‘Skills panic’ prompts new government effort in math education

The Start-Up Nation needs tech pros to ensure its future, and the Education Ministry’s new plan, it hopes, will develop them

Former president Shimon Peres poses with two students on a recruitment poster for the Education Ministry's new 'Five Unit' math training program. (Education Ministry)
Former president Shimon Peres poses with two students on a recruitment poster for the Education Ministry's new 'Five Unit' math training program. (Education Ministry)

If Israel is the Start-Up Nation today, it may not be for much longer — unless Israeli kids vastly improve their math skills, believes Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

In response to a sharp falloff in the number of students who “major” in mathematics in high school, Bennett on Sunday announced a new program that will significantly increase funding for math education; double the number of math teachers in schools; draft hundreds of high-tech workers to help teachers and students teach and learn math; — and incentivize students by providing photo-ops with former president Shimon Peres, who, despite his 91 years, feels strong enough about the project to come out of retirement and help out.

“The dearth of math skills among Israeli students isn’t an educational crisis — it’s a strategic threat. And the response to a strategic threat must be a national plan,” said Bennett at a press conference announcing the project. “No longer will location or lack of resources prevent students from taking a full load of mathematics courses. Our program will enable all students to excel in math, providing both them and the State of Israel with a strong future.”

Math, of course, is the basis of many high-tech skills — it provides the basic building blocks for understanding programming, engineering, algorithm development, and other essential skills. Much of Israel’s tech prowess is the result of strong math and science education provided in the country’s colleges and universities — in courses that are populated by students who acquired strong math skills in high school.

But just a glance at the official statistics on math education offers a pessimistic view of the future of math education; since 1996, the number of kids who have taken on the full math course load (known as “five units” in Israeli high school jargon) has sunk, from 12,900 in 2006 to 9,100 in 2013.

It’s not clear why, but kids are showing less interest in math at just the time when they should be clamoring to excel in it, given the many successful role models the Start-Up Nation has provided.

Whatever the reasons for past failures, the days when math was an also-ran among high school kids are over, if Bennett has anything to say about it. Under the plan, the number of math teachers in high schools will be doubled — from the current 1,000 — and schools will add some 15,000 “enrichment hours” outside of class time in order to provide tutoring services, math clubs, activities and contests, etc. In addition, the full math curriculum will now be available in all schools in the country; in the past, there were many (especially in lower-socioeconomic areas) where the program was not available, due to an ostensible “lack of interest” among students.

To pay for all this, the Education Ministry has allocated NIS 75 million ($20 million). The objective, said Bennett, is to double the number of five-unit math students, to 18,000, within four years.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the program, however, is Bennett’s plan to recruit some 500 high-tech industry leaders to help out in developing the curriculum; train teachers in how to teach math from a high-tech point of view; and reach out to students, persuading them to go for the “full five” unit program.

Bennett, an old high-tech hand himself — his company, cyber-security firm Cyota, was sold to RSA Security (now part of cyber-security giant EMC) in 2005 for $145 million. Working with the ministry on the project will be companies such as Intel, Marvell, Microsoft and others, with volunteers providing hours to help out in their local communities.

This recruitment program is actually the expansion of an effort that has been going on for years, in which top tech firms have been voluntarily assisting schools in local communities to develop tech-oriented curricula. Last year, for example, Intel provided some 500 volunteers to work with teachers and students, according to Gadi Singer, head of Intel Israel’s R&D centers.

“Our volunteers last year visited 100 schools. Intel is part of a national effort by tech firms to improve tech, science, and math education in the country’s schools. Altogether, our programs reached 20,000 students last year. I congratulate the students who will be beginning the new school year this week, and wish them success in their studies. They are the future of our country, the ones who will bring Israel into new fields of tech development.”

Also lending a helping hand to the project is former president Shimon Peres, who also helped recruit tech workers for the program — and who plans to visit classrooms and meet with teachers, on a sort of “road show,” where he will spread the word about why “five units” is a good idea for students.

“Israel has been blessed with great talent, enabling it to reach the highest heights — but that talent needs to be groomed. We cannot accept a situation where children who are capable of learning five units of math are unable to do so because of a lack of resources.

“Israel may be the Start-Up Nation, but it is not invincible as a tech power, continued Peres. “In order to remain competitive globally, the state must invest as much as possible to enable students to learn science, math, and other tech-oriented subjects to as great an extent as possible.”

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