Three Years On, New Horizon School Reform Blamed for Teacher Burnout

Reform promised changes that would give more emphasis to one-on-one work with students, reduce the amount of time teachers spent preparing at home and provide compensation for all the hours they spend on the school premises.

When the new school year starts on Thursday, every elementary school in the country will be part of the New Horizon (Ofek Hadash ) reform.

Three years after the program - described as "a turning point for education in Israel" - was introduced gradually into thousands of schools, teachers seem to be satisfied mainly with their higher salaries: Educators who are members of the Teachers' Union receive a raise of 17 to 27 percent for participating in New Horizon. But in addition to the financial benefit, the reform promised changes that would give more emphasis to one-on-one work with students, reduce the amount of time teachers spent preparing at home and provide compensation for all the hours they spend on the school premises.

Teacher at New Horizon - David Bachar - August 2011
David Bachar

On the occasion of the start of the new year, Haaretz returned to schools where New Horizon was first introduced to appraise its results. They were very disappointing.

"Teacher burnout has undoubtedly increased since New Horizon was introduced," declares a supervisor for one of the elementary schools, who did not want her name used.

"The scope of work of the teachers was increased - both in terms of classroom hours and the number of hours they are supposed to be in school, but in practice there's also more work and more tasks for them to do. There's no time to deal with basic things like grading tests and assignments, much less to also create lesson plans for the one-on-one hours," she says.

Under the reform, each teacher is required to give 26 hours a week of classroom instruction and another five hours a week of small-group instruction, working with anywhere between one and five students at a time. The staff must also remain on school grounds for an additional five hours a week, during which they are expected to carry out various tasks.

According to teachers who spoke to Haaretz, at least two hours a week are set aside for preparatory meetings.

"The number of hours remaining after all the meetings is laughable," says the principal of an elementary school in the north, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The computerization program we have to participate in, writing lesson plans and grading tests - these aren't things you do in three hours a week. I'm not even talking about the fact that a large part of the work in elementary schools is engaging with parents during after-school hours. That isn't counted, it's not considered part of the five hours the teachers are required to be in school every week," she adds.

'Not psychologists'

"Teachers are expected to sit with small groups of students, or even individual ones, and give them emotional and social assistance, but we don't have the training for this. We're not psychologists or guidance counselors, and no one is teaching us to deal with such situations," one sixth-grade teacher says.

Teachers and principals alike note that these small-group encounters, which are divided into instructional hours and emotional-social support hours, are among the most important components of the reform. However, they claim the Education Ministry does not give the schools the freedom to determine when and how to conduct them.

"If they gave us the right to decide, we could remove a small group of students who are having trouble coping with the classroom material and bring them up to speed, avoiding having students go home at the end of the day feeling frustrated because they didn't understand what was taught in class," the inspector notes.

"When we did that we received a written reprimand from the Education Ministry. How can you expect a failing child to remain alert enough so that at 2 P.M., at the end of the school day, he can learn the material he didn't understand in the first place instead of eating, resting or going to extracurricular activities?"

Prof. Yuli Tamir, who was education minister when the New Horizons agreement was signed with the Teachers' Union, opposes the prohibition on carrying out small-group study at the expense of regular classroom time. "The individual hours are intended to give the principals pedagogical flexibility - they're the ones who are supposed to decide how to use this tool."