OECD Report: Education System in Israel Lags Behind Other Developed Countries

Israeli education system doesn't teach teamwork, communication and negotiation skills; curriculum tends to focus on memorizing information.

Lior Dattel
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

The education system in Israel continues to lag behind those in other developed countries by many measures, according to the annual survey on the state of education released on Tuesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The report was based for the most part on data from 2011 and focused on the effects of the global economic crisis that erupted in 2008 on the member states of the OECD, the grouping of the world’s developed countries, including Israel. In fact, Israel’s economy largely escaped the full brunt of the economic crisis.

The global crisis resulted in high jobless rates in many countries, particularly among young people, and the study noted that average unemployment rates among people in OECD countries who had not finished high school was more than 2.5 times as high than those with university degrees − 12.6%, compared with 4.8%.

Young people are more employable if they not only have good basic skills but also what are called “soft skills,” OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria noted in the report. These soft skills include the ability to work as part of a team as well as communications and negotiation skills. Gurria also underlined the importance of encouraging students to at least finish high school and of giving high school students skills that are relevant to the labor market.

Israeli rote learning

In Israel, however, many high school students do not get such basic skills while the school system places an emphasis on rote learning, a memorization technique based on repetition. Only about half the students here qualify for a matriculation certificate, and vocational education is not emphasized. Despite the high proportion of Israelis with a university degree, access to higher education on the part of weaker segments of the population and the number of candidates for a bachelor’s degree is actually on the decline.

The Education Ministry budget for this year will be about NIS 43 billion, giving it the second largest budget of any ministry.

On a per capita basis, however, the average public investment per child is among the lowest of OECD member countries. Only Mexico, Chile, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland spend less, and Israel is among the few countries where spending per student has declined over the past decade.

The OECD says Israel’s spending per student has declined because the country has not adjusted education budgets to account for the growth in the number of students. Per capita spending here is lower than the OECD average in every age group.

Israel spends an average of $3,910 per kindergarten child annually, compared to an OECD average of $6,762. Investment per elementary school student is $5,758 here, compared with an average of $7,974, while the spending per high school student is $5,616 as opposed to an OECD average of $9,014.

The investment in the average high school student in Switzerland, one of the world’s richest countries, is $14,900. The comparable figure in the United States is $12,400, while in Australia it is $10,300.

Since the 1990s, educational spending as a proportion of total public spending in the West has generally been on the upswing, the OECD says. Only Israel, Japan, New Zealand, France and Portugal have bucked the trend.

But to Israel’s credit, when measured as a proportion of the country’s gross domestic product, Israel ranks high. Based on 2010 figures, 7.4% of public spending went to education, compared to an OECD average of 6.3%. In practice, therefore, the relatively low level of investment per student in Israel is a function of its relatively young population. Simply put, there are more children here in relation to the population as a whole and population growth rates here are higher.

And on a related issue, the number of children per school classroom remains higher in Israel. During the period from 2000 to 2011, many OECD countries managed to reduce average class size, but Israel was one of the few countries where that did not occur.

With the exception of Japan, Chile and China ‏(which is not an OECD member but was included in the report‏), Israeli class size is larger on average than every other OECD member. And Israel’s average class size would be even larger if ultra-Orthodox schools and yeshiva high schools, where class size is generally lower, were excluded.

There are on average 28.4 children in an ordinary Israeli public elementary school class − as opposed to semi-private schools that get public funding. This compares to an OECD average of 21.3 children. In Finland, the figure was 19.4, while in Greece it was 16.9. In Denmark, Spain and the United States, the average was about 20 children, while in Poland and Italy, the average was less than 19.

On the plus side, the level of higher education in Israel among the population as a whole is high. More people here have university degrees than those whose education ended with high school.

On the downside, however, Israel is the only OECD country where the prevalence of a university degree is higher among those aged 44 to 64 than it is among the 25-to-34 age group. Among that younger age range, the proportion with university degrees is lower here than in Japan, Ireland, Britain, Norway, Luxembourg and New Zealand, although it remains higher than the OECD average.

Among those who start university here, the chances of completing a university degree is 66% overall − 70% for women but just 62% for men. The OECD average for men and women together is 70%. The figure in Britain is 79%; in the United States, it is 64%; and in Japan, 90%.

Israel’s standing in teacher compensation has improved thanks to the Ofek Hadash” ‏(“New Horizon”‏) reform in elementary schools and “Oz Letmura” ‏(“Courage to Change”‏) in high schools, which also brought longer teacher work weeks. The average teacher’s salary in Israel is still lower than across the OECD, but when fringe benefits are included, teachers here get more than a number of other countries in the survey. 

An Israeli classroom.Credit: Dan Keinan
Student-to-teacher ratio and average class size in Israel compared with other developed countries.Credit: Haaretz