The education system
The system’s root problems and socioeconomic
half of Israel’s children receive a Third World education, they’ll only be able
to maintain a Third World economy as adults.
But a Third World economy won’t be able to sustain a First World army –
a necessary condition for the country’s continued existence in the most violent
region on the planet.
overly dramatic? After all, this is the
Start-up Nation with some of the world’s best universities and one of its most
educated populations. Among prime
working age adults (ages 35-54), the share of Israelis with an academic degree
is the fourth highest in the world while the number of school years per person
is the third highest.
an era of shameless expressions such as “truth isn’t truth,” “fake news,” and
“alternative facts,” it would appear that we have entered a phase in which
opinions replace facts and anything goes.
In the 1930s (a particularly exceptional example), a lack of information
helped enable the spread of misinformation.
Today, we are inundated with information – so much data that most people
are incapable of seeing the forest for the trees. This is particularly fertile ground for
persuasive demagogues who make it even more difficult for the general public to
distinguish between the wheat and the chaff.
It’s bad enough when this occurs in other lands. But for a people who get the opportunity for
a home of their own just once every 2,000 years, there are very few degrees of
freedom for us to err and not understand what we see in the mirror.
the face of it, we appear to have recognized the principle that education is a necessary
condition for a better life – and Israel has done what it does best: opened the
throttle for a full-frontal assault on the target. The share of academic degree holders and the
number of school years per person in Israel today is indeed very high in
comparison with the rest of the world.
But 70 years after attaining independence, with the gates of a new
school year opening, the time has come to finally open up that black box more
commonly referred to as Israel’s education system and blast it with a major
dose of sunshine. It’s possible to be
swept away by unique success stories that do not reflect the bigger picture –
or it’s possible to focus on the core problems and understand what kind of a
country this system is leading us toward.
of education, low labor productivity
hint at the current state and the direction we’re headed comes from the
economic data. Although Israelis are
more educated – on paper – than the populations of nearly all other
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, the country’s
labor productivity (i.e. its GDP per hour worked, which in turn determines the
ability to pay higher hourly wages) is beneath most OECD countries. As if this were not enough, Israel’s labor
productivity has been falling further and further behind the G7 average (the
world’s seven leading economies), with the gap between them and us more than
tripling since the 1970s.
seeming contradiction between Israel’s high rates of education and low labor
productivity can be reconciled by paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln: it’s not the
number of years of your education that count; it’s the education in your
years. The side-by-side comparison in
Figure 1 clearly highlights this, with the left panel displaying the
relationship between the quantity of education and economic growth while the
right panel shows the relationship between the quality of education and economic
growth in 50 countries over 40 years.
There exists a very weak positive relationship between the number of
school years per person (i.e., education quantity) and economic growth
rates. The strong positive relationship,
as evident in the right panel, is with the quality of education – as measured by
achievements in core subjects in the international exams.
it’s relatively easy to measure education quantity – number of school years,
number of academic degrees, etc. – Israel has failed miserably in measuring and
evaluating the quality of the education that it provides its children. For example, one generation after another of
graduating high schoolers has had to take matriculation exams. But to this day, the education system has
never bothered to calibrate the exams so that it, and we, might be able to know
if the level of knowledge of the country’s children – at least in core subjects
– has risen or fallen over the decades.
Not only is it impossible to compare qualitative changes in Israel over
time, it is also impossible to conduct such comparisons during the same year
across different towns and regions within the country because subjective local
components are an integral part of the grades.
only national level exam that is standardized over time in Israel is the
Meitzav exam (which focuses core curriculum subjects at the primary and lower
secondary school levels), and even its calibration only began in 2008, 60 years
after the country was born. In general,
achievement levels today are higher than they were a decade ago, a heartening
fact in and of itself – until one sees the share of correct answers out of the
total in the various core subjects.
Education system’s resounding failure
shown in Figure 2, only 68% of the questions in English were answered correctly
while the results in mathematics (56%) and science and technology (50%)
constitute failing grades for the country as a whole. This is one of Israel’s most resounding
failures – and it doesn’t even take into account the further negative impact on
the national average that would have resulted had the Meitzav exams also tested
the many ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) pupils who do not study any English or
the most recent international Program for International Student Assessment
(PISA) exam, the average score in math, science and reading attained by Israeli
children (once again, without most of the Haredi children, who would have
lowered the national average even further) was below that of every single
developed country in Western Europe, North America and East Asia. When they become adults, these same children
from the various countries will need to compete with one another in the global
implications emanating from this picture are particularly ominous for Israel,
which, like other small countries, needs to import and export extensively
because of its inability to manufacture all of its needs. As though it were not enough that most of the
Haredi children do not study the material and do not take the exams, the
average achievement level of non-Haredi Jewish children falls below that of
most developed countries.
achievements of Arab Israelis in the PISA exam paint an even grimmer
picture. Their average score in math,
science and reading is not only below that of the entire developed world, it is
also beneath that of many developing countries.
