A Curriculum Rotten to the Core

A core curriculum should include knowledge, skills and values that the Education Ministry believes represent a common denominator shared by all graduates of the nation's school system.

Here's a riddle: The fact is that ultra-Orthodox students barely study disciplines like English or science, and study only very basic mathematics. So how is it that the Education Ministry certifies virtually all ultra-Orthodox schools as fulfilling the country's mandatory core curriculum requirements?

The facts underlying this riddle appear in a report titled "Core curriculum studies in the ultra-Orthodox education system" released by the Knesset Research and Information Center. As it turns out, the ministry's program for the ultra-Othodox is a sham, and it undermines the basic rationale of having a mandatory core curriculum. Core curriculum studies in ultra-Orthodox schools do not include English or science, and it is only compulsory to study math at elementary level. Instead, the ministry's program features subjects studied in any Orthodox institution: the sacred texts and Hebrew. So it turns out that this is not a core curriculum in any educational sense; rather, its purpose is to hold together the core of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.

A core curriculum should include knowledge, skills and values that the Education Ministry believes represent a common denominator shared by all graduates of the nation's school system. The curriculum is supposed to prepare graduates for integration in the Israeli workforce and society, and it is supposed to bridge the huge gaps between the country's different communities.

When the new school year starts, ultra-Orthodox children will represent a quarter of the students in first-grade classrooms, among Israel's Jewish majority. There are therefore very few issues that will exert as much influence on the future of Israeli society as the scope of the core curriculum in Haredi schools. By fashioning a skewed core curriculum for ultra-Orthodox schools, the Education Ministry has neglected its public responsibility; and it is allocating huge sums of money to Haredi schools in the knowledge that their educational methods imperil the state's future. The keepers of this phony core curriculum program are paving the way for Israel's plunge to the status of a third-world country.

The main problem is ultra-Orthodox education for boys. Most Haredi girls study general subjects on a fairly wide scope, because they are expected to work and support their pious husbands. The vast majority of ultra-Orthodox boys are enrolled in educational institutions defined either as "recognized but not official," or as exempted (meaning that the level of monitoring of their programs is very low ).

We should be very clear: These are institutions that receive state funds. Exempted institutions receive 55 percent of what state schools are given, while recognized but unofficial institutions get 75 percent. So what sort of education is the state funding in these institutions? With respect to the core curriculum in exempted institutions (grades four to six), the ministry gives permission for no English to be taught at all. In the second category of nonofficial schools, English studies are negligible: two hours a week.

A survey carried out by the Central Bureau of statistics revealed that English is taught in only 54 percent of ultra-Orthodox schools. In all likelihood, most of these are girls schools. A paper drafted by the Knesset Research and Information Center contends that 80 percent of Haredi males do not know any English, or speak broken English. Since learning languages is more difficult at an older age, the lack of elementary school education in English creates irreversible consequences in this community.

The total number of hours devoted to subjects other than Hebrew and religious instruction in exempted schools, in grades four to six, is about six, and this figure includes an hour for sports or arts and an hour for so-called civic studies (which can be devoted to religious subjects ). In recognized but unofficial schools, the total number of general studies hours is eight, including sports and civic studies. What permits this state of affairs is an Education Ministry rule stipulating that if a school allots only a fraction of the required number of hours for core curriculum studies, it still remains eligible for partial funds. In reality, however, core curriculum study in ultra-Orthodox schools has no depth whatsoever, and allocations awarded to them are disproportionately munificent.

The solution to this scheme is not to mess around with a separate ultra-Orthodox core study program, but rather to forge a standard core curriculum for the education system as a whole (with some necessary cultural adaptation for the different communities ). The ruse of "partial" core studies should no longer be tolerated; a school that does not offer the full core curriculum shouldn't get a nickel. Only with such strict enforcement will Haredi students receive adequate exposure to math, English, science and perhaps even civic studies.

The writer is deputy director of the nonprofit organization Hiddush for Religious Freedom and Equality.