Special ed committee recommends 19 kids per class, 5 days a week for all schools

Experts advise revamping entire educational system to better integrate special needs children, a ‘win-win’ solution for all students

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

From left to right: Education Minister Yoav Kisch, Shapira committee head Amos Shapira, and Tammy Omanski, head of the Education Ministry's special education department, at a press conference in Jerusalem, on May 28, 2024. (Sivan Shachar/courtesy)
From left to right: Education Minister Yoav Kisch, Shapira committee head Amos Shapira, and Tammy Omanski, head of the Education Ministry's special education department, at a press conference in Jerusalem, on May 28, 2024. (Sivan Shachar/courtesy)

An Education Ministry committee on special education has recommended that to better integrate students with special needs into the general education system, school for all students should be held for five days a week only, and the average class size should be reduced to 19.

The Education Ministry presented the preliminary findings of the Shapira committee, a panel of 190 experts on special education led by University of Haifa President Amos Shapira, at a Tuesday press conference.

Currently, most Israeli schools hold classes six days a week, Sunday through Friday, and the average class size is 26, with over 30 students in some 30 percent of elementary school classes.

Both the number of classroom hours per week and the number of students in classes are on the high range for OECD countries, but educational systems that have fewer classroom hours and smaller classes report better outcomes for both special education and regular students, the committee noted.

In addressing this “very complicated issue,” committee head Shapira said that because their needs aren’t addressed, many parents decide to take their special needs children out of the regular system in favor of specialized schools or separate classes. He said the long-term solution is to improve the regular school system so that special needs children can be integrated.

After they finish school, “special education students will need to be part of greater society, so why should they be educated separately?” Shapira said.

Illustrative photo of Israeli kids on the first day of school, on August 31, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the presentation to the press, Shapira noted that every year there are 20,000-30,000 more students considered to have special needs, and currently over 240,000 students are in that category. These include children on the autistic spectrum and with various learning disabilities, among other issues.

This represents a marked rise over the last decade, and “the education system is having difficulty coping with the accelerated increase in the number of students eligible for special education services,” the committee noted in its presentation.

The committee also addressed what it called “inverting the pyramid,” or prioritizing early childhood education for students with special needs, which will help such students succeed at the high school level and improve their social integration within the general student population.

The report also addressed allowing more flexibility for individual school principals and administrations to make decisions in regards to special needs students, and stressed the need to improve the training and development of teachers and staff for these students.

Shapira pointed out that the committee’s presentation constituted “preliminary findings” and not “final recommendations.” The full report is expected by the end of this year, he said.

“We know it’s a process, and it’s not simple…We believe it’s possible to reduce class sizes, go to a five-day-a-week learning (with a solution for Friday) and still have quality learning,” Shapira said.

Education Minister Yoav Kisch said that the findings of the committee would be addressed in conjunction with the teachers’ union, parent groups and other bodies, and it was possible that a localized pilot program, based on the Shapira committee findings, could be implemented as early as the next school year.

The Education Ministry budget for special needs students is expected to grow by NIS 2 billion next year, and NIS 1.6 billion was added during the current year, Kisch said at the press conference, but he noted the challenges facing the system if the committee findings are to be implemented.

“Everyone wants to make class sizes smaller, but it’s difficult budget-wise, and because you need more teachers. We have an obligation to maintain quality… We will see,” he said.

“It’s a process between the ministry, the teachers and the teachers’ union, parents and local authorities,” Kisch said. “A pilot will take time, but we want to make a pilot program that can give an example. Special education students can learn in regular classes, but it’s difficult in the current system… it’s preferable to have everyone together, that’s a win-win.”

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