Piron’s Reform Plans for Israeli Schools Not Working

A student sums up classes with his teacher: 'Mostly she reads from the textbook, talks about it in class. Maybe first she writes it on the blackboard. Maybe we ask some questions, homework – pretty standard stuff.'

Alon Ron

Two years after the initiation of former Education Minister Shay Piron’s school reform, a comprehensive study conducted by the National Authority for Evaluation and Measurement in Education has found that high-school students, those most affected by the reform, are not satisfied with it.

The students report that they do not feel that the reform has brought about a significant change in their relations with teachers, in applying new modes of learning or in the relevance of what they learn to their lives.

The reform began as an ambitious vision held by Piron and underwent some changes and adaptations while he was still in office. Its inception was during the 2013 election, when Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid promised to reduce the number of matriculation test subjects to only three or four. The overarching goal was to bring about a major pedagogic change, designed to make studies more meaningful, of value and relevance to the pupil, instead of focusing on achievements and marks, as was the case during the term of his predecessor, Gideon Sa’ar.

Despite the changeover in ministers and the replacement of Dr. Nir Michaeli, the head of the ministry’s pedagogic council who led the reform, the reform guided pedagogic thinking at the ministry. The most impact it had was on high schools, where matriculation exams in the 10th and 11th grades were cancelled, in order to enable studying that wasn’t geared to preparation for tests.

The curriculum was divided into 70 percent regular material, with a national-level exam at the end, and 30 percent that is studied in depth, with written assignments or group projects replacing exams. Teachers were given discretion in choosing these projects, and this is apparently going well in some schools.

In primary schools, principals have more flexibility in determining the content of up to one quarter of the material. They also have more freedom in designing better assessment methods for students, other than exams. The overall idea is to prepare students for life in the 21st century, making studies more relevant and of value in relation to these needs.

The evaluation of this reform spanned two years, with extensive surveys and quality interviews. A sample of 261 schools was used, with 189 principals, 1,037 teachers and 6,133 students responding to questionnaires. In-depth interviews were held with 44 people in different positions in all districts. Sixteen schools in the state-education stream were sampled, 12 of them Hebrew-speaking and four schools in which Arabic is the main language. In each school interviews were held with a principal, a subject coordinator, a teacher and a group of students. Observations were made in classes as well.

The study concluded that the reform was particularly unsuccessful in high schools – a view shared by students and teachers alike. Most high-school students said they didn’t even understand how the new system was supposed to work or how they were supposed to be graded under it, and only 30 percent actually liked it. As for teachers, only about half approved of the reform.

Moreover, students overwhelmingly opposed the decision to stop letting them take some matriculation exams at the end of 10th grade or the middle of 11th grade. Presently, all exams are taken at the end of 11th grade or in 12th grade. Only 14 to 15 percent of Hebrew-speaking students supported this change, although support was higher among Arabic speakers, for reasons the researchers could not explain.

Teachers and principals were also opposed, saying students now have to take too many exams all at once, which is very hard for weaker students. The students themselves voiced similar complaints.

The new system was also supposed to enable fewer exams and more alternative types of learning, but this happened only infrequently. For instance, only 47 percent of students said they had participated in a debate, 43 percent had worked in small groups in class, 22 percent had done a research paper, 19 percent had carried out a project on a topic they chose for themselves and 17 percent had given an oral report.

Moreover, when alternative forms of learning did take place, students were not always happy. For instance, some students said they did not know how to write a research paper, and their teachers did not give them the help they needed.

The reform also failed in its goal of making school seem more relevant to students. Only 35 percent said they thought their studies were applicable to real life, 36 percent thought they were learning about important intellectual issues, 44 percent found their studies interesting, 47 percent found them challenging and 32 percent said their teachers encourage creativity and originality.

Yet another major goal that wasn’t met was improving student-teacher relationships: Only 35 percent of students thought most of their teachers really listened to them and 29 percent thought their teachers knew them personally, although these figures were up slightly from the previous year.

“Nothing’s really changed since last year,” one student summed up, adding, in reference to his teacher, “Mostly she reads from the textbook, talks about it in class. Maybe first she writes it on the blackboard. Maybe we ask some questions, homework – pretty standard stuff.”