Social Responsibility Moves Into the Classroom on September 1

Starting this September, elementary schools will have to devote one hour a week to an "education lesson," with the goal of strengthening values education in the schools. The lessons will focus on issues such as personal and group responsibility, caring and personal involvement.

While the "education hour" technically exists today as well, schools often use this time to teach regular classroom material instead.

Another facet of the new values education program will involve assigning every student from first grade on to various classroom tasks - simple ones, such as helping the teacher pass out worksheets, for lower grades, and more complex ones, such as helping fellow students who have been ill catch up with their work, for the upper grades. The tasks will rotate among the students, and evaluations of the students' performance will be included on their report cards. Students will not be graded, however; the evaluations will consist of either written comments or symbols, such as smiley faces.

The Education Ministry has prepared a list of some 200 tasks to which students can be assigned, in areas such as the school environment, classroom organization, road safety, recesses, school committees and the student council. The students' performance will be evaluated on four criteria: responsibility, persistence, initiative and interpersonal communication. The evaluations will be done not only by the teacher, but also by the student concerned and his or her classmates.

The completed evaluations will be posted on classroom walls, and the student in question will conclude each one with a summary statement and a "desire to improve" a particular aspect of performance.

Students will also be evaluated on their social involvement, and these evaluations, too, will appear on their report cards.

Senior Education Ministry officials attach great importance to the new program. But many professionals - including some who work in the ministry - are critical.

"It is impossible to urge, on one hand, that schools be given greater autonomy in educational activity, including values education, and then on the other hand dictate a list of subjects from which they are forbidden to deviate," said one ministry employee.

Another educator, who has been involved for years in informal education and enrichment programs, said that "instead of creating an environment in which there is real dialogue, in which the students learn to live together and respect each other, the Education Ministry has chosen to measure the students' behavior. That is the wrong approach. A school shouldn't be involved in policing the children; in the long run, that produces the opposite result: The students understand the grading of their behavior as a means of control, and react with cynicism or alienation. You need to investigate the reasons for students' behavior problems, not control them via grades. That's the easy solution: It may treat the symptoms, but not the problem itself."

But Zahava Shemesh, the ministry official responsible for the program, disagrees. "In the conferences that we are currently holding with the teachers, the response to the 'evaluation sheets' has been very positive," she said. "The teachers tell me that this is what is needed to motivate the students to demonstrate social involvement - and especially to maintain it. Part of this 'maintenance' is evaluating what the students are doing, so that everyone will know and see."

"Social involvement is a measurable activity, and the 'evaluation sheets' give the students a goal to which they can aspire," she added.