A Lesson for Israel's Education System

What money can't buy: Third of a six-part series on the challenges facing the Israeli economy.

Joining the OECD was a feather in Israel's cap. Yet with the opportunity to pat ourselves on the back for Israel's economic achievements, there is another opportunity we must not cringe from grasping - to compare the state of our school system with that of the other members in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. We do not fare well from the comparison.

Based on a chart published in The State of the Nation report by Dan Ben-David, professor of economics and executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, there are grounds for concern.

Ben-David collated data on the results of Israeli junior high school pupils who participated in two international tests: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS ) and OECD PISA - Program for International Student Assessment. The tests were conducted five times over the past 10 years.

Israelis scored much lower than the OECD average on all five exams. In all the tests but one, Israel's pupils came in last place among a comparative sample of 25 OECD countries. In that one exception, they were nearly last.

Similar results are found when comparing Israel's weakest students with the weakest students in the OECD nations, and the strongest with the strongest as well.

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Does the problem lie in fewer teaching hours? Is it necessarily true that more instructional hours result in better achievement?

Evidence points to the contrary. The graph shows there is no direct relationship between the number of instructional hours and achievement across countries.

The graph shows each of the OECD nations in comparison with Israel. All but the bottom two, Italy and Greece, have fewer instructional hours than Israel. But all except Turkey have better achievements than Israel.

Sweden, for instance, provides much fewer instructional hours than Israel, yet its achievements are far higher. South Korea provides much the same amount of instruction as Israel, yet there, too, its pupils outstrip Sweden's, let alone Israel's.

The problem with Israel's pupils does not lie, therefore, in the number of instructional hours. They get more than almost all the other pupils in OECD nations. Therefore, the problem must lie in content. Israeli pupils spend less instructional time learning science and reading. In mathematics, Israel also lags, but by less.

The root of the problem is clearly not budget - the hours are there. It is what the hours are spent on. In other words, the root cause is priorities. Clearly the achievement gap can be narrowed without adding extra budgets. It is a question of what and how our children are taught.