Report: Israeli Education Gets a Failing Grade

By Adam J. Sacks

Published January 20, 2009, issue of January 30, 2009.
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Israel, you may have heard, produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation, by a large margin — 109 people per 10,000. Twenty-four percent of the Israeli work force holds university degrees, ranking the country third in that category in the industrialized world, after the United States and Holland. Israel also claims the world’s second highest number of books and museums per capita.

But did you also know that a 2007 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development gave the Israeli education system an appraisal tantamount to an “F”? The annual education report of the OECD, a grouping of Westernized countries that measures growth and modernization around the world, showed that Israeli teachers earn around half the global wage average. The report also revealed that class sizes in Israel are among the largest in the world, and featured results from the Program for International Student Assessment exams that placed Israeli students at 39th and 40th in math and science, respectively, out of 57 participating nations. When it comes to literacy, Israel is ranked further down — along with Bulgaria and Turkey, not with the United States and Holland. Factor in a three-month teacher strike in 2008, and a parliamentary report forecasting the loss of more than 10,000 teachers over the next five years, and the crisis simmering within the ranks of secondary Israeli education is about to boil.

This past fall, the system received another dismal grade, as the results of the national standardized test, or Meitzav exam, were published. The eighth-grade average for science and technology was 56.5%, math 44.1%, while the fifth-grade average for both subjects was 59.2%. The Meitzav exams — Meitzav is a Hebrew acronym that stands for school growth and efficiency indicators — are standardized tests that are given to pupils countrywide at the end of the each school year. The test is meant to illustrate how well Israeli elementary and junior high school pupils are meeting curricula benchmarks and standards. The Education Ministry contended that the low scores were a result of the constant teacher strikes in the junior high schools.

“In the junior highs, the grades illuminate a crisis,” said Education Minister Yuli Tamir, in a statement that was published by several Israeli newspapers. “I have been saying for a while that a reform must be made in the junior high schools, otherwise we won’t be able to return the system to its proper place.” Tamir also has referred to the diversity of education in Israel as a unique factor to bear in mind. “The Israeli education system is abnormally heterogeneous,” Tamir said. “It’s made up of four sub-systems — Hebrew state schools, Arab state schools, religious state schools and ultra-Orthodox schools. This multitude of disciplines requires additional budgets, a problem which the OCED’s exemplary countries don’t have to face.”

Tamir did not mention the stress of everyday life in Israel, but the World Health Organization has confirmed the conventional wisdom. A recent report issued by WHO showed that Israeli children exhibit more signs of stress and anger than kids worldwide. Overcrowding in the classroom cannot mitigate this factor. In Israel, junior high schools hold an average of 33 students per classroom, as opposed to an average of 24 in other Western countries. Students in elementary school fair slightly better, with 28 kids per class, compared with 22 in other OECD countries.

Right now, only 17% of Israelis receive college degrees, and less than two-thirds of Israeli high-schoolers complete full matriculation. A major cause for this is the government’s failure to provide adequate training and support for teachers. One Israeli teacher, 26-year-old Inbal Attias, described the country’s teaching colleges as, “It’s like learning to swim by correspondence, then being taken to the pool and told to jump in and swim.”

“We’re basically destroying our next generation’s chances to compete with the other countries,” said Dani Ben-David, a professor of economics at Tel Aviv University who has researched the Israeli system. “It’s our future, and we’re frittering it away.”

Yet, not everyone is pessimistic. “People do hope it will improve,” said Merritt Birnbaum, the New York representative of the Youth Renewal Fund, which is an educational not-for-profit that assists the disadvantaged in Israel. “And there is some optimism that a new administration will help bring about changes.” She went on to say that “there have been so many administration changes over the years, this contributes to the problem itself. Since 1990, 12 different people have held the minister of education position.”

Tamir announced, “We don’t believe in drastic leaps, but rather in measured progress.” She also said that the toughest problem is improving the level of teachers: “Their professional training is our foremost priority.”

On a rare positive note, the OECD report did show that a relatively high proportion of Israeli pupils — 90% — complete 12 grades of school, compared with the OECD average of 83% and America’s 77%. But then again, as Birnbaum said, “Their schoolday is much shorter; they are out by 1 p.m.”

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