By Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz Correspondent Last update - 07:42 21/12/2007
The Immigrant Absorption Ministry intends to close down most ulpans - Hebrew study programs for new immigrants - while laying off hundreds of teachers and helping immigrants learn Hebrew at private schools, senior officials told Haaretz Thursday.
The sweeping reform comes in response to data indicating that the current method has failed, and that most new immigrants - olim - who completed ulpan courses do not speak Hebrew well enough.
In recent years Israel has taken in around 20,000 new immigrants annually, of which 8,000 adults are enrolled at dozens of ulpans (children learn Hebrew in school). Every new immigrant over 18 can elect to study Hebrew at an ulpan and receive 500 class hours taught by Education Ministry teachers - part of the absorption basket of services.
Surveys conducted in recent years by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry found that most olim who complete ulpan studies speak Hebrew at a low or mediocre level, and that less than a third read and write at a reasonable to good level. It turns out that less than 60 percent of olim complete their ulpan studies, compared with 24 percent who never attend ulpan and 17 percent who drop out early on.
The ministry thus set up an inter-ministerial committee a year ago to review the subject. A majority of committee members concluded that upgrading the existing system would not work, and that responsibility for Hebrew instruction for new immigrants should be moved from the Education Ministry to a new state body.
Based on the committee's recommendations, the immigrant absorption minister, Jacob Edery, is weighing the merits of closing most ulpans and enabling olim to learn Hebrew at private facilities to be supervised by the new authority in charge of Hebrew instruction.
"Our goal is to introduce a serious reform and place at new immigrants' disposal the most effective tools for acquiring the language. Teaching methods can be improved substantially," Edery said. He added, however, that "we are not ruling out seeking other alternatives such as issuing a tender for private schools."
The ministry's preferred method is granting vouchers to olim, which they could use to study Hebrew at a supervised private facility.
Teaching methods are not the only problem with ulpans, according to the ministry's director-general, Erez Halfon. "Ulpans are a bad fit with the lifestyles of new immigrants," he said. "Many of them simply don't have the time to attend ulpan in the mornings. They prefer to go to work, sometimes even at two jobs."
Halfon said the ministry is looking into what the other entities that teach Hebrew have to offer. "We will make sure that olim have many more study options and more convenient hours throughout the country, so they can work at the same time," he said.
Among other things, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry is considering making Hebrew lessons mandatory for olim.
"We are thinking of making a certain part of the absorption basket of services conditional, and an immigrant who does not study Hebrew would not be eligible for that part," Halfon said. He added that incentives would be provided for those who meet the criteria.
Shlomit Amichai, director-general of the Education Ministry, told the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee earlier this week that the ministry is in favor of the proposed reform. However, Amichai told Haaretz yesterday that "the subject must be studied in the next two months."
Ulpans employ some 800 Hebrew teachers, who stand to lose their jobs if the reform goes through. The Education Ministry has already slashed the budget for teaching Hebrew to new immigrants from NIS 79 million in 2007 to NIS 41 million next year.
The cutback means that olim will be taught only basic Hebrew, and that professional terminology classes will be dropped from the curriculum for olim with professions, such as doctors and engineers. The current budget is enough to cover courses only until the middle of next year.
Another change the Immigrant Absorption Ministry is promoting is to establish study centers for children of olim, where they would learn Hebrew for several months before being integrated into local schools.
According to director-general Halfon, the Absorption Ministry has found that these children "sit in class and do not understand anything, and do not make friends either. It would be better for them to miss curriculum material for several months and come to their schools when they can speak Hebrew." The Education Ministry opposes this idea.
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