Small-group Learning to Get Ax in Israeli Schools

The Education Ministry said move due to recent reform that reduced class sizes. Parents slam move for harming 'quality of teaching, personal attention to the student.'

Pupils of the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh, January 31, 2012.
Michal Fatatl

The Education Ministry plans to gradually phase out the practice of dividing first- and second-grade classes into smaller groups of no more than 20 students for studying core subjects.

The small-group sessions are slated to be completely eliminated at the end of the 2017/18 academic year.

Small-group learning, which is used for reading, writing and arithmetic, was introduced in 2007 via an amendment to the Compulsory Education Law. The amendment stated that students in first and second grades must spend at least five hours a week studying these subjects in groups no larger than 20 pupils per teacher.

At the time the law was passed, elementary school classes could contain as many as 40 students, and in classes that size, many students had trouble mastering basic reading, writing and math skills. The goal of the law was thus to improve skills acquisition by having younger students learn these subjects in smaller groups.

The original plan was to increase the number of weekly hours spent in small groups from five to 10 in both first and second grade, but the expansion for second-graders was repeatedly postponed, so they are still spending only five hours a week in small groups.

Now the ministry plans to reduce the program still further, starting in the new school year that begins tomorrow. Second-graders will still learn in small groups five hours a week, but for first-graders, the small-group sessions will be slashed from 10 weekly hours to five.

The following year, the small-group sessions will be further reduced, and at the end of that year, they will be eliminated entirely.

The phase-out is expected to save 315 million shekels ($83 million) over the next two years. It is being implemented despite the fact that the education budget is slated to grow by 4.7 billion shekels during those years, to an all-time high of over 57 billion shekels.

Ministry: Program now redundant

The Education Ministry said it is phasing out the program because a recent reform that reduced class sizes means the small-group sessions are no longer needed. Yet many classes, especially in major cities, still have 34 pupils per class, the maximum permitted under the reform for all but the poorest communities, where the maximum is 32. There have also recently been reports that some first-grade classes have even more than 34 students, because logistical problems prevented the schools from complying with the limit.

In other words, even the new, smaller classes mean that students will be learning core subjects in much larger groups than the 20-pupil maximum set by the law. That limit was based on studies and experiments showing that larger classes impeded skills acquisition.

“To say that reducing the class size to 32 or 34 students is the same as splitting into small groups of 20 students and makes this unnecessary really shows contempt for the students and the parents,” said the mother of one boy entering first grade, who was recently informed by the school that her son’s class would have only five weekly hours of small-group learning. “It’s clear the children will be hurt by this move, and it’s too bad that all the welcome progress is coming at the expense of another achievement made in the past.”

An umbrella organization representing over 130 local parents’ committees from around the country, which organized the protests that resulted in the decision to cut class sizes to 34 students, also slammed the decision. “If the small-group hours are indeed canceled, this would be a real blow to the quality of teaching, personal attention to the student and Israeli students’ academic achievements,” the forum said in a statement. “It’s not clear how the education budget can rise, while at the same time, they’re making cuts to the very heart of teaching.”

The Education Ministry said, “Following implementation of the small class-size reform, and due to budgetary constraints, the small-group hours in first and second grades will be gradually reduced. During the upcoming school year, there will be no change. The reduction will be implemented gradually, over two years, in parallel with the expansion of the small class-size reform.”