Time to Drop the ‘New Math’

In the 1960s, when the United States was panicking at Russia’s success in sending the Sputnik into space, educators hastily introduced something called “new math.”

Elementary schools dropped the “old-fashioned” times tables and taught young children modular arithmetic, algebraic inequalities, matrices and Boolean algebra, in an attempt to groom scientists who could compete with the Russians. The result was that the children had “heard of the commutative law, but did not know the multiplication table,” as one math professor put it.

Not surprisingly, new math disappeared from most school curriculums by the end of the decade.

Israel, which saw more than two million children return to school this week, has its own form of “new math.” The founders of the state decided that the “old-fashioned” cheder system, with mechanchim teaching Torah and values, needed to be adapted for the “new Jew” they were seeking to create.  One of the first things they did was to strip the Sephardic children of their traditions.

The result, as startlingly seen in a study released earlier this month, reveals that students aren’t even getting the basics of derech eretz, the “multiplication table” of mentchlichkeit. The teacher, once regarded as an authority figure, has become a punching bag for physical and verbal violence.

The poll, conducted by the respected Geocartography Research Institute, shows that the vast majority of teachers — 87 percent — have been exposed to some kind of violence. It reveals, not surprisingly, that students refuse to carry out their teachers’ instructions and that 56 percent actually have the gall to curse their teachers.

Some 25 percent of teachers reported that they had witnessed violence toward their colleagues (while “only” 6 percent said they had been victims of such violence themselves, ranging from being pushed to being slapped or punched).

Ron Erez, the head of the country’s largest teachers’ union, offers two explanations for this astonishing phenomenon: Students are under too much academic pressure and feeling frustrated at their failure to succeed; teachers have lost their ability to influence students.

“The inability of parents and teachers to influence students, who reject any criticism of their behavior, creates a rebellion against authority and a ridiculing of teachers and the school, which turns into violence.”

But instead of demanding that the Education Ministry drop the “new math” that has brought Jewish children to the point where they can raise their hands to their teachers, Erez proposes that the ministry limit the number of matriculation exams that students must pass, in order to reduce their pressure.

And Erez isn’t the only one who is looking for easy, populist solutions. His boss, the education minister, has cancelled the Meitzav national achievement test in order to “get people to stop speaking only about tests and scores that don’t say anything about the real quality of education.”

While we agree that the Meitzav achievement test, which measures ability in “core curriculum” subjects such as math, science, Hebrew and English, says nothing about the real quality of education, the decision to scrap them was motivated by a desire to avoid embarrassing results, not to improve education. It was an attempt to win popularity among teachers who don’t want to be held accountable for their students’ failures and among students and their parents who don’t want to be held accountable for learning.

The move feeds the problem — in Erez’s words, that students “reject any criticism of their behavior” — instead of solving it.

We live in a day and age in which students grade the teachers instead of the other way around; in which university professors are more concerned about their rating among students than about pushing them hard and demanding that they learn.

The failure to redress this imbalance, to restore the authority of the teacher, will result in growing ignorance that can’t be covered up by avoiding such unpleasantries as achievement tests. Much more significantly, it will lead to weakened values that undermine the home, the school and the community.

The start of a new school year is a good time for Israel’s educational leaders to take an honest look at what the increase in school violence says about the job they’re doing. If the education minister is genuinely concerned about “the real quality of education,” he has to do much more than  stop giving achievement tests. He has to drop the core curriculum and introduce a curriculum that gets to the core of what it means to be a Jew.

A child who understands that he is a precious soul who stood at Sinai will understand the need to respect his parents and teachers who are closer to Sinai and capable of passing Torah on to him.

Children who are taught about Shema Yisrael and Shabbos, about teshuvah in all of its forms, don’t reject criticism and certainly don’t raise a hand to their teachers.

It’s time to go back to the “old math,” l’havdil, to issue a curriculum titled, “Im ein yirah ein chachmah.” Then, not only will they be led back to derech eretz and academic excellence, but to reconnect with the Torah teachings that will, iy”H, ignite the flame of Yiddishkeit in their very cores.