The dangers of rolling back the core educational curriculum

The following appeared in the Jerusalem Post supplement, “In Jerusalem,” on July 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

The dangers of rolling back the core educational curriculum at haredi boys’ schools.

By Hannah Katsman

Haredi walking

Haredi man walking. (photo credit:MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

I recently ran into a speech pathologist who teaches university students. The university runs a program for haredi women, who learn the same material as their secular counterparts. My friend found that the haredi women struggled with the level of reading and writing required to attain an academic degree. “These students are supposed to be the best students in the haredi world, with the highest ability,” she said. “But they can barely keep up with the work, because of poor language skills and limited vocabulary.”

I thought about that conversation when I read about the scrapping of the 2013 law to withhold funds from schools that don’t offer a core curriculum of secular and Jewish studies. The law, introduced by the Yesh Atid Party in 2013, was part of a series of measures to help haredim in Israel join the workforce and become more integrated in society. Last week, with Yesh Atid in the opposition, United Torah Judaism demanded the overturning of the law in exchange for UTJ’s remaining in the fragile government coalition.

The status quo, implemented in the early days of the state, granted autonomy to the secular, national-religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors to run their own schools and teach the subjects they chose, but schools in each system had at their base a standard curriculum. This ensured a common knowledge base for the entire population and provided all children, whatever their background, with the basic skills necessary to communicate with each other and with various authorities, and to work or continue on to a degree as they chose.

The haredi school system segregates boys and girls, with the boys studying Talmud and Jewish studies for most of the day. Yet most of the schools in the haredi system offer all or part of the core curriculum, known in Hebrew as liba (core). Currently, this includes Bible studies, Jewish heritage (for Jewish schools), history, citizenship, Hebrew, math, science and English. Only one category of boys’ haredi schools, patur (exempt), serving about 40,000 pupils, receives an exemption from the core curriculum requirement. Studies show that schools in the exempt category offer only three to five hours of these subjects, compared to 20-27 required hours in the public system.

Benayahu Yom Tov, 28, of Ashdod, attended a school affiliated with the Shas Party. Although Shas schools now teach the core curriculum, Yom Tov learned arithmetic at a most basic level, and no English. His son attends a haredi school that offers the core curriculum and high academic standards. Yet he opposes withholding funds from schools that don’t offer the core.

“I love the core curriculum,” said Yom Tov. “But the government should not use its political clout to force education on a minority group. If the haredim required secular children to learn Talmud, we would call it coercion.

“At any rate,” he continued, “the law only addressed schools through eighth grade. Since children in these schools won’t continue to high school, nothing is accomplished.”

Yom Tov, who despite his lack of secular studies earns a five-figure salary working with at-risk youth, is about to embark on a three-month accelerated course for those in his field. “I expect to catch up to an eighth-grade level in secular studies,” he admitted.

Haredim are quick to point to success stories of those among them who succeed in law, finance or computers despite a lack of secular education. Some succeed through advantages such as growing up in an English-speaking home or getting extra tutoring. But that doesn’t apply to the majority, especially graduates of hassidic schools who study in Yiddish and struggle to communicate in Hebrew. Adina Bar-Shalom, head of a haredi women’s college and the daughter of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has mentioned English as a subject that is particularly hard to learn as an adult, and the reason that many haredim fail at academic studies.

While haredi leaders like to say that Talmud study develops reasoning skills and concentration, they know it’s not enough to make up for early training in secular studies.

Statistics from the Taub Center found that 16 percent more haredi women than men are employed, in those without academic degrees; this is due to the advantage of the secular studies that most haredi girls receive. So when men overcome the lack of early education and receive a degree, the employment gap between men and women with degrees lowers to only 5% . But a whopping 51% of haredi men who enroll in degree programs drop out, compared to only 30% of women.

Not only do men have to catch up more, they start later when they are supporting their families, leaving little time for study. The payoff is less too, as the men have fewer remaining working years.

While many new academic programs for haredim have opened up, the rate of haredi men and women with academic degrees has been gradually dropping since the 1970s. Young adults today have the lowest rates of secondary and higher education compared to older age groups in the sector. With the government denying basic education to children, the situation can only worsen.

Avi Lazar, 35, of Jerusalem, grew up attending a hassidic school in Toronto and ultimately attended public school. “I was good at essays, but math was horrible. I never got it. My grades were so poor that the guidance counselor told me not to apply to college so I wouldn’t be disappointed.”

By working hard in 12th grade, Lazar managed to get into three schools, graduating from York University with a degree in political science. “But it’s still difficult even for me to find work in Israel without a professional degree. The government is making a huge mistake by not keeping those doors open for children.”

Withholding basic education from haredi boys is a deliberate effort to insulate the community and keep its members dependent on the leadership, which can then brag that it is meeting the community’s interests by getting more funds for yeshivot.

Non-haredim recognize the value of secular education for job success. The haredim recognize it too, and encourage it for their girls. We hear complaints about the drag of the growing haredi sector on the economy, yet complicity in the Knesset keeps growing numbers of families in poverty, and denies children basic rights. It is hard enough for young adults today to find their way in today’s economy, even without being hobbled by the lack of elementary skills.

Over-sensitivity to the value of Torah study at the expense of other skills and subjects will deny young people educational and economic opportunities, and keep them dependent on government handouts engineered by their leaders.

The Jews are known as the People of the Book, who have always recognized the value of education. It’s frustrating to see a cynical manipulation of that value by haredi leaders, who tout the card of Torah study against those who wish to provide basic educational opportunities for all members of Israeli society.

Note: The print version of the article contained an incorrect statistic for the number of haredi women who drop out of academic studies.

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