It has long been the case that Israel's Arab students have performed significantly worse than their Jewish peers. The reasons for the gaps range from socio-economic disadvantages (more than half of Arab families are below the poverty line, more than three times the rate of Jewish families), to cultural biases in the standardized curricula (more lessons on Jewish heritage and religion), to the hard fact of unequal budget allocations - the state invests roughly $200 per Arab pupil annually, versus $1,000 per Jewish pupil.
However, the sharp decline in Arab students' performance, especially as the Jewish sector remains consistent, is cause for new concern and demands action.
The figures are telling. This month, Haaretz reported on an Education Ministry study showing that in 2008, only 31.94 percent of Arab pupils passed their matriculation exams. In comparison, 59.7 percent of Jewish students passed. Even more striking is the sharp drop that took place over two years: In 2006, 50.7 percent of Arab high-schoolers qualified for matriculation certificates. Additionally, those who pass score lower than the national average on both these and the psychometric tests required for university or college admission, and as a result, 45 percent of Arab applicants are not accepted to higher education programs. Currently Arabs account for only 10 percent of students in bachelor's programs around the country.
An international study last year allowed for a comparison between Israel's Arab students and those in neighboring Arabic-speaking countries. The results suggested that Arab pupils in Israel might do better in a school system suited to their cultural, historical and linguistic needs.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that Israeli pupils ranked 24th and 25th in math and science, respectively, out of the 49 participating countries across the globe. But the breakdown between Jewish and Arab students revealed vast differences. Israel's Arab students, taken alone, scored below worldwide averages, equivalent to 37th in science and 34th in math. Compared with the last TIMSS test in 2003, Jewish students' scores fell slightly, but Arab students' scores fell dramatically.
Meanwhile, students in neighboring Arab countries scored higher than Israel's Arabs in both math (Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, among others) and science (Bahrain, Syria, Tunisia and Oman, among others).
Although last year's drop was precipitous, it was likely caused by a combination of factors that, if not dealt with, and fast, mean that we can expect to see performance continue to fall. One key problem is the physicial conditions in which Arab children study. In March, the state comptroller found that the Arab sector lacked 1,082 classrooms at the start of the 2007-08 school year.
The situation is unquestionably bad, yet one needn't reinvent the wheel to make significant improvements. In 2008, the last education minister, Yuli Tamir, had a team of Arab civil society representatives (including Dirasat, the organization I head) and Education Ministry officials produce a detailed plan and budget for improving Arab education. They have yet to be implemented.
It would seem that as long as Arab educators, academics and policymakers are excluded from planning, there will be no improvement. The Arab minority constitutes nearly 20 percent of Israel's population, but has little to no real influence over its own education policy, budgets, standards or curricula.
The creation of a professional Arab pedagogic council to address Arab education in Israel, in cooperation with the Education Ministry, has been proposed more than once by Arab education administrators and leaders, and the 2004 Dovrat report on education even alluded to such an idea. But the ministry has yet to consider the proposal seriously. Granting Arab society increased influence over children's education is apparently viewed as anathema by the Israeli public.
For years, the state-religious school system - which has no shortage of conflicts with the mainstream public - has been granted its own pedagogic council that decides on a vast range of substantial educational issues. Much like the state-religious schools, Arab society is not asking to separate from the public education system in Israel, but rather to tailor its own education system to the unique identity, culture, language and history of the country's Arab citizens.
Education should take precedence in any society, as a means of providing students with the academic tools to succeed and be productive, upstanding members of society, who can be proud of their unique identities - Jews and Arabs alike. It is sad to think that Israeli officials' fear of granting the Arab community meaningful influence could cause the continued deterioration of its educational system - which will in turn perpetuate social injustices, alienation and exclusion, and could lead to civil unrest.
Yousef T. Jabareen is a law lecturer, and founding director of Dirasat, the Arab Center for Law and Policy, based in Nazareth.
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