'Rabbis determine what our society will look like' (illustration)
Photo: Noam Moscowitz

Haredi teachers fail general knowledge test

How do you say Shabbat in English? Many ultra-Orthodox teachers don't know, nor could they tell Yedioth Ahronoth who Napoleon was; yet they still receive state-funded paychecks, often in cash

A survey conducted among ultra-Orthodox teachers has uncovered a worrying lack of basic knowledge – including the words to the national anthem, Napoleon's nationality, and even the word for Shabbat in English.


Thus, for example, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily interviewed A., a 26-year old yeshiva student who tutors at a heder, or a religious elementary school, in Jerusalem.


"I go there every day for an hour, and receive $300 cash a month. It's not much, but it's cash so that's nice. It's great money for an hour of work a day," he said. As to the subjects A. teaches, they include Math, Hebrew, and "a little about the destruction of the second temple".


"Of course the content is suitable for the haredi sector," he said. "We don't teach Zionism."


When asked whether the students are taught subjects such as Science, History, Literature, or English – which are considered basic subjects by the state – A. answers, "Never."


He went on to describe the pupils' day. "After morning prayers, at 8:30, we enter the heder. In the morning we study Torah," said A. "Only the last hour of school is dedicated to basic subjects."


The study by Yedioth Ahronoth was a sequel to its report two weeks ago, in which the paper revealed that many of the schools receiving funds from the state for teaching basic subjects were actually teaching almost nothing on the Education Ministry's curriculum.


Calculations by the ministry show that around $7 million are going to waste every year because of this, and the lack of supervision in the schools. Two inspectors charged with maintaining the Education Ministry's standards were found to have made false reports on the number of hours of basic subjects being taught: By reporting on more hours of basic subjects the supervisors obtained extra funding for the schools.


An official at the Justice Ministry was unsurprised, and told the paper the schools had many adjustments to make before basic subjects could be taught. "They have no teachers and no books," she said.


Saturday: The day of the star?

Yedioth Ahronoth put together a test, which included 10 questions taken from lesson plans for grades 1-3 on the various basic subjects – Math, Hebrew, History, Civics, Science, and English. The exam, simplistic by all accounts, included questions such as: 'On which continent is Israel located?' 'Who was Napoleon?' and 'What is the square root of 81?'


The paper presented the test as a survey of general knowledge to 25 teachers from the haredi sector as well 25 teachers who work at state schools.


The results were shocking. Among haredi teachers, the average score was 59, with 40% of those tested getting five or more questions wrong. Half of those tested did not know how to complete the first line of the national anthem after having been given the three first words out of four. One answered: "I don't know and I don't want to know." Another wondered if it was a line from the bible. There were a few who knew the answer but could not recite the second line. When asked the meaning of the word "Saturday", 65% did not know. Among the answers were: The name of a month, the name of a meal, and "the day of the star".


Many spelled the words "spelling mistake" wrong. Napoleon was declared a Russian emperor and an IDF chief of staff. The boiling point was named 42 and 60 degrees Celsius. Israel was said to be located in Europe. One of those tested got nine questions correct. "Did I get 100?" he asked, but was told he did not, because he could not complete the first line of the national anthem. "In that case I got 101," he scoffed.


Teachers belonging to state schools received an average of 96, and many were surprised at the simplicity of the quiz. Some enlightened the auditor on the various subjects involved, such as Napoleon's beliefs and conquests. One teacher talked about the scale that preceded Celsius and Fahrenheit, which he said was computed by Sir Isaac Newton. Another recounted the history of the word 'Saturday', and explained that it was derived from the name 'Saturn'.


Granted, these teachers would probably not have excelled as well at questions on Torah and Talmud, but the paper stressed that the issue at hand was that of basic subjects, which the educators tested were supposed to be teaching at the time they were quizzed.


Certification required, but not enforced

The state has stipulated recently that haredi teachers must be certified by one of the various teaching colleges located throughout the country. Certification requires three years, and uncertified educators who were already teaching were required to complete two years of studies.