In fact, the average achievement level of Arab Israelis is below the
average levels in the majority of predominantly Muslim countries that
participated in the PISA 2015 exam (Figure 3).
primary determinant of children’s achievements is the education level of their
parents – and in particular, the mothers’ education. This is true abroad, and it is true in
Israel. In a Shoresh Institution policy
research paper, Dr. Noam Gruber showed the existence of a strong relationship
between maternal education and their children’s scores.
indicated in Figure 4, pupils in the ten top-scoring countries whose mother had
no education scored 6% below pupils whose mother graduated from high
school. On the other side of the
spectrum, pupils from those same countries whose mothers had an academic degree
attained scores that were 6% above the scores of pupils whose mothers only
graduated from high school. In Israel,
the link between maternal education and pupils’ scores is several orders of
magnitude higher – reflecting a major indictment of the Israeli education
system’s enormous failure in reducing the gaps that pupils come from home
with. It is no coincidence that
achievement gaps between Israeli children in the core subjects have been the
highest in the developed world in every single exam that has been administered
since the 1990s.
roughly a quarter of primary school pupils study in the Arabic language
schools, and another fifth in the Haredi schools, with many additional pupils
studying in religious (non-Haredi) and secular schools situated in Israel’s
social and geographical peripheries, then even though not all of these groups
receive a Third World level of education, it is possible to surmise that
approximately one-half of Israel’s children do indeed receive one – and they belong
to the fastest growing segments of the population.
is not a coincidence that Israel’s labor productivity is so low, and is
steadily falling further and further behind the G7 countries – not to mention
the country’s rates of poverty and inequality which are among the highest in
the developed world. The outcomes of
Israel’s education system negatively affect us all as the country’s economic
engine is running on fewer and fewer cylinders and finding it increasingly
difficult to pull the entire nation forward.
We need these other cylinders to keep developing and growing as an
economy, not to mention being able to fund the public costs needed for
maintaining defense, education, health, welfare and other infrastructures.
is more reliant on indirect taxes (such as VAT and sales taxes) than the
majority of developed countries. Such
taxes are considered regressive since their relative burden on income rises as
incomes fall. Thus, as Israel will need
to increase its tax income in the future, it will have to rely more heavily on
direct taxation (primarily income tax).
Already today, though, half of the country’s population pays no income
tax whatsoever since it does not even reach the lowest rung on the income tax
ladder. Some 92% of Israel’s entire
income tax revenues come from just the top two income deciles (average annual
gross income per earner in the ninth decile is about $59,000), and this
percentage has been steadily rising over the years (it was 83% in 2000).
such large swaths of the population will continue to remain outside of the
country’s primary engine of economic growth, then the resultant price to be
paid will not be restricted only to them.
Increasing budgets will be needed to provide welfare assistance and
services to these individuals, while at the same time continuing to maintain
the country’s remaining infrastructures.
Future governments will have the authority to increase the tax burden to
any heights they deem necessary, but they won’t have the authority to mandate
that all of the young shoulders needed to bear that rising burden must remain
in Israel. Demography isn’t just rates
of fertility and mortality. It is also
the share of educated and skilled individuals who decide to remain or to leave
Israel – which brings us back to the opening sentences of this article.
future is in our hands. Not everything
is dependent on education, but unless the education situation in Israel
completely changes direction, all other issues will cease to be relevant. A comprehensive reform of the entire system
is needed. We need to stop confusing
between the marketing of wage bargaining agreements with the teachers’ unions –
as though they were education reforms – and actual reforms that need to focus
on what children study; the way that teachers are chosen, taught and
compensated; and the modes of operation, supervision, measurement and
evaluation of the entire education system.
It is possible that additional budgets may be needed to implement the
reform. But simply throwing more money
at the current system is as effective as throwing money into the sea.
days a week
implementation of comprehensive education reform first mandates a recognition
and understanding of the system’s root problems. Crowded classrooms are a frequent
complaint. Whether or not this is indeed
the case, what is more relevant – at least in Israel’s case – is why such
congestion exists in the first place.
