Crises and times of emergency can also create opportunities for important reforms that, during regular times, are difficult to implement. Already, the coronavirus crisis has affected many aspects of Israel’s education system, but it also presents a unique opportunity to considerably reduce the number of students per class – a reform that has been often discussed in education policy circles in recent years.
In the past, I have written that reducing the number of students per class is not worthwhile. My objection did not come from a lack of understanding the demands of teachers and parents, who view reducing the number of students per class as a crucial step to improving quality of education.
Rather, my argument was that such a change was not justified due to its high cost related to the need for more classrooms, the potential for lower teacher quality due to a massive increase in the number of teachers needed in the system, and the lack of scientific evidence demonstrating the extent to which it would contribute to academic achievement.
My change of heart stems from the sense that today, due to the reality created by the coronavirus crisis, reducing the number of students per class can happen as part of the revolutionary changes being made in the education system as a whole.
The changes coming out of this crisis will not be temporary; they will improve the overall functioning of the system and allow it to cope with future emergencies – whether of a similar nature or substantially different.
As previously mentioned, the main obstacle in reducing the number of students per class is the high cost of doing so, and the fear that the need to recruit many more teachers will drag down the average level of professionalism among educators. The sense of emergency that has accompanied the current crisis makes it possible to take three measures that could reduce class-size without adding many more teachers to the system.
The first measure is to significantly reduce the number of elementary school frontal teaching hours. The number of hours that Israeli students study in elementary education is 50% higher than that of students in the three European countries with the most outstanding performance on the PISA exams – Finland, Estonia and Poland.
Even in middle school, Israeli students have 20% more frontal learning hours than students in these countries. A significant reduction in the number of learning hours per class would free up thousands of teachers to teach in the new classes that would need to be opened as a result of reducing the number of students per class.
The second measure is to significantly expand informal education and strengthen its role in school activities. The employees who would be responsible for this component of education in schools would mainly be non-academic instructors in a variety of fields (art, sports, social clubs, etc.), youth movement counselors, volunteers, and teachers as part of the non-frontal teaching hours included in their positions, which would be freed up as a result of reducing class-size.
These informal education activities can take place in other areas of the school, and not necessarily classrooms, reducing the need to build additional classrooms. An additional benefit of increasing informal education in schools is that it can help compensate for the lack of interpersonal contact that will likely increase as distance learning becomes more common.
The third measure is to increase distance learning, which will, of course, be more frequently used for older students and must be implemented with care so as not deepen educational gaps between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It seems that distance learning, which appeared in the education system suddenly and without any advanced preparation, is here to stay.
The benefits of distance learning are numerous and have been written about extensively. One of these benefits is the flexibility it affords schools in the use of school facilities and the division of teachers’ time. This flexibility can help schools plan within their physical and staff constraints.
Reducing the number of students per class is a revolutionary change that would, no doubt, encounter many difficulties – objective difficulties such as lack of infrastructure and teachers, struggles related to adapting work habits that have taken root over centuries, and serious educational and organizational challenges. Nonetheless, the current opportunity to significantly change the way schools operate is too great to be missed or, at the very least, to try to implement these changes.