But reality paints an entirely different picture. Many rabbis have ordered haredi teachers to begin working first, and then consider getting certified. In addition, the inspectors ordered to make sure only certified teachers are working in the schools are the same inspectors who were revealed by Yedioth Ahronoth to be drawing up false reports on the basic subjects taught in schools.


And their conduct was found to be no different when it came to supervising the teachers' education. A quick check revealed that 15% of teachers were still in the process of achieving certification, while the other 85% had records with the Education Ministry which had never been verified. Because of the lack of supervisors, no one had gone over the files to ascertain that the teachers are certified, as per the new order.


Yedioth Ahronoth interviewed 10 haredi teachers from Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, Ashdod, and Elad, none of whom has a teaching certificate. Some of them were not even aware of the requirement, and were unfamiliar with the concept. When asked whether he would be willing to obtain such training one of the interviewees answered that his experience of 10 years in the field was more than enough. "I'm certain the rabbis won't allow this oppression to continue," he said.


'I'll never learn English at age 32'

In the haredi sector, any teacher of basic subjects (no matter which) is called a "Schreiber", or a writer. Usually, one such Schreiber is charged with teaching each grade all of the basic subjects they are meant to study.


When basic subjects are taught in haredi schools, it is usually at the end of the day, when both student and teacher are tired, and in many cases they are relinquished entirely. This is problematic because these are the only studies the haredi children have in common with the Western world, and involvement in the job market becomes nearly impossible for those who don't learn them.


Many economists believe this is the reason 65% of haredi men are unemployed. "Schreiber is a derogatory term," says R., a 32-year old haredi man who has recently begun to study in secret at the Open University.


"If we flunked the Schreiber subjects or cut class everything was fine, as though nothing had happened. The only thing that was important was Torah studies, at which we had to excel and get good grades. There was a test on the Talmud almost every week, but there were often no tests on Schreiber subjects, or just one a year," he said.


"I will never forget the shame I suffered when I tried to make up what I lacked. The courses I take at the Open University are also attended by secular and National-Religious people, and often when I ask questions people stare and make fun of me behind my back. I don't know English to this day, and I doubt that at my age I will be able to learn it."


'No one knows what they teach'

Girls are a different matter. Their education has vastly improved over the past few years and most study all of the basic subjects in school. This revolution was led mainly by the (female) teachers, most of whom are certified and many of whom have gone on to study degrees. But most male teachers have only finished eight years of formal education, and because of the lack of supervision it is often difficult to know what, exactly, these men are teaching their students.


"No one actually knows what or how they teach, or what they know aside from Torah. Haredi education is largely obscured from the view of the secular public, and supervision is irrelevant. They do whatever they want," said Dr. Nahum Balas, who researches the education system.


Dr. Yaakov Lopo, another researcher, stressed the lack of standardized testing in the haredi sector. "When these tests do not exist no one knows what the level of knowledge and education is and there are no objective measurements," he said. "You can't check the teachers' level either. I think the teachers there are mainly chosen according to relations, contacts, and their level of knowledge on the Torah."


And unqualified teachers who are otherwise unemployed stand to gain quite a lot from such part-time work. A haredi family of six in which neither of the parents work receives between $1,040-1,300 a month. Even an additional $300 is a relative goldmine.


"Most of the teachers receive cash handed to them each month, without contracts or wage agreements," Dr. Lopo said. "Usually the amount is set in dollars, and the rate in shekels is not set according to the bank but rather by the rabbis. They determine the rate of the dollar, they determine what is studied, and they determine what our society will look like."


When presented with the findings, the Education Ministry was evasive. "The ministry has no knowledge regarding the identity of these teachers," said a formal statement on the uncertified teachers located by the paper. It should be mentioned that the demand for certification was stipulated by the ministry three years ago, and includes all teachers, haredi and secular.


Regarding the claim that the ministry had not verified the certification of 85% of haredi teachers despite having records on them in its possession, the ministry stated that "the additional supervision demanded by the ministry will lead to maintenance in this field".


Yana Pevzner and Guy Lieberman contributed to this report



פרסום ראשון: 07.27.10, 13:21
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