The Routine Shock Over Israel's Poor Education System

Excuses remain the same year after year when the OECD report on education in developed world comes out - Arabs and ultra-Orthodox bring down the average, for example - but they barely mask Israel's deteriorating condition.

Or Kashti
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Every summer, upon the release of the OECD’s comprehensive report on education in member countries, we hear the same tune, brimming with ostensible surprise. Can these really be the numbers and the facts? Is Israel’s investment in every student, from kindergarten to university, really among the lowest in the world?

Why are elementary school classes, where the personal relationship between child and teacher is of particular importance, so crowded? And how did we get to the point where the public expenditure on academic education is only 54 percent of the total budget, much lower than the international average?

The Israeli public’s ability to repress reality takes many shapes; ignoring the familiar data released every year is just one more. The repression of reality is also facilitated by the way the Education Ministry’s spokespeople are utilized.

In recent years, publication of the OECD report has presented quite a challenge to the ministry’s senior officials: how to present the unflattering data in a somewhat more tolerable light. Emergency meetings were called and marathon discussions were held.

The solution they hit upon was two-pronged: First, claim that without the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, Israel is doing very well, a real little Finland in the Middle East. Second, hype a few positive figures as if they were the be-all and end-all.

For example, the Education Ministry noted with pride that Israel’s population is among the most educated in the world: 46 percent of Israelis have some higher education, compared to an international average of 32 percent. But not a word about the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who brought their higher education with them.

Nor a word about the younger generation, age 25 to 34, where the number of people with a university education declined from 50 percent to 45 percent from 2005 to 2010.

In other words, Israel’s better-than-average situation is based largely on the past, which is growing ever more distant. A more up-to-date analysis leaves no room for optimism.

Government spokesmen, both those on the payroll and the self-appointed ones, also boast that the national expenditure for education in Israel, calculated as a portion of gross domestic product, is among the highest in the world − 4.3 percent, compared to an average of 3.9 percent among OECD countries. Unfortunately, this is also no more than a sweet illusion: The high number of students in Israel means that this outlay, which this year came to NIS 43 billion, has to be divided up among more people. By every possible calculation, and at every stage of education, investment per student lags behind the international average.

Moreover, investment per student, both elementary and secondary, rose by an average of 60 percent in OECD countries from 1995 to 2010. In Israel, the increase was only 27 percent.

Mind the social gaps

And that is without even mentioning the contraction of public investment in education and the corresponding rise in the weight of private expenditures, which widens the already sizable educational and social gaps.

We can continue to bemoan the figures in the international report, but it’s also fair to expect the Education Ministry to develop a strategic plan to improve Israeli education. It could begin with preschool education, whose importance no one disputes.

Today, Israel’s investment per kindergartner is $3,910 per year, as opposed to the OECD average of $6,762. This figure has barely changed in recent years. A strategic plan should offer a detailed program for closing this gap within a few years. Then we can start discussing educational gaps − an area in which Israel has in fact chalked up some impressive achievements, even compared to international figures.

Without such a plan, any “reform” is no more than a bandage that will fall off when the next annual report is released. 

Children squeezed into an Israeli classroom.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Student-to-teacher ratio and average class size in Israel compared with other developed countries.Credit: Haaretz