and interdisciplinary study.”

He says teachers’ roles could change. “Instead of dictating to students, they’ll have to act more as guides. Some teachers will fear this process, others will be elated,” he says.

“The method of supervision needs to change too – from giving instruction to professional accompaniment. There is agreement on the importance of studying in small groups and giving schools more autonomy. It’s not that one plan fits all.”

But another source at the ministry says internecine battles are likely to escalate if the plan advances. “Some people in charge of certain subjects are very opposed to giving principals more freedom. They’re afraid there will be less demand for their services. They can’t imagine a student not having to study their subject,” he says.

“These are questions that didn’t come up when the ministry made all its decisions …. Meanwhile, many officials think there’s no going back to the way things were. But for the plan to be implemented, the district superintendents will have to loosen the reins.”

This source says that in the years before the coronavirus, “the curriculum was the Bible and the teacher had to get it all in. This view is gradually changing, not just because there were fewer school days and classes, but also because parents began questioning whether everything their child was studying was really relevant.”

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