While the number of pupils per class is relatively high in Israel, when
compared to the OECD average (Figure 5), the number of pupils per full-time
equivalent teacher in Israel is nearly identical to the OECD average, and is
even slightly below the OECD in lower secondary education. In other words, there is no lack of teachers
in Israel and there is no justification for the extraordinarily large number of
pupils per class.
of sufficient instruction time is also not the reason for the low quality of
education in Israel. The number of
school days in the country is considerably higher than in all other OECD
countries (in fact, it’s 10% greater than in the number two country,
Japan). As if this were not enough, the
education and finance ministries recently agreed to an additional expenditure
of over $100 million out of scarce budgetary resources in order to further
reduce the number of vacation days – in other words, to raise the number of
school days even further.
underlying reason why Israeli children have more school-days than any other
developed country is that Israel’s children study six days a week. Not only are five days a week the norm in
other countries, Israeli teachers only work just five days a week, as do most
of the pupils’ parents. It makes no
sense that Israeli children are also not moved to five-day school weeks. As in the case of overcrowded classrooms,
this is not a real problem but rather one of organizational behavior and the
feckless approach that spending more money can substitute for root solutions.
only is the low level of Israeli education not due to a lack of school days, it
is also not the result of too few instruction hours, as indicated in Figure
6. The average number of instruction
hours devoted to reading, writing and literature in the OECD is 21% lower than
in Israel, but the average achievement of these same countries in the reading
exam was 3% higher than Israel’s. In
math and science, they study 28% and 29% (respectively) less and attain 4% and
6% (respectively) higher grades.
the children of Israel receive so many instruction hours while their scores are
so low, the primary source of the problem is what happens in class during those
hours. There is no lack of possible
explanations – from inadequate lesson plans through discipline problems and
crowded classrooms to the qualitative levels of the teachers. It is also possible that there is an
additional problem, one related to the way instruction hours are measured in
the country’s pupils really receive so many instruction hours, or is this part
of a setup used to increase salaries?
After all, the education system determines teachers’ pay according to
the number of their instruction hours.
Low salaries are often augmented by converting many activities that are
completely unrelated to frontal class instruction into purported instruction
hours. Thus, instead of directly
compensating teachers for their entire workload, all kinds of machinations are
employed that show up as though actual teaching took place. The greater the extent of this problem, the
larger the degree of distortion in Israel’s education picture, since there is
no way of knowing how many genuine hours of instruction are given to the
then there is the question of the teachers themselves, and their professional
levels of competency. There is no doubt
that many teachers are highly qualified and choose the profession out of a
sense of mission and not because of a lack of professional options. But this is not the general defining
characteristic of most teachers. The
distribution pie of first year education students appears in Figure 7. In 2015, some 79 percent of students studied
in teaching colleges with entrance requirements below those of nearly every
academic department in every research university. Consequently, their average psychometric
score (an exam that serves the same screening purpose as the American SAT) was
494, which was below 61% of all those who took the test. An additional 15% of the students studied in
non-research general colleges, with an even lower average psychometric score of
439 – a score that was below 76% of all test takers. Just 6% of the first year education students
studied in research universities. Their
average psychometric grade (617) was higher than that of the two other, much
larger groups, but it was nonetheless below the 617 average that all research
university students attained. When most
of Israel’s teachers are below the general level of the universities, how can
it be expected that they will be able to bring Israeli children to the level
needed for acceptance and success at the universities?
concept of education in Israel must change.
The rush to attain academic degrees not worth the paper they are written
on, and the large number of school years at the lowest levels in the developed
world, are no substitutes for actual knowledge.
Education reform needs to be real.
The ministry in charge cannot both administer and supervise the
education system while also holding responsibility for the measurement and
evaluation of its outcomes. The role of
the Education Ministry should be in setting the direction and defining objectives
– including the determination of a higher quality common core curriculum for
all pupils, including the Haredim – and supervising the results. The actual running of the schools, and the
flexibility that needs to accompany this, should be transferred to the school
principals who will be accountable for attaining the goals. Those who are unsuccessful in reaching the
designated targets should be replaced.
current method for educating teachers in Israel needs to be turned on its
head. Instead of teaching them how to
teach and providing bits of study in various disciplines along the way, future
teachers should undergo the respective screening processes of acceptance to the
various disciplines they are interested in majoring in as undergraduates. After completing their degrees, the graduates
who will have become experts in their fields (at least at the BA/BS level) can
choose if they even want to become teachers, or if they prefer to go in other
directions. If the education system
wants them to teach, it will have to compete with the other alternatives before
them – in terms of wages and also in terms of work conditions. This means providing higher monthly salaries
(after teaching certificates are attained in a considerably abbreviated
process), while demanding longer work hours and shorter vacations, in a manner
consistent with norms that are common in the sectors with which the education
system is competing. As such, it will be
possible to hire fewer teachers who will work more hours and more days, while
being compensated at higher levels.
are just some of the building blocks upon which a deep and comprehensive reform
of the education system must be based.
What needs to be done is known, and what will happen to the country if
these steps are not taken is also known.
are all on the same ship called Israel, and in front of us is an iceberg. It’s possible to jump ship, or it’s possible
to come to our senses and begin changing direction toward a safe harbor. It is in our hands to preserve the sanctuary
that protects us all – Arabs and Jews, Right and Left, religious and secular –
from the alternatives surrounding Israel.
This means that the greater good must begin trumping narrow sectoral
interests. With elections just around
the corner, we urgently need groundbreakers with the vision, courage and
abilities to lead such a change.