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REHOVOT, Israel -- February 5, 1996 -- An over four-fold increase in the number of underprivileged students passing a national mathematics exam has been recorded over the past five years, largely thanks to an experimental educational program designed by the Weizmann Institute's Science Teaching Department. There has also been a significant increase in the students' natural-science skills, according to a just-completed program evaluation.
"We feel that our experiment can serve as a model for schools in deprived areas in both developed and developing countries," says Dr. David Ben-Chaim of the Department's Mathematics Group, who directed the program along with Department Head Prof. Uri Ganiel.
Taking part in the experiment were eight junior and senior high schools from five towns in Israel's Negev desert -- Ofakim, Sderot, Netivot-Azata, Yeruham and the Merhavim Region -- all of which suffer from severe economic and social problems.
The program's main thrust was to upgrade the skills of the teachers. Members of the Weizmann group, accompanied by some 30 highly experienced teachers from Israel's central cities, paid weekly visits to the schools.
In junior high schools, they conducted workshops for the teachers and helped them plan lessons and prepare and grade tests.
In senior high schools, they also observed classes and at times took an active role in the classroom teaching; if the instructors were new, they took over the classes on each visit.
In addition, the Science Teaching Department updated textbooks, curricula and laboratory equipment, prepared and distributed supplementary teaching material, took charge of the hiring of new teachers and held periodic training sessions in Rehovot for the schools' administrative and teaching staffs.
In 1990, just before the program started, only 84 out of 337 students graduating from the schools took the nationally administered "matriculation" examination in mathematics, and just 45 passed. This past summer, upon the completion of the project, 232 out of 383 graduates took the test and 190 of them passed -- more than a four-fold increase.
Moreover, many of these students took the higher-level tests required for entrance into most university math, science, economics and business administration departments.
Impressive gains were also recorded in physics and chemistry. Whereas in 1990 only five students passed the elementary level physics exam, this past summer 18 got passing marks, all on higher-level tests.
The situation with regard to chemistry at these schools had been even more dismal when the project was launched: 11th- and 12th-grade classes in this subject simply did not exist. Such classes were subsequently set up, and as a result 20 students passed the latest chemistry exam.
"One of our major conclusions," Dr. Ben-Chaim says, "is that such a program should be long-term, and should start before high school. The seventh graders with whom we worked had caught up to their peers by ninth grade.
"But perhaps our most important achievement," he adds, "has been to instill in both teachers and students the belief that academic success is a function not of external factors -- such as family and surroundings -- but of effort."
Ben-Chaim was on Sabbatical leave this past year, during which the project was administered by his Departmental colleague Mordechai Ben- Tzuk.
Financial support was provided by the Jewish Agency's Renewal and Settlement Department, the local municipalities and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport.
The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot, Israel.