Again – It Isn’t Too Late
Author: Nachum Blass

Nachum Blass proposes opening the school year in small classes, in a way that would allow for uninterrupted learning for students, instruction provided by existing professional staff, and tremendous monetary savings.

נחוםIt seems that every day we hear new guidelines from the Ministry of Education regarding the opening of the new school year. What they all have in common is limiting the maximum number of students per class to 18 at all levels in primary school, a massive recruitment of teachers for the new classes, and remote learning for post-primary students. The almost inevitable results of this are three-fold: a large monetary expenditure, a dramatic decline in the level of teaching, and a serious blow to educational achievement (as well as a concomitant widening of educational gaps, of course). All this when there is a relatively simple – and much more efficient – alternative. The following relates to grades 1 to 6 only though, with some relatively easy adjustments, it could apply to the post-primary grades as well.

The suggested arrangement accepts the Ministry of Health’s regulation of a maximum of 18 students per class. Classes would be taught by existing teaching staff, and the source of the additional teaching hours required would come from decreasing the number of frontal instruction hours relative to the accepted number of hours in other OECD countries. In order to underscore that this is not totally unrealistic, it should be noted that the average class size in Israel is already among the largest in the OECD, and the number of teaching hours in primary school is 25% higher than the OECD average (and about 50% higher than in those countries that excel on international exams like Estonia, Poland, and Finland). In other words, for every primary school class in Israel that learns between five and six hours a day (29 weekly hours in grades 1-2; 32 weekly hours for grades 5-6), there are 1.7 teaching posts allocated, which is equivalent to 44 frontal teaching hours, 7.5 hours for individual instruction, and an additional 7.5 hours for other activities. This high number of hours in our education system is meant to compensate for large classes, implying, from an educational perspective, that more instruction hours means better education.

The suggested alternative is based on the following three basic principles:

  1. All primary school classes (grades 1-6) would have between 24 and 25 weekly hours of instruction spread over five days a week. Fridays would be optional, similar to the way after-school programs are currently run.
  2. In classes that are split into smaller groups, the same teachers who taught before will continue to provide instruction. Since classes will be considerably smaller, 2-3 hours of what would have been designated for “individual instruction” would now be used for frontal instruction (this is with the explicit understanding that the average number of students per class is less than 18).
  3. The need for additional classrooms could be addressed in a number of creative ways that are harmonious with the current state of things. Schools should look into closing off the ends of hallways; making use of schools that are not in operation; using empty community centers, synagogues, and libraries; renting spaces in office buildings that are currently not in use since employees are working from home; and having a quarter of the student body at any one time engaged in outdoor activities so that their classrooms can be used for other students.

The advantages of such an alternative are clear: uninterrupted learning for students, instruction provided by existing professional staff, and tremendous monetary savings from eliminating the need to hire new teaching staff on a mass scale. Beyond this, there are two other important benefits. Such an arrangement would be a good way to test both moving to a five-day school week and reducing the number of students per class – two processes that have been on the agenda of many educators in Israel for years. In order to prepare for implementing such a plan, it is best to consider delaying the start of the school year until after the High Holidays.

The following steps should be taken with the full cooperation and agreement of the teacher unions: shortening the summer vacation at the end of the upcoming school year, moving 2-3 individual teaching hours to frontal instruction time, coordinating with the local authorities, and providing clear (but minimal) guidelines for school principals so as to give them the freedom to prepare for the upcoming school year as they see fit given the specific needs of their school and students.

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