The face of our education - at home and in school - is our society's real face. What the kids see and receive at home determines, more than anything else, their behavioral norms, their attitude toward education and their desire and ability to succeed.
When the gaps among adults are among the largest in the Western world, it is not too difficult to guess what kinds of differences accompany the children as they cross the kindergarten threshold. This is the door through which a normative society must enter together with the students, to help, to strengthen, to encourage and to enable them soar to personal heights that would otherwise be unattainable for most.
The public education system is society's primary tool for reducing gaps in learning from home, for understanding and trying to find what is common with other parts of society that are not exactly favored at home, for improving and upgrading innate abilities, for providing basic tools that will enable future adults to make it in a modern world and a competitive market.
Years of neglect, failed management and lack of leadership have become an Israeli default that invites myriad localized solutions, a sort of informal privatization beckoning outside parties with money to enter the abandoned sovereign realm and do what they want with the children. This is not a way to close gaps. This is a way to ruin a country.
One of the important Program for International Student Assesment (PISA) test findings published in recent days did not receive any media attention. In Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, 89 percent of 15-year-olds took the PISA tests. In Israel, a country trying to gain OECD acceptance, only 76 percent took the test. 11 percent of all 15 year-old Israelis are simply not in school, compared to the OECD average of 4 percent. In addition, the entire ultra-Orthodox population is excluded from the sample, and possibly other demographic groups as well. This does not prevent us from claiming that 97 percent of the nationally "desired" population took the test.
The difference between 76 percent and 97 percent implies Israel has lost its sovereignty in determining educational content in a very large portion of its schools. In addition, the true sovereigns do not allow the state to step inside those schools in order to examine what is really being taught there.
Even when the focus shifts to those remaining children for whom Israel admits accountability, average achievement levels among children in the three subjects tested (science, math and reading) places them in 39th place among all 57 PISA-tested countries, with larger internal education gaps than in every one of the other countries. When the sample focuses just on native-born children, Israel remains in 39th place.
Israel's weakest pupils, those in the bottom fifth percentile, came in 48th place when ranked with the weakest pupils in other countries. What kind of a future are we preparing them for?
Where will the future hi-tech wonders, doctors and professors that provide Israel with a bridge to the far reaches of human knowledge come from? Most will come from the best students who are in the top fifth percentile - those who are ranked by PISA in only 32nd place compared with top students in other countries. Actually, they may not come from the ranks of the excellent and they may not come at all. It turns out that Israel's children are ranked in 41st place when it comes to the importance they attach to these three fields of study. So go the People of the Book.
Large classes are a common excuse for poor performances. But the number of pupils per teacher in Israeli science classes (12.7) is lower than the OECD average (13.4).
It is possible that children here don't know science, since many simply do not learn science. Even after deleting a fourth of the kids who did not take the PISA exams, only 75 percent of those remaining took any science course at all (compared to 87 percent in the OECD). Of those who do study science, the PISA results indicate that Israeli children spend fewer weekly hours in school science classes than the OECD average, while spending more time taking science lessons outside school than in nearly all of the 57 PISA-participating countries. This is what happens when public education is abandoned and the rules of the jungle become the rules of the land. It is no coincidence that education gaps are so high and the average education level is so low in Israel.
Like the original leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, Israel's education system is becoming more and more out of whack each year. In contrast to that famous tower, which recently underwent substantial structural reinforcement in order to prevent its collapse, those responsible for the tower of education in Israel concentrate only on fixing the plaster - each time patching a different part. Who here understands it is imperative to fix the entire structure before it collapses on us all?
Dr. Ben-David teaches economics in the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University.
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