Zero-sum Game? Education Ministry Looks to Arrest Math Crisis With New Program

Starting this school year, unique plan aims to stem drop in numbers studying mathematics at the highest level in high school.

Moti Milrod

Facing a crisis in math education with potentially severe consequences for Israel’s high-tech industry, the Education Ministry is launching an emergency program to coax more high-school students to study the subject at the highest level

Dubbed Math First and slated to start when the school year begins in two weeks, the program is an unprecedented public-private partnership. Its goal is to double the number of high-school students taking the highest level of math – known as “five-point math” for the matriculation exams – within five years. It also aims to double the number of students taking the physics, chemistry and engineering tracks in high school.

The number of students studying the highest level of math has been dropping precipitously in recent years, even though math skills are a critical component of the country’s high-tech industry. Israel suffers a shortage of trained teachers, and Israeli students routinely perform poorly on the international PISA achievement tests conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In 2012, the number of students taking the highest level matriculation math exam was less than 10% (about 9,000 in total) of all students. Yet only six years earlier it was 30%. The most popular level for students is the lowest one, known as three-point math.

The ministry is initially expected to offer some 100 schools incentives to participate and encourage students to study high-level math and science. The focus will be on 11th and 12th graders this year, and gradually be expanded to all high-school grades in subsequent years.

Hoping that at least 20% of students every year will study science tracks “to represent Israel among the 20 leading countries in education for excellence,” the ministry is allocating 13 million shekels ($3.75 million) for the plan in its first year.

The initiative to strengthen math education in particular, and science and technology education in general, began in 2013, with some 100 private and public bodies involved. Worried about the level of science and technology education in Israel, and the Education Ministry’s ability to improve it, many high-tech companies have joined in the initiative. For example, Intel – the U.S. semiconductor company – operates a program in which it sends its engineers to schools, inspiring students to focus on math and science studies.

The ministry will lead the project and fund it in conjunction with the municipalities. Municipalities ranked in the lowest socioeconomic levels will receive full funding from the ministry for the program. It will be the first time the ministry has joined with private bodies under a single program.

Other institutions taking part in the program include museums and universities, as well as high-tech companies, which will offer students opportunities such as visits and lectures.

For now, the incentives will focus on supporting math teachers and providing more classroom time for math in schools. Various nonprofit organizations will aid students by offering tutoring and enrichment activities in math, focusing especially on students from lower socioeconomic levels.

The incentives will include five additional classroom hours a week in math for any school participating in the program, to be divided up by the principal as they see necessary. The additional hours can also be used to provide tutoring or small group instruction – or lowering class size.

The ministry will also allocate additional funds for training math teachers – especially those who have yet to qualify for teaching the highest levels, enabling them to do so.

Other funds will be used to provide mentoring for math tutors by more experienced teachers, as well as establishing a network for promoting math education between schools and principals.